Thought for the Week

‘Don’t stare at me because I am black, because the sun has gazed upon me…’ (Song of Songs 1:5-6)

 

Friday 5 June 2020

 

Dear Members and Friends,

What happened to Moses’ ‘Cushite wife’?  And who was she?  This week’s parashah ends with the complaints of Miriam and Aaron against Moses ‘because of the Cushite woman he had married: ‘He married a Cushite woman!’ (Numbers 12:1)

Who was this Cushite woman whom Moses had married?  We know from Exodus 2, that Moses had married one the seven daughters of a Midianite priest and that her name was Zipporah.  She bears him two sons Gershom and Eliezer (Exodus 2:22 and 18:4).  We encounter Zipporah only twice more in the Torah after her marriage: firstly, when Moses returns to Egypt together with his wife and sons, in order to confront Pharaoh.

In a curious night-time incident on this journey, the Torah states: ‘The Eternal One encountered him and sought to kill him’ (Exodus 4:24).  It is unclear to whom the ‘him’ in this verse refers.  Is it to Moses or to one of the sons of Moses and Zipporah, whose circumcision, according to the commentators, has been delayed because of the journey?  Zipporah, apparently in the absence of her husband, takes a flint and ‘cuts off her son’s foreskin, and touches his legs with it, saying, “You are truly a bridegroom (or perhaps more accurately ‘the one who has undergone circumcision’) of blood to me!” (4:25).  In these three verses, Zipporah, the only one mentioned by name, has saved the life of either her husband or son by performing a ritual normally undertaken by men.

The next reference to Zipporah comes at the beginning of Exodus 18, when her father, Jethro, brings her to Moses at Mount Sinai, together with the two sons.  The implication here is that she had been living with her father in Midian.  But precisely when she left Moses to return to her father’s home isn’t clear.  In this chapter, we are told simply, that she had ‘been sent home’ – achar shilucheha at some previous time.  Why?  Did Moses divorce his wife as the Hebrew verb might imply? If that is the case, why does Jethro refer to Zipporah as Moses’ wife a few verses later?

But the real question is whether the Cushite woman, who is referred to in this week’s Torah portion is Zipporah or not.  She is not mentioned by name, but by her tribal or national label.  What did it mean to be a ‘Cushite’?

Genesis describes the four rivers flowing out of the Garden of Eden, one of which is Gihon, encircling the land of Cush.  Is this a reference to the Blue Nile that flows through Ethiopia?  Elsewhere in Tanakh, Cush is identified as the son of Ham, one of the sons of Noah.  Each of Noah’s three sons, referred to in the genealogy of Genesis 10, reflects (not always consistently) the divisions of language and geography – Ham associated with Africa and his son, Cush identified with Ethiopia.

And this might suggest, then, that Moses’ Cushite wife was from Ethiopia.  But without her name, without her saying anything in this story, we remain in the dark about her identity.  What is it that Miriam and Aaron are complaining about?  If they are complaining about Zipporah, how do we reconcile the fact that she was from Midian, while the wife referred to here is ha-ishah cushit?  Perhaps their complaint is that Moses had taken a second wife, as the 12th century Bible commentator, Rashbam suggests in his commentary to this story.  According to a legend he cites, Moses ruled for forty years over the kingdom of Cush and had taken a Cushite woman as his queen, but had not consummated the marriage.

According to the plain and simple meaning of the verse, says Ha-Emek Davar, the Cushite was a ‘gentile black woman who had converted.’  But Moses had separated himself from her and both Miriam and Aaron disapproved.

But perhaps there is another dimension to this chapter. Perhaps what might be glaring to us today, was not quite as obvious to previous commentators.  For there may well be a racial aspect to this story: Miriam and Aaron speak against the Cushite woman because she is black. She is dark-skinned, different, other and alien.  And if this sounds heavy-handed, then turn to the end of the chapter where God punishes Miriam by afflicting her with tza’ra’at – leprosy.  Her skin turns ‘snow-white’, as if God evens the score against her saying: ‘You dared to criticise this woman on account of her skin-colour.  I will, therefore, turn your skin as white as snow.’

Miriam is shut out of the camp for seven days, holding up the continuation of the Israelites’ march through the desert.

But what happens to the Cushite woman?  Does she remain with Moses, perhaps one of several wives that the great lawgiver took for himself?  Who were her children?

What if one of her descendants is the Cushite messenger sent by Joab, David’s commander of the army, to bring news of Absalom’s death to his father, stirring these words of lament from the king: ‘My son Absalom! O my son, my son Abslaom! If only I had died instead of you! O Absalom, my son, my son!’ (2 Sam. 19:1)

What if her children are the exiles of Cush, led away stripped and barefoot by Assyrian captors in Isaiah (20:4)?  Black slaves of the future, ‘fettered by chains’ (45.14).

We must discover the Cushite wife through these other figures of Tanakh, because there is so little text about her – men such as Eved-Melech, the Cushite, a eunuch who appeals to King Zedekiah during the siege of Jerusalem, to rescue Jeremiah from a pit where he had been thrown to die there of hunger.  Eved-Melech, himself, is sent by the king to pull Jeremiah out of the pit by a rope.

Today, her voice is the voice of the black woman or man, protesting against the grotesque racist injustices against her compatriots in the United States, in our own country and other parts of the world.  She is the voice of a people silenced, humiliated, oppressed, made to feel alien and other, against whom there have been generations of untold cruelty and whose very presence reveals the bleakest elements of inequality in our societies.

Are we not afraid, not of the protests we see throughout cities of the United States, but of such deeply embedded racism?  ‘Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is,’ wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel in a piece about religion and race in 1963.  ‘Few of us realise that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.’

There can be no more powerful testimony both to Judaism’s acknowledgement of the diversity of humanity and our oneness, our equality and equivalence than the verses in Amos: ‘To me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians – declares the Eternal One’ (Amos 9:7).  There is no difference between you and your fellow human beings, says God. I brought you up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir.’  No one is granted a special privilege either because of history, religion or race.  You are one humanity; you are My children, says God.

‘He married a Cushite woman!’ Moses, the leader of the Jewish people, the protagonist of the Torah, marries a woman from a different country, whose colour is different from his, whose past and traditions are different, but he unites himself with her as one.  She is black, and she is beautiful, ‘like the tents of Kedar, like the pavilions of Solomon.’ And she says to those who stare: ‘Don’t stare at me because I am black, because the sun has gazed upon me…’ (Song of Songs 1:5-6)

God and Moses set the Cushite woman as an equal, the object of love and beauty, casting aside the slander of Miriam and Aaron and delivering a harsh lesson against the devastation wreaked by inequality and oppression.

To end with the prescient words of Abraham Joshua Heschel: ‘God is every man’s pedigree. He is either the Father of all men or of no man. The image of God is either in every man or in no man.’

Shabbat shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Shavuot

Friday 29 May 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

It is seven weeks since we came out of Egypt and celebrated our Passover sedarim, many of us alone, sitting at our computers, zooming in with family, friends and community – the seder plates and glasses of wine visible on each screen. Then, we spoke of coming out of Egypt, of taking the first steps into an unknown desert, fearful and apprehensive about what the future might hold. We awaited our freedom at the height of the pandemic – our physical freedom, that we might grasp hold of our lives again, living day to day as we once used to, doing the things that gave us pleasure – seeing family and friends, taking exercise, gathering together at the LJS for services, kiddushim and classes, eating together, looking after our guests at the Drop-in or the Out and About Club, Video and Tea or Singing for the Mind (which, by the way, is now meeting online).

Seven weeks of incarceration for so many of our community, of waiting until it is safe to venture outside; seven weeks of placing our freedom into the hands of others, watching while businesses fold, as too many lose jobs, losing precious shared learning at university or school. While there are many who remain careful, unwilling to risk their health, there are too many here in London, who are disregarding the lockdown, gathering in groups in open spaces, brushing past others on the streets and in the supermarkets, embracing long lost friends or colleagues and behaving as though the drama of these last weeks were nothing but a passing dream, a figment of imagination.

At this critical moment of easing the lockdown, when that freedom to step outside has partially been restored to us, we are suddenly made aware of our moral freedom – our capacity as spiritual, moral beings, authors of our own will, to influence the path of the pandemic. This, perhaps, is the hardest moment – for so much is at stake: it is in our hands to keep the numbers of those becoming infected with Covid-19 low, or to allow a second spike that some believe will inevitably take place in a few months’ time.

The festival of Shavuot which begins on Thursday night 28th May and which we will celebrate at the LJS on the second day, with a service on Friday 29th May at 6.45 pm, leading into a full programme of discussion, interviews and study sessions all night, is inextricably linked to Pesach. If the Exodus from Egypt is a moment rooted in time, not historic time, but memory-time, the collective memory of our people, then Shavuot, associated with the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai in post-biblical texts (although not in the Torah itself), is about the experience of the present. It rests, as Franz Rosenzweig said, ‘on the presence of a past’, but ‘nevertheless does not make its home in it but walks in the light of the divine countenance.’

In that extraordinary Talmudic tale of Moses walking into a classroom where Rabbi Akiva was teaching centuries later, unable to comprehend the lesson from beginning to end, we learn that the revelation on Mount Sinai is not only a meta-historical event embedded in the distant past, but relies on our present interpretation of the Torah – its laws and narrative. The two are inextricably tied to each other. God gives, guides, inspires, but we must be prepared to receive and act on what we hear and imbibe from the Divine.

How it comes to us – whether it is through prayer or contemplation, through music or birdsong, through the beauty of nature or art, through stories and poetry, or through our love for those close to us – let us pray, as we celebrate this festival of revelation, that it will revive the soul, enlighten the eyes and purify our hearts to serve God in truth.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Shavuot and Living in the Present

Friday 22 May 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

Judaism helps us to process our feelings and thoughts about the world. Every year we read the same texts, ask the same questions – and yet every year they seem different. All festivals and texts of our tradition gain an additional meaning in 2020 as we live through the world’s struggle with COVID-19.

The lockdown started just before Pesach – the time when we think about freedom. ‘You shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt’ is one of the most frequently repeated phrases in the Hebrew Bible. All of us had no choice but to reflect on notions of freedom, responsibility, and restriction. This year all of us went on a journey towards freedom, as our ancestors did.

Seven weeks after Passover the Jewish world celebrates Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. The LJS will celebrate it on Friday 29 May, with the tradition of studying all night, Tikkun Leyl Shavuot.

This year’s theme is ‘New Realities’. A wide range of speakers will help us to reflect on the world we are living in and talk about the new realities of staying at home, climate change, education, care and visiting the sick etc. Many synagogues have collaborated to create an exciting programme. Please register for the event here.

There is a strong link between Passover and Shavuot. On a ceremonial level, it is reflected in the counting of the Omer, the 49-day period of semi-mourning from the second day of Pesach to Shavuot. How is the idea of freedom connected to the receiving of the Torah? Jewish thought came to the understanding that the liberation from Egypt becomes purposeful only after the Israelites take on responsibility for their own Law at Sinai. Judaism teaches us that freedom finds its full expression only in our willing commitment to standards of behaviour and action. These standards are not determined by an individual, but by the set of collective rules and principles of our society. In other words, the more freedom we have, the more responsibility we take.

The first shock of the rapid change is over. We are given a little more freedom and begin to think about life after coronavirus. What will it change in our lives? Will it be the same as before? How will it affect each of us, our communities, and our loved ones? These questions did not seem relevant just a few weeks ago, but they begin to emerge now.

It is natural to see texts of our tradition as stories from the past or utopian dreams of an ideal future. Similarly, during the time of a world’s crisis, it is natural to live your life in memories of the past or dreams about a better future. Perhaps, Shavuot should become the time when each of us takes responsibility and accepts the new reality. Perhaps, Shavuot should become the time to processes emotions and feelings which have been suppressed by the trauma of danger and uncertainty of COVID-19. Shavuot is here to remind us that harmony in life includes the present, however difficult it might be to see and admit it.

Shabbat shalom,

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Max and Keira’s Law

Friday 15 May 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

It may seem an odd time, during the pandemic, to think about organ donation, but this week, on May 20th, a new law, Max and Keira’s Law – the Organ Donation (Deemed Consent) Act – is due to come into effect.  The law is named for two nine-year-olds; Max who received the heart of Keira who died in a road traffic accident in the summer of 2017.

Under the new law, all adults in England will be considered as having agreed to donate their own organs when they die unless they record a decision not to donate (known as ‘opting out’) or are in one of the excluded groups.

Those excluded will be people under 18, those who lack the mental capacity to understand the new arrangements and take the necessary action; people who have lived in England for less than 12 months or who are not living here voluntarily and those who have nominated someone else to make the decision on their behalf.

Many hospitals around the UK have closed their transplant programmes because of Covid-19, yet there are 4,790 people waiting for a transplant in the UK and only 140 people who have received a transplant since April 2020.

What is a Liberal Jewish view on organ donation?  For a considerable time, Liberal Judaism has regarded organ donation as a mitzvah on two grounds: i) the duty to save human life – pikkuach nefesh; and ii) the commandment to heal.

The commandment to heal is derived from a verse in Exodus (21:19) – the case of a victim who has been assaulted, but not seriously hurt.  In this case, the Torah tells us that the assailant should pay for any loss of earnings and medical expenses incurred.  From this is derived the duty to seek a physician who can heal.

The obligation to save human life is derived in part from Leviticus 19:16: ‘You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour.’ In other words, if you see a person in mortal danger, you must save that human being and all the commandments can be broken in order to save human life, except for three – murder, idolatry and sexual immorality.  But the Talmud adds another verse from Deuteronomy to justify this obligation to save human life: ‘You shall restore it [something that has been lost] to him/her’ (22.2).  This verse is interpreted by the Rabbis in a more far-reaching way than its plain meaning, a reference to the restoration of lost property to an individual.  They read the verse to mean that we are obligated to restore a person’s lost ‘body’ (gufo) to them, that is, to save a person’s life.

So there is a very clear mandate in Judaism to encourage organ donation on the basis of these principles which can override the objections to any unnecessary interference with the body after death, and the requirement for immediate burial.

Of course, many will have worries and concerns about donating organs – our own or those of a loved one. If we give consent, are we being consistent with the honour and respect we believe is due to the dead (k’vod ha-meit)?  How can we sure that death has occurred before an organ is removed?  Will we still be able to hold a funeral and prayers?

Organ donation is dealt with in a highly sensitive way in this country, with great care and respect and in consultation with close family.  Most donated organs in the UK come from people who die from severe brain injury, which has damaged the vital centres in the brain stem, vital to maintaining life.  This is called ‘brain stem death’ and tests are carried out to show conclusively when that has happened.  And because organs must be removed quickly, a funeral and prayers can then take place, respect accorded to those who have died and comfort for the bereaved (nichum aveilim).

There is one further consideration that is raised in this week’s Torah portion, in Parashat B’Har, which deals with our communal and public obligations towards each other, particularly the poor and disadvantaged and towards the land which must be allowed to lie fallow every seven years – ‘for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with me’ (Leviticus 25:23).

Protecting individuals from permanent poverty and servitude is not an act of altruism, but an obligation, an act of tz’dakah – ‘justice’.   So too, we may argue, is the act of organ donation – yes, it is a gift, but it is also for the public and communal good, extending and giving back the gift of life to those in need.

Today, we might think, too, of those on the front line caring for patients who are suffering from Covid-19.  Theirs is an obligation to save life; not via organ donation, but by putting themselves in extreme danger and risking their own lives in order to bring healing and recovery to others.

Our own times shed a new light on organ donation and the gift that can be offered to others.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 20 March 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

As I write, an eerie silence has fallen on the capital. I hear nothing. No cars, no trains, no voices; not even the sound of a midnight bird warbling his song of love to a mate. I try to keep calm, here at my computer, to restrain from turning away, every few minutes, from a piece of work to look at the news. The increase in numbers of those who have contracted the COVID-19 virus in London, in Italy, the fact that the virus has now infiltrated nursing homes in Spain where the most vulnerable are dying on a daily basis; the collapse of the pound against the dollar; the closure of schools in Scotland and Wales, and now in England; the anxieties of those running businesses or on zero contract hours, the endless stream of news that changes every hour, every minute of the day. There is really no sound, no wind in the trees, no rain; no night animal scratching in the earth.

Is it possible that we have, at last, simply stopped, have come to rest in some timeless zone that has no known boundaries and no end? All our frenetic movement, all drivenness and blind ambition, all striving for – I don’t know what – all this now ceases and this life of ours, the hurdles that we tell ourselves we must leap over from childhood into adolescence, from young adulthood into middle age and beyond, fall away without the imminence of deadlines.

If only this fear and rising panic would abate, then I can breathe again. But it is hard; hard to accept that the fragile structures of our lives, the delicate balance we create of our many and varied activities and commitments – family and work, study and entertainment, volunteering, seeing friends, travelling and all the things that that take us out about and fill our lives and give us a structure of timeliness – may have to cease for some indefinite period of time. For these are the things that give our lives meaning and hope.

Today I spoke to one of our younger members living away from home in a distant university city. He was recovering from the virus which had ravaged him over a period of four days, confined him to his room, made him completely dependent on his housemates and made him question his own sanity as he waited for the week of self-containment to come to an end. And not only did he feel dislocated by the experience of being so unwell, around him he was aware that his university was closing down, classes had ceased and all the work and preparation for his exams were on hold – indefinitely.

What are we experiencing? Is it something unreal that has transported us into another dimension, like a dream or nightmare? Tomorrow we will wake up and all we be as before – the streets choked with traffic, the tube surging with human beings, the stock market exploding and disintegrating with the fast-changing events of our lives? Or are we on some journey of grief – the numbness of shock that protects us from the deeper significance of what is happening around us? The fear of what lies ahead – a stricken desperation that we might lose our own lives or the lives of loved ones? I wonder if what we really feel, deep down, is a kind of relief that this silence and stillness has at last come? That this beautiful world is finally at peace, because of this frightening, unpredictable rupture to human beings’ daily life.

I think of the opening lines of the poem by the Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai:

I, may I rest in peace — I, who am still living, say, May I have peace in the rest of my life. I want peace right now while I’m still alive.

Is it too terrible to say that the coronavirus has given us – in the midst of our fear and panic, in the midst of the unknown – a single moment of peace? Let us breathe in the air for a moment, stand

outside if we can and listen to the silence. The birds will tell us what we need to know for the immediate future, the return of a bee to the garden, the deep purple buds of the magnolia that have broken through their green encasements and are now ready to burst into flower. As we connect with our world and its magnificent and quiet beauty, let us try and quell the panic in our hearts and find the space to reach out to each other, to bring this peace into the promise of what Isaiah called ‘a new heaven and a new earth.’

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 13 March 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

I have been thinking of you all over the last few weeks as our city and our world becomes ever more infected by Coronavirus. I’m certain many of us are feeling very fearful, spending our days reading the news to try to understand how this will all unfold for us, our loved ones, and our human family.

I’m reminded of the story that I shared during Rosh Hashanah of last year.

In the Talmud, Yevamot 121a we find this haunting account of Rabban Gamliel observing his student, Rabbi Akiva, in the midst of trauma:

Rabban Gamliel said: Once I was travelling on a boat, and from a distance, I saw another boat that shattered and sank. And I was grieved over the death of the Talmid Chacham, the learned student who was on board…It was Rabbi Akiva. But then when I came ashore and stepped foot onto dry land, I found him there, sitting and teaching Torah! “My son!” I said to him, “How did you survive?” He said to me, “A plank from the boat floated past me, I clung to it, and then I greeted each crashing wave that came with a nod.”

What a powerful image; Rabbi Akiva, clinging to a floating plank from the shattered boat, greeting wave, after wave, after wave crashing on him with a nod.

Right now we are nodding at the waves, unsure of how they are going to crash or of when the next one will come. But we must cling to the planks around us and feel a firm grip on them.

I hope that our LJS community can continue to be a plank that helps you to feel afloat as the uncertain waves come. Please do reach out to me, to Rabbi Alex, Rabbi Igor or Community Care Coordinator Aviva Shafritz if you are in need of support. It is essential that we do not let social distancing become social isolation. For those in our community who are choosing to stay distanced from large gatherings or from the synagogue building, please know you continue to be a part of the community. Reach out to staff, reach out to one another. Whether you are in need of an extra loo roll, some food dropped off or a listening ear to share your fears, let us be the planks for one another in the weeks ahead.

There is a well known Hasidic text from Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the important thing is not to frighten yourself” You may know of this text as it is a popular Jewish song, “Kol Haolam kulo, gesher tzar meod.” As we move forward, day by day, in these uncertain times, let us not cling to our fears but instead cling to our community to find the support that we need to nod at the waves.

We will get through this together.

As ever,

Shabbat Shalom,

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 6 March 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

I am in the local supermarket standing in front of the almost empty shelves wondering whether I am going to deprive the next person of furnishing their bathroom requirements over the next few weeks and months.  There is part of me that cannot imagine the consequences of an epidemic of coronavirus in this country and another part that is apprehensive about the consequences of such a pandemic.  The loo paper goes into my basket and I am pricked with guilt.  By the time I get to the check-out, I have gifted it to my son, and by the time I’m home, I’ve given it away to needy congregants.  It seems absurd, I have given in to the fear that drives us to stock-pile for the day we cannot leave our homes, cannot go to work, school or college, the day the Houses of Parliament are closed down and we find ourselves in ‘lock-down.’

Every cough and sneeze are suspect.  We are right to fear for those who are vulnerable in our community, particularly the elderly and those whose immune systems are compromised.  At the LJS, we have taken precautions, we are following the daily updates from Public Health England, we are urging people to wash their hands and observe not just the etiquette, but the necessity of scrupulous hygiene.

No one wants to see loved ones suffering from coronavirus or the health service collapsing under the burden of an exponential growth of cases.  Who wants to see businesses folding, the economy weakening because of this scare?

And yet, there is something curious and different about these days.  The shops are quiet, the roads seem empty, as though there is a retreat away from the public sphere.  Has our instinct for self-preservation kept us at home, away from large gatherings, open-plan offices, sports fixtures, parties and places where we will feel exposed to the possibility of catching the virus?  And there is a sober accounting of each victim of the diagnosis.  The truth matters; there can be no distortion or hoaxing when life and death are at stake.

This Shabbat, many synagogues will read an additional Torah portion from Deuteronomy 25:17-19:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt –  how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all of the stragglers lagging behind you… you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.  Do not forget!

These two verses draw our attention to Israel’s arch enemy, the Amalekites, who attacked them when they were at their most vulnerable, just after they had left Egypt. The verses are read on the Shabbat before Purim, reminding us that Amalek, the king of the Amalekites was an ancestor of Haman.  Esther and Mordechai’s defeat of Haman is a form of poetic justice, not only against the Amalekites, but their descendants, the Agagites of the Book of Samuel (also ancestors of Haman), whom Saul (an ancestor of Mordechai) had failed to take down completely when instructed by Samuel.  (Yes, it’s all a bit complicated!)

This coronavirus has surprised us, caught us unawares at a time when we are weary with so many different battles that have come into the playing field: Brexit, the climate catastrophe, austerity and poverty, homelessness, the cutting of resources to the most vulnerable, including children – what kind of policy is it that stops families collecting child benefit for their third, fourth or fifth child?

We are exhausted by a relentless quest for materialism and famished now for something that lies beyond the physical – the need to search for and speak the truth, to correlate the inner and outer parts of ourselves.

If we face a pandemic over the next few months, our leaders will need to guide us with equilibrium, common sense and complete honesty.  And we will need to find the inner strength to help those who are really susceptible to this virus, to ensure that they are not defeated by fear and loneliness, to balance caution with regard to our own health with a sensible and compassionate concern for others.  And that includes, as Rabbi Igor said last week, ensuring that those from Asia are not stigmatised or attacked, as one young student from Singapore was beaten up last week, allegedly because of the virus.

It would be a sad reflection to see the world turning because of our fear of this virus, but in a peculiar way, I am hoping it is not only my imagination or wishful thinking that senses the possibility of change in our society and politics.

Purim is furious – carnivalesque, an upside-down world of injustice, revenge and obduracy. The LJS is doing something different on Monday night with our remarkable guest speakers, Lord (Alf) Dubs, Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, Dr Eliane Glaser, Dame Vivien Rose and Graham Carpenter, speaking about their personal narratives that led them to seek justice.  I think we will be inspired and comforted by their messages. Do please join us on Monday 9th March at 7:00pm and have a gentle and reflective Shabbat before then.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 28 February 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

Lately we have been hearing and reading a lot about the coronavirus. According to the World Health Organisation, diseases are named to enable discussion on disease prevention and treatment. Perhaps it is time for us to have a conversation about what Jewish thought has to say about illness and healing.

Some Jewish texts see God as the ultimate and the only Healer. According to Exodus 15:26, your health depends on whether you ‘heed The Eternal One your God diligently, doing what is upright in God’s sight.’ Similarly, King Asa of Judah was criticised because ‘in his illness he sought not God but rather physicians’ (II Chronicles 16:12). This position was supported by the prominent Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, who lived in 13th century Spain, known as Nachmanides or Ramban. In his commentary on Leviticus 26:11 Ramban talks about the distinct nature of Jewish people. He argues that the people of Israel prosper and suffer as a direct result of its success or failure in keeping God’s covenant.

I think most of us would be deeply uncomfortable with Nachmanides’ view. Many Rabbis from different times opposed such a radical approach too.

Ironically, Nachmanides himself was a physician and earned his living by giving medical advice. Another famous doctor and Jewish scholar Maimonides argued that one ‘who despise the aid of the physician and relies on God’s help, is like the hungry who despises bread and hopes that God will guard him’ (Introduction to Sefer Hakatzeret) Doctors, according to Maimonides, fulfil God’s task to heal others. Therefore, medicine in general and doctors in particular act as God’s agents.

Jews are commanded to take all reasonable action to protect human life and wellbeing. Talmudic Rabbis go further and advise a wise Jewish person to avoid living in a place where no physician is available. (Sanhedrin 17b). It is our human and religious responsibility to see doctors and follow the advice they are giving. Please make sure to read more about coronavirus, its symptoms and answers to common questions on the NHS website, here.

It may seem banal and obvious, but the human body and our health are gifts which we often take for granted. Coronavirus is a dangerous disease, but at the same time – it is a reminder never to neglect our health issues. It is also a reminder of one of the commandments from this week’s Torah portion – not to mistreat strangers. The virus started to spread from East Asia and now affects many parts of the world. As the news about the disease spread across the globe, it became associated with East-Asian people. As Jews we are commanded to love and respect the stranger because we know what it is like to be the blamed stranger. We should not allow anyone to use this outbreak as an opportunity to express any form of prejudice or xenophobia against others.

Perhaps, the Jewish community should be an exemplar of a community which takes high moral standards and realistic precautions against the virus. Perhaps, we could use this worrying time as a reminder to be grateful for the gift of a healthy life. According to the teachings of our tradition, we ought to take care, preserve and look after this gift – for us and the rest of the world.

Blessed be One Who Cures the sick
Baruch rofe holim
ברוך רופא חולים

Shabbat Shalom,

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 21 February 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

מָה רַבּוּ מַעֵשֶֽׂיךָ יְיָ 

‘How manifold are Your works, O God!’ 

We are standing in the middle of a grassy plain; a late summer rain has turned the dry red-earth savannah green providing timely food for the creatures that roam this part of the land and feed on its grass, trees and bushes. ‘A lot of the plants you are going to be looking at are going to remind you of home or possibly Scotland, and it’s what we call fynbos – these little plants with very fine leaves.  There’s a lot of different species out here.  We are on foot, moving slowly with two South African rangers, looking closely for clues of the animals that have trodden this path before us. 

In the distance, we are surrounded by trees and bushes – wild olives and the elephant bush, acacia with its spiky, long thorns, favoured by giraffes whose long tongues curl around the leaves; the baobab, also known as the ‘tree of life’, able to store more than 4,000 litres of water in its trunk, the Turpentine Tree with its butterfly shaped leaves, and hundreds more species, where insects and animals make their homes and feed on their fruit, leaves and bark. 

We move slowly towards the bush; the hills stretching as far as the eye can see, their backs a clear line against the blue sky, every termite mound deceiving the observer with its creaturely shape.  Far off in the distance, behind a row of bushes and trees, there is some movement.  It’s difficult to see that far, but the two rangers instinctively seem to divine the direction of traffic ahead. Through the binoculars, there is indeed something tramping slowly, its ears seen flapping through gaps in the bush.  The rangers move us quietly and slowly across the plain – we cannot be discovered on foot.  One moves off to find out which direction the herd is moving – for there is more than one, and more certainly than two or three. The bush no longer conceals them – their large, grey, criss-cross lined flanks are visible now to the naked eye, ears flailing, white tusks jutting out either side of their trunks.  Now they are moving in a long procession towards a water hole, stopping now and then to curl their trunks around the grass beneath their feet or pull the leaves from the trees and bring it up gently to their mouths. 

Patrick, the ranger who has brought us to the plain in the jeep, brings the vehicle to the water hole, where we clamber aboard, and within minutes we are rewarded with the slow appearance of twenty-four elephants, including a number of babies – one only 2 or 3 months old – who have come down to the water to drink, spray themselves with water, and splash about playfully.  There is a mock fight between two of the larger animals, whose tusks touch each other and, safely ensconced in the vehicle, where the elephants are oblivious of our watchful gaze, we sit in complete silence observing a scene of maternal affection, spirited adventure and teasing competition.  The elephants are enjoying themselves, the babies rolling on their sides and backs until cooled and caked in mud. 

‘Look at the shape of their ears,’ says Patrick later on, as we come across another herd, ‘they are the shape of Africa.’  A massive continent either side of their broad foreheads, flapping gently back and forth, the coastline slightly frayed, by fights perhaps?  Their slow, deliberate movements seem so benign and yet they can move at fast rates and their massive bulk evokes profound reverence and a sense somehow of their vulnerability – the animals that mourn their dead, that are at the mercy of poachers for their ivory tusks or expanding human populations and the loss of their habitat to agriculture. 

The image of the elephants stays with all of us – the playfulness, a faithful herd instinct that keeps them together, the immensity of their size.  Here in the bush, where the landscape stretches as far as the naked eye can see without the interruption of fields, roads or buildings, we are the guests among the watchful impala and water buck, the buffalo and antelope, the kudu with its large brown ears and long neck, the giraffes, watchfully still and nervous as they sense something more powerful even than themselves, the white rhinos, also endangered, hunted for their valuable horns, and two lion brothers lying in the late afternoon sun close to each other. 

‘How manifold are Your works, O God! With wisdom have You made them all; the world is full of Your creations.’  These are the words that come to mind as we observe the animals and birds native to this huge country, our hosts who tolerate our gaze and fearful wonder and whose presence reminds us of our impermanent tenancy on earth, the insignificance of our authority, our vulnerability and our responsibility to alter the destructive impact of our human existence on the earth. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 14 February 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

Over the last few weeks, I’ve read two memoirs of individuals raised within the ultra-Orthodox movement who transitioned into the more progressive Jewish world later in life. The first book is Becoming Evethe memoir of Abby Stein, a transgender woman who was born into a Hasidic family. Before her gender transition, Abby was a Hasidic rabbi, completely immersed in her insular community. Abby is a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov; her family is part of the Hasidic rabbinic dynasty. Abby was the sixth of thirteen children born to her parents and their first boy. Becoming Eve explores Abby’s earlier life, her first feelings of gender dysphoria, the loneliness that she experienced in living an inauthentic life as a boy. Her narrative voice is one of hope, while she explores the many challenges of her upbringing, including corporal punishment at school and a theology she couldn’t accept, she does so without anger. There is significant love expressed in her story, love for her family and her community, amidst the struggles. Reading her memoir allows us to share her experience of running towards a life outside of the Hasidic community.  

 

Her memoir is a fascinating insight into the Hasidic community; she details her experience in yeshiva, her engagement to someone she only met once, and her marriage. Very little of the book focuses on her life after her decision to leave the community and to transition. Rather, the vast majority of the book looks at her earlier years and explores her feelings of alienation, disconnection and at times depressive periods of loneliness. Her memoir is one of courage and strength. In the final chapters of the book Abby speaks briefly about the organisation Footsteps, that supports individuals leaving ultra-Orthodox communities. She credits this organisation for her well-being. If you’re interested in hearing more about Footsteps, you can watch this YouTube video by clicking here.  Abby is a central part of the video. As it was filmed before Abby’s gender transition, the video identifies her by her birth name Srully Stein’. If you’re interested in hearing more, click here for a video which shares Abby reflecting on her upbringing.

 

Simultaneously, I’ve read another memoir of an individual who left the ultra-Orthodox community titled Foreskin’s Lament by essayist and author Shalom Auslander. Auslander’s book also details his upbringing and the questions that he had starting at a very young age. Auslander’s voice is very different from Stein’s. Auslander uses humour to explore the complicated dynamics of his upbringing; his voice is full of anger and resentment. His memoir is powerful and beautifully written, often emotionally provocative. Stein’s memoir seems to be more of a running towards whereas Auslander’s memoir seems to be more of a running from.

 

Reading these narratives simultaneously brought forward a lot of questions around what it means to make a transition. In the midst of change what does it mean to be running towards and what does it mean to be running from? Though their voices are different, they both share periods of meaning and periods of struggle, moments of success in their journey and moments where the system they’ve created isn’t working. 

 

I’ve thought a lot about Moses and the Israelites and their narrative of freedom. In what ways are they running from and in what ways are they running towards? In this week’s parasha, Jethro observes Moses spending his waking hours hearing the troubles of his people. Jethro sees how depleted Moses has become and encourages him to share the leadership. So soon after the parting of the Sea and their jubilant songs of rejoicing, they are already coming up against struggles of figuring out their new normal. This is how transitions happen, with moments of joy and moments of challenge, with hope that what one is running towards is going to be life-giving and affirming, albeit by way of many hurdles. 

 

I’d recommend either of these books, they both share courageous stories of transitions and meaning-making.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 7 February 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

This has become my daily ritual.  To walk down the garden path and pause at the gate where, just to my right a magnolia tree has bound its buds tightly in a furry, green casing, like the catkins of pussy willows.  I stop in the cold for a few moments to touch their fine hairs, to marvel at their hardiness in the cold morning temperature and to regret their early appearance.  These are the flower buds. How long until their casing opens, allowing their pale pink blossom to be exposed to a late frost or torn to shreds by the force of a strong wind?  I will the tree to hold back a little longer and spare the season’s ruthless predations.

It has its own life, it exists in its own time; this tree with its slightly gnarled branches, giving birth to the upright elegance of its buds and blossom. And for a brief moment, I am drawn into a different time and place – into the rhythm of the earth and the things that grow in it.  It listens to the noises of the street, the cars that chase each other noisily up and down the tarmac; the hammering across the road where workmen are removing the plaster and bricks from inside a house – pulling down a wall, expanding the hall?  It watches the children run past the houses on their way to school in the morning; and in the evening sees them trudge with tired steps back to their homes.  It waits quietly while a young woman stops in front of it, her back turned to its branches, while she speaks on the phone to her friend, to a family member.

What does the tree make of this world?  What does it absorb through its roots deep in the earth?  And those velvety buds, so perfect in their formation, with their skin-tight encasement, what life-flow is it that channels upward through the branches into their darkness?

There it is, too, at night, silently breathing, listening, living, becoming what it will become in some weeks, with its rose flowers that will blossom in the spring sunshine.

In Israel, it is the almond blossom that flowers earlier than other trees, a signal that Tu Bi’Sh’vat, the New Year for Trees is soon.  It is this festival, celebrated on 15 Sh’vat (Monday 10 February) and on Tuesday evening at the LJS with our customary Seder – drawn from the sixteenth century kabbalistic practice of drinking four cups of wine and tasting fifteen different kinds of fruit – that links us to the seasons, to the earth and to trees: white wine or grape juice for winter, to which is added a drop of red for spring, darker rosé for summer and deep red for autumn.

Tu Bi’Sh’vat with its mystical customs and liturgy takes us on a contemplative, interior journey as we reflect on the world of the here and now, to the world of the highest emanation, the Source of all creation.

When we are drawn into the world of the tree, says Buber, it is no longer an object to us, but its movement, its colour and form, all inseparably fused into one, stands in relation to us, and we stand in relation to its reality, to its ‘tree-ness.’

For Buber, this unmediated and direct relationship with the tree is a paradigm for our relationship with each other.  The ‘I-Thou’ relationship is not a relationship of objectification; it is wholly reciprocal; nothing – no foreknowledge and therefore no prejudice – can intervene between one person and another; such an encounter is a moment of grace, as though all the varied strands that make up human existence are, for a brief moment, fused into one thread, one timeless moment of unity.

From our contemplation of the trees around us, to the meaningful and fruitful relationships that emerge from our encounter with others, emerges the third sphere in which we build a relationship – with that which is beyond the material world – with a glimpse of eternity, the mystery of the eternal ‘You.’

This is Buber – mysterious himself, complex, difficult – but offering something that can be healing to the broken spirit and the broken times in which we live; something that takes us beyond greed, materialism, ownership and oppression, to a place of grace, of nearness to God, of unity, hope and redemption.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 31 January 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

What is one to make of President Trump’s peace plan for Israel?  Delivered just days after presidents, princes and prime ministers assembled in Jerusalem at Yad Va-Shem, to mark the 75th anniversary since Soviet troops entered Auschwitz and ‘liberated’ a living remnant, Trump spoke from the White House, the Prime Minister of Israel by his side, to announce his ‘two-state solution.’

Israel was born in the shadow of the Shoah, three years after the world learnt of the depredations of Auschwitz, Sobibor, Mauthausen, Bergen-Belsen and countless other concentration and death camps.  It was to be a place of refuge, where displaced Jews, who had no home to return to in Europe, who had lost parents and children, brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins and whole generations who had perished in the unspeakable underworld of the camps, could make their home, find work, build families and live without threat or danger.  The new State would be built on the principles of ‘liberty, justice and peace as conceived by the Prophets of Israel; would uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of religion, race, or sex, would guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, education and culture; would safeguard the holy places of all religions…’

Many of us have wondered if the two-state ‘solution’ is still alive.  It may be in intensive care, says Dr Tony Klug, special advisor on the Middle East to the Oxford Research Group and a consultant to the Palestine Strategy Group and the Israel Strategic Forum, but there is no alternative. If there is to be peace, there needs to be two neighbouring governments, exercising sovereign control over their own territory and population.

But Trump’s peace plan, which envisages an opportunity for Palestinians ‘to achieve an independent state of their very own’ and would provide a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, forgets one crucial element.  Where is the Palestinian presence on Trump’s platform in the White House?  Where are the Palestinian voices?

How can Trump and Netanyahu, one facing impeachment, the other corruption charges, stand together with impunity and state, among other things, that Israel will effectively annexe part of the Palestinian territories? Can they not see, not only the lack of symmetry in such a proposal – a not-yet formed Palestinian state is given no absolute right to self-determination – but the grotesque, colonialist immorality of such a plan that will whittle away Palestinian territory?

No doubt there are political reasons for the timing and nature of Trump’s ‘peace plan’ and Netanyahu’s laudatory remarks towards his ally.  Which makes the UK government’s statement that it ‘welcomes’ the proposal an ill-judged response.

But perhaps we should not dismiss the ‘peace plan’ so lightly.  After all, didn’t the Rabbis teach that peace outweighs all other blessings, that peace dispels strife and discord, hatred and envy?  So perhaps it is better to have a peace plan in some shape or form than nothing at all.

But peace can only exist when and where it is supported by justice and truth – as the Mishnah says, Al sh’losha d’varim ha-olam kayam: al ha-din, v’al ha-emet, v’al ha-shalom – ‘The world rests on three pillars: justice, truth and peace’ (mAvot 1:1) and further on, ‘The sword enters the world because of justice delayed and justice denied’ (Avot 5:8).

Seeing the quiet dignity of those increasingly fewer survivors of the Shoah returning to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen in moving televised programmes this week, how can we be indifferent to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the millions of Palestinians who live there?  How can we conceive of a peace plan without two partners and without justice and truth on both sides of the equation?

Perhaps Mr Netanyahu, who is indicted for crimes of bribery and fraud, and for breach of trust, will stop and reflect on the Jewish prophetic values on which Israel was built and ask himself: how true is this peace-plan to the pursuit of justice and peace?  And how can peace be built without bringing on board the partner who, like Israel more than seventy years ago, aspires to independence and sovereignty over a small strip of land and its five million inhabitants.  And those of us, who grew up in the Diaspora, basking in Israel’s early achievements and aspirations, must consider our own responsibility as Jews in support of a state that carries a fundamental part of our identity as Jews.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 24 January 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

Moses and Aaron’s first meeting with Pharaoh does not go well.  Their demand to let the people go provokes a cruel response.  Dismissing the two men, the king bats away the ministers of this competing God with the words, ‘Who is Adonai that I should heed him and let Israel go?  I do not know Adonai, nor will I let Israel go’ (Exodus 5.2).  Do you think I’m going to dismiss the people from their labours, he says; and he instructs the overseers to double the Israelites’ workload – they must provide their own straw for the bricks and complete the same quota of bricks as when the straw had been provided.

Moses is stunned by this turn of affairs.  Did he think that Pharaoh would give him a positive answer immediately, saying, ‘Yes, of course, let the people go and let them take whatever they want with them to sustain in the wilderness?’  Was this the Pharaoh in whose house he had been raised?  The Pharaoh whose daughter had rescued him from the River Nile?  Seeing the sufferings of his people, beaten, exhausted, unable to keep up with the tasks given to them, he stands silently, while the overseers spit out insults towards him and his brother.

It seems poignantly appropriate to recall the harsh labour imposed on the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion, as we witness an international gathering of 40 heads of state and government in Jerusalem to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  The date, January 27th, was chosen by Germany in 1996, the UK in 2001 and by other nations, to mark Holocaust Memorial Day and to recall genocides that have taken place in other parts of the world since then.

On Thursday, a retired doctor from Leicestershire was interviewed on Radio 4’s World at One.  Martin Stern’s parents had fled from Germany to Amsterdam to escape the Nazis, because his Jewish father had married a non-Jewish woman.  His mother had died giving birth to his younger sister and the children were looked after by friends, the boy attending a little school until sent to a transit camp in the Netherlands at the age of five.  The living conditions and the food were miserable, he said, describing the late harvested runner beans with wooden splinters still in them where they had been split down the middle.

From the transit camp, he and his sister were taken to Terezin, the garrison town just to the north of Prague, renamed Theresienstadt by the Germans.  Jews were ‘stored there’, says Dr Stern, prior to their destruction and used as propaganda.  1,500 children ended up in Theresienstadt, very few survived.

He tells his story as though it happened yesterday, every tiny detail clear in his memory: on the day he arrived, he was shoved into a building and found himself among a lot of little boys.  ‘I kept pleading for food,’ he says in his interview; eventually, a young inmate, about eighteen years old who was charged with looking after the boys, ordered an eight year old child to take him into another room where he took an aluminium pan and a crumpled paper bag in which there were some rolled oats in the bottom.  ‘There was a stove in the middle of the room which was lit; the boy poured a teaspoon of rolled oats into the pan and then went to a sink, turned on a tap and a trickle of brown water came out which was added to oats to make some porridge.’ It was, he said, the most memorable meal he had ever had.

From the children’s dormitory, he was rescued by a Dutch woman called Catharina De Jong.  Martin and his little sister were to remain with her for the rest of the time they were in Theresienstadt.  She worked in the kitchens and so, although hungry, they never starved.

And meanwhile, trains were taking about 1,000 people at a time, including children to their deaths in extermination camps. And on each occasion, Martin and his sister escaped deportation, perhaps because they were in adult dormitories with Catharina, perhaps because there had been some correspondence between Theresienstadt and Amsterdam, where people had been trying to secure the children’s rescue and transport to Switzerland.

Dr Stern remained in Theresienstadt until after liberation by the Soviet Army because there was an outbreak of typhus and then travelled back in a perilous journey to the Netherlands in a convoy of army lorries.  The following day, he and his sister were ‘stolen’ by the family who had looked after his sister before their time in Theresienstadt.  Moving away from the woman who had saved him in Theresienstadt broke his heart.

He speaks in measured and thoughtful tones. Of course, he says, I feel anger towards the actions of the Nazis, ‘but I refuse to let my mind be occupied by anger at these very stupid people who did evil things because that only harms me.’

In his commentary to a verse in this week’s parashah, Rashi remarks on Moses’ reaction to Pharaoh’s cruelty.  He sees, says Rashi, that this turn of events has come about on account of his plea to Pharaoh to let the people go.  It’s his fault, but it’s also God’s fault. His reflex action is to return to the source of the trouble and exchange words with God:  ‘O God, why did You bring harm upon this people?  Why did you send me?’  Look how things have got so much worse for this people (Exodus 5.22-23).

For the Rabbis, the enslavement of the Israelites is the fulfillment of God’s words in Genesis: ‘Know that your descendants will be strangers in a land not theirs; they shall be enslaved and afflicted for four hundred years’ (Genesis 15.13).

How did individuals like Martin Stern find hope and faith in the future?  Like many who came to this country as young children and teenagers, there is a sense of deep gratitude for the education and opportunities received and the fulfilment of creating his own family, remembering the past, but not harbouring hatred or anger.  Of course, it is not like that for everyone – there are those who endure poverty, loneliness, the undying sense of loss of close family members and will always live with the trauma of having survived the unspeakable years of the Shoah.

We hold all these things in our mind as we mark Holocaust Memorial Day on Monday and pledge ourselves to eradicate the harm and evil that come from tribal hatred and violence.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 17 January 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, is mentioned only fourteen times in the Hebrew Bible  – eleven times in the Torah, only once in the prophets and twice in the Book of Chronicles, and one reference there is probably not to the Miriam in this week’s parashah, but another unknown daughter of an even less known father.

We meet her as Moses’ sister in this week’s Torah portion, although she is not given a name here.  Moses’ mother has placed her youngest child in a basket which she has put among the reeds in the River Nile, fearful that he will be discovered by Pharaoh who has issued a decree to kill all male Hebrew babies.  Of his sister, we know that she stations herself at a distance from the baby to see what is going to happen to him.  The midrash mentions her sensitivity and protectiveness towards her youngest sibling.

As soon as she notices that the daughter of Pharaoh has found the basket, she goes to the princess and offers a ‘Hebrew nurse to suckle the child.’  Pharaoh’s daughter agrees and so the girl goes and fetches her mother. Her assertiveness and immediate actions complement that early tenderness she shows her brother.

The second time we meet Miriam she is given a name and to her name is added the title n’viah – ‘prophet’, a title that is not even given to Moses in the Book of Exodus.  At the other side of the Sea of Reeds, relieved and full of joy, she takes up her timbrel or hand-drum, and with all the women following her dancing, she sings a shorter version of Moses’ Song at the Sea:  ‘I will sing to the Eternal One for He has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.’

It is an extraordinary glimpse into the scenes of triumph among the women and men on the shores of the Sea of Reeds, after the Israelites have safely crossed over and the Egyptian charioteers are no more.  This is a woman with a voice, with qualities of leadership and greatness, strong and tender, courageous, full of verve and determined.

In the Book of Numbers she is mentioned five times in the same chapter.  Here, for unknown reasons – perhaps jealousy, perhaps challenging the leadership and authority of Moses, she speaks out against Moses’ Cushite wife. We do not know whether this reference is to Zipporah, the Midianite wife he has taken while a shepherd in Midian, or a second wife from Cush (modern day Ethiopia).  Even as she is punished by God, afflicted with a skin disease that turns her skin white, Moses prays for Miriam to be healed. She is brought back into the camp after seven days, but she remains a condemned woman and we hear only that she has died in the wilderness of Kadesh.

Deuteronomy remembers her only as a warning to Israel: ‘In cases of a skin affection be most careful to do exactly as the Levitical priests instruct you…  Remember what the Eternal One your God did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt’ (Deut. 24.9). The young girl on the banks of the Nile, the leader of women on the shores of the Sea of Reeds, is brought to shame in the wilderness.

Does she marry?  Does she bear children?  The Torah makes no mention of this. Rabbinic literature sees her as part of a triumvirate of leaders, bringing about redemption for Israel. And because the Book of Numbers, mentions that the well of water dried up after she died, the Rabbis attribute to her the miracle of a well that accompanied the Israelites as they journeyed through the desert.  When she died, the well, Miriam’s well as it came to be known, ceased to exist.

In the midrash she is married off to Caleb, one of the twelve spies sent by Moses to spy out the land of Israel.  She is, thus, brought into the tribe of Judah and gives birth to Hur.  The Torah itself, however, leaves her proudly single and in this week’s parashah we learn of her essential qualities: responsible, curious, a young girl with initiative, courage and vision, in no one’s shadow.

We also encounter, in this week’s Torah portion, five other women who all play a redemptive role in saving the life of Moses and moving our story towards the Exodus from Egypt.  They are Yocheved, the mother of Moses, the two midwives who defy Pharaoh’s decree to throw the male Israelite babies into the  River Nile, Shifrah and Puah, the daughter of Pharaoh who rescues Moses from the river and  Moses’ Midianite wife, Zipporah.

When women assume a mantle of leadership and responsibility, it is not always easy. We challenge the status quo simply by our presence. We do not need to say or do anything.  Male primacy and authority, in place for thousands of years have marginalised and silenced women and now as we emerge from the shadows and find our voices, many still find it difficult.

‘Has not God spoken through us as well?’ asks Miriam of Moses in Numbers.  For this stepping over the line, she is punished. Not Aaron who joined with her in challenging authority, but Miriam alone.  Chastised because of her own sense of self-esteem, for courage, truth and strength.  After this, her role disappears and death follows swiftly.  She is all but brutally trampled out of history.

In our attempts to wrestle with our egos, women in leadership must be careful not to lose that self-esteem and little sense of pride they have in themselves.  There will be those who resent the authority and power we have, but we must continue to use our voices and influence – and use them with sensitivity and humility.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 10 January 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

This week we will read the Torah portion Va-y’chi, the last portion of the book of Genesis. Next week we begin with Exodus, our narrative of enslavement and redemption.

In this Torah portion we read of the end of both Jacob and Joseph’s life. The majority of the Torah portion is filled with Jacob’s blessings to his children and his grandchildren. He speaks to each of his sons and offers his blessings on them. In looking at Jacob’s blessing and his final words to his sons each of the tribes are described very differently. As Rabbi Gunther Plaut shares in his commentary on the Torah “It is obvious that the tribes are still in a state of ferment, and it is equally remarkable that they seemingly have little cohesion. What unites them is not a sense of national purpose or identity; neither is in evidence. If anything binds them, it is their sense of common ancestry and the memory of an old covenant.” We end Genesis with a parsha that is dominated by Jacob’s blessing to his sons detailing Jacob’s hopes and beliefs about the future of each tribe. Perhaps not surprisingly Dinah the daughter of Jacob is not included.  After the narrative of the rape of Dinah her name is never mentioned again.

Her absence in Jacob’s blessing is striking. Was she still a part of the family? Was she still alive? Why was her life not important enough to be mentioned by Jacob in his final words? American Rabbis Rachel Bearman and Paul Kipnes are working together in a chevruta partnership, creating a modern midrash on Genesis. They crafted a midrash imagining that Dinah did receive a blessing.

In their midrash, Dinah comes to Jacob and she shares with him how difficult it has been for her to have this vast distance between them, how painful that Jacob no longer speaks to her. Jacob shares that he didn’t know how to speak with her and that their distance isn’t a lack of love.

In their midrash, Jacob then offers to Dinah this blessing:

Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah,
You are my heart and the strength of my spirit.
You are the piece of me that wrestled with angels,
And that survived when assailed by challenges.

You, who have been denied what you are due by your father for so long,
Have offered a broken man kindness and mercy.
You are strength and love.
You are the best of your parents and so much more than we could ever be.
Our people will learn from your endurance.

I bless you and ask God, who has accompanied me, to walk with you all the days of your life.

Jacob then asks Dinah if she will offer him a blessing, to which she shares these words:

Jacob, son of Rebekah and Isaac,
You are my father and the guide of our people.
You have not lived a perfect life, but you have always tried to walk with God.

At times, you have tripped over your own limitations and have failed your family.
But when I tell my children stories of their grandfather’s life, these failings will not define you.
I will tell them of a man who lived a very human life who fell down, but struggled back to his feet again and again.
I will tell them of my father who called me to his side, asked for my forgiveness, and offered me a blessing filled with love.
Jacob, son of Rebekah and Isaac, father of our people, you will be remembered. 

Rabbis Bearman and Kipnes moved past focusing on the void, focusing on the absence of the voice of Dinah and instead reimagined her into the narrative.

We read the same texts year after year after year, as Rabbi Ben Bag Bag shares in Pirkei Avot, “Turn it and turn it again for everything lies in it”. We return to the text year after year because we change, and our understanding of the text changes. This creating and recreating our understanding of Torah, rooted in tradition with limbs reaching out into the future not only applies to our understanding of Torah but also our worship and ritual.

Many of our traditional Jewish rituals focused on the life transitions of men and Jewish women moved through transitions without the same rituals giving meaning, comfort and wisdom to their experiences. Over time Jewish leaders have started to create rituals for Jewish women, some of them like the baby naming blessing and the Bat Mitzvah have become very common. The book ‘Taking up the Timbrel’ offers other rituals that are not part of our normal body of Jewish lifecycles: rituals for fertility, for infertility, on the breakdown of a relationship, for the moment of birth, rituals for leaving, arriving and journeying. As Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild states in the book, “Prayer is deeply personal. At its best it addresses the feelings and needs of the individual who is praying. It crystallizes them and reorders them, providing a context in which the pray-er can grow, a space within which the connection with God can emerge. Rather like the best Torah study, bringing yourself, your own perspectives, your own experiences to the text means that you and it live in a different way.”

Judaism continues to speak to us today, and will speak to us in the future, because we allow it to inform our present, and we allow our present to inform our text and our prayer.

I become excited when I think about what the next decade will bring in terms of our understanding of text and ritual. It will happen through all of us honestly and openly engaging with our texts and traditions, identifying the voids and filling in the spaces with creativity, faith, a commitment to tradition and vulnerable reflections of the needs of our day.

Shabbat shalom

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 3 January 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

I am torn between wanting to write about this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash, in which Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and about which there is so much to say about reconciliation and forgiveness, and the way Pharaoh helps this family – a family from a foreign land – to settle in his country; and wanting also to acknowledge this strange and disturbing, almost unintelligible time in which we are living.  I do not have the words for the bloody attack that took place on the seventh night of Chanukkah in Monsey, a hamlet to the west of the Hudson River in New York State, home to thousands of Hasidic Jews.  Five members of the community were stabbed, one critically.  What can one say?  In the last three weeks, there have been more than thirteen attacks against Jewish communities or individuals in New York State alone.

Over the same weekend and nearer home, antisemitic graffiti was sprayed on the wall of the newly-constructed South Hampstead Synagogue and in various places in Hampstead and Belsize Park.  One wants to ask – why?  Why do people hate? What is it that drives them to such anger that they are willing to kill, to maim, to commit wanton damage on property, to use language in such abhorrent and destructive ways.

We are more likely to put ourselves into the shoes of victims, to find ways of expressing compassion and empathy by reaching out, by offering succour, practical help or a kind word.  Just this week, I visited someone whose family member had very recently died and who left express wishes for no funeral ritual or prayers, simply a cremation with no one present.  The relative was heartbroken to lose someone she loved, crushed and utterly lost that she had not been allowed to say farewell in a meaningful or prayerful way.  And there was nothing anyone could do to change the course of these events.  My heart went out to her and, in a brief visit, all I could offer was the recitation of a few prayers and a psalm without a body present.

These moments of witnessing loss, of seeing someone so utterly distraught, touch us very deeply and awaken our compassion and desire to do something that will mitigate against long-term trauma or disaster.

But what of perpetrators? Can I put myself in the shoes of the man or woman who hates with such bitterness they are willing to go on the attack?  There have been times – most often when on my bike and a van or car overtakes too fast and too near – when I react with a compulsion to use insulting language against the driver, to catch them up (nearly always impossible on a bike unless there is traffic), glare at them, knock firmly against the side of their vehicle to let them know my displeasure, my anxiety and resentment.  Rarely does this elicit any kind of apology, only an aggressive gesture in response or tearing away up a hill, brushing too closely against another cyclist or getting too near to the vehicle in front.  It is then that I experience a frustrated anger and I know that to hold on to it, to allow it to devour me, can hurt and destroy only one person – myself.

Imagine if Joseph had failed to let go of the grudge that he must have nurtured against his brothers throughout the years in Egypt.  It was there all right.  Why else would he punish them by ordering them to bring Benjamin down to Egypt?  Why test them and charge them with theft of his own silver cup?  Why threaten them to leave Benjamin as hostage, while they return to their father in Canaan?  Was this his way of manipulating their feelings, hurting them for the hurt they had inflicted on his seventeen year old self?

And yet, he is not hard-hearted, for Judah’s plea offering himself as a hostage instead of Benjamin, touches something deep inside him – his affection and love for his father and a constructed, yet real narrative about his own life – ‘it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you’ (Genesis 45.5).

It is Rashi who understands that there is no hatred in Joseph’s heart: ‘Just as there is no hatred in my heart for my brother Benjamin, who was not involved in my sale, neither is there any hatred in my heart toward you’ (Rashi to Genesis 45.12).  Joseph, the chancellor of all Egypt, the grandiose, shrewd saviour of Egypt’s recession and architect of its people’s economic survival, is freed from the burden of animosity towards his brothers.  He can no longer be a stranger to them. ‘In a startling moment of collapse,’ says Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg,

‘Joseph rejoins the human race.  He surrenders his project, shrivelled, reduced to human size.  A sinister grandiosity had informed that project; now, compassion, the benign infection of Judah’s words, compels him to relinquish his secret idea’ (The Beginning of Desire, p. 337).

May this Shabbat, the first Shabbat of a secular new year and new decade, release us from the burdens of our grudges, our age-old resentments and sense of failed entitlement.  May we learn from those who have taught themselves to accept serenely and with gratitude what God has given them; those who practise humility, kindness, who speak with compassion but also with just cause.  These are my prayers for this new year.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 27 December 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

As we bring the secular year to a close, I find myself reflecting on the words spoken by a friend in recent days: ‘We have so much to be grateful for.’

In the warmth of my own home, I watch the candles of Chanukkah burn, surrounded by my family and friends, and for these eight days of the festival, reflecting on the tumultuous events of the second century BCE, when the Seleucid emperor, Antiochus Ephiphanes attempted to force the Jewish community of Judea to abandon belief in the God of Israel for adulation of himself, a self-declared god – ‘weening in his arrogance to make the land navigable and the sea passable by foot, because his heart was lifted up’ (2 Maccabees 5:21).

At the centre of this conflict between Antiochus and the Jewish community of Judea, is a story of martyrdom: the willingness of young Jews to die in excruciating pain for their Jewish faith. Seven brothers, together with their mother (named Hannah in later sources), are captured at the king’s command, ‘shamefully handled with scourges and cords and compelled to taste of the abominable swine’s flesh’ (ibid. 7.1). What do you want from us, asks the first of her sons. The king falls into a rage and the boy is brutally tortured, burned and killed, his mother and brothers looking on. The second brother is similarly ordered to eat the forbidden food; he refuses and is mocked, tortured and dies gasping for breath. And so with the third and fourth and the rest of the seven brothers, all maimed, tortured and killed, each one declaring their faith in God and their hope in everlasting life, while their mother endures the violent death of her sons until she too dies.

Enter Judah the Maccabee, rounding up young men from the villages, training them in military manoeuvres, setting fire to cities and villages at night time and winning back the most important positions, putting to flight no small number of the enemies. Two years after Antiochus’s men have captured the Temple and defiled it with false idols, Judah and his soldiers recapture it, cleanse it and falling prostrate before God they pray that they might fall no more into such evils.

‘And they kept eight days with gladness in the manner of the feast of tabernacles, remembering how that not long before, during the feast of tabernacles, they were wandering in the mountains and in the caves after the manner of wild beasts’ (ibid. 10:6).

If we are discomfited by this violent story of martyrdom and the military victories of Judah the Maccabee, we might remember another story of a mighty king whose power is pitched against the judgements of the God of Israel. Pharaoh, whose heart is hardened and whose own people will suffer the ten plagues is finally defeated by God with the tenth plague, the death of the Egyptian firstborn. At the very moment when the hope of the Hebrews seems to ebb, God acts to vindicate His people, rescuing them from Egypt.

The story of Chanukkah turns on this moment of suffering and deliverance – the agonising and grotesque torments of this family and God’s deliverance of those who survived.

It is why we thank God for the wonders and deliverances that were performed for our ancestors in days of old at this season.

Our people have known cruelty, suffering and oppression. We have been persecuted, forced to abandon our faith and observances; we have been mocked for being different and punished for not conforming to the faith and practices of the so-called ‘host’ countries in which we have lived.

But at this time and at this season, I hope the festival of Chanukkah will help us, not only to reflect on the history that lies behind our lighting of the candles, but also on the blessings that these lights bring to us: blessings of family and community, of freedom to be faithful to the God of our ancestors and to the observances that bring meaning and purpose into our lives.

It was another Hannah – Hannah Senesh, ready to die for her people, who left Hungary for Palestine in 1939 and who, in 1944 volunteered to return to Hungary to help defeat the Nazis. She too, like the mother of the seven sons, was tortured, but never gave in to her torturers or betrayed her people. Before her death she wrote these words:

                    Blessed is the match that is consumed in kindling flame.

                    Blessed is the flame that burns in the heart’s secret places.

                    Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honour’s sake.

                    Blessed is the match that is consumed in kindling flame.

May these last days of Chanukkah bring all of us light and courage, faithfulness to defeat the darkness of tyranny and oppression and gratitude that we live in times when we can serve God and our fellow human beings in freedom and with love.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukkah Sameach.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 20 December 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

We live in a multicultural world, our synagogue is in the centre of one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth, our tradition is a result of living among and adapting many aspects from other cultures. This week we celebrate Chanukkah – a good example of the multi-layered nature of Jewish tradition.

On an historical level, we celebrate the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its defilement by Greeks in 164 BCE. A small band of faithful but poorly-armed Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated one of the mightiest armies in the world, reclaimed the Temple and rededicated it to the service of God. This event was observed in an eight-day celebration. About six centuries after the event, rabbinic sages were uncomfortable with the military aspect of the festival and ascribed the length of the festival to a miraculous small amount of oil that burned for eight days.

On a metaphorical level, this is a festival of lights which is celebrated at the time of year when the days are shortest in the northern hemisphere. Many cultures have similar festivals at this time of year. All highlight the importance of light, warmth and spending time together with community, friends and family.

In 2019, Chanukkah begins on Sunday night, December 22 and lasts until Monday night, December 30. Please consider coming to the LJS Chanukkah programme on Monday, December 23:

3.00-4.00 pm   Rabbi Elana will be doing arts and crafts for children – all ages welcome.

3.00-4.00 pm   Rabbi Alex will be leading an informal study session for adults.

4.00 pm           Candle-lighting with Rabbi Igor, tea, doughnuts and latkes.

The multi-layered nature of our tradition allows us, modern Jews, to look beyond time and culture and see the relevance in Judaism today. It allows us to adopt successful forms and customs from the world around us and adapt them according to our principles. This forces us, progressive Jews, to keep looking for the best forms which would allow Jewish tradition to remain meaningful and suited for modern realities.

Chanukkah Sameach and Shabbat Shalom!

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 13 December 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

The Council has gritted the pavement outside the church hall where I cast not only my own vote on Thursday morning, but also a proxy vote for my daughter, who lives abroad.  Despite arming myself with a file of paperwork she has sent to me, her voting card and my passport for identification, her name is not on the list.  I keep calm.  There is a long queue of people behind me, impatient and also needing to get to work.  Eventually, they add my daughter’s name to the list in pencil, record her number – which exists on one list but not on another – and I cast both mine and her vote.

Following my neighbours out of the hall, it is hard not to feel despondent about the state of the world and I ask myself how it can get better.

A few weeks ago, on Mitzvah Day, a small group of LJS members joined a Sikh charity called Niksham Swat to provide hot food and drink for nearly two hundred homeless men and a handful of women. It was a Sunday evening, dark and cold and as I hurried along the Strand, I noticed a crowd of people gathering, forming themselves into an orderly queue.  A large van had pulled up in sight of Covent Garden; the side doors slid open and within minutes long tables were set up on the pavement with huge dishes of hot food, pizzas, rice, vegetable dishes, a delicious carrot cake, an urn of hot water for teas and coffees.  We were given specific tasks, serving food, hot drinks and bottles of water.

It was only after three hours, the food gone, the people dispersed, as we cleared up and I was walking to the tube station at Charing Cross that I was able to process what I had just witnessed.  People of all ages, of all nationalities, faiths, backgrounds, some looking more resilient than others, some obviously desperately ill and in need of medical help – hungry, thirsty, lonely, hurting, vulnerable, some angry, some full of gratitude, others able to laugh and enter into a bit of conversation.  But it was the people who averted their gaze and who couldn’t reply to the ‘Good evening sir’, couldn’t respond to the offer of a bottle of water, whose pride was so deeply damaged by having to accept charitable giving, that one feared for their future and mental health.

I was shocked and angry – angry that so many have nowhere to rest their heads, but the concrete ground of the underpass at Charing Cross Station or elsewhere, some lucky enough to sleep in flimsy tent, but more lying nearby, exhausted and dead to the world, with only a sleeping bag between them and the cold winter air of a November night.

This is the world we are living in at the moment.  Many will undoubtedly be relieved when this night is over and the votes counted.  Others will already be expressing their devastation at the result of this election.  We will be setting up more tables along the Strand and cooking ever more quantities of food; more charities will spring up to support asylum seekers; we will have to find different and creative ways of combating poverty; we will have to work that much harder to put pressure on a new government to enact legislation that will reduce carbon emissions, and we will have to honour our own commitments on an individual level.

On Monday 16th December, the LJS will be holding its annual ‘Festivals for All’ Chanukkah (or pre-Chanukkah in this case) gathering at the synagogue.  I hope you will join us with so many others: individuals, schools, institutions, faith communities and organisations who always look forward to coming together to celebrate and to express a unified message of friendship, hope and peace.  It is so easy to lose hope, to be drawn back to a place where we ignore the suffering and privation around us.

‘Not always shall the needy be ignored, nor the hope of the afflicted forever lost…’ (Psalm 9:19).  As people of hope and faith, let not our mood be darkened by the national temper of impatient zeal and fear.  We must look to the long term with patience; we must turn to those organisations – community organisations – capable of effecting change at a grass roots level.

In the midst of one of the darkest moments in Jewish history, the prophet Jeremiah speaks these words to the people: ‘For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Eternal One, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope’ (Jeremiah 29.11).  Let us go forward with this message on our tongues, knowing that those plans must be ours – for welfare and not for harm – and so build a future of hope for the generations yet to come.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 6 December 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Recently I had a conversation with someone in the process of conversion, they shared with me how connected they feel to God when they are in synagogue, but struggle to feel as connected when they are away from the community. I think this is something we can all relate to, for most of us we probably feel the deepest connection to our faith and our people when we are in a community. We are blessed to live in a diverse community and to be alive at a time and place where, as Jews, we are integrated into the wider society. How do we continue to feel connected even when we are not within the walls of the sanctuary or engaging in Jewish ritual ?

In the Shema we are encouraged to love God, to allow for this connection to our faith to be a part of our rising in the morning, our thoughts at the end of the night and in our hearts, minds and souls as we go on our way. On a practical level this is difficult, isn’t it? How can we remain connected?

There have been times in my life where I have strongly felt God’s presence, and times when I had to remind myself to look. In my late teens, in a period of questioning, my father encouraged me to say the Shehechiyanu every time I felt God’s presence. Throughout the day I found myself reciting this prayer, I was surprised to see how often I felt connected even during a time when intellectually I was questioning. This is a practice I have now taken on any time I am in a place of doubt, within a few weeks I am able to see how connected I do feel. Though God is mysterious, God is also there as a stable and loving force even if we are in a place of disconnection.

The Shehechiyanu prayer is traditionally said when one experiences something for the first time: when one wears a new article of clothing or when one eats a fruit for the first time in the growing season. This blessing is also often said at lifecycle events: baby namings, b’nei mitzvah, conversions, weddings. We learn in the Talmud that the Shehechiyanu prayer can also be recited if you see a friend you haven’t seen for more than 30 days. The translation of the blessing is “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, who has given us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this moment.” Every moment we experience is a first, the Shehechiyanu prayer can be recited any time we feel grateful for the moment we are in. Perhaps you might find this exercise helpful/interesting as well. You might want to try reciting this blessing every time you feel grateful or aware of God’s presence.

There is a lot of emphasis in Judaism on recognising the sacredness of the moment. Perhaps the clearest example we have of this idea in our Torah comes from this week’s Torah portion. Jacob has fled Esau who has threatened to kill him for stealing his birthright. He stops for the night, using a rock as a pillow he falls asleep. He dreams of a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending. He awakes and proclaims, “God was in this place and I, I did not know it.”

Let us attempt, even in times of doubt and struggle, to recognise that God is in this place and to offer gratitude for the gift of the moment.

Shabbat Shalom

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 29 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

There has always been a tension in Judaism between particularism and universalism: concern and care for our own people, and a reaching out to help others for the greater good of the societies in which we live.  It is quite natural to express unease and disquiet at circumstances that may affect our own families and communities.  We have to work much harder to express our interest in and apprehension for those who are not like ourselves.

So when the current Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, a gentle man of compassion and integrity, is asked by members of our community, ‘What will become of Jews and Judaism in Britain if the Labour Party forms the next government,’ his response should be finely balanced between concern for ourselves and our own interests and an equally profound attention and awareness of others.

That tension and balance are an essential part of the teaching that Jews should be both ‘for ourselves,’ but not ‘only for ourselves.’   This dual imperative can be found in texts that go back to the Hebrew Bible:  the commandment not to harden one’s heart towards our kinsfolk but to lend sufficient for their needs is set next to the interdiction against oppressing the stranger.  ‘For you were a stranger in the land of Egypt,’ is a constant refrain in the Torah – repeated more often than any other commandment, because we need to work harder and train ourselves to identify with those who are not part of our own people.

The prophets, too, identified that tension.  Amos makes no distinction between God who brings up the Israelites from Egypt and the Philistines from Caphtor or the Arameans from Kir (Amos 9:7).  And Malachi may have been referring to the people of Israel in his prophecy, but subsequent interpretations have universalised his message to refer to all humanity: ‘Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?  Why do we break faith with one another..?’ (Malachi 2.10).

The Talmud, in a clear reference to these verses, relates that on one occasion, when it was decreed that the Jews were prohibited from studying the Torah, infant male circumcision and observing the Sabbath, the Rabbis went and took counsel with a Roman woman, well-known to prominent Romans.  She advised them to raise an alarm by night, and as they did so, they said, ‘O you heavens, are we not your brothers and sisters? Are we not the children of one father? Are we not the children of one mother?  In what way are we different from every other nation and tongue that you make harsh decrees against us?’  One wonders where Shakespeare drew his inspiration for Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice, ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh…?’

In Jewish law, as well as lore, Jews have obligations to the rest of humanity: ‘We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, mi-p’nei darchei shalom – for the sake of peace (bGittin 61a). And on a daily basis, the liturgy of our prayer books instructs the community to recall our specific Jewish task as well as our obligations to the rest of humanity.

The Chief Rabbi is right in drawing attention to all victims of racism and reminding those of us who live securely and without the anxiety of being harassed on a train, beaten up on a bus, or hounded out of a political party, that antisemitism, along with other insidious and violent forms of racism and senseless hatred, including Islamophobia, are very real dangers to freedom and well-being in our democracy.

Yet, in this fruitless war of words, we, the Jewish community, have lost our balance.  We have been trapped in a cycle that focuses only on ourselves as victims of antisemitism, rather than as agents for good in the world.  Jeremy Corbyn is not going to apologise for past associations or present weakness in failing to address antisemitism in his party; just as Boris Johnson will continue to use words irresponsibly, stirring the flames of Islamophobia and other forms of racism.

Leadership – whether political or religious – requires humility, wisdom, courage and admission of wrong-doing.    It is time for us as leaders of the Jewish community to take a step back, to redress a balance and to speak out, not only for ourselves, but for all victims of racism, and for all those in our own country who have suffered because of years of austerity.

The Jewish people have survived because we have held this delicate and creative balance of particularism and universalism, of understanding our specific responsibility as Jews with our own narrative, and seeing ourselves as part of the human family, children of One God, with the obligation to seek the welfare of all people.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 22 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A few weeks ago, I started a personal project. I decided to read a Torah portion in advance, study some commentaries, midrashim, interpretations and stories related to it and draw a sketch. My hope was that the sketch would depict one of the ideas I found relevant in the Torah portion. I called the project Torah Sketch. I hope I will have enough patience, creativity and inspiration to complete the year-long journey.

I started with Torah portion Lech Lecha. My inspiration was the moment I discovered that you can customise the back of Nike trainers with your initials. The theme of the journey which Abraham took in Genesis 12 fits the shoes’ customisation feature very well. Therefore, I decided to draw the following sketch:

This journey led me to this week’s Torah portion Chayei Sarah. Its opening verse says:

And the life of Sarah was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years. These were the years of the life of Sarah (Gen 23:1)

Rashi, a great Torah scholar from the eleventh century, asked why the text doesn’t just say, “Sarah lived one hundred and twenty seven years?” The repetition of the word ‘year’ and the splitting of Sarah’s age into three periods seems unnecessary and superfluous, yet Rashi concluded that the wording is repeated to indicate that all of her years were good.

It is easy to think that the best years of your life are ahead of you, leading you to live your life dreaming of a better future. Or you may think that your best years were in the past, meaning you spend your time reminiscing. While it is important to remember the past and think of the future, the story of Sarah reminds us that any age can be equally good. Whether you are seven, twenty or hundred years old, you can be happy and lead a life of fulfilment and accomplishment, joy and happiness.

Pirkei Avot, a two thousand year old collection of Rabbinic wisdom, records a saying of Judah ben Tema about different stages of people’s lives (Pirkei Avot 5:21):

At five to the study of Scripture;

At ten to the study of Mishnah;

At thirteen to the commandments;

At fifteen to the study of Talmud;

At eighteen to the bridal canopy;

At twenty to the pursuit of livelihood;

At thirty to the peak of strength;

At forty to wisdom;

At fifty to give counsel;

At sixty to the old age;

At seventy to fullness of years;

At eighty to strength.

Perhaps not all of the above activities are relevant for our world today, but the principle remains the same: At any age we can find ourselves, discover new sides of life, and be happy.

May this week be the one of fulfilment, health, strength and fullness of years!

Shabbat Shalom

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 15 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Finally, I find a quiet moment to sweep the fallen leaves from outside my house.  They line the path leading to the front door and the pavement of my road; they lie in the gutter – some dry and curled, fragile like moth-eaten pages of an old manuscript.  Some are freshly fallen and beautiful still – gold and red, the rich colours of this autumn season.  As a child, I would collect fallen leaves and flowers and press them between the pages of thick books and sometimes now, opening an old volume  – very occasionally – I will come across the dry, compacted form of a leaf or a few petals.  How far I seem from those days when every leaf seemed precious and something new that I had never seen before – each blade defined by its unique shape, the midrib running from the base to its apex, the delicate veins branching out to the edges, essential to the health of the leaf as they carry the nutrients necessary to its life.

In the short time, I am outside, I encounter four of my neighbours and miraculously, we find time to chat.  The man next door, who piles his three small children into his car every morning to take them to school and nursery, my neighbour the other side who always watches for parcels or packets left outside the front door, and on the other side of her, my lovely neighbour who will always lend me an egg or some milk if I find myself without an essential ingredient when I am cooking.

This is a rare moment of privilege and pleasure – of feeling embedded in my neighbourhood where I have lived for a long time. These are the people whom I so often wave to, but find little time to chat, to find out what is happening in their lives, to discover the challenges they are living with?  Each of them has a story or many stories – the loneliness of a widow, battling her own health problems; the worry of a sick child or grandchild; the difficulties of bringing up a family in the cramped surroundings of a small flat.

There is something hidden, yet precious that binds us together as neighbours – that we share the same road, that we live in such close proximity to each other, with only a fence or thin wall separating our houses and gardens.  We hear the movements we make in each other’s homes, we take in each other’s post, we sweep each other’s leaves and put away each other’s dustbins, we lend each other books. We are a small community, a micro-community of this larger society in which we live. And we have learned to live with each other’s foibles and habits, to speak courteously to each other if something crops up that bothers us.

We are like the birds gathering around the feeders in the garden: two parakeets alighting on a thin branch, the family of dunnocks chirping noisily, the jays and a large, black crow, the fat pigeons that fancy themselves as lighter versions of themselves, swaying awkwardly, pushing themselves towards the feeder.  They come and go throughout the day, occasionally on their own, more often as a small community, busy feeding, singing, perching and swaying, curling themselves into little acrobats to feed from the seeds.

It was Hillel who said: Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur – ‘Do not separate yourself from the community’ (Pirkei Avot 2:5) – an appeal to strengthen the Jewish community, to pray and study with the congregation, to volunteer one’s times and strengths, not to withdraw into an ascetic life of seclusion.

Those few minutes of sweeping the leaves in front of my houses reminded me of the importance of community: of collaboration and reaching out, listening and sharing, of gratitude and love.  And I see the individuals of our community as veins in a leaf, the seams that connect us to each other, that reach out to the very edges of our congregation with the warmth and friendship that are required to counter loneliness, to bring consolation and to share in each other’s joys.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 8 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to teach one of our teenage class sessions at Rimon. This particular class is a very engaged and thoughtful group. I facilitated an exercise with them, I shared a statement of theology or belief and if they strongly agreed they would stand on one side of the room, if they strongly disagreed they would stand on the other side of the room. If they weren’t certain they stood in the middle. After a few rounds I shared the statement I was most curious about “I believe in God”. One student went to the “strongly agree” side of the room, one went to the “strongly disagree” side of the room, and the rest found themselves somewhere in the middle. We spoke about this one for about 10 minutes and through the conversation I learned that all of the students believe in some sort of higher power, in a greater force that acts in this world but each of them understood God differently. Most stated that they don’t believe in the God as presented in the Torah, a God of creation who is capable of reward or punishment though many of them think (hope) that God is capable of providing healing. The next statement I shared was “Studying Torah is one of the most important parts of being Jewish.” Every single student went to the “Strongly Agree” side of the room. How wonderful! In their own words, the students shared that Torah gives them a sense of history, it connects them with past generations, it teaches important lessons and values. I was inspired by this group of young people and their open conversation, they had clarity about their relationship with the past and with our texts and a connection to but questions about God. I was reminded of a famous text from the Talmud, “The Oven of Akhnai”. It is a text often studied in progressive Judaism as it emphasis the sacred importance of human conversation.   

The Oven of Akhnai is one of my favourite passages from the Talmud, it is from Bava Metzia 59a. It is a story that comes in the midst of a conversation around keeping an over ritually pure. If the oven becomes impure one can purify it by breaking it into pieces and then placing the pieces back together, with a cement like substance between each piece. Rabbi Eleazer has an idea, if an oven is purified by breaking it into pieces and then putting those pieces back together with mortar between the pieces, then could it be possible to create an oven that could never be deemed impure by placing together with mortar many small pieces, instead of having one large oven.  

If you’re confused then you are in good company, like much of the Talmud the halachik discussions are full of complicated minutiae. It’s not important that you understand Rabbi Eliezar’s argument, what is important is that you understand that Rabbi Eleazar was trying to convince the Talmudic sages who were making decisions about the community, kind of like the counsel  of Talmudic times, that his argument was valid and should be followed. Here is the text:  

On that day, when they discussed this matter, Rabbi Eliezer answered all possible answers in the world to support his opinion, but the Rabbis did not accept his explanations from him. After failing to convince the Rabbis logically, Rabbi Eliezer said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, this carob tree will prove it. The carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, and some say four hundred cubits. The Rabbis said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from the carob tree. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the stream will prove it. The water in the stream turned backward and began flowing in the opposite direction. They said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from a stream. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the walls of the study hall will prove it. The walls of the study hall leaned inward and began to fall. Rabbi Yehoshua scolded the walls and said to them: If Torah scholars are contending with each other in matters of halakha, what is the nature of your involvement in this dispute? The Gemara relates: The walls did not fall because of the deference due Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten because of the deference due Rabbi Eliezer, and they still remain leaning. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, Heaven will prove it. A Divine Voice emerged from Heaven and said: Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion? Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: It is written: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of the phrase “It is not in heaven” in this context? Rabbi Yirmeya says: Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a Divine Voice, as You already wrote at Mount Sinai, in the Torah: “After a majority to incline” (Exodus 23:2). Since the majority of Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, the halakha is not ruled in accordance with his opinion. The Gemara relates: Years after, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time, when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration? Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.  

(Non-gendered God language has been used to reflect an honest translation of the Talmud.)  

Time and time again the rabbis are shown that God agrees with Rabbi Eleazar, (the waters flow backwards, the tree is uprooted, a heavenly voice comes down!) but in the end it is the discussions and decisions of the people that are more important than the will of God.   

Though our thoughts and opinions may be divinely inspired, this text reminds us that what we are doing within community is sacred work, as humans we hold the responsibility of creating and maintaining an ethical framework.  It is not in heaven that the rules of the community are decided it is the work of humans to look through the details of how a community functions and to decide how our sacred text and traditions will be manifest in our communities. It is not in heaven, it is here, in the halls and rooms of the LJS and in any room where Jewish individuals come together to discuss, plan and commit ourselves to Torah in all its many forms. 

Shabbat Shalom

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 1 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A seventeen year old boy, his mother dead, his father an old man to whom he is close, is sold to people traders, slave owners, by his own brothers, and is taken to a foreign country where he is trafficked to a soldier in the king’s army.  He works hard and is given responsibility and authority over the household.  The man is often away from home and soon the man’s wife sets her sights on the young teenager, tries to get him to sleep with her and one day, takes hold of him saying, ‘Lie with me!’  The boy escapes, leaving his garment in her hand.  Outraged, she calls her husband and accuses the boy of trying to rape her.  His master has the boy thrown into prison and there he languishes for a long time.

This is the story of Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel – the first individual in the Hebrew Bible we know to be trafficked by people smugglers from Judah into Egypt and then sold into slavery to Potiphar and his wife.

I have thought about this story, its initial similarities and then the stark and tragic differences between Joseph’s ultimate success and the thirty-nine individuals trafficked into the UK and found dead inside a freezer container just one week ago.

We do not know all the details: why these young men and women left their homes in the first place, making the long, costly, precarious and unknown journeys to Europe. Why would someone leave parents and family, homeland and everything that is familiar and risk losing their lives if not for reasons that are quite desperate?  Why did our own grandparents or great-grandparents leave their homes for England or Ireland or the United States?  They saw no future for themselves under oppressive regimes, their lives blighted by poverty and hardship.  Perhaps it is freedom or the urgent need for money, for meaningful work and the possibility of a brighter future that gives individuals the motivation to undertake such long and frightening journeys, their families mortgaging land and movables for tens of thousands of pounds.

These young people – if they came from Vietnam – had risked everything, including tragically their lives, in order to make it into this country.  Did they know the kind of work they might have ended up in?  In cannabis farms, in nail bars, perhaps even in prostitution and sex work?

Some people’s lives are so desperate that they would rather make these perilous journeys, knowing the difficulty of entering Western Europe, than stay where they are.  Nearly 18,000 people have drowned crossing seas and trying to enter other countries since 2014.

The death of these 39 women and men is tragic.  Tragic in that a journey that began with hope has ended in irreversible catastrophe.  Such tragedies have been more apparent to all of us since the three year old Syrian child of Kurdish ethnic background, Alan Kurdi, was found face down on a beach after he drowned in the Mediterranean.

This world in which we live is one of uncertainty and doubt; it engenders a feeling of unease in a place that has unlearnt the customs of hospitality.  And we bear a responsibility for this unlearning, for this environment of suspicion and lack of interest in the lives of individuals who only wish for freedom – to go where they wish to go, to live where they wish to live, to speak with truth what they believe, to love with honesty and openness.

The lives of these individuals, their aspirations and hope, came into tragic conflict with the limitations and demands of a world that is fundamentally hostile to asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.

As Noah and his family and the animals he has saved emerge from the Ark in this week’s parashah, God rethinks the guidelines he has given to humanity and adds this law for Noah and his descendants:

                Whoever sheds the blood of human beings,

                By humanity shall his blood be shed;

                For in God’s image

                Did God make human beings (Genesis 9:6).

Human life, the life of all creatures, says God, is precious; I will now bind myself to you in an everlasting covenant and promise never again to destroy the earth and all flesh by the waters of a flood. God sees the grandeur of each human spirit, the preciousness of each human life.  And that is what it means for all human beings to be created in God’s image.  Our deeds, our words and actions have repercussions and when we lose our faith in a God who has created us in the divine image, we lose that sense and acknowledgement of the nobility and dignity of the human spirit, the body that encases it and the obligations that fall on us and the countries in which we live, to ensure that such tragedies will never happen again.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 25 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Any end must be followed by a new beginning – such is the hope embedded in our tradition. This week we celebrated Simchat Torah, which marks several ends and beginnings. After a 22 day chain of festivals, we observed the end of a Jewish marathon of individual and communal reflection, and marked the beginning of a new calendar and agricultural year. After a year-long journey through weekly Torah portions, we marked the completion of the annual cycle of the Torah reading and acknowledged the beginning of the new one. After many years of Moses’ leadership, we read about the end of his life, and the beginning of Joshua’s term as a leader of the Jewish people.

In his new book ‘Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope’, Johann Hari offers a personal perspective on depression and anxiety. Hari selects concepts that explain some aspects of depression and its causes. He interviews and summarises research of many scholars who have uncovered evidence for nine different causes of depression. Some are in our biology, but most can be found in the way we live today. Among these causes are: disconnection from meaningful work, disconnection from other people, disconnection from meaningful values, and disconnection from a hopeful and secure future. I don’t think any of the book’s points are new, nevertheless they remain important and worth speaking about.

Perhaps the Jewish community might offer a solution to some of them. Liberal Judaism takes the position that Jewish tradition must keep in tune with modern and relevant trends to remain meaningful to modern society. The Jewish way of living is a spiral. Each year we begin a new old journey, developing a new circuit of our lives. Each year we begin with a new Creation and, therefore, articulate a new hope. It helps us to find meaning in life, support from our community, and stability in today’s world.

As Progressive Jews, it is our responsibility to develop and defend Judaism which offers people a medium for meaningful life and meaningful values, connection to a community of caring people, and the sense of a helpful and secure future. As we begin the new cycle of the Torah reading, let us not forget that any end must be followed by a new beginning, such is the hope embedded in our tradition.

Shabbat Shalom

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 18 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

On the first day of Sukkot, my colleague, 77 year old Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, taking part in the Extinction Rebellion protests, wearing a tallit and carrying a lulav and etrog in his hand, was arrested outside the Bank of England.  A passionate campaigner on the climate emergency, it was distressing to see him carried away by the police, who wrested the lulav and etrog from his hand so that it dropped carelessly to the ground.

This action affected me deeply. It was a stark reminder that so many were willing to put their lives, their bodies and their liberty on the line for the sake of the future of our planet.  As George Monbiot said, in the moments before he was arrested on Wednesday:

‘At the moment we are facing the destruction of life on earth, the destruction of our life support systems; so to stand up against that destruction, I feel, is our human duty. By being arrested in defence of the living planet, I feel I can look my children, and maybe one day my grandchildren in the eye. This feels exactly the right place to be, under arrest for trying to defend life on earth.’

‘It’s not OK,’ said Rabbi Newman as he was lifted off the ground by two policeman and we knew what that meant.  This wanton destruction of the earth, capitalisation through investment in fossil fuel industries, our moral distance and ignorance of what is happening, not only in our own hemisphere, but thousands of miles away, where it is the poorest of the world, whose impact on the climate is small, but who suffer most from  environmental breakdown – thousands of refugees who seek refuge from the climate chaos in places such as Somalia, Mozambique, Bangladesh, the Caribbean, Central America and many other parts of the world.

A curious thing is happening, not for the first time in our public spaces.  Seeing Rabbi Newman on the first day of the festival, walking with the ritual objects of Sukkot and wearing his tallit reminded me of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words that prayer should be a ‘radical, subversive act.’  Prayer and ritual are no longer confined to the home and the synagogue, but – like the civil rights movement in the United States for which Heschel marched – it has been moved into the public space, beyond the walls of our religious institutions.

Dr Susanna Heschel, wrote of her father on his return from the non-violent civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama:

‘When he came home from Selma in 1965, my father wrote, ‘For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.’’

An early Aramaic chronicle of significant days in the Jewish calendar demonstrates the power of protesting in a public space in this account about Caligula who had sent an idol to be placed in the Temple.  This shocking news reached Jerusalem on the eve of Sukkot.  Shimon Ha-Tzaddik instructed the Jews to go out and stand before the soldiers of the Roman Empire.   In every city throughout Judea, they stood in their numbers to confront the Emperor’s emissary and cried out, ‘We will die before we accept this decree.’  They lay down in the market places in sackcloth and ashes.  When a letter arrived announcing Caligula’s assassination, the idol was immediately taken down and dragged through the streets and Shimon Ha-Tzaddik heard a voice from the Holy of Holies that said: ‘The worship of idols in the Temple is nullified. Caligula has been slain and his decrees nullified.’  And the same day was declared a Yom Tov (Megillat Ta’anit 11.9).

Before this month of Tishri with its festivals of judgement, atonement and rejoicing is over, I know I must take my prayers out of the Sanctuary and into a public place.  I am frightened that my own inaction has rendered me complacent and paralysed by helpless distress.

If we care about the future our children and – please God – our grandchildren are going to inherit, then if we can, we need to take our prayers across the threshold of our interior spaces and outside into a public place.  Prayer is political; it has always been thus, from the moment that Moses hesitated at the Sea of Reeds to utter a supplication to God.  What are you doing, says God, get up and move on!

Shabbat Shalom and may the closing festival of Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah be a time we turn away from despair and embrace an uplifting hope for the future.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 11 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

I feel so grateful and honoured to have spent the Days of Awe within our community. For me personally, and I do hope for you as well, the worship experiences of the last two weeks have been deep and moving, made even more powerful by being surrounded by our community. This was my second Yom Kippur at the LJS, but I had only just started before last year’s festival season. I was moved this year to look out from the Bimah and to see your faces, having had the immense honour of getting to know you better over the last year. Thank you for sharing your life and faith with me. What we have at the LJS really is very special.

To think about all the people who worked tirelessly to bring it all together! From the office team to the Shammashim, the stewards, Karen Newman who projected the sermons, our teachers who led art activities upstairs, and everyone who attended either at the synagogue or through streaming, adding their voices to the community prayers.

Since the closing of the service of Yom Kippur, I have been thinking about the small Jewish community in Halle Germany. Like us, they too had joined together in prayer, with their community, having readied themselves for a Day of Atonement and spiritual renewal. Like us, they were engaging in peaceful prayer and working towards being better. Until their prayers were brutally interrupted by a right-wing extremist who attempted to break into the synagogue, killing two innocent individuals, all with a camera live streaming mounted on his head. He filmed himself before the attack, identifying himself as a Holocaust denier and blamed “the Jew” for the worlds problem.

The security plan that this synagogue in Halle had set up kept them safe, though the attacker shot repeatedly at the door and threw several Molotov cocktails he was not able to force himself in. There were 70-80 people gathered in the synagogue, after hearing the shots they saw the attacker trying to get in through the security camera.

Only hours after the attack we sat in our synagogue and joined together in the Mussaf service. A service honouring those whose lives have been cut short only because they were Jewish, because hatred and fear of the other is violent and dangerous and is too familiar to us as a people. I think about the words of Claude Montefiore that we read during the Mussaf service, “It was not an ibn Gabirol or a Maimonides, still less a Spuinoza, who fulfilled the Jewish mission most truly, or rendered the greatest service to the Jewish cause. No. It was the many little obscure Jewish communities through the ages, persecuted and despised, who kept alive the flame of the purest Monotheism and the supremacy and divisiveness of the moral Law.” We still do not know many details about the victims or how many others were injured. We hold their bereaved families, and this terrified community in our prayers.

We are grateful to the CST and to our own security team at the LJS who ensures our security as we come together in prayer and study.

May this new year be one of safety for us and all people. May we find ourselves in a world of greater tolerance and love, and may this day come soon.

Shanah Tovah,

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 4 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

During the month of Ellul, preceding Rosh Hashanah, a colleague and dear friend ran three online sessions from her home in the States on Musar literature – a genre of Jewish teaching and literature that Rabbi Bahya ibn Pakuda in the eleventh century calls ‘the science of inner life.’  Musar focuses on ways in which we can practise moral discipline and attempt to overcome our ‘weaker’ qualities.  How can we cultivate our own sense of dignity and self-worth? How can we overcome persistent anger or resentment? How can we become more patient, more tolerant and more forgiving of others? And so there is a practical and pious (I admit the word has awkward connotations in our own time) dimension to the application of Musar.

There were four students, an intimate group, all speaking to each other via our computer or smart phones using the technology ‘Zoom’.  Apart from receiving the wisdom of my colleague with teachings that had been sent to us in advance, it was so lovely to feel connected to her in these days leading up to the festivals and, of course, to be searching our own souls; refining – if you like – the traits that are part of us seemed supremely important as we considered the days of repentance before us.

She presented us with texts on three ‘virtues’ over the three weekly sessions we were together: Anavah (humility), Hakarat ha-Tov (gratitude) and Menuchat ha-Nefesh (equanimity – ‘rising above the good and bad’).

Setting us some daily ‘homework’ to reflect on these qualities, she allowed us to reflect on our own traits, on how we had spent our week, whether we had been able to ‘practise’ or at least think about the way we are with ourselves and with others.

One of the most famous tracts of Musar literature is named after a woman – Tomer D’vorah – ‘The Palm Tree of Deborah’ by the sixteenth century kabbalist and scholar, Moses Cordovero.  Cordovero opens the first of the ten chapters of his book with a phrase by phrase interpretation of Micah 7:18-20 – these are the verses that conclude the Haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah, this Shabbat.  The first part begins with the famous verses from Hosea: ‘Return, O Israel, to the Eternal One your God…’ (Hosea 14:2).

This Shabbat, in the middle of the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah – the Ten Days of Repentance, the message is not only Hosea’s exhortation to repent, but God’s readiness to forgive:

‘Who is a God like You,

Forgiving iniquity, passing over transgression;

You do not cling to Your anger with the remnant of Your people,

Because you delight in showing love!’ (Micah 7:18)

Cordovero sees in these words divine attributes – endless kindness, forgiveness, willingness to let go of anger, love and patience.  These, he says, are the attributes of our Divine Creator and these are the moral and spiritual qualities to which we should aspire. We may cling to our anger, but God does not. Even if a person fails to repent of their sins, God neutralises or nullifies divine fury with mercy and love and the expectation of repentance.

It is hard to let go of anger and hurt.  Yet, this is what Yom Kippur demands of us.  In our short-tempered world, we have to swim against the current of impatience with forgiveness, forgetfulness even, with a sense that we can let go and stop bearing grudges or feeling victimised.

How hard it is when the words we hear around us are not always tender, kind or forgiving.  How hard to be patient when our attention span grows weaker the more technology tests and assaults our perseverance; how hard to love and be loved; how difficult to show gratitude, to practise humility and cultivate that sense of equanimity in our own souls.

We need a week of Yom Kippur, a month, a retreat of silence, an escape away from the chaotic uncertainties of our lives and the political landscape we live in.

Can we forgive iniquity; can we be forgiven?  Can we pass over the transgression of others and let go of our anger?  As we enter these days of holiness, help us O God to be like You, delighting in showing love and gratitude and remaining true and faithful to our Judaism, to the Jewish people and the teachings of our faith, as You, O God showed ‘faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham… from days of old’ (Micah 7.20).

Shabbat Shalom and Chatimah Tovah – May you be inscribed for a  healthy and peaceful year of 5780.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 27 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

As a Liberal Rabbi, I believe in development and critical approach to religion and life. Knowing the past helps me to navigate in the uncertainty of the present. As bestselling writer and historian Yuval Harari put it: ‘The cold hand of the past… grips us by the neck and directs our gaze towards a single future. We have felt that grip from the moment we were born, so we assume that it is a natural and inescapable part of who we are. Therefore we seldom try to shake ourselves free, and envision alternative futures.’ (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, p. 59) There are only few days left before Rosh Hashanah – the day of hearing awakening shofar blasts, the day when we remember the creation of humanity, the day when we begin a journey of reflection, the day of hope for forgiveness, a better future, and inner peace.

This week, I decided to spend a day of learning about leaders of Liberal Judaism and their thoughts. I came across a Rabbi John Rayner lecture given at the Carmel College on 19 August 1957. In this lecture, Rabbi Rayner expressed key values of Liberal Judaism. He wrote:

‘Liberal Judaism values truth above tradition, freedom above authority, and sincerity above uniformity. It reverences Jewish tradition, but not in an uncritical way. It holds that it is the duty of every generation so to develop the tradition that it may always be compatible with the best contemporary thought and appropriate to the best contemporary life, or, which is another way of putting it, that it may always be intellectually acceptable, spiritually satisfying and practically efficacious. It is not a rebellion against Judaism but an attempt to rescue it; it does aim to weaken Judaism but to strengthen it; it is not motivated by dislike for Judaism, but by a profound and passionate love. Without it Jewish scholarship would be poorer, Jewish-Christian relations less happy, and thousands of Jews would have been lost. Without it there would be no hope for the Jewish future’

The lecture was given over 60 year ago, but the Liberal Jewish values remain the same. The wisdom of our tradition teaches us to reflect on our past so we could begin the New Year with a sense of direction. I wish all of us to spend the upcoming 5780 year with a deep sense of hope and integrity and to live our lives full of truth, freedom and sincerity.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tovah,

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 20 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

‘Blessed shall be… your produce from the soil, the offspring from your cattle, your calving from the herd and your lambing from the flock.  Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl’ (Deuteronomy 28:4-5).

These verses, from the weekly parashah Ki Tavo, come from a longer section of blessings, promised to Israel if they are faithful in their observance of the commandments enjoined upon them by God.  Fourteen verses describing the blessings are followed by fifty-three verses of curses that will punish the people if they fail to keep the commandments.

In a simplistic way, one might argue that the incontinence of western populations, our avarice and sense of entitlement, our consumption of the planet’s resources, the creation of an unconscionably wide gap between rich and poor, the shockingly uneven distribution of food in the world and here, even in our own wealthy country, are the results of living without a clear moral compass.  We have brought these curses upon ourselves.  How have we got ourselves into this mess?

On Monday, Rabbi Igor Zinkov, Tim Simon – the Chairman of our Yom Kippur Appeal Committee  – and I met with Clare Gilboa, the UK Development Director for Leket Israel.  Leket is the LJS’s Yom Kippur Israeli charity this coming year and you will hear more about it on Yom Kippur itself.

It is Israel’s national food bank with a significant difference.  Unlike food banks here in Britain which provide non-perishable food to families and individuals, Leket Israel took a policy decision in 2017, to provide only fresh fruit, vegetables and freshly cooked meals for those who need it.  The whole exercise of rescuing Israel’s surplus food – cooked and fresh, no tins or packets – is massive.

35% of food harvested and produced in Israel is wasted. That figure is similar in the USA and the UK.  In hotels, supermarkets, army bases, at catered events, there is a wild tendency to overproduce and over-cater.  Leket feeds 17.5 thousand people each week – a high proportion of whom are working families, Shoah survivors, the elderly, Arab, Ethiopian, Druze, Bedouin and Russian families.  Leket work with non-profit organisations, getting the food to them in a time sensitive way, so that it doesn’t go off.  The NPOs then distribute it in various areas.

The challenges of food banking – overseeing the quality of the food, ensuring that supply meets demand, health and food safety and the long-term need, are all dealt with at an operational and logistical level by employees, and also by 52,000 volunteers.

The idea of children and adults going hungry is anathema.  And yet, the Trussell Trust in the UK reports a 19% increase on last year in distribution of food through their food banks.  1.6 million three day emergency food supplies were distributed between 1 April 2018 and 31 March, 2019.

To find out how we have got here and what is driving this relentless increase, please join us for a panel discussion this Saturday evening 21st September at 6.30 pm at the LJS, with Professor Geraldine van Bueren QC, Professor Human Rights Law at Queen Mary University, Dr Anna Isaacs, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Food Policy at City University, London and Garry Lemon, Director of Policy, External Affairs and Research at the Trussell Trust.

Is there some symbolic truth that emerges from the list of blessings and curses that make up this week’s Torah portion? Not that God as an omnipotent force for good or evil rewards or punishes, but that we must be held accountable and responsible for bringing this catastrophic situation to pass.

Food sustainability is part of the larger picture that has to do with how we are living on our burning planet.  As Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal puts it: ‘…the factors that are destroying our planet are also destroying people’s lives in many other ways, from wage stagnation to gaping inequalities to crumbling services to surging white supremacy to the collapse of our information ecology.’

By ourselves, we cannot extinguish the fire; we cannot create equity among all peoples, but we need to engender in ourselves a sense of urgency and join the worldwide movements and younger generations who are crying out for all of us to join the climate strike this Friday and to grasp at this last chance for change and transformation of the toxic model we have been living with for too long.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 13 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Next Friday September 20th there will be a global school climate strike. This strike is in part is inspired by Greta Thunberg, the 15 year old teenager who began her School Strike for Climate in August 2018.

Talking about the need for action, Thunberg said, ‘In Sweden, we live our lives as if we had the resources of 4.2 planets. Our carbon footprint is one of the ten worst in the world. This means that Sweden steals 3.2 years of natural resources from future generations every year. Those of us who are part of the future generations would like Sweden to stop doing that. Right now. This is not a political text. Our school strike has nothing to do with party politics. Because the climate and the biosphere don’t care about our politics and our empty words for a single second.’

I have heard similar concerns in conversations with our young people at the LJS where I listened to their fears about the future, and witnessed their resolute passion to take part in enduring change. They are not alone. On that Friday, young people will take the day off school and make their way to London where they will demand policy changes to protect their future. Many schools, unions and organisations will be supporting the strike, and adults are encouraged to support these young people who together will join the millions around the world protesting that day.

The issue could not be more important. It affects us all. And it’s going to take a lot of people getting together and making their voices heard to wake up our leaders and get them to take the urgent actions needed to address the crisis we find ourselves in.

This call to protect our environment is a theme throughout our sacred texts. In last week’s Torah portion, in the midst of a discussion on the ethics of war, we are given this teaching:

‘When in your war against a city, you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the axe against them, You may eat of them, but you may not cut them down.’ (Deuteronomy 20:19)

The trees are independent entities from those who live around them, who rest in their shade, who eat from them. And the Israelites are commanded to protect them.

This lesson, that we should not use our power and abilities to take advantage or unnecessarily do damage to our natural world, is present in our texts; biblical, Mishnaic, Talmudic, Midrashic and contemporary.

We do not own the Earth, we are commanded to live in partnership with it. This sentiment is shared in Psalm 24:

‘The earth is Adonai’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants.’

Our Torah shares the narrative that the natural world was created and that God showed Adam all of the wonders of the world and put the responsibility on him to maintain it.

As Kohelet Rabbah 7:13:1 shares:

‘At the time that the Holy One created the first man, He introduced him to every tree in the Garden of Eden, and said to him, ‘See how wonderful and pleasant these trees are. And all of this I have created for you; therefore take great care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you do there is no one else to put right what you have destroyed.’’

There is no-one else to put right what we have destroyed.

These teachings are painfully poignant today. May we all commit ourselves to doing what we can, to make small or large changes in the way that we are living, to ensure that we are acting as God’s partner as we forge a relationship of care and protection with our natural world.

I will be joining the strike with my children on the 20th to let our young people know that their LJS family is behind them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 6 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Between 1st Ellul and Rosh Hashanah, and some go as far as Hoshanah Rabbah – the day preceding Shemini Atzeret – it is customary to read Psalm 27, the Psalm that begins with the words ‘The Eternal One is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?’

It is not an ancient custom and can be dated back only to the year 1745 when Rabbi Jacob Emden, the German scholar and polemicist published his Siddur Bet Yaakov.  Various theories are given as to why this Psalm was chosen for this time of year – the period of the year when we prepare ourselves spiritually for the Yamim Nora’im and begin the journey of returning to God.

One theory suggests that the Psalm was chosen because it mentions the name of God 13 times – perhaps a veiled reference to the 13 attributes of God in Exodus 34, a passage sung before the open ark at the High Holy Days – Adonai, Adonai el rachum v’chanun – ‘The Eternal, the Eternal God is merciful and gracious, endlessly patient, loving and true, showing mercy to thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon.’

Another theory is based on a midrash which expounds the first verse in this way:  The Eternal One is my light – on Rosh Hashanah.  And my salvation – on Yom Kippur.

A more recent explanation highlights the Hebrew word at the beginning of verse 13 lulé – which means ‘if only’ – “If only I shall look on the goodness of the Eternal One.” In the Masoretic text, the word is dotted – a hint that in reverse the word spells Elul, the month we are now in.

More simply, it is a Psalm which addresses our fears  – the madness of the world on our own doorstep and further afield.  It encourages us to look, not for external help to contain our anxiety and distress, but for the strength that is in each one of us, that comes from the faith of our heart.  It tells us not to be stirred up by hysteria or hyperbole, but to search out the beauty of the world: ‘One thing only do I ask of God: to dwell in the house of the Eternal One all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Eternal God, and to seek God in the sanctuary.’

It is a Psalm about resisting evil and finding resilience in ourselves, a Psalm about how we speak to and about each other; it’s about trust and finding strength in times of affliction.  It’s about music and longing; about the fear of God’s hiddenness, of being abandoned; it’s about morality in a bewildering world and it’s about doubt: ‘If only I could trust that I shall see the goodness of the Eternal One in the land of the living.’

And in a world where truth and righteousness have been abandoned, it’s about patience, courage and hope, not that the world will revert to an old order, but that we will learn to adapt with honesty to something new, a new connection with each other and with the universe.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

 

To download our Calendar of Repentance for the second week of the month of Ellul, please click HERE.

To download last week’s calendar, please click HERE.

Thought for the Week

Friday 13 March 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

I have been thinking of you all over the last few weeks as our city and our world becomes ever more infected by Coronavirus. I’m certain many of us are feeling very fearful, spending our days reading the news to try to understand how this will all unfold for us, our loved ones, and our human family.

I’m reminded of the story that I shared during Rosh Hashanah of last year.

In the Talmud, Yevamot 121a we find this haunting account of Rabban Gamliel observing his student, Rabbi Akiva, in the midst of trauma:

Rabban Gamliel said: Once I was travelling on a boat, and from a distance, I saw another boat that shattered and sank. And I was grieved over the death of the Talmid Chacham, the learned student who was on board…It was Rabbi Akiva. But then when I came ashore and stepped foot onto dry land, I found him there, sitting and teaching Torah! “My son!” I said to him, “How did you survive?” He said to me, “A plank from the boat floated past me, I clung to it, and then I greeted each crashing wave that came with a nod.”

What a powerful image; Rabbi Akiva, clinging to a floating plank from the shattered boat, greeting wave, after wave, after wave crashing on him with a nod.

Right now we are nodding at the waves, unsure of how they are going to crash or of when the next one will come. But we must cling to the planks around us and feel a firm grip on them.

I hope that our LJS community can continue to be a plank that helps you to feel afloat as the uncertain waves come. Please do reach out to me, to Rabbi Alex, Rabbi Igor or Community Care Coordinator Aviva Shafritz if you are in need of support. It is essential that we do not let social distancing become social isolation. For those in our community who are choosing to stay distanced from large gatherings or from the synagogue building, please know you continue to be a part of the community. Reach out to staff, reach out to one another. Whether you are in need of an extra loo roll, some food dropped off or a listening ear to share your fears, let us be the planks for one another in the weeks ahead.

There is a well known Hasidic text from Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the important thing is not to frighten yourself” You may know of this text as it is a popular Jewish song, “Kol Haolam kulo, gesher tzar meod.” As we move forward, day by day, in these uncertain times, let us not cling to our fears but instead cling to our community to find the support that we need to nod at the waves.

We will get through this together.

As ever,

Shabbat Shalom,

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 6 March 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

I am in the local supermarket standing in front of the almost empty shelves wondering whether I am going to deprive the next person of furnishing their bathroom requirements over the next few weeks and months.  There is part of me that cannot imagine the consequences of an epidemic of coronavirus in this country and another part that is apprehensive about the consequences of such a pandemic.  The loo paper goes into my basket and I am pricked with guilt.  By the time I get to the check-out, I have gifted it to my son, and by the time I’m home, I’ve given it away to needy congregants.  It seems absurd, I have given in to the fear that drives us to stock-pile for the day we cannot leave our homes, cannot go to work, school or college, the day the Houses of Parliament are closed down and we find ourselves in ‘lock-down.’

Every cough and sneeze are suspect.  We are right to fear for those who are vulnerable in our community, particularly the elderly and those whose immune systems are compromised.  At the LJS, we have taken precautions, we are following the daily updates from Public Health England, we are urging people to wash their hands and observe not just the etiquette, but the necessity of scrupulous hygiene.

No one wants to see loved ones suffering from coronavirus or the health service collapsing under the burden of an exponential growth of cases.  Who wants to see businesses folding, the economy weakening because of this scare?

And yet, there is something curious and different about these days.  The shops are quiet, the roads seem empty, as though there is a retreat away from the public sphere.  Has our instinct for self-preservation kept us at home, away from large gatherings, open-plan offices, sports fixtures, parties and places where we will feel exposed to the possibility of catching the virus?  And there is a sober accounting of each victim of the diagnosis.  The truth matters; there can be no distortion or hoaxing when life and death are at stake.

This Shabbat, many synagogues will read an additional Torah portion from Deuteronomy 25:17-19:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt –  how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all of the stragglers lagging behind you… you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.  Do not forget!

These two verses draw our attention to Israel’s arch enemy, the Amalekites, who attacked them when they were at their most vulnerable, just after they had left Egypt. The verses are read on the Shabbat before Purim, reminding us that Amalek, the king of the Amalekites was an ancestor of Haman.  Esther and Mordechai’s defeat of Haman is a form of poetic justice, not only against the Amalekites, but their descendants, the Agagites of the Book of Samuel (also ancestors of Haman), whom Saul (an ancestor of Mordechai) had failed to take down completely when instructed by Samuel.  (Yes, it’s all a bit complicated!)

This coronavirus has surprised us, caught us unawares at a time when we are weary with so many different battles that have come into the playing field: Brexit, the climate catastrophe, austerity and poverty, homelessness, the cutting of resources to the most vulnerable, including children – what kind of policy is it that stops families collecting child benefit for their third, fourth or fifth child?

We are exhausted by a relentless quest for materialism and famished now for something that lies beyond the physical – the need to search for and speak the truth, to correlate the inner and outer parts of ourselves.

If we face a pandemic over the next few months, our leaders will need to guide us with equilibrium, common sense and complete honesty.  And we will need to find the inner strength to help those who are really susceptible to this virus, to ensure that they are not defeated by fear and loneliness, to balance caution with regard to our own health with a sensible and compassionate concern for others.  And that includes, as Rabbi Igor said last week, ensuring that those from Asia are not stigmatised or attacked, as one young student from Singapore was beaten up last week, allegedly because of the virus.

It would be a sad reflection to see the world turning because of our fear of this virus, but in a peculiar way, I am hoping it is not only my imagination or wishful thinking that senses the possibility of change in our society and politics.

Purim is furious – carnivalesque, an upside-down world of injustice, revenge and obduracy. The LJS is doing something different on Monday night with our remarkable guest speakers, Lord (Alf) Dubs, Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, Dr Eliane Glaser, Dame Vivien Rose and Graham Carpenter, speaking about their personal narratives that led them to seek justice.  I think we will be inspired and comforted by their messages. Do please join us on Monday 9th March at 7:00pm and have a gentle and reflective Shabbat before then.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 28 February 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

Lately we have been hearing and reading a lot about the coronavirus. According to the World Health Organisation, diseases are named to enable discussion on disease prevention and treatment. Perhaps it is time for us to have a conversation about what Jewish thought has to say about illness and healing.

Some Jewish texts see God as the ultimate and the only Healer. According to Exodus 15:26, your health depends on whether you ‘heed The Eternal One your God diligently, doing what is upright in God’s sight.’ Similarly, King Asa of Judah was criticised because ‘in his illness he sought not God but rather physicians’ (II Chronicles 16:12). This position was supported by the prominent Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, who lived in 13th century Spain, known as Nachmanides or Ramban. In his commentary on Leviticus 26:11 Ramban talks about the distinct nature of Jewish people. He argues that the people of Israel prosper and suffer as a direct result of its success or failure in keeping God’s covenant.

I think most of us would be deeply uncomfortable with Nachmanides’ view. Many Rabbis from different times opposed such a radical approach too.

Ironically, Nachmanides himself was a physician and earned his living by giving medical advice. Another famous doctor and Jewish scholar Maimonides argued that one ‘who despise the aid of the physician and relies on God’s help, is like the hungry who despises bread and hopes that God will guard him’ (Introduction to Sefer Hakatzeret) Doctors, according to Maimonides, fulfil God’s task to heal others. Therefore, medicine in general and doctors in particular act as God’s agents.

Jews are commanded to take all reasonable action to protect human life and wellbeing. Talmudic Rabbis go further and advise a wise Jewish person to avoid living in a place where no physician is available. (Sanhedrin 17b). It is our human and religious responsibility to see doctors and follow the advice they are giving. Please make sure to read more about coronavirus, its symptoms and answers to common questions on the NHS website, here.

It may seem banal and obvious, but the human body and our health are gifts which we often take for granted. Coronavirus is a dangerous disease, but at the same time – it is a reminder never to neglect our health issues. It is also a reminder of one of the commandments from this week’s Torah portion – not to mistreat strangers. The virus started to spread from East Asia and now affects many parts of the world. As the news about the disease spread across the globe, it became associated with East-Asian people. As Jews we are commanded to love and respect the stranger because we know what it is like to be the blamed stranger. We should not allow anyone to use this outbreak as an opportunity to express any form of prejudice or xenophobia against others.

Perhaps, the Jewish community should be an exemplar of a community which takes high moral standards and realistic precautions against the virus. Perhaps, we could use this worrying time as a reminder to be grateful for the gift of a healthy life. According to the teachings of our tradition, we ought to take care, preserve and look after this gift – for us and the rest of the world.

Blessed be One Who Cures the sick
Baruch rofe holim
ברוך רופא חולים

Shabbat Shalom,

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 21 February 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

מָה רַבּוּ מַעֵשֶֽׂיךָ יְיָ 

‘How manifold are Your works, O God!’ 

We are standing in the middle of a grassy plain; a late summer rain has turned the dry red-earth savannah green providing timely food for the creatures that roam this part of the land and feed on its grass, trees and bushes. ‘A lot of the plants you are going to be looking at are going to remind you of home or possibly Scotland, and it’s what we call fynbos – these little plants with very fine leaves.  There’s a lot of different species out here.  We are on foot, moving slowly with two South African rangers, looking closely for clues of the animals that have trodden this path before us. 

In the distance, we are surrounded by trees and bushes – wild olives and the elephant bush, acacia with its spiky, long thorns, favoured by giraffes whose long tongues curl around the leaves; the baobab, also known as the ‘tree of life’, able to store more than 4,000 litres of water in its trunk, the Turpentine Tree with its butterfly shaped leaves, and hundreds more species, where insects and animals make their homes and feed on their fruit, leaves and bark. 

We move slowly towards the bush; the hills stretching as far as the eye can see, their backs a clear line against the blue sky, every termite mound deceiving the observer with its creaturely shape.  Far off in the distance, behind a row of bushes and trees, there is some movement.  It’s difficult to see that far, but the two rangers instinctively seem to divine the direction of traffic ahead. Through the binoculars, there is indeed something tramping slowly, its ears seen flapping through gaps in the bush.  The rangers move us quietly and slowly across the plain – we cannot be discovered on foot.  One moves off to find out which direction the herd is moving – for there is more than one, and more certainly than two or three. The bush no longer conceals them – their large, grey, criss-cross lined flanks are visible now to the naked eye, ears flailing, white tusks jutting out either side of their trunks.  Now they are moving in a long procession towards a water hole, stopping now and then to curl their trunks around the grass beneath their feet or pull the leaves from the trees and bring it up gently to their mouths. 

Patrick, the ranger who has brought us to the plain in the jeep, brings the vehicle to the water hole, where we clamber aboard, and within minutes we are rewarded with the slow appearance of twenty-four elephants, including a number of babies – one only 2 or 3 months old – who have come down to the water to drink, spray themselves with water, and splash about playfully.  There is a mock fight between two of the larger animals, whose tusks touch each other and, safely ensconced in the vehicle, where the elephants are oblivious of our watchful gaze, we sit in complete silence observing a scene of maternal affection, spirited adventure and teasing competition.  The elephants are enjoying themselves, the babies rolling on their sides and backs until cooled and caked in mud. 

‘Look at the shape of their ears,’ says Patrick later on, as we come across another herd, ‘they are the shape of Africa.’  A massive continent either side of their broad foreheads, flapping gently back and forth, the coastline slightly frayed, by fights perhaps?  Their slow, deliberate movements seem so benign and yet they can move at fast rates and their massive bulk evokes profound reverence and a sense somehow of their vulnerability – the animals that mourn their dead, that are at the mercy of poachers for their ivory tusks or expanding human populations and the loss of their habitat to agriculture. 

The image of the elephants stays with all of us – the playfulness, a faithful herd instinct that keeps them together, the immensity of their size.  Here in the bush, where the landscape stretches as far as the naked eye can see without the interruption of fields, roads or buildings, we are the guests among the watchful impala and water buck, the buffalo and antelope, the kudu with its large brown ears and long neck, the giraffes, watchfully still and nervous as they sense something more powerful even than themselves, the white rhinos, also endangered, hunted for their valuable horns, and two lion brothers lying in the late afternoon sun close to each other. 

‘How manifold are Your works, O God! With wisdom have You made them all; the world is full of Your creations.’  These are the words that come to mind as we observe the animals and birds native to this huge country, our hosts who tolerate our gaze and fearful wonder and whose presence reminds us of our impermanent tenancy on earth, the insignificance of our authority, our vulnerability and our responsibility to alter the destructive impact of our human existence on the earth. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 14 February 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

Over the last few weeks, I’ve read two memoirs of individuals raised within the ultra-Orthodox movement who transitioned into the more progressive Jewish world later in life. The first book is Becoming Evethe memoir of Abby Stein, a transgender woman who was born into a Hasidic family. Before her gender transition, Abby was a Hasidic rabbi, completely immersed in her insular community. Abby is a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov; her family is part of the Hasidic rabbinic dynasty. Abby was the sixth of thirteen children born to her parents and their first boy. Becoming Eve explores Abby’s earlier life, her first feelings of gender dysphoria, the loneliness that she experienced in living an inauthentic life as a boy. Her narrative voice is one of hope, while she explores the many challenges of her upbringing, including corporal punishment at school and a theology she couldn’t accept, she does so without anger. There is significant love expressed in her story, love for her family and her community, amidst the struggles. Reading her memoir allows us to share her experience of running towards a life outside of the Hasidic community.  

 

Her memoir is a fascinating insight into the Hasidic community; she details her experience in yeshiva, her engagement to someone she only met once, and her marriage. Very little of the book focuses on her life after her decision to leave the community and to transition. Rather, the vast majority of the book looks at her earlier years and explores her feelings of alienation, disconnection and at times depressive periods of loneliness. Her memoir is one of courage and strength. In the final chapters of the book Abby speaks briefly about the organisation Footsteps, that supports individuals leaving ultra-Orthodox communities. She credits this organisation for her well-being. If you’re interested in hearing more about Footsteps, you can watch this YouTube video by clicking here.  Abby is a central part of the video. As it was filmed before Abby’s gender transition, the video identifies her by her birth name Srully Stein’. If you’re interested in hearing more, click here for a video which shares Abby reflecting on her upbringing.

 

Simultaneously, I’ve read another memoir of an individual who left the ultra-Orthodox community titled Foreskin’s Lament by essayist and author Shalom Auslander. Auslander’s book also details his upbringing and the questions that he had starting at a very young age. Auslander’s voice is very different from Stein’s. Auslander uses humour to explore the complicated dynamics of his upbringing; his voice is full of anger and resentment. His memoir is powerful and beautifully written, often emotionally provocative. Stein’s memoir seems to be more of a running towards whereas Auslander’s memoir seems to be more of a running from.

 

Reading these narratives simultaneously brought forward a lot of questions around what it means to make a transition. In the midst of change what does it mean to be running towards and what does it mean to be running from? Though their voices are different, they both share periods of meaning and periods of struggle, moments of success in their journey and moments where the system they’ve created isn’t working. 

 

I’ve thought a lot about Moses and the Israelites and their narrative of freedom. In what ways are they running from and in what ways are they running towards? In this week’s parasha, Jethro observes Moses spending his waking hours hearing the troubles of his people. Jethro sees how depleted Moses has become and encourages him to share the leadership. So soon after the parting of the Sea and their jubilant songs of rejoicing, they are already coming up against struggles of figuring out their new normal. This is how transitions happen, with moments of joy and moments of challenge, with hope that what one is running towards is going to be life-giving and affirming, albeit by way of many hurdles. 

 

I’d recommend either of these books, they both share courageous stories of transitions and meaning-making.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 7 February 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

This has become my daily ritual.  To walk down the garden path and pause at the gate where, just to my right a magnolia tree has bound its buds tightly in a furry, green casing, like the catkins of pussy willows.  I stop in the cold for a few moments to touch their fine hairs, to marvel at their hardiness in the cold morning temperature and to regret their early appearance.  These are the flower buds. How long until their casing opens, allowing their pale pink blossom to be exposed to a late frost or torn to shreds by the force of a strong wind?  I will the tree to hold back a little longer and spare the season’s ruthless predations.

It has its own life, it exists in its own time; this tree with its slightly gnarled branches, giving birth to the upright elegance of its buds and blossom. And for a brief moment, I am drawn into a different time and place – into the rhythm of the earth and the things that grow in it.  It listens to the noises of the street, the cars that chase each other noisily up and down the tarmac; the hammering across the road where workmen are removing the plaster and bricks from inside a house – pulling down a wall, expanding the hall?  It watches the children run past the houses on their way to school in the morning; and in the evening sees them trudge with tired steps back to their homes.  It waits quietly while a young woman stops in front of it, her back turned to its branches, while she speaks on the phone to her friend, to a family member.

What does the tree make of this world?  What does it absorb through its roots deep in the earth?  And those velvety buds, so perfect in their formation, with their skin-tight encasement, what life-flow is it that channels upward through the branches into their darkness?

There it is, too, at night, silently breathing, listening, living, becoming what it will become in some weeks, with its rose flowers that will blossom in the spring sunshine.

In Israel, it is the almond blossom that flowers earlier than other trees, a signal that Tu Bi’Sh’vat, the New Year for Trees is soon.  It is this festival, celebrated on 15 Sh’vat (Monday 10 February) and on Tuesday evening at the LJS with our customary Seder – drawn from the sixteenth century kabbalistic practice of drinking four cups of wine and tasting fifteen different kinds of fruit – that links us to the seasons, to the earth and to trees: white wine or grape juice for winter, to which is added a drop of red for spring, darker rosé for summer and deep red for autumn.

Tu Bi’Sh’vat with its mystical customs and liturgy takes us on a contemplative, interior journey as we reflect on the world of the here and now, to the world of the highest emanation, the Source of all creation.

When we are drawn into the world of the tree, says Buber, it is no longer an object to us, but its movement, its colour and form, all inseparably fused into one, stands in relation to us, and we stand in relation to its reality, to its ‘tree-ness.’

For Buber, this unmediated and direct relationship with the tree is a paradigm for our relationship with each other.  The ‘I-Thou’ relationship is not a relationship of objectification; it is wholly reciprocal; nothing – no foreknowledge and therefore no prejudice – can intervene between one person and another; such an encounter is a moment of grace, as though all the varied strands that make up human existence are, for a brief moment, fused into one thread, one timeless moment of unity.

From our contemplation of the trees around us, to the meaningful and fruitful relationships that emerge from our encounter with others, emerges the third sphere in which we build a relationship – with that which is beyond the material world – with a glimpse of eternity, the mystery of the eternal ‘You.’

This is Buber – mysterious himself, complex, difficult – but offering something that can be healing to the broken spirit and the broken times in which we live; something that takes us beyond greed, materialism, ownership and oppression, to a place of grace, of nearness to God, of unity, hope and redemption.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 31 January 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

What is one to make of President Trump’s peace plan for Israel?  Delivered just days after presidents, princes and prime ministers assembled in Jerusalem at Yad Va-Shem, to mark the 75th anniversary since Soviet troops entered Auschwitz and ‘liberated’ a living remnant, Trump spoke from the White House, the Prime Minister of Israel by his side, to announce his ‘two-state solution.’

Israel was born in the shadow of the Shoah, three years after the world learnt of the depredations of Auschwitz, Sobibor, Mauthausen, Bergen-Belsen and countless other concentration and death camps.  It was to be a place of refuge, where displaced Jews, who had no home to return to in Europe, who had lost parents and children, brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins and whole generations who had perished in the unspeakable underworld of the camps, could make their home, find work, build families and live without threat or danger.  The new State would be built on the principles of ‘liberty, justice and peace as conceived by the Prophets of Israel; would uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of religion, race, or sex, would guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, education and culture; would safeguard the holy places of all religions…’

Many of us have wondered if the two-state ‘solution’ is still alive.  It may be in intensive care, says Dr Tony Klug, special advisor on the Middle East to the Oxford Research Group and a consultant to the Palestine Strategy Group and the Israel Strategic Forum, but there is no alternative. If there is to be peace, there needs to be two neighbouring governments, exercising sovereign control over their own territory and population.

But Trump’s peace plan, which envisages an opportunity for Palestinians ‘to achieve an independent state of their very own’ and would provide a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, forgets one crucial element.  Where is the Palestinian presence on Trump’s platform in the White House?  Where are the Palestinian voices?

How can Trump and Netanyahu, one facing impeachment, the other corruption charges, stand together with impunity and state, among other things, that Israel will effectively annexe part of the Palestinian territories? Can they not see, not only the lack of symmetry in such a proposal – a not-yet formed Palestinian state is given no absolute right to self-determination – but the grotesque, colonialist immorality of such a plan that will whittle away Palestinian territory?

No doubt there are political reasons for the timing and nature of Trump’s ‘peace plan’ and Netanyahu’s laudatory remarks towards his ally.  Which makes the UK government’s statement that it ‘welcomes’ the proposal an ill-judged response.

But perhaps we should not dismiss the ‘peace plan’ so lightly.  After all, didn’t the Rabbis teach that peace outweighs all other blessings, that peace dispels strife and discord, hatred and envy?  So perhaps it is better to have a peace plan in some shape or form than nothing at all.

But peace can only exist when and where it is supported by justice and truth – as the Mishnah says, Al sh’losha d’varim ha-olam kayam: al ha-din, v’al ha-emet, v’al ha-shalom – ‘The world rests on three pillars: justice, truth and peace’ (mAvot 1:1) and further on, ‘The sword enters the world because of justice delayed and justice denied’ (Avot 5:8).

Seeing the quiet dignity of those increasingly fewer survivors of the Shoah returning to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen in moving televised programmes this week, how can we be indifferent to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the millions of Palestinians who live there?  How can we conceive of a peace plan without two partners and without justice and truth on both sides of the equation?

Perhaps Mr Netanyahu, who is indicted for crimes of bribery and fraud, and for breach of trust, will stop and reflect on the Jewish prophetic values on which Israel was built and ask himself: how true is this peace-plan to the pursuit of justice and peace?  And how can peace be built without bringing on board the partner who, like Israel more than seventy years ago, aspires to independence and sovereignty over a small strip of land and its five million inhabitants.  And those of us, who grew up in the Diaspora, basking in Israel’s early achievements and aspirations, must consider our own responsibility as Jews in support of a state that carries a fundamental part of our identity as Jews.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 24 January 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

Moses and Aaron’s first meeting with Pharaoh does not go well.  Their demand to let the people go provokes a cruel response.  Dismissing the two men, the king bats away the ministers of this competing God with the words, ‘Who is Adonai that I should heed him and let Israel go?  I do not know Adonai, nor will I let Israel go’ (Exodus 5.2).  Do you think I’m going to dismiss the people from their labours, he says; and he instructs the overseers to double the Israelites’ workload – they must provide their own straw for the bricks and complete the same quota of bricks as when the straw had been provided.

Moses is stunned by this turn of affairs.  Did he think that Pharaoh would give him a positive answer immediately, saying, ‘Yes, of course, let the people go and let them take whatever they want with them to sustain in the wilderness?’  Was this the Pharaoh in whose house he had been raised?  The Pharaoh whose daughter had rescued him from the River Nile?  Seeing the sufferings of his people, beaten, exhausted, unable to keep up with the tasks given to them, he stands silently, while the overseers spit out insults towards him and his brother.

It seems poignantly appropriate to recall the harsh labour imposed on the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion, as we witness an international gathering of 40 heads of state and government in Jerusalem to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  The date, January 27th, was chosen by Germany in 1996, the UK in 2001 and by other nations, to mark Holocaust Memorial Day and to recall genocides that have taken place in other parts of the world since then.

On Thursday, a retired doctor from Leicestershire was interviewed on Radio 4’s World at One.  Martin Stern’s parents had fled from Germany to Amsterdam to escape the Nazis, because his Jewish father had married a non-Jewish woman.  His mother had died giving birth to his younger sister and the children were looked after by friends, the boy attending a little school until sent to a transit camp in the Netherlands at the age of five.  The living conditions and the food were miserable, he said, describing the late harvested runner beans with wooden splinters still in them where they had been split down the middle.

From the transit camp, he and his sister were taken to Terezin, the garrison town just to the north of Prague, renamed Theresienstadt by the Germans.  Jews were ‘stored there’, says Dr Stern, prior to their destruction and used as propaganda.  1,500 children ended up in Theresienstadt, very few survived.

He tells his story as though it happened yesterday, every tiny detail clear in his memory: on the day he arrived, he was shoved into a building and found himself among a lot of little boys.  ‘I kept pleading for food,’ he says in his interview; eventually, a young inmate, about eighteen years old who was charged with looking after the boys, ordered an eight year old child to take him into another room where he took an aluminium pan and a crumpled paper bag in which there were some rolled oats in the bottom.  ‘There was a stove in the middle of the room which was lit; the boy poured a teaspoon of rolled oats into the pan and then went to a sink, turned on a tap and a trickle of brown water came out which was added to oats to make some porridge.’ It was, he said, the most memorable meal he had ever had.

From the children’s dormitory, he was rescued by a Dutch woman called Catharina De Jong.  Martin and his little sister were to remain with her for the rest of the time they were in Theresienstadt.  She worked in the kitchens and so, although hungry, they never starved.

And meanwhile, trains were taking about 1,000 people at a time, including children to their deaths in extermination camps. And on each occasion, Martin and his sister escaped deportation, perhaps because they were in adult dormitories with Catharina, perhaps because there had been some correspondence between Theresienstadt and Amsterdam, where people had been trying to secure the children’s rescue and transport to Switzerland.

Dr Stern remained in Theresienstadt until after liberation by the Soviet Army because there was an outbreak of typhus and then travelled back in a perilous journey to the Netherlands in a convoy of army lorries.  The following day, he and his sister were ‘stolen’ by the family who had looked after his sister before their time in Theresienstadt.  Moving away from the woman who had saved him in Theresienstadt broke his heart.

He speaks in measured and thoughtful tones. Of course, he says, I feel anger towards the actions of the Nazis, ‘but I refuse to let my mind be occupied by anger at these very stupid people who did evil things because that only harms me.’

In his commentary to a verse in this week’s parashah, Rashi remarks on Moses’ reaction to Pharaoh’s cruelty.  He sees, says Rashi, that this turn of events has come about on account of his plea to Pharaoh to let the people go.  It’s his fault, but it’s also God’s fault. His reflex action is to return to the source of the trouble and exchange words with God:  ‘O God, why did You bring harm upon this people?  Why did you send me?’  Look how things have got so much worse for this people (Exodus 5.22-23).

For the Rabbis, the enslavement of the Israelites is the fulfillment of God’s words in Genesis: ‘Know that your descendants will be strangers in a land not theirs; they shall be enslaved and afflicted for four hundred years’ (Genesis 15.13).

How did individuals like Martin Stern find hope and faith in the future?  Like many who came to this country as young children and teenagers, there is a sense of deep gratitude for the education and opportunities received and the fulfilment of creating his own family, remembering the past, but not harbouring hatred or anger.  Of course, it is not like that for everyone – there are those who endure poverty, loneliness, the undying sense of loss of close family members and will always live with the trauma of having survived the unspeakable years of the Shoah.

We hold all these things in our mind as we mark Holocaust Memorial Day on Monday and pledge ourselves to eradicate the harm and evil that come from tribal hatred and violence.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 17 January 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, is mentioned only fourteen times in the Hebrew Bible  – eleven times in the Torah, only once in the prophets and twice in the Book of Chronicles, and one reference there is probably not to the Miriam in this week’s parashah, but another unknown daughter of an even less known father.

We meet her as Moses’ sister in this week’s Torah portion, although she is not given a name here.  Moses’ mother has placed her youngest child in a basket which she has put among the reeds in the River Nile, fearful that he will be discovered by Pharaoh who has issued a decree to kill all male Hebrew babies.  Of his sister, we know that she stations herself at a distance from the baby to see what is going to happen to him.  The midrash mentions her sensitivity and protectiveness towards her youngest sibling.

As soon as she notices that the daughter of Pharaoh has found the basket, she goes to the princess and offers a ‘Hebrew nurse to suckle the child.’  Pharaoh’s daughter agrees and so the girl goes and fetches her mother. Her assertiveness and immediate actions complement that early tenderness she shows her brother.

The second time we meet Miriam she is given a name and to her name is added the title n’viah – ‘prophet’, a title that is not even given to Moses in the Book of Exodus.  At the other side of the Sea of Reeds, relieved and full of joy, she takes up her timbrel or hand-drum, and with all the women following her dancing, she sings a shorter version of Moses’ Song at the Sea:  ‘I will sing to the Eternal One for He has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.’

It is an extraordinary glimpse into the scenes of triumph among the women and men on the shores of the Sea of Reeds, after the Israelites have safely crossed over and the Egyptian charioteers are no more.  This is a woman with a voice, with qualities of leadership and greatness, strong and tender, courageous, full of verve and determined.

In the Book of Numbers she is mentioned five times in the same chapter.  Here, for unknown reasons – perhaps jealousy, perhaps challenging the leadership and authority of Moses, she speaks out against Moses’ Cushite wife. We do not know whether this reference is to Zipporah, the Midianite wife he has taken while a shepherd in Midian, or a second wife from Cush (modern day Ethiopia).  Even as she is punished by God, afflicted with a skin disease that turns her skin white, Moses prays for Miriam to be healed. She is brought back into the camp after seven days, but she remains a condemned woman and we hear only that she has died in the wilderness of Kadesh.

Deuteronomy remembers her only as a warning to Israel: ‘In cases of a skin affection be most careful to do exactly as the Levitical priests instruct you…  Remember what the Eternal One your God did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt’ (Deut. 24.9). The young girl on the banks of the Nile, the leader of women on the shores of the Sea of Reeds, is brought to shame in the wilderness.

Does she marry?  Does she bear children?  The Torah makes no mention of this. Rabbinic literature sees her as part of a triumvirate of leaders, bringing about redemption for Israel. And because the Book of Numbers, mentions that the well of water dried up after she died, the Rabbis attribute to her the miracle of a well that accompanied the Israelites as they journeyed through the desert.  When she died, the well, Miriam’s well as it came to be known, ceased to exist.

In the midrash she is married off to Caleb, one of the twelve spies sent by Moses to spy out the land of Israel.  She is, thus, brought into the tribe of Judah and gives birth to Hur.  The Torah itself, however, leaves her proudly single and in this week’s parashah we learn of her essential qualities: responsible, curious, a young girl with initiative, courage and vision, in no one’s shadow.

We also encounter, in this week’s Torah portion, five other women who all play a redemptive role in saving the life of Moses and moving our story towards the Exodus from Egypt.  They are Yocheved, the mother of Moses, the two midwives who defy Pharaoh’s decree to throw the male Israelite babies into the  River Nile, Shifrah and Puah, the daughter of Pharaoh who rescues Moses from the river and  Moses’ Midianite wife, Zipporah.

When women assume a mantle of leadership and responsibility, it is not always easy. We challenge the status quo simply by our presence. We do not need to say or do anything.  Male primacy and authority, in place for thousands of years have marginalised and silenced women and now as we emerge from the shadows and find our voices, many still find it difficult.

‘Has not God spoken through us as well?’ asks Miriam of Moses in Numbers.  For this stepping over the line, she is punished. Not Aaron who joined with her in challenging authority, but Miriam alone.  Chastised because of her own sense of self-esteem, for courage, truth and strength.  After this, her role disappears and death follows swiftly.  She is all but brutally trampled out of history.

In our attempts to wrestle with our egos, women in leadership must be careful not to lose that self-esteem and little sense of pride they have in themselves.  There will be those who resent the authority and power we have, but we must continue to use our voices and influence – and use them with sensitivity and humility.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 10 January 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

This week we will read the Torah portion Va-y’chi, the last portion of the book of Genesis. Next week we begin with Exodus, our narrative of enslavement and redemption.

In this Torah portion we read of the end of both Jacob and Joseph’s life. The majority of the Torah portion is filled with Jacob’s blessings to his children and his grandchildren. He speaks to each of his sons and offers his blessings on them. In looking at Jacob’s blessing and his final words to his sons each of the tribes are described very differently. As Rabbi Gunther Plaut shares in his commentary on the Torah “It is obvious that the tribes are still in a state of ferment, and it is equally remarkable that they seemingly have little cohesion. What unites them is not a sense of national purpose or identity; neither is in evidence. If anything binds them, it is their sense of common ancestry and the memory of an old covenant.” We end Genesis with a parsha that is dominated by Jacob’s blessing to his sons detailing Jacob’s hopes and beliefs about the future of each tribe. Perhaps not surprisingly Dinah the daughter of Jacob is not included.  After the narrative of the rape of Dinah her name is never mentioned again.

Her absence in Jacob’s blessing is striking. Was she still a part of the family? Was she still alive? Why was her life not important enough to be mentioned by Jacob in his final words? American Rabbis Rachel Bearman and Paul Kipnes are working together in a chevruta partnership, creating a modern midrash on Genesis. They crafted a midrash imagining that Dinah did receive a blessing.

In their midrash, Dinah comes to Jacob and she shares with him how difficult it has been for her to have this vast distance between them, how painful that Jacob no longer speaks to her. Jacob shares that he didn’t know how to speak with her and that their distance isn’t a lack of love.

In their midrash, Jacob then offers to Dinah this blessing:

Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah,
You are my heart and the strength of my spirit.
You are the piece of me that wrestled with angels,
And that survived when assailed by challenges.

You, who have been denied what you are due by your father for so long,
Have offered a broken man kindness and mercy.
You are strength and love.
You are the best of your parents and so much more than we could ever be.
Our people will learn from your endurance.

I bless you and ask God, who has accompanied me, to walk with you all the days of your life.

Jacob then asks Dinah if she will offer him a blessing, to which she shares these words:

Jacob, son of Rebekah and Isaac,
You are my father and the guide of our people.
You have not lived a perfect life, but you have always tried to walk with God.

At times, you have tripped over your own limitations and have failed your family.
But when I tell my children stories of their grandfather’s life, these failings will not define you.
I will tell them of a man who lived a very human life who fell down, but struggled back to his feet again and again.
I will tell them of my father who called me to his side, asked for my forgiveness, and offered me a blessing filled with love.
Jacob, son of Rebekah and Isaac, father of our people, you will be remembered. 

Rabbis Bearman and Kipnes moved past focusing on the void, focusing on the absence of the voice of Dinah and instead reimagined her into the narrative.

We read the same texts year after year after year, as Rabbi Ben Bag Bag shares in Pirkei Avot, “Turn it and turn it again for everything lies in it”. We return to the text year after year because we change, and our understanding of the text changes. This creating and recreating our understanding of Torah, rooted in tradition with limbs reaching out into the future not only applies to our understanding of Torah but also our worship and ritual.

Many of our traditional Jewish rituals focused on the life transitions of men and Jewish women moved through transitions without the same rituals giving meaning, comfort and wisdom to their experiences. Over time Jewish leaders have started to create rituals for Jewish women, some of them like the baby naming blessing and the Bat Mitzvah have become very common. The book ‘Taking up the Timbrel’ offers other rituals that are not part of our normal body of Jewish lifecycles: rituals for fertility, for infertility, on the breakdown of a relationship, for the moment of birth, rituals for leaving, arriving and journeying. As Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild states in the book, “Prayer is deeply personal. At its best it addresses the feelings and needs of the individual who is praying. It crystallizes them and reorders them, providing a context in which the pray-er can grow, a space within which the connection with God can emerge. Rather like the best Torah study, bringing yourself, your own perspectives, your own experiences to the text means that you and it live in a different way.”

Judaism continues to speak to us today, and will speak to us in the future, because we allow it to inform our present, and we allow our present to inform our text and our prayer.

I become excited when I think about what the next decade will bring in terms of our understanding of text and ritual. It will happen through all of us honestly and openly engaging with our texts and traditions, identifying the voids and filling in the spaces with creativity, faith, a commitment to tradition and vulnerable reflections of the needs of our day.

Shabbat shalom

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 3 January 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

I am torn between wanting to write about this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash, in which Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and about which there is so much to say about reconciliation and forgiveness, and the way Pharaoh helps this family – a family from a foreign land – to settle in his country; and wanting also to acknowledge this strange and disturbing, almost unintelligible time in which we are living.  I do not have the words for the bloody attack that took place on the seventh night of Chanukkah in Monsey, a hamlet to the west of the Hudson River in New York State, home to thousands of Hasidic Jews.  Five members of the community were stabbed, one critically.  What can one say?  In the last three weeks, there have been more than thirteen attacks against Jewish communities or individuals in New York State alone.

Over the same weekend and nearer home, antisemitic graffiti was sprayed on the wall of the newly-constructed South Hampstead Synagogue and in various places in Hampstead and Belsize Park.  One wants to ask – why?  Why do people hate? What is it that drives them to such anger that they are willing to kill, to maim, to commit wanton damage on property, to use language in such abhorrent and destructive ways.

We are more likely to put ourselves into the shoes of victims, to find ways of expressing compassion and empathy by reaching out, by offering succour, practical help or a kind word.  Just this week, I visited someone whose family member had very recently died and who left express wishes for no funeral ritual or prayers, simply a cremation with no one present.  The relative was heartbroken to lose someone she loved, crushed and utterly lost that she had not been allowed to say farewell in a meaningful or prayerful way.  And there was nothing anyone could do to change the course of these events.  My heart went out to her and, in a brief visit, all I could offer was the recitation of a few prayers and a psalm without a body present.

These moments of witnessing loss, of seeing someone so utterly distraught, touch us very deeply and awaken our compassion and desire to do something that will mitigate against long-term trauma or disaster.

But what of perpetrators? Can I put myself in the shoes of the man or woman who hates with such bitterness they are willing to go on the attack?  There have been times – most often when on my bike and a van or car overtakes too fast and too near – when I react with a compulsion to use insulting language against the driver, to catch them up (nearly always impossible on a bike unless there is traffic), glare at them, knock firmly against the side of their vehicle to let them know my displeasure, my anxiety and resentment.  Rarely does this elicit any kind of apology, only an aggressive gesture in response or tearing away up a hill, brushing too closely against another cyclist or getting too near to the vehicle in front.  It is then that I experience a frustrated anger and I know that to hold on to it, to allow it to devour me, can hurt and destroy only one person – myself.

Imagine if Joseph had failed to let go of the grudge that he must have nurtured against his brothers throughout the years in Egypt.  It was there all right.  Why else would he punish them by ordering them to bring Benjamin down to Egypt?  Why test them and charge them with theft of his own silver cup?  Why threaten them to leave Benjamin as hostage, while they return to their father in Canaan?  Was this his way of manipulating their feelings, hurting them for the hurt they had inflicted on his seventeen year old self?

And yet, he is not hard-hearted, for Judah’s plea offering himself as a hostage instead of Benjamin, touches something deep inside him – his affection and love for his father and a constructed, yet real narrative about his own life – ‘it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you’ (Genesis 45.5).

It is Rashi who understands that there is no hatred in Joseph’s heart: ‘Just as there is no hatred in my heart for my brother Benjamin, who was not involved in my sale, neither is there any hatred in my heart toward you’ (Rashi to Genesis 45.12).  Joseph, the chancellor of all Egypt, the grandiose, shrewd saviour of Egypt’s recession and architect of its people’s economic survival, is freed from the burden of animosity towards his brothers.  He can no longer be a stranger to them. ‘In a startling moment of collapse,’ says Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg,

‘Joseph rejoins the human race.  He surrenders his project, shrivelled, reduced to human size.  A sinister grandiosity had informed that project; now, compassion, the benign infection of Judah’s words, compels him to relinquish his secret idea’ (The Beginning of Desire, p. 337).

May this Shabbat, the first Shabbat of a secular new year and new decade, release us from the burdens of our grudges, our age-old resentments and sense of failed entitlement.  May we learn from those who have taught themselves to accept serenely and with gratitude what God has given them; those who practise humility, kindness, who speak with compassion but also with just cause.  These are my prayers for this new year.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 27 December 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

As we bring the secular year to a close, I find myself reflecting on the words spoken by a friend in recent days: ‘We have so much to be grateful for.’

In the warmth of my own home, I watch the candles of Chanukkah burn, surrounded by my family and friends, and for these eight days of the festival, reflecting on the tumultuous events of the second century BCE, when the Seleucid emperor, Antiochus Ephiphanes attempted to force the Jewish community of Judea to abandon belief in the God of Israel for adulation of himself, a self-declared god – ‘weening in his arrogance to make the land navigable and the sea passable by foot, because his heart was lifted up’ (2 Maccabees 5:21).

At the centre of this conflict between Antiochus and the Jewish community of Judea, is a story of martyrdom: the willingness of young Jews to die in excruciating pain for their Jewish faith. Seven brothers, together with their mother (named Hannah in later sources), are captured at the king’s command, ‘shamefully handled with scourges and cords and compelled to taste of the abominable swine’s flesh’ (ibid. 7.1). What do you want from us, asks the first of her sons. The king falls into a rage and the boy is brutally tortured, burned and killed, his mother and brothers looking on. The second brother is similarly ordered to eat the forbidden food; he refuses and is mocked, tortured and dies gasping for breath. And so with the third and fourth and the rest of the seven brothers, all maimed, tortured and killed, each one declaring their faith in God and their hope in everlasting life, while their mother endures the violent death of her sons until she too dies.

Enter Judah the Maccabee, rounding up young men from the villages, training them in military manoeuvres, setting fire to cities and villages at night time and winning back the most important positions, putting to flight no small number of the enemies. Two years after Antiochus’s men have captured the Temple and defiled it with false idols, Judah and his soldiers recapture it, cleanse it and falling prostrate before God they pray that they might fall no more into such evils.

‘And they kept eight days with gladness in the manner of the feast of tabernacles, remembering how that not long before, during the feast of tabernacles, they were wandering in the mountains and in the caves after the manner of wild beasts’ (ibid. 10:6).

If we are discomfited by this violent story of martyrdom and the military victories of Judah the Maccabee, we might remember another story of a mighty king whose power is pitched against the judgements of the God of Israel. Pharaoh, whose heart is hardened and whose own people will suffer the ten plagues is finally defeated by God with the tenth plague, the death of the Egyptian firstborn. At the very moment when the hope of the Hebrews seems to ebb, God acts to vindicate His people, rescuing them from Egypt.

The story of Chanukkah turns on this moment of suffering and deliverance – the agonising and grotesque torments of this family and God’s deliverance of those who survived.

It is why we thank God for the wonders and deliverances that were performed for our ancestors in days of old at this season.

Our people have known cruelty, suffering and oppression. We have been persecuted, forced to abandon our faith and observances; we have been mocked for being different and punished for not conforming to the faith and practices of the so-called ‘host’ countries in which we have lived.

But at this time and at this season, I hope the festival of Chanukkah will help us, not only to reflect on the history that lies behind our lighting of the candles, but also on the blessings that these lights bring to us: blessings of family and community, of freedom to be faithful to the God of our ancestors and to the observances that bring meaning and purpose into our lives.

It was another Hannah – Hannah Senesh, ready to die for her people, who left Hungary for Palestine in 1939 and who, in 1944 volunteered to return to Hungary to help defeat the Nazis. She too, like the mother of the seven sons, was tortured, but never gave in to her torturers or betrayed her people. Before her death she wrote these words:

                    Blessed is the match that is consumed in kindling flame.

                    Blessed is the flame that burns in the heart’s secret places.

                    Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honour’s sake.

                    Blessed is the match that is consumed in kindling flame.

May these last days of Chanukkah bring all of us light and courage, faithfulness to defeat the darkness of tyranny and oppression and gratitude that we live in times when we can serve God and our fellow human beings in freedom and with love.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukkah Sameach.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 20 December 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

We live in a multicultural world, our synagogue is in the centre of one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth, our tradition is a result of living among and adapting many aspects from other cultures. This week we celebrate Chanukkah – a good example of the multi-layered nature of Jewish tradition.

On an historical level, we celebrate the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its defilement by Greeks in 164 BCE. A small band of faithful but poorly-armed Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated one of the mightiest armies in the world, reclaimed the Temple and rededicated it to the service of God. This event was observed in an eight-day celebration. About six centuries after the event, rabbinic sages were uncomfortable with the military aspect of the festival and ascribed the length of the festival to a miraculous small amount of oil that burned for eight days.

On a metaphorical level, this is a festival of lights which is celebrated at the time of year when the days are shortest in the northern hemisphere. Many cultures have similar festivals at this time of year. All highlight the importance of light, warmth and spending time together with community, friends and family.

In 2019, Chanukkah begins on Sunday night, December 22 and lasts until Monday night, December 30. Please consider coming to the LJS Chanukkah programme on Monday, December 23:

3.00-4.00 pm   Rabbi Elana will be doing arts and crafts for children – all ages welcome.

3.00-4.00 pm   Rabbi Alex will be leading an informal study session for adults.

4.00 pm           Candle-lighting with Rabbi Igor, tea, doughnuts and latkes.

The multi-layered nature of our tradition allows us, modern Jews, to look beyond time and culture and see the relevance in Judaism today. It allows us to adopt successful forms and customs from the world around us and adapt them according to our principles. This forces us, progressive Jews, to keep looking for the best forms which would allow Jewish tradition to remain meaningful and suited for modern realities.

Chanukkah Sameach and Shabbat Shalom!

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 13 December 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

The Council has gritted the pavement outside the church hall where I cast not only my own vote on Thursday morning, but also a proxy vote for my daughter, who lives abroad.  Despite arming myself with a file of paperwork she has sent to me, her voting card and my passport for identification, her name is not on the list.  I keep calm.  There is a long queue of people behind me, impatient and also needing to get to work.  Eventually, they add my daughter’s name to the list in pencil, record her number – which exists on one list but not on another – and I cast both mine and her vote.

Following my neighbours out of the hall, it is hard not to feel despondent about the state of the world and I ask myself how it can get better.

A few weeks ago, on Mitzvah Day, a small group of LJS members joined a Sikh charity called Niksham Swat to provide hot food and drink for nearly two hundred homeless men and a handful of women. It was a Sunday evening, dark and cold and as I hurried along the Strand, I noticed a crowd of people gathering, forming themselves into an orderly queue.  A large van had pulled up in sight of Covent Garden; the side doors slid open and within minutes long tables were set up on the pavement with huge dishes of hot food, pizzas, rice, vegetable dishes, a delicious carrot cake, an urn of hot water for teas and coffees.  We were given specific tasks, serving food, hot drinks and bottles of water.

It was only after three hours, the food gone, the people dispersed, as we cleared up and I was walking to the tube station at Charing Cross that I was able to process what I had just witnessed.  People of all ages, of all nationalities, faiths, backgrounds, some looking more resilient than others, some obviously desperately ill and in need of medical help – hungry, thirsty, lonely, hurting, vulnerable, some angry, some full of gratitude, others able to laugh and enter into a bit of conversation.  But it was the people who averted their gaze and who couldn’t reply to the ‘Good evening sir’, couldn’t respond to the offer of a bottle of water, whose pride was so deeply damaged by having to accept charitable giving, that one feared for their future and mental health.

I was shocked and angry – angry that so many have nowhere to rest their heads, but the concrete ground of the underpass at Charing Cross Station or elsewhere, some lucky enough to sleep in flimsy tent, but more lying nearby, exhausted and dead to the world, with only a sleeping bag between them and the cold winter air of a November night.

This is the world we are living in at the moment.  Many will undoubtedly be relieved when this night is over and the votes counted.  Others will already be expressing their devastation at the result of this election.  We will be setting up more tables along the Strand and cooking ever more quantities of food; more charities will spring up to support asylum seekers; we will have to find different and creative ways of combating poverty; we will have to work that much harder to put pressure on a new government to enact legislation that will reduce carbon emissions, and we will have to honour our own commitments on an individual level.

On Monday 16th December, the LJS will be holding its annual ‘Festivals for All’ Chanukkah (or pre-Chanukkah in this case) gathering at the synagogue.  I hope you will join us with so many others: individuals, schools, institutions, faith communities and organisations who always look forward to coming together to celebrate and to express a unified message of friendship, hope and peace.  It is so easy to lose hope, to be drawn back to a place where we ignore the suffering and privation around us.

‘Not always shall the needy be ignored, nor the hope of the afflicted forever lost…’ (Psalm 9:19).  As people of hope and faith, let not our mood be darkened by the national temper of impatient zeal and fear.  We must look to the long term with patience; we must turn to those organisations – community organisations – capable of effecting change at a grass roots level.

In the midst of one of the darkest moments in Jewish history, the prophet Jeremiah speaks these words to the people: ‘For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Eternal One, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope’ (Jeremiah 29.11).  Let us go forward with this message on our tongues, knowing that those plans must be ours – for welfare and not for harm – and so build a future of hope for the generations yet to come.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 6 December 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Recently I had a conversation with someone in the process of conversion, they shared with me how connected they feel to God when they are in synagogue, but struggle to feel as connected when they are away from the community. I think this is something we can all relate to, for most of us we probably feel the deepest connection to our faith and our people when we are in a community. We are blessed to live in a diverse community and to be alive at a time and place where, as Jews, we are integrated into the wider society. How do we continue to feel connected even when we are not within the walls of the sanctuary or engaging in Jewish ritual ?

In the Shema we are encouraged to love God, to allow for this connection to our faith to be a part of our rising in the morning, our thoughts at the end of the night and in our hearts, minds and souls as we go on our way. On a practical level this is difficult, isn’t it? How can we remain connected?

There have been times in my life where I have strongly felt God’s presence, and times when I had to remind myself to look. In my late teens, in a period of questioning, my father encouraged me to say the Shehechiyanu every time I felt God’s presence. Throughout the day I found myself reciting this prayer, I was surprised to see how often I felt connected even during a time when intellectually I was questioning. This is a practice I have now taken on any time I am in a place of doubt, within a few weeks I am able to see how connected I do feel. Though God is mysterious, God is also there as a stable and loving force even if we are in a place of disconnection.

The Shehechiyanu prayer is traditionally said when one experiences something for the first time: when one wears a new article of clothing or when one eats a fruit for the first time in the growing season. This blessing is also often said at lifecycle events: baby namings, b’nei mitzvah, conversions, weddings. We learn in the Talmud that the Shehechiyanu prayer can also be recited if you see a friend you haven’t seen for more than 30 days. The translation of the blessing is “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, who has given us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this moment.” Every moment we experience is a first, the Shehechiyanu prayer can be recited any time we feel grateful for the moment we are in. Perhaps you might find this exercise helpful/interesting as well. You might want to try reciting this blessing every time you feel grateful or aware of God’s presence.

There is a lot of emphasis in Judaism on recognising the sacredness of the moment. Perhaps the clearest example we have of this idea in our Torah comes from this week’s Torah portion. Jacob has fled Esau who has threatened to kill him for stealing his birthright. He stops for the night, using a rock as a pillow he falls asleep. He dreams of a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending. He awakes and proclaims, “God was in this place and I, I did not know it.”

Let us attempt, even in times of doubt and struggle, to recognise that God is in this place and to offer gratitude for the gift of the moment.

Shabbat Shalom

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 29 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

There has always been a tension in Judaism between particularism and universalism: concern and care for our own people, and a reaching out to help others for the greater good of the societies in which we live.  It is quite natural to express unease and disquiet at circumstances that may affect our own families and communities.  We have to work much harder to express our interest in and apprehension for those who are not like ourselves.

So when the current Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, a gentle man of compassion and integrity, is asked by members of our community, ‘What will become of Jews and Judaism in Britain if the Labour Party forms the next government,’ his response should be finely balanced between concern for ourselves and our own interests and an equally profound attention and awareness of others.

That tension and balance are an essential part of the teaching that Jews should be both ‘for ourselves,’ but not ‘only for ourselves.’   This dual imperative can be found in texts that go back to the Hebrew Bible:  the commandment not to harden one’s heart towards our kinsfolk but to lend sufficient for their needs is set next to the interdiction against oppressing the stranger.  ‘For you were a stranger in the land of Egypt,’ is a constant refrain in the Torah – repeated more often than any other commandment, because we need to work harder and train ourselves to identify with those who are not part of our own people.

The prophets, too, identified that tension.  Amos makes no distinction between God who brings up the Israelites from Egypt and the Philistines from Caphtor or the Arameans from Kir (Amos 9:7).  And Malachi may have been referring to the people of Israel in his prophecy, but subsequent interpretations have universalised his message to refer to all humanity: ‘Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?  Why do we break faith with one another..?’ (Malachi 2.10).

The Talmud, in a clear reference to these verses, relates that on one occasion, when it was decreed that the Jews were prohibited from studying the Torah, infant male circumcision and observing the Sabbath, the Rabbis went and took counsel with a Roman woman, well-known to prominent Romans.  She advised them to raise an alarm by night, and as they did so, they said, ‘O you heavens, are we not your brothers and sisters? Are we not the children of one father? Are we not the children of one mother?  In what way are we different from every other nation and tongue that you make harsh decrees against us?’  One wonders where Shakespeare drew his inspiration for Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice, ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh…?’

In Jewish law, as well as lore, Jews have obligations to the rest of humanity: ‘We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, mi-p’nei darchei shalom – for the sake of peace (bGittin 61a). And on a daily basis, the liturgy of our prayer books instructs the community to recall our specific Jewish task as well as our obligations to the rest of humanity.

The Chief Rabbi is right in drawing attention to all victims of racism and reminding those of us who live securely and without the anxiety of being harassed on a train, beaten up on a bus, or hounded out of a political party, that antisemitism, along with other insidious and violent forms of racism and senseless hatred, including Islamophobia, are very real dangers to freedom and well-being in our democracy.

Yet, in this fruitless war of words, we, the Jewish community, have lost our balance.  We have been trapped in a cycle that focuses only on ourselves as victims of antisemitism, rather than as agents for good in the world.  Jeremy Corbyn is not going to apologise for past associations or present weakness in failing to address antisemitism in his party; just as Boris Johnson will continue to use words irresponsibly, stirring the flames of Islamophobia and other forms of racism.

Leadership – whether political or religious – requires humility, wisdom, courage and admission of wrong-doing.    It is time for us as leaders of the Jewish community to take a step back, to redress a balance and to speak out, not only for ourselves, but for all victims of racism, and for all those in our own country who have suffered because of years of austerity.

The Jewish people have survived because we have held this delicate and creative balance of particularism and universalism, of understanding our specific responsibility as Jews with our own narrative, and seeing ourselves as part of the human family, children of One God, with the obligation to seek the welfare of all people.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 22 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A few weeks ago, I started a personal project. I decided to read a Torah portion in advance, study some commentaries, midrashim, interpretations and stories related to it and draw a sketch. My hope was that the sketch would depict one of the ideas I found relevant in the Torah portion. I called the project Torah Sketch. I hope I will have enough patience, creativity and inspiration to complete the year-long journey.

I started with Torah portion Lech Lecha. My inspiration was the moment I discovered that you can customise the back of Nike trainers with your initials. The theme of the journey which Abraham took in Genesis 12 fits the shoes’ customisation feature very well. Therefore, I decided to draw the following sketch:

This journey led me to this week’s Torah portion Chayei Sarah. Its opening verse says:

And the life of Sarah was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years. These were the years of the life of Sarah (Gen 23:1)

Rashi, a great Torah scholar from the eleventh century, asked why the text doesn’t just say, “Sarah lived one hundred and twenty seven years?” The repetition of the word ‘year’ and the splitting of Sarah’s age into three periods seems unnecessary and superfluous, yet Rashi concluded that the wording is repeated to indicate that all of her years were good.

It is easy to think that the best years of your life are ahead of you, leading you to live your life dreaming of a better future. Or you may think that your best years were in the past, meaning you spend your time reminiscing. While it is important to remember the past and think of the future, the story of Sarah reminds us that any age can be equally good. Whether you are seven, twenty or hundred years old, you can be happy and lead a life of fulfilment and accomplishment, joy and happiness.

Pirkei Avot, a two thousand year old collection of Rabbinic wisdom, records a saying of Judah ben Tema about different stages of people’s lives (Pirkei Avot 5:21):

At five to the study of Scripture;

At ten to the study of Mishnah;

At thirteen to the commandments;

At fifteen to the study of Talmud;

At eighteen to the bridal canopy;

At twenty to the pursuit of livelihood;

At thirty to the peak of strength;

At forty to wisdom;

At fifty to give counsel;

At sixty to the old age;

At seventy to fullness of years;

At eighty to strength.

Perhaps not all of the above activities are relevant for our world today, but the principle remains the same: At any age we can find ourselves, discover new sides of life, and be happy.

May this week be the one of fulfilment, health, strength and fullness of years!

Shabbat Shalom

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 15 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Finally, I find a quiet moment to sweep the fallen leaves from outside my house.  They line the path leading to the front door and the pavement of my road; they lie in the gutter – some dry and curled, fragile like moth-eaten pages of an old manuscript.  Some are freshly fallen and beautiful still – gold and red, the rich colours of this autumn season.  As a child, I would collect fallen leaves and flowers and press them between the pages of thick books and sometimes now, opening an old volume  – very occasionally – I will come across the dry, compacted form of a leaf or a few petals.  How far I seem from those days when every leaf seemed precious and something new that I had never seen before – each blade defined by its unique shape, the midrib running from the base to its apex, the delicate veins branching out to the edges, essential to the health of the leaf as they carry the nutrients necessary to its life.

In the short time, I am outside, I encounter four of my neighbours and miraculously, we find time to chat.  The man next door, who piles his three small children into his car every morning to take them to school and nursery, my neighbour the other side who always watches for parcels or packets left outside the front door, and on the other side of her, my lovely neighbour who will always lend me an egg or some milk if I find myself without an essential ingredient when I am cooking.

This is a rare moment of privilege and pleasure – of feeling embedded in my neighbourhood where I have lived for a long time. These are the people whom I so often wave to, but find little time to chat, to find out what is happening in their lives, to discover the challenges they are living with?  Each of them has a story or many stories – the loneliness of a widow, battling her own health problems; the worry of a sick child or grandchild; the difficulties of bringing up a family in the cramped surroundings of a small flat.

There is something hidden, yet precious that binds us together as neighbours – that we share the same road, that we live in such close proximity to each other, with only a fence or thin wall separating our houses and gardens.  We hear the movements we make in each other’s homes, we take in each other’s post, we sweep each other’s leaves and put away each other’s dustbins, we lend each other books. We are a small community, a micro-community of this larger society in which we live. And we have learned to live with each other’s foibles and habits, to speak courteously to each other if something crops up that bothers us.

We are like the birds gathering around the feeders in the garden: two parakeets alighting on a thin branch, the family of dunnocks chirping noisily, the jays and a large, black crow, the fat pigeons that fancy themselves as lighter versions of themselves, swaying awkwardly, pushing themselves towards the feeder.  They come and go throughout the day, occasionally on their own, more often as a small community, busy feeding, singing, perching and swaying, curling themselves into little acrobats to feed from the seeds.

It was Hillel who said: Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur – ‘Do not separate yourself from the community’ (Pirkei Avot 2:5) – an appeal to strengthen the Jewish community, to pray and study with the congregation, to volunteer one’s times and strengths, not to withdraw into an ascetic life of seclusion.

Those few minutes of sweeping the leaves in front of my houses reminded me of the importance of community: of collaboration and reaching out, listening and sharing, of gratitude and love.  And I see the individuals of our community as veins in a leaf, the seams that connect us to each other, that reach out to the very edges of our congregation with the warmth and friendship that are required to counter loneliness, to bring consolation and to share in each other’s joys.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 8 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to teach one of our teenage class sessions at Rimon. This particular class is a very engaged and thoughtful group. I facilitated an exercise with them, I shared a statement of theology or belief and if they strongly agreed they would stand on one side of the room, if they strongly disagreed they would stand on the other side of the room. If they weren’t certain they stood in the middle. After a few rounds I shared the statement I was most curious about “I believe in God”. One student went to the “strongly agree” side of the room, one went to the “strongly disagree” side of the room, and the rest found themselves somewhere in the middle. We spoke about this one for about 10 minutes and through the conversation I learned that all of the students believe in some sort of higher power, in a greater force that acts in this world but each of them understood God differently. Most stated that they don’t believe in the God as presented in the Torah, a God of creation who is capable of reward or punishment though many of them think (hope) that God is capable of providing healing. The next statement I shared was “Studying Torah is one of the most important parts of being Jewish.” Every single student went to the “Strongly Agree” side of the room. How wonderful! In their own words, the students shared that Torah gives them a sense of history, it connects them with past generations, it teaches important lessons and values. I was inspired by this group of young people and their open conversation, they had clarity about their relationship with the past and with our texts and a connection to but questions about God. I was reminded of a famous text from the Talmud, “The Oven of Akhnai”. It is a text often studied in progressive Judaism as it emphasis the sacred importance of human conversation.   

The Oven of Akhnai is one of my favourite passages from the Talmud, it is from Bava Metzia 59a. It is a story that comes in the midst of a conversation around keeping an over ritually pure. If the oven becomes impure one can purify it by breaking it into pieces and then placing the pieces back together, with a cement like substance between each piece. Rabbi Eleazer has an idea, if an oven is purified by breaking it into pieces and then putting those pieces back together with mortar between the pieces, then could it be possible to create an oven that could never be deemed impure by placing together with mortar many small pieces, instead of having one large oven.  

If you’re confused then you are in good company, like much of the Talmud the halachik discussions are full of complicated minutiae. It’s not important that you understand Rabbi Eliezar’s argument, what is important is that you understand that Rabbi Eleazar was trying to convince the Talmudic sages who were making decisions about the community, kind of like the counsel  of Talmudic times, that his argument was valid and should be followed. Here is the text:  

On that day, when they discussed this matter, Rabbi Eliezer answered all possible answers in the world to support his opinion, but the Rabbis did not accept his explanations from him. After failing to convince the Rabbis logically, Rabbi Eliezer said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, this carob tree will prove it. The carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, and some say four hundred cubits. The Rabbis said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from the carob tree. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the stream will prove it. The water in the stream turned backward and began flowing in the opposite direction. They said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from a stream. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the walls of the study hall will prove it. The walls of the study hall leaned inward and began to fall. Rabbi Yehoshua scolded the walls and said to them: If Torah scholars are contending with each other in matters of halakha, what is the nature of your involvement in this dispute? The Gemara relates: The walls did not fall because of the deference due Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten because of the deference due Rabbi Eliezer, and they still remain leaning. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, Heaven will prove it. A Divine Voice emerged from Heaven and said: Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion? Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: It is written: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of the phrase “It is not in heaven” in this context? Rabbi Yirmeya says: Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a Divine Voice, as You already wrote at Mount Sinai, in the Torah: “After a majority to incline” (Exodus 23:2). Since the majority of Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, the halakha is not ruled in accordance with his opinion. The Gemara relates: Years after, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time, when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration? Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.  

(Non-gendered God language has been used to reflect an honest translation of the Talmud.)  

Time and time again the rabbis are shown that God agrees with Rabbi Eleazar, (the waters flow backwards, the tree is uprooted, a heavenly voice comes down!) but in the end it is the discussions and decisions of the people that are more important than the will of God.   

Though our thoughts and opinions may be divinely inspired, this text reminds us that what we are doing within community is sacred work, as humans we hold the responsibility of creating and maintaining an ethical framework.  It is not in heaven that the rules of the community are decided it is the work of humans to look through the details of how a community functions and to decide how our sacred text and traditions will be manifest in our communities. It is not in heaven, it is here, in the halls and rooms of the LJS and in any room where Jewish individuals come together to discuss, plan and commit ourselves to Torah in all its many forms. 

Shabbat Shalom

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 1 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A seventeen year old boy, his mother dead, his father an old man to whom he is close, is sold to people traders, slave owners, by his own brothers, and is taken to a foreign country where he is trafficked to a soldier in the king’s army.  He works hard and is given responsibility and authority over the household.  The man is often away from home and soon the man’s wife sets her sights on the young teenager, tries to get him to sleep with her and one day, takes hold of him saying, ‘Lie with me!’  The boy escapes, leaving his garment in her hand.  Outraged, she calls her husband and accuses the boy of trying to rape her.  His master has the boy thrown into prison and there he languishes for a long time.

This is the story of Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel – the first individual in the Hebrew Bible we know to be trafficked by people smugglers from Judah into Egypt and then sold into slavery to Potiphar and his wife.

I have thought about this story, its initial similarities and then the stark and tragic differences between Joseph’s ultimate success and the thirty-nine individuals trafficked into the UK and found dead inside a freezer container just one week ago.

We do not know all the details: why these young men and women left their homes in the first place, making the long, costly, precarious and unknown journeys to Europe. Why would someone leave parents and family, homeland and everything that is familiar and risk losing their lives if not for reasons that are quite desperate?  Why did our own grandparents or great-grandparents leave their homes for England or Ireland or the United States?  They saw no future for themselves under oppressive regimes, their lives blighted by poverty and hardship.  Perhaps it is freedom or the urgent need for money, for meaningful work and the possibility of a brighter future that gives individuals the motivation to undertake such long and frightening journeys, their families mortgaging land and movables for tens of thousands of pounds.

These young people – if they came from Vietnam – had risked everything, including tragically their lives, in order to make it into this country.  Did they know the kind of work they might have ended up in?  In cannabis farms, in nail bars, perhaps even in prostitution and sex work?

Some people’s lives are so desperate that they would rather make these perilous journeys, knowing the difficulty of entering Western Europe, than stay where they are.  Nearly 18,000 people have drowned crossing seas and trying to enter other countries since 2014.

The death of these 39 women and men is tragic.  Tragic in that a journey that began with hope has ended in irreversible catastrophe.  Such tragedies have been more apparent to all of us since the three year old Syrian child of Kurdish ethnic background, Alan Kurdi, was found face down on a beach after he drowned in the Mediterranean.

This world in which we live is one of uncertainty and doubt; it engenders a feeling of unease in a place that has unlearnt the customs of hospitality.  And we bear a responsibility for this unlearning, for this environment of suspicion and lack of interest in the lives of individuals who only wish for freedom – to go where they wish to go, to live where they wish to live, to speak with truth what they believe, to love with honesty and openness.

The lives of these individuals, their aspirations and hope, came into tragic conflict with the limitations and demands of a world that is fundamentally hostile to asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.

As Noah and his family and the animals he has saved emerge from the Ark in this week’s parashah, God rethinks the guidelines he has given to humanity and adds this law for Noah and his descendants:

                Whoever sheds the blood of human beings,

                By humanity shall his blood be shed;

                For in God’s image

                Did God make human beings (Genesis 9:6).

Human life, the life of all creatures, says God, is precious; I will now bind myself to you in an everlasting covenant and promise never again to destroy the earth and all flesh by the waters of a flood. God sees the grandeur of each human spirit, the preciousness of each human life.  And that is what it means for all human beings to be created in God’s image.  Our deeds, our words and actions have repercussions and when we lose our faith in a God who has created us in the divine image, we lose that sense and acknowledgement of the nobility and dignity of the human spirit, the body that encases it and the obligations that fall on us and the countries in which we live, to ensure that such tragedies will never happen again.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 25 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Any end must be followed by a new beginning – such is the hope embedded in our tradition. This week we celebrated Simchat Torah, which marks several ends and beginnings. After a 22 day chain of festivals, we observed the end of a Jewish marathon of individual and communal reflection, and marked the beginning of a new calendar and agricultural year. After a year-long journey through weekly Torah portions, we marked the completion of the annual cycle of the Torah reading and acknowledged the beginning of the new one. After many years of Moses’ leadership, we read about the end of his life, and the beginning of Joshua’s term as a leader of the Jewish people.

In his new book ‘Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope’, Johann Hari offers a personal perspective on depression and anxiety. Hari selects concepts that explain some aspects of depression and its causes. He interviews and summarises research of many scholars who have uncovered evidence for nine different causes of depression. Some are in our biology, but most can be found in the way we live today. Among these causes are: disconnection from meaningful work, disconnection from other people, disconnection from meaningful values, and disconnection from a hopeful and secure future. I don’t think any of the book’s points are new, nevertheless they remain important and worth speaking about.

Perhaps the Jewish community might offer a solution to some of them. Liberal Judaism takes the position that Jewish tradition must keep in tune with modern and relevant trends to remain meaningful to modern society. The Jewish way of living is a spiral. Each year we begin a new old journey, developing a new circuit of our lives. Each year we begin with a new Creation and, therefore, articulate a new hope. It helps us to find meaning in life, support from our community, and stability in today’s world.

As Progressive Jews, it is our responsibility to develop and defend Judaism which offers people a medium for meaningful life and meaningful values, connection to a community of caring people, and the sense of a helpful and secure future. As we begin the new cycle of the Torah reading, let us not forget that any end must be followed by a new beginning, such is the hope embedded in our tradition.

Shabbat Shalom

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 18 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

On the first day of Sukkot, my colleague, 77 year old Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, taking part in the Extinction Rebellion protests, wearing a tallit and carrying a lulav and etrog in his hand, was arrested outside the Bank of England.  A passionate campaigner on the climate emergency, it was distressing to see him carried away by the police, who wrested the lulav and etrog from his hand so that it dropped carelessly to the ground.

This action affected me deeply. It was a stark reminder that so many were willing to put their lives, their bodies and their liberty on the line for the sake of the future of our planet.  As George Monbiot said, in the moments before he was arrested on Wednesday:

‘At the moment we are facing the destruction of life on earth, the destruction of our life support systems; so to stand up against that destruction, I feel, is our human duty. By being arrested in defence of the living planet, I feel I can look my children, and maybe one day my grandchildren in the eye. This feels exactly the right place to be, under arrest for trying to defend life on earth.’

‘It’s not OK,’ said Rabbi Newman as he was lifted off the ground by two policeman and we knew what that meant.  This wanton destruction of the earth, capitalisation through investment in fossil fuel industries, our moral distance and ignorance of what is happening, not only in our own hemisphere, but thousands of miles away, where it is the poorest of the world, whose impact on the climate is small, but who suffer most from  environmental breakdown – thousands of refugees who seek refuge from the climate chaos in places such as Somalia, Mozambique, Bangladesh, the Caribbean, Central America and many other parts of the world.

A curious thing is happening, not for the first time in our public spaces.  Seeing Rabbi Newman on the first day of the festival, walking with the ritual objects of Sukkot and wearing his tallit reminded me of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words that prayer should be a ‘radical, subversive act.’  Prayer and ritual are no longer confined to the home and the synagogue, but – like the civil rights movement in the United States for which Heschel marched – it has been moved into the public space, beyond the walls of our religious institutions.

Dr Susanna Heschel, wrote of her father on his return from the non-violent civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama:

‘When he came home from Selma in 1965, my father wrote, ‘For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.’’

An early Aramaic chronicle of significant days in the Jewish calendar demonstrates the power of protesting in a public space in this account about Caligula who had sent an idol to be placed in the Temple.  This shocking news reached Jerusalem on the eve of Sukkot.  Shimon Ha-Tzaddik instructed the Jews to go out and stand before the soldiers of the Roman Empire.   In every city throughout Judea, they stood in their numbers to confront the Emperor’s emissary and cried out, ‘We will die before we accept this decree.’  They lay down in the market places in sackcloth and ashes.  When a letter arrived announcing Caligula’s assassination, the idol was immediately taken down and dragged through the streets and Shimon Ha-Tzaddik heard a voice from the Holy of Holies that said: ‘The worship of idols in the Temple is nullified. Caligula has been slain and his decrees nullified.’  And the same day was declared a Yom Tov (Megillat Ta’anit 11.9).

Before this month of Tishri with its festivals of judgement, atonement and rejoicing is over, I know I must take my prayers out of the Sanctuary and into a public place.  I am frightened that my own inaction has rendered me complacent and paralysed by helpless distress.

If we care about the future our children and – please God – our grandchildren are going to inherit, then if we can, we need to take our prayers across the threshold of our interior spaces and outside into a public place.  Prayer is political; it has always been thus, from the moment that Moses hesitated at the Sea of Reeds to utter a supplication to God.  What are you doing, says God, get up and move on!

Shabbat Shalom and may the closing festival of Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah be a time we turn away from despair and embrace an uplifting hope for the future.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 11 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

I feel so grateful and honoured to have spent the Days of Awe within our community. For me personally, and I do hope for you as well, the worship experiences of the last two weeks have been deep and moving, made even more powerful by being surrounded by our community. This was my second Yom Kippur at the LJS, but I had only just started before last year’s festival season. I was moved this year to look out from the Bimah and to see your faces, having had the immense honour of getting to know you better over the last year. Thank you for sharing your life and faith with me. What we have at the LJS really is very special.

To think about all the people who worked tirelessly to bring it all together! From the office team to the Shammashim, the stewards, Karen Newman who projected the sermons, our teachers who led art activities upstairs, and everyone who attended either at the synagogue or through streaming, adding their voices to the community prayers.

Since the closing of the service of Yom Kippur, I have been thinking about the small Jewish community in Halle Germany. Like us, they too had joined together in prayer, with their community, having readied themselves for a Day of Atonement and spiritual renewal. Like us, they were engaging in peaceful prayer and working towards being better. Until their prayers were brutally interrupted by a right-wing extremist who attempted to break into the synagogue, killing two innocent individuals, all with a camera live streaming mounted on his head. He filmed himself before the attack, identifying himself as a Holocaust denier and blamed “the Jew” for the worlds problem.

The security plan that this synagogue in Halle had set up kept them safe, though the attacker shot repeatedly at the door and threw several Molotov cocktails he was not able to force himself in. There were 70-80 people gathered in the synagogue, after hearing the shots they saw the attacker trying to get in through the security camera.

Only hours after the attack we sat in our synagogue and joined together in the Mussaf service. A service honouring those whose lives have been cut short only because they were Jewish, because hatred and fear of the other is violent and dangerous and is too familiar to us as a people. I think about the words of Claude Montefiore that we read during the Mussaf service, “It was not an ibn Gabirol or a Maimonides, still less a Spuinoza, who fulfilled the Jewish mission most truly, or rendered the greatest service to the Jewish cause. No. It was the many little obscure Jewish communities through the ages, persecuted and despised, who kept alive the flame of the purest Monotheism and the supremacy and divisiveness of the moral Law.” We still do not know many details about the victims or how many others were injured. We hold their bereaved families, and this terrified community in our prayers.

We are grateful to the CST and to our own security team at the LJS who ensures our security as we come together in prayer and study.

May this new year be one of safety for us and all people. May we find ourselves in a world of greater tolerance and love, and may this day come soon.

Shanah Tovah,

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 4 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

During the month of Ellul, preceding Rosh Hashanah, a colleague and dear friend ran three online sessions from her home in the States on Musar literature – a genre of Jewish teaching and literature that Rabbi Bahya ibn Pakuda in the eleventh century calls ‘the science of inner life.’  Musar focuses on ways in which we can practise moral discipline and attempt to overcome our ‘weaker’ qualities.  How can we cultivate our own sense of dignity and self-worth? How can we overcome persistent anger or resentment? How can we become more patient, more tolerant and more forgiving of others? And so there is a practical and pious (I admit the word has awkward connotations in our own time) dimension to the application of Musar.

There were four students, an intimate group, all speaking to each other via our computer or smart phones using the technology ‘Zoom’.  Apart from receiving the wisdom of my colleague with teachings that had been sent to us in advance, it was so lovely to feel connected to her in these days leading up to the festivals and, of course, to be searching our own souls; refining – if you like – the traits that are part of us seemed supremely important as we considered the days of repentance before us.

She presented us with texts on three ‘virtues’ over the three weekly sessions we were together: Anavah (humility), Hakarat ha-Tov (gratitude) and Menuchat ha-Nefesh (equanimity – ‘rising above the good and bad’).

Setting us some daily ‘homework’ to reflect on these qualities, she allowed us to reflect on our own traits, on how we had spent our week, whether we had been able to ‘practise’ or at least think about the way we are with ourselves and with others.

One of the most famous tracts of Musar literature is named after a woman – Tomer D’vorah – ‘The Palm Tree of Deborah’ by the sixteenth century kabbalist and scholar, Moses Cordovero.  Cordovero opens the first of the ten chapters of his book with a phrase by phrase interpretation of Micah 7:18-20 – these are the verses that conclude the Haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah, this Shabbat.  The first part begins with the famous verses from Hosea: ‘Return, O Israel, to the Eternal One your God…’ (Hosea 14:2).

This Shabbat, in the middle of the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah – the Ten Days of Repentance, the message is not only Hosea’s exhortation to repent, but God’s readiness to forgive:

‘Who is a God like You,

Forgiving iniquity, passing over transgression;

You do not cling to Your anger with the remnant of Your people,

Because you delight in showing love!’ (Micah 7:18)

Cordovero sees in these words divine attributes – endless kindness, forgiveness, willingness to let go of anger, love and patience.  These, he says, are the attributes of our Divine Creator and these are the moral and spiritual qualities to which we should aspire. We may cling to our anger, but God does not. Even if a person fails to repent of their sins, God neutralises or nullifies divine fury with mercy and love and the expectation of repentance.

It is hard to let go of anger and hurt.  Yet, this is what Yom Kippur demands of us.  In our short-tempered world, we have to swim against the current of impatience with forgiveness, forgetfulness even, with a sense that we can let go and stop bearing grudges or feeling victimised.

How hard it is when the words we hear around us are not always tender, kind or forgiving.  How hard to be patient when our attention span grows weaker the more technology tests and assaults our perseverance; how hard to love and be loved; how difficult to show gratitude, to practise humility and cultivate that sense of equanimity in our own souls.

We need a week of Yom Kippur, a month, a retreat of silence, an escape away from the chaotic uncertainties of our lives and the political landscape we live in.

Can we forgive iniquity; can we be forgiven?  Can we pass over the transgression of others and let go of our anger?  As we enter these days of holiness, help us O God to be like You, delighting in showing love and gratitude and remaining true and faithful to our Judaism, to the Jewish people and the teachings of our faith, as You, O God showed ‘faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham… from days of old’ (Micah 7.20).

Shabbat Shalom and Chatimah Tovah – May you be inscribed for a  healthy and peaceful year of 5780.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 27 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

As a Liberal Rabbi, I believe in development and critical approach to religion and life. Knowing the past helps me to navigate in the uncertainty of the present. As bestselling writer and historian Yuval Harari put it: ‘The cold hand of the past… grips us by the neck and directs our gaze towards a single future. We have felt that grip from the moment we were born, so we assume that it is a natural and inescapable part of who we are. Therefore we seldom try to shake ourselves free, and envision alternative futures.’ (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, p. 59) There are only few days left before Rosh Hashanah – the day of hearing awakening shofar blasts, the day when we remember the creation of humanity, the day when we begin a journey of reflection, the day of hope for forgiveness, a better future, and inner peace.

This week, I decided to spend a day of learning about leaders of Liberal Judaism and their thoughts. I came across a Rabbi John Rayner lecture given at the Carmel College on 19 August 1957. In this lecture, Rabbi Rayner expressed key values of Liberal Judaism. He wrote:

‘Liberal Judaism values truth above tradition, freedom above authority, and sincerity above uniformity. It reverences Jewish tradition, but not in an uncritical way. It holds that it is the duty of every generation so to develop the tradition that it may always be compatible with the best contemporary thought and appropriate to the best contemporary life, or, which is another way of putting it, that it may always be intellectually acceptable, spiritually satisfying and practically efficacious. It is not a rebellion against Judaism but an attempt to rescue it; it does aim to weaken Judaism but to strengthen it; it is not motivated by dislike for Judaism, but by a profound and passionate love. Without it Jewish scholarship would be poorer, Jewish-Christian relations less happy, and thousands of Jews would have been lost. Without it there would be no hope for the Jewish future’

The lecture was given over 60 year ago, but the Liberal Jewish values remain the same. The wisdom of our tradition teaches us to reflect on our past so we could begin the New Year with a sense of direction. I wish all of us to spend the upcoming 5780 year with a deep sense of hope and integrity and to live our lives full of truth, freedom and sincerity.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tovah,

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 20 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

‘Blessed shall be… your produce from the soil, the offspring from your cattle, your calving from the herd and your lambing from the flock.  Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl’ (Deuteronomy 28:4-5).

These verses, from the weekly parashah Ki Tavo, come from a longer section of blessings, promised to Israel if they are faithful in their observance of the commandments enjoined upon them by God.  Fourteen verses describing the blessings are followed by fifty-three verses of curses that will punish the people if they fail to keep the commandments.

In a simplistic way, one might argue that the incontinence of western populations, our avarice and sense of entitlement, our consumption of the planet’s resources, the creation of an unconscionably wide gap between rich and poor, the shockingly uneven distribution of food in the world and here, even in our own wealthy country, are the results of living without a clear moral compass.  We have brought these curses upon ourselves.  How have we got ourselves into this mess?

On Monday, Rabbi Igor Zinkov, Tim Simon – the Chairman of our Yom Kippur Appeal Committee  – and I met with Clare Gilboa, the UK Development Director for Leket Israel.  Leket is the LJS’s Yom Kippur Israeli charity this coming year and you will hear more about it on Yom Kippur itself.

It is Israel’s national food bank with a significant difference.  Unlike food banks here in Britain which provide non-perishable food to families and individuals, Leket Israel took a policy decision in 2017, to provide only fresh fruit, vegetables and freshly cooked meals for those who need it.  The whole exercise of rescuing Israel’s surplus food – cooked and fresh, no tins or packets – is massive.

35% of food harvested and produced in Israel is wasted. That figure is similar in the USA and the UK.  In hotels, supermarkets, army bases, at catered events, there is a wild tendency to overproduce and over-cater.  Leket feeds 17.5 thousand people each week – a high proportion of whom are working families, Shoah survivors, the elderly, Arab, Ethiopian, Druze, Bedouin and Russian families.  Leket work with non-profit organisations, getting the food to them in a time sensitive way, so that it doesn’t go off.  The NPOs then distribute it in various areas.

The challenges of food banking – overseeing the quality of the food, ensuring that supply meets demand, health and food safety and the long-term need, are all dealt with at an operational and logistical level by employees, and also by 52,000 volunteers.

The idea of children and adults going hungry is anathema.  And yet, the Trussell Trust in the UK reports a 19% increase on last year in distribution of food through their food banks.  1.6 million three day emergency food supplies were distributed between 1 April 2018 and 31 March, 2019.

To find out how we have got here and what is driving this relentless increase, please join us for a panel discussion this Saturday evening 21st September at 6.30 pm at the LJS, with Professor Geraldine van Bueren QC, Professor Human Rights Law at Queen Mary University, Dr Anna Isaacs, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Food Policy at City University, London and Garry Lemon, Director of Policy, External Affairs and Research at the Trussell Trust.

Is there some symbolic truth that emerges from the list of blessings and curses that make up this week’s Torah portion? Not that God as an omnipotent force for good or evil rewards or punishes, but that we must be held accountable and responsible for bringing this catastrophic situation to pass.

Food sustainability is part of the larger picture that has to do with how we are living on our burning planet.  As Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal puts it: ‘…the factors that are destroying our planet are also destroying people’s lives in many other ways, from wage stagnation to gaping inequalities to crumbling services to surging white supremacy to the collapse of our information ecology.’

By ourselves, we cannot extinguish the fire; we cannot create equity among all peoples, but we need to engender in ourselves a sense of urgency and join the worldwide movements and younger generations who are crying out for all of us to join the climate strike this Friday and to grasp at this last chance for change and transformation of the toxic model we have been living with for too long.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 13 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Next Friday September 20th there will be a global school climate strike. This strike is in part is inspired by Greta Thunberg, the 15 year old teenager who began her School Strike for Climate in August 2018.

Talking about the need for action, Thunberg said, ‘In Sweden, we live our lives as if we had the resources of 4.2 planets. Our carbon footprint is one of the ten worst in the world. This means that Sweden steals 3.2 years of natural resources from future generations every year. Those of us who are part of the future generations would like Sweden to stop doing that. Right now. This is not a political text. Our school strike has nothing to do with party politics. Because the climate and the biosphere don’t care about our politics and our empty words for a single second.’

I have heard similar concerns in conversations with our young people at the LJS where I listened to their fears about the future, and witnessed their resolute passion to take part in enduring change. They are not alone. On that Friday, young people will take the day off school and make their way to London where they will demand policy changes to protect their future. Many schools, unions and organisations will be supporting the strike, and adults are encouraged to support these young people who together will join the millions around the world protesting that day.

The issue could not be more important. It affects us all. And it’s going to take a lot of people getting together and making their voices heard to wake up our leaders and get them to take the urgent actions needed to address the crisis we find ourselves in.

This call to protect our environment is a theme throughout our sacred texts. In last week’s Torah portion, in the midst of a discussion on the ethics of war, we are given this teaching:

‘When in your war against a city, you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the axe against them, You may eat of them, but you may not cut them down.’ (Deuteronomy 20:19)

The trees are independent entities from those who live around them, who rest in their shade, who eat from them. And the Israelites are commanded to protect them.

This lesson, that we should not use our power and abilities to take advantage or unnecessarily do damage to our natural world, is present in our texts; biblical, Mishnaic, Talmudic, Midrashic and contemporary.

We do not own the Earth, we are commanded to live in partnership with it. This sentiment is shared in Psalm 24:

‘The earth is Adonai’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants.’

Our Torah shares the narrative that the natural world was created and that God showed Adam all of the wonders of the world and put the responsibility on him to maintain it.

As Kohelet Rabbah 7:13:1 shares:

‘At the time that the Holy One created the first man, He introduced him to every tree in the Garden of Eden, and said to him, ‘See how wonderful and pleasant these trees are. And all of this I have created for you; therefore take great care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you do there is no one else to put right what you have destroyed.’’

There is no-one else to put right what we have destroyed.

These teachings are painfully poignant today. May we all commit ourselves to doing what we can, to make small or large changes in the way that we are living, to ensure that we are acting as God’s partner as we forge a relationship of care and protection with our natural world.

I will be joining the strike with my children on the 20th to let our young people know that their LJS family is behind them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 6 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Between 1st Ellul and Rosh Hashanah, and some go as far as Hoshanah Rabbah – the day preceding Shemini Atzeret – it is customary to read Psalm 27, the Psalm that begins with the words ‘The Eternal One is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?’

It is not an ancient custom and can be dated back only to the year 1745 when Rabbi Jacob Emden, the German scholar and polemicist published his Siddur Bet Yaakov.  Various theories are given as to why this Psalm was chosen for this time of year – the period of the year when we prepare ourselves spiritually for the Yamim Nora’im and begin the journey of returning to God.

One theory suggests that the Psalm was chosen because it mentions the name of God 13 times – perhaps a veiled reference to the 13 attributes of God in Exodus 34, a passage sung before the open ark at the High Holy Days – Adonai, Adonai el rachum v’chanun – ‘The Eternal, the Eternal God is merciful and gracious, endlessly patient, loving and true, showing mercy to thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon.’

Another theory is based on a midrash which expounds the first verse in this way:  The Eternal One is my light – on Rosh Hashanah.  And my salvation – on Yom Kippur.

A more recent explanation highlights the Hebrew word at the beginning of verse 13 lulé – which means ‘if only’ – “If only I shall look on the goodness of the Eternal One.” In the Masoretic text, the word is dotted – a hint that in reverse the word spells Elul, the month we are now in.

More simply, it is a Psalm which addresses our fears  – the madness of the world on our own doorstep and further afield.  It encourages us to look, not for external help to contain our anxiety and distress, but for the strength that is in each one of us, that comes from the faith of our heart.  It tells us not to be stirred up by hysteria or hyperbole, but to search out the beauty of the world: ‘One thing only do I ask of God: to dwell in the house of the Eternal One all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Eternal God, and to seek God in the sanctuary.’

It is a Psalm about resisting evil and finding resilience in ourselves, a Psalm about how we speak to and about each other; it’s about trust and finding strength in times of affliction.  It’s about music and longing; about the fear of God’s hiddenness, of being abandoned; it’s about morality in a bewildering world and it’s about doubt: ‘If only I could trust that I shall see the goodness of the Eternal One in the land of the living.’

And in a world where truth and righteousness have been abandoned, it’s about patience, courage and hope, not that the world will revert to an old order, but that we will learn to adapt with honesty to something new, a new connection with each other and with the universe.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

 

To download our Calendar of Repentance for the second week of the month of Ellul, please click HERE.

To download last week’s calendar, please click HERE.

Thought for the Week

Friday 31 January 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

What is one to make of President Trump’s peace plan for Israel?  Delivered just days after presidents, princes and prime ministers assembled in Jerusalem at Yad Va-Shem, to mark the 75th anniversary since Soviet troops entered Auschwitz and ‘liberated’ a living remnant, Trump spoke from the White House, the Prime Minister of Israel by his side, to announce his ‘two-state solution.’

Israel was born in the shadow of the Shoah, three years after the world learnt of the depredations of Auschwitz, Sobibor, Mauthausen, Bergen-Belsen and countless other concentration and death camps.  It was to be a place of refuge, where displaced Jews, who had no home to return to in Europe, who had lost parents and children, brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins and whole generations who had perished in the unspeakable underworld of the camps, could make their home, find work, build families and live without threat or danger.  The new State would be built on the principles of ‘liberty, justice and peace as conceived by the Prophets of Israel; would uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of religion, race, or sex, would guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, education and culture; would safeguard the holy places of all religions…’

Many of us have wondered if the two-state ‘solution’ is still alive.  It may be in intensive care, says Dr Tony Klug, special advisor on the Middle East to the Oxford Research Group and a consultant to the Palestine Strategy Group and the Israel Strategic Forum, but there is no alternative. If there is to be peace, there needs to be two neighbouring governments, exercising sovereign control over their own territory and population.

But Trump’s peace plan, which envisages an opportunity for Palestinians ‘to achieve an independent state of their very own’ and would provide a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, forgets one crucial element.  Where is the Palestinian presence on Trump’s platform in the White House?  Where are the Palestinian voices?

How can Trump and Netanyahu, one facing impeachment, the other corruption charges, stand together with impunity and state, among other things, that Israel will effectively annexe part of the Palestinian territories? Can they not see, not only the lack of symmetry in such a proposal – a not-yet formed Palestinian state is given no absolute right to self-determination – but the grotesque, colonialist immorality of such a plan that will whittle away Palestinian territory?

No doubt there are political reasons for the timing and nature of Trump’s ‘peace plan’ and Netanyahu’s laudatory remarks towards his ally.  Which makes the UK government’s statement that it ‘welcomes’ the proposal an ill-judged response.

But perhaps we should not dismiss the ‘peace plan’ so lightly.  After all, didn’t the Rabbis teach that peace outweighs all other blessings, that peace dispels strife and discord, hatred and envy?  So perhaps it is better to have a peace plan in some shape or form than nothing at all.

But peace can only exist when and where it is supported by justice and truth – as the Mishnah says, Al sh’losha d’varim ha-olam kayam: al ha-din, v’al ha-emet, v’al ha-shalom – ‘The world rests on three pillars: justice, truth and peace’ (mAvot 1:1) and further on, ‘The sword enters the world because of justice delayed and justice denied’ (Avot 5:8).

Seeing the quiet dignity of those increasingly fewer survivors of the Shoah returning to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen in moving televised programmes this week, how can we be indifferent to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the millions of Palestinians who live there?  How can we conceive of a peace plan without two partners and without justice and truth on both sides of the equation?

Perhaps Mr Netanyahu, who is indicted for crimes of bribery and fraud, and for breach of trust, will stop and reflect on the Jewish prophetic values on which Israel was built and ask himself: how true is this peace-plan to the pursuit of justice and peace?  And how can peace be built without bringing on board the partner who, like Israel more than seventy years ago, aspires to independence and sovereignty over a small strip of land and its five million inhabitants.  And those of us, who grew up in the Diaspora, basking in Israel’s early achievements and aspirations, must consider our own responsibility as Jews in support of a state that carries a fundamental part of our identity as Jews.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Friday 31 January 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

What is one to make of President Trump’s peace plan for Israel?  Delivered just days after presidents, princes and prime ministers assembled in Jerusalem at Yad Va-Shem, to mark the 75th anniversary since Soviet troops entered Auschwitz and ‘liberated’ a living remnant, Trump spoke from the White House, the Prime Minister of Israel by his side, to announce his ‘two-state solution.’

Israel was born in the shadow of the Shoah, three years after the world learnt of the depredations of Auschwitz, Sobibor, Mauthausen, Bergen-Belsen and countless other concentration and death camps.  It was to be a place of refuge, where displaced Jews, who had no home to return to in Europe, who had lost parents and children, brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins and whole generations who had perished in the unspeakable underworld of the camps, could make their home, find work, build families and live without threat or danger.  The new State would be built on the principles of ‘liberty, justice and peace as conceived by the Prophets of Israel; would uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of religion, race, or sex, would guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, education and culture; would safeguard the holy places of all religions…’

Many of us have wondered if the two-state ‘solution’ is still alive.  It may be in intensive care, says Dr Tony Klug, special advisor on the Middle East to the Oxford Research Group and a consultant to the Palestine Strategy Group and the Israel Strategic Forum, but there is no alternative. If there is to be peace, there needs to be two neighbouring governments, exercising sovereign control over their own territory and population.

But Trump’s peace plan, which envisages an opportunity for Palestinians ‘to achieve an independent state of their very own’ and would provide a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, forgets one crucial element.  Where is the Palestinian presence on Trump’s platform in the White House?  Where are the Palestinian voices?

How can Trump and Netanyahu, one facing impeachment, the other corruption charges, stand together with impunity and state, among other things, that Israel will effectively annexe part of the Palestinian territories? Can they not see, not only the lack of symmetry in such a proposal – a not-yet formed Palestinian state is given no absolute right to self-determination – but the grotesque, colonialist immorality of such a plan that will whittle away Palestinian territory?

No doubt there are political reasons for the timing and nature of Trump’s ‘peace plan’ and Netanyahu’s laudatory remarks towards his ally.  Which makes the UK government’s statement that it ‘welcomes’ the proposal an ill-judged response.

But perhaps we should not dismiss the ‘peace plan’ so lightly.  After all, didn’t the Rabbis teach that peace outweighs all other blessings, that peace dispels strife and discord, hatred and envy?  So perhaps it is better to have a peace plan in some shape or form than nothing at all.

But peace can only exist when and where it is supported by justice and truth – as the Mishnah says, Al sh’losha d’varim ha-olam kayam: al ha-din, v’al ha-emet, v’al ha-shalom – ‘The world rests on three pillars: justice, truth and peace’ (mAvot 1:1) and further on, ‘The sword enters the world because of justice delayed and justice denied’ (Avot 5:8).

Seeing the quiet dignity of those increasingly fewer survivors of the Shoah returning to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen in moving televised programmes this week, how can we be indifferent to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the millions of Palestinians who live there?  How can we conceive of a peace plan without two partners and without justice and truth on both sides of the equation?

Perhaps Mr Netanyahu, who is indicted for crimes of bribery and fraud, and for breach of trust, will stop and reflect on the Jewish prophetic values on which Israel was built and ask himself: how true is this peace-plan to the pursuit of justice and peace?  And how can peace be built without bringing on board the partner who, like Israel more than seventy years ago, aspires to independence and sovereignty over a small strip of land and its five million inhabitants.  And those of us, who grew up in the Diaspora, basking in Israel’s early achievements and aspirations, must consider our own responsibility as Jews in support of a state that carries a fundamental part of our identity as Jews.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 24 January 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

Moses and Aaron’s first meeting with Pharaoh does not go well.  Their demand to let the people go provokes a cruel response.  Dismissing the two men, the king bats away the ministers of this competing God with the words, ‘Who is Adonai that I should heed him and let Israel go?  I do not know Adonai, nor will I let Israel go’ (Exodus 5.2).  Do you think I’m going to dismiss the people from their labours, he says; and he instructs the overseers to double the Israelites’ workload – they must provide their own straw for the bricks and complete the same quota of bricks as when the straw had been provided.

Moses is stunned by this turn of affairs.  Did he think that Pharaoh would give him a positive answer immediately, saying, ‘Yes, of course, let the people go and let them take whatever they want with them to sustain in the wilderness?’  Was this the Pharaoh in whose house he had been raised?  The Pharaoh whose daughter had rescued him from the River Nile?  Seeing the sufferings of his people, beaten, exhausted, unable to keep up with the tasks given to them, he stands silently, while the overseers spit out insults towards him and his brother.

It seems poignantly appropriate to recall the harsh labour imposed on the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion, as we witness an international gathering of 40 heads of state and government in Jerusalem to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  The date, January 27th, was chosen by Germany in 1996, the UK in 2001 and by other nations, to mark Holocaust Memorial Day and to recall genocides that have taken place in other parts of the world since then.

On Thursday, a retired doctor from Leicestershire was interviewed on Radio 4’s World at One.  Martin Stern’s parents had fled from Germany to Amsterdam to escape the Nazis, because his Jewish father had married a non-Jewish woman.  His mother had died giving birth to his younger sister and the children were looked after by friends, the boy attending a little school until sent to a transit camp in the Netherlands at the age of five.  The living conditions and the food were miserable, he said, describing the late harvested runner beans with wooden splinters still in them where they had been split down the middle.

From the transit camp, he and his sister were taken to Terezin, the garrison town just to the north of Prague, renamed Theresienstadt by the Germans.  Jews were ‘stored there’, says Dr Stern, prior to their destruction and used as propaganda.  1,500 children ended up in Theresienstadt, very few survived.

He tells his story as though it happened yesterday, every tiny detail clear in his memory: on the day he arrived, he was shoved into a building and found himself among a lot of little boys.  ‘I kept pleading for food,’ he says in his interview; eventually, a young inmate, about eighteen years old who was charged with looking after the boys, ordered an eight year old child to take him into another room where he took an aluminium pan and a crumpled paper bag in which there were some rolled oats in the bottom.  ‘There was a stove in the middle of the room which was lit; the boy poured a teaspoon of rolled oats into the pan and then went to a sink, turned on a tap and a trickle of brown water came out which was added to oats to make some porridge.’ It was, he said, the most memorable meal he had ever had.

From the children’s dormitory, he was rescued by a Dutch woman called Catharina De Jong.  Martin and his little sister were to remain with her for the rest of the time they were in Theresienstadt.  She worked in the kitchens and so, although hungry, they never starved.

And meanwhile, trains were taking about 1,000 people at a time, including children to their deaths in extermination camps. And on each occasion, Martin and his sister escaped deportation, perhaps because they were in adult dormitories with Catharina, perhaps because there had been some correspondence between Theresienstadt and Amsterdam, where people had been trying to secure the children’s rescue and transport to Switzerland.

Dr Stern remained in Theresienstadt until after liberation by the Soviet Army because there was an outbreak of typhus and then travelled back in a perilous journey to the Netherlands in a convoy of army lorries.  The following day, he and his sister were ‘stolen’ by the family who had looked after his sister before their time in Theresienstadt.  Moving away from the woman who had saved him in Theresienstadt broke his heart.

He speaks in measured and thoughtful tones. Of course, he says, I feel anger towards the actions of the Nazis, ‘but I refuse to let my mind be occupied by anger at these very stupid people who did evil things because that only harms me.’

In his commentary to a verse in this week’s parashah, Rashi remarks on Moses’ reaction to Pharaoh’s cruelty.  He sees, says Rashi, that this turn of events has come about on account of his plea to Pharaoh to let the people go.  It’s his fault, but it’s also God’s fault. His reflex action is to return to the source of the trouble and exchange words with God:  ‘O God, why did You bring harm upon this people?  Why did you send me?’  Look how things have got so much worse for this people (Exodus 5.22-23).

For the Rabbis, the enslavement of the Israelites is the fulfillment of God’s words in Genesis: ‘Know that your descendants will be strangers in a land not theirs; they shall be enslaved and afflicted for four hundred years’ (Genesis 15.13).

How did individuals like Martin Stern find hope and faith in the future?  Like many who came to this country as young children and teenagers, there is a sense of deep gratitude for the education and opportunities received and the fulfilment of creating his own family, remembering the past, but not harbouring hatred or anger.  Of course, it is not like that for everyone – there are those who endure poverty, loneliness, the undying sense of loss of close family members and will always live with the trauma of having survived the unspeakable years of the Shoah.

We hold all these things in our mind as we mark Holocaust Memorial Day on Monday and pledge ourselves to eradicate the harm and evil that come from tribal hatred and violence.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 17 January 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, is mentioned only fourteen times in the Hebrew Bible  – eleven times in the Torah, only once in the prophets and twice in the Book of Chronicles, and one reference there is probably not to the Miriam in this week’s parashah, but another unknown daughter of an even less known father.

We meet her as Moses’ sister in this week’s Torah portion, although she is not given a name here.  Moses’ mother has placed her youngest child in a basket which she has put among the reeds in the River Nile, fearful that he will be discovered by Pharaoh who has issued a decree to kill all male Hebrew babies.  Of his sister, we know that she stations herself at a distance from the baby to see what is going to happen to him.  The midrash mentions her sensitivity and protectiveness towards her youngest sibling.

As soon as she notices that the daughter of Pharaoh has found the basket, she goes to the princess and offers a ‘Hebrew nurse to suckle the child.’  Pharaoh’s daughter agrees and so the girl goes and fetches her mother. Her assertiveness and immediate actions complement that early tenderness she shows her brother.

The second time we meet Miriam she is given a name and to her name is added the title n’viah – ‘prophet’, a title that is not even given to Moses in the Book of Exodus.  At the other side of the Sea of Reeds, relieved and full of joy, she takes up her timbrel or hand-drum, and with all the women following her dancing, she sings a shorter version of Moses’ Song at the Sea:  ‘I will sing to the Eternal One for He has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.’

It is an extraordinary glimpse into the scenes of triumph among the women and men on the shores of the Sea of Reeds, after the Israelites have safely crossed over and the Egyptian charioteers are no more.  This is a woman with a voice, with qualities of leadership and greatness, strong and tender, courageous, full of verve and determined.

In the Book of Numbers she is mentioned five times in the same chapter.  Here, for unknown reasons – perhaps jealousy, perhaps challenging the leadership and authority of Moses, she speaks out against Moses’ Cushite wife. We do not know whether this reference is to Zipporah, the Midianite wife he has taken while a shepherd in Midian, or a second wife from Cush (modern day Ethiopia).  Even as she is punished by God, afflicted with a skin disease that turns her skin white, Moses prays for Miriam to be healed. She is brought back into the camp after seven days, but she remains a condemned woman and we hear only that she has died in the wilderness of Kadesh.

Deuteronomy remembers her only as a warning to Israel: ‘In cases of a skin affection be most careful to do exactly as the Levitical priests instruct you…  Remember what the Eternal One your God did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt’ (Deut. 24.9). The young girl on the banks of the Nile, the leader of women on the shores of the Sea of Reeds, is brought to shame in the wilderness.

Does she marry?  Does she bear children?  The Torah makes no mention of this. Rabbinic literature sees her as part of a triumvirate of leaders, bringing about redemption for Israel. And because the Book of Numbers, mentions that the well of water dried up after she died, the Rabbis attribute to her the miracle of a well that accompanied the Israelites as they journeyed through the desert.  When she died, the well, Miriam’s well as it came to be known, ceased to exist.

In the midrash she is married off to Caleb, one of the twelve spies sent by Moses to spy out the land of Israel.  She is, thus, brought into the tribe of Judah and gives birth to Hur.  The Torah itself, however, leaves her proudly single and in this week’s parashah we learn of her essential qualities: responsible, curious, a young girl with initiative, courage and vision, in no one’s shadow.

We also encounter, in this week’s Torah portion, five other women who all play a redemptive role in saving the life of Moses and moving our story towards the Exodus from Egypt.  They are Yocheved, the mother of Moses, the two midwives who defy Pharaoh’s decree to throw the male Israelite babies into the  River Nile, Shifrah and Puah, the daughter of Pharaoh who rescues Moses from the river and  Moses’ Midianite wife, Zipporah.

When women assume a mantle of leadership and responsibility, it is not always easy. We challenge the status quo simply by our presence. We do not need to say or do anything.  Male primacy and authority, in place for thousands of years have marginalised and silenced women and now as we emerge from the shadows and find our voices, many still find it difficult.

‘Has not God spoken through us as well?’ asks Miriam of Moses in Numbers.  For this stepping over the line, she is punished. Not Aaron who joined with her in challenging authority, but Miriam alone.  Chastised because of her own sense of self-esteem, for courage, truth and strength.  After this, her role disappears and death follows swiftly.  She is all but brutally trampled out of history.

In our attempts to wrestle with our egos, women in leadership must be careful not to lose that self-esteem and little sense of pride they have in themselves.  There will be those who resent the authority and power we have, but we must continue to use our voices and influence – and use them with sensitivity and humility.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 10 January 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

This week we will read the Torah portion Va-y’chi, the last portion of the book of Genesis. Next week we begin with Exodus, our narrative of enslavement and redemption.

In this Torah portion we read of the end of both Jacob and Joseph’s life. The majority of the Torah portion is filled with Jacob’s blessings to his children and his grandchildren. He speaks to each of his sons and offers his blessings on them. In looking at Jacob’s blessing and his final words to his sons each of the tribes are described very differently. As Rabbi Gunther Plaut shares in his commentary on the Torah “It is obvious that the tribes are still in a state of ferment, and it is equally remarkable that they seemingly have little cohesion. What unites them is not a sense of national purpose or identity; neither is in evidence. If anything binds them, it is their sense of common ancestry and the memory of an old covenant.” We end Genesis with a parsha that is dominated by Jacob’s blessing to his sons detailing Jacob’s hopes and beliefs about the future of each tribe. Perhaps not surprisingly Dinah the daughter of Jacob is not included.  After the narrative of the rape of Dinah her name is never mentioned again.

Her absence in Jacob’s blessing is striking. Was she still a part of the family? Was she still alive? Why was her life not important enough to be mentioned by Jacob in his final words? American Rabbis Rachel Bearman and Paul Kipnes are working together in a chevruta partnership, creating a modern midrash on Genesis. They crafted a midrash imagining that Dinah did receive a blessing.

In their midrash, Dinah comes to Jacob and she shares with him how difficult it has been for her to have this vast distance between them, how painful that Jacob no longer speaks to her. Jacob shares that he didn’t know how to speak with her and that their distance isn’t a lack of love.

In their midrash, Jacob then offers to Dinah this blessing:

Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah,
You are my heart and the strength of my spirit.
You are the piece of me that wrestled with angels,
And that survived when assailed by challenges.

You, who have been denied what you are due by your father for so long,
Have offered a broken man kindness and mercy.
You are strength and love.
You are the best of your parents and so much more than we could ever be.
Our people will learn from your endurance.

I bless you and ask God, who has accompanied me, to walk with you all the days of your life.

Jacob then asks Dinah if she will offer him a blessing, to which she shares these words:

Jacob, son of Rebekah and Isaac,
You are my father and the guide of our people.
You have not lived a perfect life, but you have always tried to walk with God.

At times, you have tripped over your own limitations and have failed your family.
But when I tell my children stories of their grandfather’s life, these failings will not define you.
I will tell them of a man who lived a very human life who fell down, but struggled back to his feet again and again.
I will tell them of my father who called me to his side, asked for my forgiveness, and offered me a blessing filled with love.
Jacob, son of Rebekah and Isaac, father of our people, you will be remembered. 

Rabbis Bearman and Kipnes moved past focusing on the void, focusing on the absence of the voice of Dinah and instead reimagined her into the narrative.

We read the same texts year after year after year, as Rabbi Ben Bag Bag shares in Pirkei Avot, “Turn it and turn it again for everything lies in it”. We return to the text year after year because we change, and our understanding of the text changes. This creating and recreating our understanding of Torah, rooted in tradition with limbs reaching out into the future not only applies to our understanding of Torah but also our worship and ritual.

Many of our traditional Jewish rituals focused on the life transitions of men and Jewish women moved through transitions without the same rituals giving meaning, comfort and wisdom to their experiences. Over time Jewish leaders have started to create rituals for Jewish women, some of them like the baby naming blessing and the Bat Mitzvah have become very common. The book ‘Taking up the Timbrel’ offers other rituals that are not part of our normal body of Jewish lifecycles: rituals for fertility, for infertility, on the breakdown of a relationship, for the moment of birth, rituals for leaving, arriving and journeying. As Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild states in the book, “Prayer is deeply personal. At its best it addresses the feelings and needs of the individual who is praying. It crystallizes them and reorders them, providing a context in which the pray-er can grow, a space within which the connection with God can emerge. Rather like the best Torah study, bringing yourself, your own perspectives, your own experiences to the text means that you and it live in a different way.”

Judaism continues to speak to us today, and will speak to us in the future, because we allow it to inform our present, and we allow our present to inform our text and our prayer.

I become excited when I think about what the next decade will bring in terms of our understanding of text and ritual. It will happen through all of us honestly and openly engaging with our texts and traditions, identifying the voids and filling in the spaces with creativity, faith, a commitment to tradition and vulnerable reflections of the needs of our day.

Shabbat shalom

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 3 January 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

I am torn between wanting to write about this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash, in which Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and about which there is so much to say about reconciliation and forgiveness, and the way Pharaoh helps this family – a family from a foreign land – to settle in his country; and wanting also to acknowledge this strange and disturbing, almost unintelligible time in which we are living.  I do not have the words for the bloody attack that took place on the seventh night of Chanukkah in Monsey, a hamlet to the west of the Hudson River in New York State, home to thousands of Hasidic Jews.  Five members of the community were stabbed, one critically.  What can one say?  In the last three weeks, there have been more than thirteen attacks against Jewish communities or individuals in New York State alone.

Over the same weekend and nearer home, antisemitic graffiti was sprayed on the wall of the newly-constructed South Hampstead Synagogue and in various places in Hampstead and Belsize Park.  One wants to ask – why?  Why do people hate? What is it that drives them to such anger that they are willing to kill, to maim, to commit wanton damage on property, to use language in such abhorrent and destructive ways.

We are more likely to put ourselves into the shoes of victims, to find ways of expressing compassion and empathy by reaching out, by offering succour, practical help or a kind word.  Just this week, I visited someone whose family member had very recently died and who left express wishes for no funeral ritual or prayers, simply a cremation with no one present.  The relative was heartbroken to lose someone she loved, crushed and utterly lost that she had not been allowed to say farewell in a meaningful or prayerful way.  And there was nothing anyone could do to change the course of these events.  My heart went out to her and, in a brief visit, all I could offer was the recitation of a few prayers and a psalm without a body present.

These moments of witnessing loss, of seeing someone so utterly distraught, touch us very deeply and awaken our compassion and desire to do something that will mitigate against long-term trauma or disaster.

But what of perpetrators? Can I put myself in the shoes of the man or woman who hates with such bitterness they are willing to go on the attack?  There have been times – most often when on my bike and a van or car overtakes too fast and too near – when I react with a compulsion to use insulting language against the driver, to catch them up (nearly always impossible on a bike unless there is traffic), glare at them, knock firmly against the side of their vehicle to let them know my displeasure, my anxiety and resentment.  Rarely does this elicit any kind of apology, only an aggressive gesture in response or tearing away up a hill, brushing too closely against another cyclist or getting too near to the vehicle in front.  It is then that I experience a frustrated anger and I know that to hold on to it, to allow it to devour me, can hurt and destroy only one person – myself.

Imagine if Joseph had failed to let go of the grudge that he must have nurtured against his brothers throughout the years in Egypt.  It was there all right.  Why else would he punish them by ordering them to bring Benjamin down to Egypt?  Why test them and charge them with theft of his own silver cup?  Why threaten them to leave Benjamin as hostage, while they return to their father in Canaan?  Was this his way of manipulating their feelings, hurting them for the hurt they had inflicted on his seventeen year old self?

And yet, he is not hard-hearted, for Judah’s plea offering himself as a hostage instead of Benjamin, touches something deep inside him – his affection and love for his father and a constructed, yet real narrative about his own life – ‘it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you’ (Genesis 45.5).

It is Rashi who understands that there is no hatred in Joseph’s heart: ‘Just as there is no hatred in my heart for my brother Benjamin, who was not involved in my sale, neither is there any hatred in my heart toward you’ (Rashi to Genesis 45.12).  Joseph, the chancellor of all Egypt, the grandiose, shrewd saviour of Egypt’s recession and architect of its people’s economic survival, is freed from the burden of animosity towards his brothers.  He can no longer be a stranger to them. ‘In a startling moment of collapse,’ says Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg,

‘Joseph rejoins the human race.  He surrenders his project, shrivelled, reduced to human size.  A sinister grandiosity had informed that project; now, compassion, the benign infection of Judah’s words, compels him to relinquish his secret idea’ (The Beginning of Desire, p. 337).

May this Shabbat, the first Shabbat of a secular new year and new decade, release us from the burdens of our grudges, our age-old resentments and sense of failed entitlement.  May we learn from those who have taught themselves to accept serenely and with gratitude what God has given them; those who practise humility, kindness, who speak with compassion but also with just cause.  These are my prayers for this new year.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 27 December 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

As we bring the secular year to a close, I find myself reflecting on the words spoken by a friend in recent days: ‘We have so much to be grateful for.’

In the warmth of my own home, I watch the candles of Chanukkah burn, surrounded by my family and friends, and for these eight days of the festival, reflecting on the tumultuous events of the second century BCE, when the Seleucid emperor, Antiochus Ephiphanes attempted to force the Jewish community of Judea to abandon belief in the God of Israel for adulation of himself, a self-declared god – ‘weening in his arrogance to make the land navigable and the sea passable by foot, because his heart was lifted up’ (2 Maccabees 5:21).

At the centre of this conflict between Antiochus and the Jewish community of Judea, is a story of martyrdom: the willingness of young Jews to die in excruciating pain for their Jewish faith. Seven brothers, together with their mother (named Hannah in later sources), are captured at the king’s command, ‘shamefully handled with scourges and cords and compelled to taste of the abominable swine’s flesh’ (ibid. 7.1). What do you want from us, asks the first of her sons. The king falls into a rage and the boy is brutally tortured, burned and killed, his mother and brothers looking on. The second brother is similarly ordered to eat the forbidden food; he refuses and is mocked, tortured and dies gasping for breath. And so with the third and fourth and the rest of the seven brothers, all maimed, tortured and killed, each one declaring their faith in God and their hope in everlasting life, while their mother endures the violent death of her sons until she too dies.

Enter Judah the Maccabee, rounding up young men from the villages, training them in military manoeuvres, setting fire to cities and villages at night time and winning back the most important positions, putting to flight no small number of the enemies. Two years after Antiochus’s men have captured the Temple and defiled it with false idols, Judah and his soldiers recapture it, cleanse it and falling prostrate before God they pray that they might fall no more into such evils.

‘And they kept eight days with gladness in the manner of the feast of tabernacles, remembering how that not long before, during the feast of tabernacles, they were wandering in the mountains and in the caves after the manner of wild beasts’ (ibid. 10:6).

If we are discomfited by this violent story of martyrdom and the military victories of Judah the Maccabee, we might remember another story of a mighty king whose power is pitched against the judgements of the God of Israel. Pharaoh, whose heart is hardened and whose own people will suffer the ten plagues is finally defeated by God with the tenth plague, the death of the Egyptian firstborn. At the very moment when the hope of the Hebrews seems to ebb, God acts to vindicate His people, rescuing them from Egypt.

The story of Chanukkah turns on this moment of suffering and deliverance – the agonising and grotesque torments of this family and God’s deliverance of those who survived.

It is why we thank God for the wonders and deliverances that were performed for our ancestors in days of old at this season.

Our people have known cruelty, suffering and oppression. We have been persecuted, forced to abandon our faith and observances; we have been mocked for being different and punished for not conforming to the faith and practices of the so-called ‘host’ countries in which we have lived.

But at this time and at this season, I hope the festival of Chanukkah will help us, not only to reflect on the history that lies behind our lighting of the candles, but also on the blessings that these lights bring to us: blessings of family and community, of freedom to be faithful to the God of our ancestors and to the observances that bring meaning and purpose into our lives.

It was another Hannah – Hannah Senesh, ready to die for her people, who left Hungary for Palestine in 1939 and who, in 1944 volunteered to return to Hungary to help defeat the Nazis. She too, like the mother of the seven sons, was tortured, but never gave in to her torturers or betrayed her people. Before her death she wrote these words:

                    Blessed is the match that is consumed in kindling flame.

                    Blessed is the flame that burns in the heart’s secret places.

                    Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honour’s sake.

                    Blessed is the match that is consumed in kindling flame.

May these last days of Chanukkah bring all of us light and courage, faithfulness to defeat the darkness of tyranny and oppression and gratitude that we live in times when we can serve God and our fellow human beings in freedom and with love.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukkah Sameach.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 20 December 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

We live in a multicultural world, our synagogue is in the centre of one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth, our tradition is a result of living among and adapting many aspects from other cultures. This week we celebrate Chanukkah – a good example of the multi-layered nature of Jewish tradition.

On an historical level, we celebrate the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its defilement by Greeks in 164 BCE. A small band of faithful but poorly-armed Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated one of the mightiest armies in the world, reclaimed the Temple and rededicated it to the service of God. This event was observed in an eight-day celebration. About six centuries after the event, rabbinic sages were uncomfortable with the military aspect of the festival and ascribed the length of the festival to a miraculous small amount of oil that burned for eight days.

On a metaphorical level, this is a festival of lights which is celebrated at the time of year when the days are shortest in the northern hemisphere. Many cultures have similar festivals at this time of year. All highlight the importance of light, warmth and spending time together with community, friends and family.

In 2019, Chanukkah begins on Sunday night, December 22 and lasts until Monday night, December 30. Please consider coming to the LJS Chanukkah programme on Monday, December 23:

3.00-4.00 pm   Rabbi Elana will be doing arts and crafts for children – all ages welcome.

3.00-4.00 pm   Rabbi Alex will be leading an informal study session for adults.

4.00 pm           Candle-lighting with Rabbi Igor, tea, doughnuts and latkes.

The multi-layered nature of our tradition allows us, modern Jews, to look beyond time and culture and see the relevance in Judaism today. It allows us to adopt successful forms and customs from the world around us and adapt them according to our principles. This forces us, progressive Jews, to keep looking for the best forms which would allow Jewish tradition to remain meaningful and suited for modern realities.

Chanukkah Sameach and Shabbat Shalom!

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 13 December 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

The Council has gritted the pavement outside the church hall where I cast not only my own vote on Thursday morning, but also a proxy vote for my daughter, who lives abroad.  Despite arming myself with a file of paperwork she has sent to me, her voting card and my passport for identification, her name is not on the list.  I keep calm.  There is a long queue of people behind me, impatient and also needing to get to work.  Eventually, they add my daughter’s name to the list in pencil, record her number – which exists on one list but not on another – and I cast both mine and her vote.

Following my neighbours out of the hall, it is hard not to feel despondent about the state of the world and I ask myself how it can get better.

A few weeks ago, on Mitzvah Day, a small group of LJS members joined a Sikh charity called Niksham Swat to provide hot food and drink for nearly two hundred homeless men and a handful of women. It was a Sunday evening, dark and cold and as I hurried along the Strand, I noticed a crowd of people gathering, forming themselves into an orderly queue.  A large van had pulled up in sight of Covent Garden; the side doors slid open and within minutes long tables were set up on the pavement with huge dishes of hot food, pizzas, rice, vegetable dishes, a delicious carrot cake, an urn of hot water for teas and coffees.  We were given specific tasks, serving food, hot drinks and bottles of water.

It was only after three hours, the food gone, the people dispersed, as we cleared up and I was walking to the tube station at Charing Cross that I was able to process what I had just witnessed.  People of all ages, of all nationalities, faiths, backgrounds, some looking more resilient than others, some obviously desperately ill and in need of medical help – hungry, thirsty, lonely, hurting, vulnerable, some angry, some full of gratitude, others able to laugh and enter into a bit of conversation.  But it was the people who averted their gaze and who couldn’t reply to the ‘Good evening sir’, couldn’t respond to the offer of a bottle of water, whose pride was so deeply damaged by having to accept charitable giving, that one feared for their future and mental health.

I was shocked and angry – angry that so many have nowhere to rest their heads, but the concrete ground of the underpass at Charing Cross Station or elsewhere, some lucky enough to sleep in flimsy tent, but more lying nearby, exhausted and dead to the world, with only a sleeping bag between them and the cold winter air of a November night.

This is the world we are living in at the moment.  Many will undoubtedly be relieved when this night is over and the votes counted.  Others will already be expressing their devastation at the result of this election.  We will be setting up more tables along the Strand and cooking ever more quantities of food; more charities will spring up to support asylum seekers; we will have to find different and creative ways of combating poverty; we will have to work that much harder to put pressure on a new government to enact legislation that will reduce carbon emissions, and we will have to honour our own commitments on an individual level.

On Monday 16th December, the LJS will be holding its annual ‘Festivals for All’ Chanukkah (or pre-Chanukkah in this case) gathering at the synagogue.  I hope you will join us with so many others: individuals, schools, institutions, faith communities and organisations who always look forward to coming together to celebrate and to express a unified message of friendship, hope and peace.  It is so easy to lose hope, to be drawn back to a place where we ignore the suffering and privation around us.

‘Not always shall the needy be ignored, nor the hope of the afflicted forever lost…’ (Psalm 9:19).  As people of hope and faith, let not our mood be darkened by the national temper of impatient zeal and fear.  We must look to the long term with patience; we must turn to those organisations – community organisations – capable of effecting change at a grass roots level.

In the midst of one of the darkest moments in Jewish history, the prophet Jeremiah speaks these words to the people: ‘For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Eternal One, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope’ (Jeremiah 29.11).  Let us go forward with this message on our tongues, knowing that those plans must be ours – for welfare and not for harm – and so build a future of hope for the generations yet to come.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 6 December 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Recently I had a conversation with someone in the process of conversion, they shared with me how connected they feel to God when they are in synagogue, but struggle to feel as connected when they are away from the community. I think this is something we can all relate to, for most of us we probably feel the deepest connection to our faith and our people when we are in a community. We are blessed to live in a diverse community and to be alive at a time and place where, as Jews, we are integrated into the wider society. How do we continue to feel connected even when we are not within the walls of the sanctuary or engaging in Jewish ritual ?

In the Shema we are encouraged to love God, to allow for this connection to our faith to be a part of our rising in the morning, our thoughts at the end of the night and in our hearts, minds and souls as we go on our way. On a practical level this is difficult, isn’t it? How can we remain connected?

There have been times in my life where I have strongly felt God’s presence, and times when I had to remind myself to look. In my late teens, in a period of questioning, my father encouraged me to say the Shehechiyanu every time I felt God’s presence. Throughout the day I found myself reciting this prayer, I was surprised to see how often I felt connected even during a time when intellectually I was questioning. This is a practice I have now taken on any time I am in a place of doubt, within a few weeks I am able to see how connected I do feel. Though God is mysterious, God is also there as a stable and loving force even if we are in a place of disconnection.

The Shehechiyanu prayer is traditionally said when one experiences something for the first time: when one wears a new article of clothing or when one eats a fruit for the first time in the growing season. This blessing is also often said at lifecycle events: baby namings, b’nei mitzvah, conversions, weddings. We learn in the Talmud that the Shehechiyanu prayer can also be recited if you see a friend you haven’t seen for more than 30 days. The translation of the blessing is “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, who has given us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this moment.” Every moment we experience is a first, the Shehechiyanu prayer can be recited any time we feel grateful for the moment we are in. Perhaps you might find this exercise helpful/interesting as well. You might want to try reciting this blessing every time you feel grateful or aware of God’s presence.

There is a lot of emphasis in Judaism on recognising the sacredness of the moment. Perhaps the clearest example we have of this idea in our Torah comes from this week’s Torah portion. Jacob has fled Esau who has threatened to kill him for stealing his birthright. He stops for the night, using a rock as a pillow he falls asleep. He dreams of a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending. He awakes and proclaims, “God was in this place and I, I did not know it.”

Let us attempt, even in times of doubt and struggle, to recognise that God is in this place and to offer gratitude for the gift of the moment.

Shabbat Shalom

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 29 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

There has always been a tension in Judaism between particularism and universalism: concern and care for our own people, and a reaching out to help others for the greater good of the societies in which we live.  It is quite natural to express unease and disquiet at circumstances that may affect our own families and communities.  We have to work much harder to express our interest in and apprehension for those who are not like ourselves.

So when the current Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, a gentle man of compassion and integrity, is asked by members of our community, ‘What will become of Jews and Judaism in Britain if the Labour Party forms the next government,’ his response should be finely balanced between concern for ourselves and our own interests and an equally profound attention and awareness of others.

That tension and balance are an essential part of the teaching that Jews should be both ‘for ourselves,’ but not ‘only for ourselves.’   This dual imperative can be found in texts that go back to the Hebrew Bible:  the commandment not to harden one’s heart towards our kinsfolk but to lend sufficient for their needs is set next to the interdiction against oppressing the stranger.  ‘For you were a stranger in the land of Egypt,’ is a constant refrain in the Torah – repeated more often than any other commandment, because we need to work harder and train ourselves to identify with those who are not part of our own people.

The prophets, too, identified that tension.  Amos makes no distinction between God who brings up the Israelites from Egypt and the Philistines from Caphtor or the Arameans from Kir (Amos 9:7).  And Malachi may have been referring to the people of Israel in his prophecy, but subsequent interpretations have universalised his message to refer to all humanity: ‘Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?  Why do we break faith with one another..?’ (Malachi 2.10).

The Talmud, in a clear reference to these verses, relates that on one occasion, when it was decreed that the Jews were prohibited from studying the Torah, infant male circumcision and observing the Sabbath, the Rabbis went and took counsel with a Roman woman, well-known to prominent Romans.  She advised them to raise an alarm by night, and as they did so, they said, ‘O you heavens, are we not your brothers and sisters? Are we not the children of one father? Are we not the children of one mother?  In what way are we different from every other nation and tongue that you make harsh decrees against us?’  One wonders where Shakespeare drew his inspiration for Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice, ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh…?’

In Jewish law, as well as lore, Jews have obligations to the rest of humanity: ‘We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, mi-p’nei darchei shalom – for the sake of peace (bGittin 61a). And on a daily basis, the liturgy of our prayer books instructs the community to recall our specific Jewish task as well as our obligations to the rest of humanity.

The Chief Rabbi is right in drawing attention to all victims of racism and reminding those of us who live securely and without the anxiety of being harassed on a train, beaten up on a bus, or hounded out of a political party, that antisemitism, along with other insidious and violent forms of racism and senseless hatred, including Islamophobia, are very real dangers to freedom and well-being in our democracy.

Yet, in this fruitless war of words, we, the Jewish community, have lost our balance.  We have been trapped in a cycle that focuses only on ourselves as victims of antisemitism, rather than as agents for good in the world.  Jeremy Corbyn is not going to apologise for past associations or present weakness in failing to address antisemitism in his party; just as Boris Johnson will continue to use words irresponsibly, stirring the flames of Islamophobia and other forms of racism.

Leadership – whether political or religious – requires humility, wisdom, courage and admission of wrong-doing.    It is time for us as leaders of the Jewish community to take a step back, to redress a balance and to speak out, not only for ourselves, but for all victims of racism, and for all those in our own country who have suffered because of years of austerity.

The Jewish people have survived because we have held this delicate and creative balance of particularism and universalism, of understanding our specific responsibility as Jews with our own narrative, and seeing ourselves as part of the human family, children of One God, with the obligation to seek the welfare of all people.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 22 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A few weeks ago, I started a personal project. I decided to read a Torah portion in advance, study some commentaries, midrashim, interpretations and stories related to it and draw a sketch. My hope was that the sketch would depict one of the ideas I found relevant in the Torah portion. I called the project Torah Sketch. I hope I will have enough patience, creativity and inspiration to complete the year-long journey.

I started with Torah portion Lech Lecha. My inspiration was the moment I discovered that you can customise the back of Nike trainers with your initials. The theme of the journey which Abraham took in Genesis 12 fits the shoes’ customisation feature very well. Therefore, I decided to draw the following sketch:

This journey led me to this week’s Torah portion Chayei Sarah. Its opening verse says:

And the life of Sarah was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years. These were the years of the life of Sarah (Gen 23:1)

Rashi, a great Torah scholar from the eleventh century, asked why the text doesn’t just say, “Sarah lived one hundred and twenty seven years?” The repetition of the word ‘year’ and the splitting of Sarah’s age into three periods seems unnecessary and superfluous, yet Rashi concluded that the wording is repeated to indicate that all of her years were good.

It is easy to think that the best years of your life are ahead of you, leading you to live your life dreaming of a better future. Or you may think that your best years were in the past, meaning you spend your time reminiscing. While it is important to remember the past and think of the future, the story of Sarah reminds us that any age can be equally good. Whether you are seven, twenty or hundred years old, you can be happy and lead a life of fulfilment and accomplishment, joy and happiness.

Pirkei Avot, a two thousand year old collection of Rabbinic wisdom, records a saying of Judah ben Tema about different stages of people’s lives (Pirkei Avot 5:21):

At five to the study of Scripture;

At ten to the study of Mishnah;

At thirteen to the commandments;

At fifteen to the study of Talmud;

At eighteen to the bridal canopy;

At twenty to the pursuit of livelihood;

At thirty to the peak of strength;

At forty to wisdom;

At fifty to give counsel;

At sixty to the old age;

At seventy to fullness of years;

At eighty to strength.

Perhaps not all of the above activities are relevant for our world today, but the principle remains the same: At any age we can find ourselves, discover new sides of life, and be happy.

May this week be the one of fulfilment, health, strength and fullness of years!

Shabbat Shalom

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 15 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Finally, I find a quiet moment to sweep the fallen leaves from outside my house.  They line the path leading to the front door and the pavement of my road; they lie in the gutter – some dry and curled, fragile like moth-eaten pages of an old manuscript.  Some are freshly fallen and beautiful still – gold and red, the rich colours of this autumn season.  As a child, I would collect fallen leaves and flowers and press them between the pages of thick books and sometimes now, opening an old volume  – very occasionally – I will come across the dry, compacted form of a leaf or a few petals.  How far I seem from those days when every leaf seemed precious and something new that I had never seen before – each blade defined by its unique shape, the midrib running from the base to its apex, the delicate veins branching out to the edges, essential to the health of the leaf as they carry the nutrients necessary to its life.

In the short time, I am outside, I encounter four of my neighbours and miraculously, we find time to chat.  The man next door, who piles his three small children into his car every morning to take them to school and nursery, my neighbour the other side who always watches for parcels or packets left outside the front door, and on the other side of her, my lovely neighbour who will always lend me an egg or some milk if I find myself without an essential ingredient when I am cooking.

This is a rare moment of privilege and pleasure – of feeling embedded in my neighbourhood where I have lived for a long time. These are the people whom I so often wave to, but find little time to chat, to find out what is happening in their lives, to discover the challenges they are living with?  Each of them has a story or many stories – the loneliness of a widow, battling her own health problems; the worry of a sick child or grandchild; the difficulties of bringing up a family in the cramped surroundings of a small flat.

There is something hidden, yet precious that binds us together as neighbours – that we share the same road, that we live in such close proximity to each other, with only a fence or thin wall separating our houses and gardens.  We hear the movements we make in each other’s homes, we take in each other’s post, we sweep each other’s leaves and put away each other’s dustbins, we lend each other books. We are a small community, a micro-community of this larger society in which we live. And we have learned to live with each other’s foibles and habits, to speak courteously to each other if something crops up that bothers us.

We are like the birds gathering around the feeders in the garden: two parakeets alighting on a thin branch, the family of dunnocks chirping noisily, the jays and a large, black crow, the fat pigeons that fancy themselves as lighter versions of themselves, swaying awkwardly, pushing themselves towards the feeder.  They come and go throughout the day, occasionally on their own, more often as a small community, busy feeding, singing, perching and swaying, curling themselves into little acrobats to feed from the seeds.

It was Hillel who said: Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur – ‘Do not separate yourself from the community’ (Pirkei Avot 2:5) – an appeal to strengthen the Jewish community, to pray and study with the congregation, to volunteer one’s times and strengths, not to withdraw into an ascetic life of seclusion.

Those few minutes of sweeping the leaves in front of my houses reminded me of the importance of community: of collaboration and reaching out, listening and sharing, of gratitude and love.  And I see the individuals of our community as veins in a leaf, the seams that connect us to each other, that reach out to the very edges of our congregation with the warmth and friendship that are required to counter loneliness, to bring consolation and to share in each other’s joys.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 8 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to teach one of our teenage class sessions at Rimon. This particular class is a very engaged and thoughtful group. I facilitated an exercise with them, I shared a statement of theology or belief and if they strongly agreed they would stand on one side of the room, if they strongly disagreed they would stand on the other side of the room. If they weren’t certain they stood in the middle. After a few rounds I shared the statement I was most curious about “I believe in God”. One student went to the “strongly agree” side of the room, one went to the “strongly disagree” side of the room, and the rest found themselves somewhere in the middle. We spoke about this one for about 10 minutes and through the conversation I learned that all of the students believe in some sort of higher power, in a greater force that acts in this world but each of them understood God differently. Most stated that they don’t believe in the God as presented in the Torah, a God of creation who is capable of reward or punishment though many of them think (hope) that God is capable of providing healing. The next statement I shared was “Studying Torah is one of the most important parts of being Jewish.” Every single student went to the “Strongly Agree” side of the room. How wonderful! In their own words, the students shared that Torah gives them a sense of history, it connects them with past generations, it teaches important lessons and values. I was inspired by this group of young people and their open conversation, they had clarity about their relationship with the past and with our texts and a connection to but questions about God. I was reminded of a famous text from the Talmud, “The Oven of Akhnai”. It is a text often studied in progressive Judaism as it emphasis the sacred importance of human conversation.   

The Oven of Akhnai is one of my favourite passages from the Talmud, it is from Bava Metzia 59a. It is a story that comes in the midst of a conversation around keeping an over ritually pure. If the oven becomes impure one can purify it by breaking it into pieces and then placing the pieces back together, with a cement like substance between each piece. Rabbi Eleazer has an idea, if an oven is purified by breaking it into pieces and then putting those pieces back together with mortar between the pieces, then could it be possible to create an oven that could never be deemed impure by placing together with mortar many small pieces, instead of having one large oven.  

If you’re confused then you are in good company, like much of the Talmud the halachik discussions are full of complicated minutiae. It’s not important that you understand Rabbi Eliezar’s argument, what is important is that you understand that Rabbi Eleazar was trying to convince the Talmudic sages who were making decisions about the community, kind of like the counsel  of Talmudic times, that his argument was valid and should be followed. Here is the text:  

On that day, when they discussed this matter, Rabbi Eliezer answered all possible answers in the world to support his opinion, but the Rabbis did not accept his explanations from him. After failing to convince the Rabbis logically, Rabbi Eliezer said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, this carob tree will prove it. The carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, and some say four hundred cubits. The Rabbis said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from the carob tree. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the stream will prove it. The water in the stream turned backward and began flowing in the opposite direction. They said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from a stream. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the walls of the study hall will prove it. The walls of the study hall leaned inward and began to fall. Rabbi Yehoshua scolded the walls and said to them: If Torah scholars are contending with each other in matters of halakha, what is the nature of your involvement in this dispute? The Gemara relates: The walls did not fall because of the deference due Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten because of the deference due Rabbi Eliezer, and they still remain leaning. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, Heaven will prove it. A Divine Voice emerged from Heaven and said: Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion? Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: It is written: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of the phrase “It is not in heaven” in this context? Rabbi Yirmeya says: Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a Divine Voice, as You already wrote at Mount Sinai, in the Torah: “After a majority to incline” (Exodus 23:2). Since the majority of Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, the halakha is not ruled in accordance with his opinion. The Gemara relates: Years after, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time, when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration? Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.  

(Non-gendered God language has been used to reflect an honest translation of the Talmud.)  

Time and time again the rabbis are shown that God agrees with Rabbi Eleazar, (the waters flow backwards, the tree is uprooted, a heavenly voice comes down!) but in the end it is the discussions and decisions of the people that are more important than the will of God.   

Though our thoughts and opinions may be divinely inspired, this text reminds us that what we are doing within community is sacred work, as humans we hold the responsibility of creating and maintaining an ethical framework.  It is not in heaven that the rules of the community are decided it is the work of humans to look through the details of how a community functions and to decide how our sacred text and traditions will be manifest in our communities. It is not in heaven, it is here, in the halls and rooms of the LJS and in any room where Jewish individuals come together to discuss, plan and commit ourselves to Torah in all its many forms. 

Shabbat Shalom

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 1 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A seventeen year old boy, his mother dead, his father an old man to whom he is close, is sold to people traders, slave owners, by his own brothers, and is taken to a foreign country where he is trafficked to a soldier in the king’s army.  He works hard and is given responsibility and authority over the household.  The man is often away from home and soon the man’s wife sets her sights on the young teenager, tries to get him to sleep with her and one day, takes hold of him saying, ‘Lie with me!’  The boy escapes, leaving his garment in her hand.  Outraged, she calls her husband and accuses the boy of trying to rape her.  His master has the boy thrown into prison and there he languishes for a long time.

This is the story of Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel – the first individual in the Hebrew Bible we know to be trafficked by people smugglers from Judah into Egypt and then sold into slavery to Potiphar and his wife.

I have thought about this story, its initial similarities and then the stark and tragic differences between Joseph’s ultimate success and the thirty-nine individuals trafficked into the UK and found dead inside a freezer container just one week ago.

We do not know all the details: why these young men and women left their homes in the first place, making the long, costly, precarious and unknown journeys to Europe. Why would someone leave parents and family, homeland and everything that is familiar and risk losing their lives if not for reasons that are quite desperate?  Why did our own grandparents or great-grandparents leave their homes for England or Ireland or the United States?  They saw no future for themselves under oppressive regimes, their lives blighted by poverty and hardship.  Perhaps it is freedom or the urgent need for money, for meaningful work and the possibility of a brighter future that gives individuals the motivation to undertake such long and frightening journeys, their families mortgaging land and movables for tens of thousands of pounds.

These young people – if they came from Vietnam – had risked everything, including tragically their lives, in order to make it into this country.  Did they know the kind of work they might have ended up in?  In cannabis farms, in nail bars, perhaps even in prostitution and sex work?

Some people’s lives are so desperate that they would rather make these perilous journeys, knowing the difficulty of entering Western Europe, than stay where they are.  Nearly 18,000 people have drowned crossing seas and trying to enter other countries since 2014.

The death of these 39 women and men is tragic.  Tragic in that a journey that began with hope has ended in irreversible catastrophe.  Such tragedies have been more apparent to all of us since the three year old Syrian child of Kurdish ethnic background, Alan Kurdi, was found face down on a beach after he drowned in the Mediterranean.

This world in which we live is one of uncertainty and doubt; it engenders a feeling of unease in a place that has unlearnt the customs of hospitality.  And we bear a responsibility for this unlearning, for this environment of suspicion and lack of interest in the lives of individuals who only wish for freedom – to go where they wish to go, to live where they wish to live, to speak with truth what they believe, to love with honesty and openness.

The lives of these individuals, their aspirations and hope, came into tragic conflict with the limitations and demands of a world that is fundamentally hostile to asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.

As Noah and his family and the animals he has saved emerge from the Ark in this week’s parashah, God rethinks the guidelines he has given to humanity and adds this law for Noah and his descendants:

                Whoever sheds the blood of human beings,

                By humanity shall his blood be shed;

                For in God’s image

                Did God make human beings (Genesis 9:6).

Human life, the life of all creatures, says God, is precious; I will now bind myself to you in an everlasting covenant and promise never again to destroy the earth and all flesh by the waters of a flood. God sees the grandeur of each human spirit, the preciousness of each human life.  And that is what it means for all human beings to be created in God’s image.  Our deeds, our words and actions have repercussions and when we lose our faith in a God who has created us in the divine image, we lose that sense and acknowledgement of the nobility and dignity of the human spirit, the body that encases it and the obligations that fall on us and the countries in which we live, to ensure that such tragedies will never happen again.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 25 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Any end must be followed by a new beginning – such is the hope embedded in our tradition. This week we celebrated Simchat Torah, which marks several ends and beginnings. After a 22 day chain of festivals, we observed the end of a Jewish marathon of individual and communal reflection, and marked the beginning of a new calendar and agricultural year. After a year-long journey through weekly Torah portions, we marked the completion of the annual cycle of the Torah reading and acknowledged the beginning of the new one. After many years of Moses’ leadership, we read about the end of his life, and the beginning of Joshua’s term as a leader of the Jewish people.

In his new book ‘Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope’, Johann Hari offers a personal perspective on depression and anxiety. Hari selects concepts that explain some aspects of depression and its causes. He interviews and summarises research of many scholars who have uncovered evidence for nine different causes of depression. Some are in our biology, but most can be found in the way we live today. Among these causes are: disconnection from meaningful work, disconnection from other people, disconnection from meaningful values, and disconnection from a hopeful and secure future. I don’t think any of the book’s points are new, nevertheless they remain important and worth speaking about.

Perhaps the Jewish community might offer a solution to some of them. Liberal Judaism takes the position that Jewish tradition must keep in tune with modern and relevant trends to remain meaningful to modern society. The Jewish way of living is a spiral. Each year we begin a new old journey, developing a new circuit of our lives. Each year we begin with a new Creation and, therefore, articulate a new hope. It helps us to find meaning in life, support from our community, and stability in today’s world.

As Progressive Jews, it is our responsibility to develop and defend Judaism which offers people a medium for meaningful life and meaningful values, connection to a community of caring people, and the sense of a helpful and secure future. As we begin the new cycle of the Torah reading, let us not forget that any end must be followed by a new beginning, such is the hope embedded in our tradition.

Shabbat Shalom

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 18 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

On the first day of Sukkot, my colleague, 77 year old Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, taking part in the Extinction Rebellion protests, wearing a tallit and carrying a lulav and etrog in his hand, was arrested outside the Bank of England.  A passionate campaigner on the climate emergency, it was distressing to see him carried away by the police, who wrested the lulav and etrog from his hand so that it dropped carelessly to the ground.

This action affected me deeply. It was a stark reminder that so many were willing to put their lives, their bodies and their liberty on the line for the sake of the future of our planet.  As George Monbiot said, in the moments before he was arrested on Wednesday:

‘At the moment we are facing the destruction of life on earth, the destruction of our life support systems; so to stand up against that destruction, I feel, is our human duty. By being arrested in defence of the living planet, I feel I can look my children, and maybe one day my grandchildren in the eye. This feels exactly the right place to be, under arrest for trying to defend life on earth.’

‘It’s not OK,’ said Rabbi Newman as he was lifted off the ground by two policeman and we knew what that meant.  This wanton destruction of the earth, capitalisation through investment in fossil fuel industries, our moral distance and ignorance of what is happening, not only in our own hemisphere, but thousands of miles away, where it is the poorest of the world, whose impact on the climate is small, but who suffer most from  environmental breakdown – thousands of refugees who seek refuge from the climate chaos in places such as Somalia, Mozambique, Bangladesh, the Caribbean, Central America and many other parts of the world.

A curious thing is happening, not for the first time in our public spaces.  Seeing Rabbi Newman on the first day of the festival, walking with the ritual objects of Sukkot and wearing his tallit reminded me of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words that prayer should be a ‘radical, subversive act.’  Prayer and ritual are no longer confined to the home and the synagogue, but – like the civil rights movement in the United States for which Heschel marched – it has been moved into the public space, beyond the walls of our religious institutions.

Dr Susanna Heschel, wrote of her father on his return from the non-violent civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama:

‘When he came home from Selma in 1965, my father wrote, ‘For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.’’

An early Aramaic chronicle of significant days in the Jewish calendar demonstrates the power of protesting in a public space in this account about Caligula who had sent an idol to be placed in the Temple.  This shocking news reached Jerusalem on the eve of Sukkot.  Shimon Ha-Tzaddik instructed the Jews to go out and stand before the soldiers of the Roman Empire.   In every city throughout Judea, they stood in their numbers to confront the Emperor’s emissary and cried out, ‘We will die before we accept this decree.’  They lay down in the market places in sackcloth and ashes.  When a letter arrived announcing Caligula’s assassination, the idol was immediately taken down and dragged through the streets and Shimon Ha-Tzaddik heard a voice from the Holy of Holies that said: ‘The worship of idols in the Temple is nullified. Caligula has been slain and his decrees nullified.’  And the same day was declared a Yom Tov (Megillat Ta’anit 11.9).

Before this month of Tishri with its festivals of judgement, atonement and rejoicing is over, I know I must take my prayers out of the Sanctuary and into a public place.  I am frightened that my own inaction has rendered me complacent and paralysed by helpless distress.

If we care about the future our children and – please God – our grandchildren are going to inherit, then if we can, we need to take our prayers across the threshold of our interior spaces and outside into a public place.  Prayer is political; it has always been thus, from the moment that Moses hesitated at the Sea of Reeds to utter a supplication to God.  What are you doing, says God, get up and move on!

Shabbat Shalom and may the closing festival of Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah be a time we turn away from despair and embrace an uplifting hope for the future.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 11 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

I feel so grateful and honoured to have spent the Days of Awe within our community. For me personally, and I do hope for you as well, the worship experiences of the last two weeks have been deep and moving, made even more powerful by being surrounded by our community. This was my second Yom Kippur at the LJS, but I had only just started before last year’s festival season. I was moved this year to look out from the Bimah and to see your faces, having had the immense honour of getting to know you better over the last year. Thank you for sharing your life and faith with me. What we have at the LJS really is very special.

To think about all the people who worked tirelessly to bring it all together! From the office team to the Shammashim, the stewards, Karen Newman who projected the sermons, our teachers who led art activities upstairs, and everyone who attended either at the synagogue or through streaming, adding their voices to the community prayers.

Since the closing of the service of Yom Kippur, I have been thinking about the small Jewish community in Halle Germany. Like us, they too had joined together in prayer, with their community, having readied themselves for a Day of Atonement and spiritual renewal. Like us, they were engaging in peaceful prayer and working towards being better. Until their prayers were brutally interrupted by a right-wing extremist who attempted to break into the synagogue, killing two innocent individuals, all with a camera live streaming mounted on his head. He filmed himself before the attack, identifying himself as a Holocaust denier and blamed “the Jew” for the worlds problem.

The security plan that this synagogue in Halle had set up kept them safe, though the attacker shot repeatedly at the door and threw several Molotov cocktails he was not able to force himself in. There were 70-80 people gathered in the synagogue, after hearing the shots they saw the attacker trying to get in through the security camera.

Only hours after the attack we sat in our synagogue and joined together in the Mussaf service. A service honouring those whose lives have been cut short only because they were Jewish, because hatred and fear of the other is violent and dangerous and is too familiar to us as a people. I think about the words of Claude Montefiore that we read during the Mussaf service, “It was not an ibn Gabirol or a Maimonides, still less a Spuinoza, who fulfilled the Jewish mission most truly, or rendered the greatest service to the Jewish cause. No. It was the many little obscure Jewish communities through the ages, persecuted and despised, who kept alive the flame of the purest Monotheism and the supremacy and divisiveness of the moral Law.” We still do not know many details about the victims or how many others were injured. We hold their bereaved families, and this terrified community in our prayers.

We are grateful to the CST and to our own security team at the LJS who ensures our security as we come together in prayer and study.

May this new year be one of safety for us and all people. May we find ourselves in a world of greater tolerance and love, and may this day come soon.

Shanah Tovah,

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 4 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

During the month of Ellul, preceding Rosh Hashanah, a colleague and dear friend ran three online sessions from her home in the States on Musar literature – a genre of Jewish teaching and literature that Rabbi Bahya ibn Pakuda in the eleventh century calls ‘the science of inner life.’  Musar focuses on ways in which we can practise moral discipline and attempt to overcome our ‘weaker’ qualities.  How can we cultivate our own sense of dignity and self-worth? How can we overcome persistent anger or resentment? How can we become more patient, more tolerant and more forgiving of others? And so there is a practical and pious (I admit the word has awkward connotations in our own time) dimension to the application of Musar.

There were four students, an intimate group, all speaking to each other via our computer or smart phones using the technology ‘Zoom’.  Apart from receiving the wisdom of my colleague with teachings that had been sent to us in advance, it was so lovely to feel connected to her in these days leading up to the festivals and, of course, to be searching our own souls; refining – if you like – the traits that are part of us seemed supremely important as we considered the days of repentance before us.

She presented us with texts on three ‘virtues’ over the three weekly sessions we were together: Anavah (humility), Hakarat ha-Tov (gratitude) and Menuchat ha-Nefesh (equanimity – ‘rising above the good and bad’).

Setting us some daily ‘homework’ to reflect on these qualities, she allowed us to reflect on our own traits, on how we had spent our week, whether we had been able to ‘practise’ or at least think about the way we are with ourselves and with others.

One of the most famous tracts of Musar literature is named after a woman – Tomer D’vorah – ‘The Palm Tree of Deborah’ by the sixteenth century kabbalist and scholar, Moses Cordovero.  Cordovero opens the first of the ten chapters of his book with a phrase by phrase interpretation of Micah 7:18-20 – these are the verses that conclude the Haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah, this Shabbat.  The first part begins with the famous verses from Hosea: ‘Return, O Israel, to the Eternal One your God…’ (Hosea 14:2).

This Shabbat, in the middle of the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah – the Ten Days of Repentance, the message is not only Hosea’s exhortation to repent, but God’s readiness to forgive:

‘Who is a God like You,

Forgiving iniquity, passing over transgression;

You do not cling to Your anger with the remnant of Your people,

Because you delight in showing love!’ (Micah 7:18)

Cordovero sees in these words divine attributes – endless kindness, forgiveness, willingness to let go of anger, love and patience.  These, he says, are the attributes of our Divine Creator and these are the moral and spiritual qualities to which we should aspire. We may cling to our anger, but God does not. Even if a person fails to repent of their sins, God neutralises or nullifies divine fury with mercy and love and the expectation of repentance.

It is hard to let go of anger and hurt.  Yet, this is what Yom Kippur demands of us.  In our short-tempered world, we have to swim against the current of impatience with forgiveness, forgetfulness even, with a sense that we can let go and stop bearing grudges or feeling victimised.

How hard it is when the words we hear around us are not always tender, kind or forgiving.  How hard to be patient when our attention span grows weaker the more technology tests and assaults our perseverance; how hard to love and be loved; how difficult to show gratitude, to practise humility and cultivate that sense of equanimity in our own souls.

We need a week of Yom Kippur, a month, a retreat of silence, an escape away from the chaotic uncertainties of our lives and the political landscape we live in.

Can we forgive iniquity; can we be forgiven?  Can we pass over the transgression of others and let go of our anger?  As we enter these days of holiness, help us O God to be like You, delighting in showing love and gratitude and remaining true and faithful to our Judaism, to the Jewish people and the teachings of our faith, as You, O God showed ‘faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham… from days of old’ (Micah 7.20).

Shabbat Shalom and Chatimah Tovah – May you be inscribed for a  healthy and peaceful year of 5780.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 27 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

As a Liberal Rabbi, I believe in development and critical approach to religion and life. Knowing the past helps me to navigate in the uncertainty of the present. As bestselling writer and historian Yuval Harari put it: ‘The cold hand of the past… grips us by the neck and directs our gaze towards a single future. We have felt that grip from the moment we were born, so we assume that it is a natural and inescapable part of who we are. Therefore we seldom try to shake ourselves free, and envision alternative futures.’ (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, p. 59) There are only few days left before Rosh Hashanah – the day of hearing awakening shofar blasts, the day when we remember the creation of humanity, the day when we begin a journey of reflection, the day of hope for forgiveness, a better future, and inner peace.

This week, I decided to spend a day of learning about leaders of Liberal Judaism and their thoughts. I came across a Rabbi John Rayner lecture given at the Carmel College on 19 August 1957. In this lecture, Rabbi Rayner expressed key values of Liberal Judaism. He wrote:

‘Liberal Judaism values truth above tradition, freedom above authority, and sincerity above uniformity. It reverences Jewish tradition, but not in an uncritical way. It holds that it is the duty of every generation so to develop the tradition that it may always be compatible with the best contemporary thought and appropriate to the best contemporary life, or, which is another way of putting it, that it may always be intellectually acceptable, spiritually satisfying and practically efficacious. It is not a rebellion against Judaism but an attempt to rescue it; it does aim to weaken Judaism but to strengthen it; it is not motivated by dislike for Judaism, but by a profound and passionate love. Without it Jewish scholarship would be poorer, Jewish-Christian relations less happy, and thousands of Jews would have been lost. Without it there would be no hope for the Jewish future’

The lecture was given over 60 year ago, but the Liberal Jewish values remain the same. The wisdom of our tradition teaches us to reflect on our past so we could begin the New Year with a sense of direction. I wish all of us to spend the upcoming 5780 year with a deep sense of hope and integrity and to live our lives full of truth, freedom and sincerity.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tovah,

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 20 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

‘Blessed shall be… your produce from the soil, the offspring from your cattle, your calving from the herd and your lambing from the flock.  Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl’ (Deuteronomy 28:4-5).

These verses, from the weekly parashah Ki Tavo, come from a longer section of blessings, promised to Israel if they are faithful in their observance of the commandments enjoined upon them by God.  Fourteen verses describing the blessings are followed by fifty-three verses of curses that will punish the people if they fail to keep the commandments.

In a simplistic way, one might argue that the incontinence of western populations, our avarice and sense of entitlement, our consumption of the planet’s resources, the creation of an unconscionably wide gap between rich and poor, the shockingly uneven distribution of food in the world and here, even in our own wealthy country, are the results of living without a clear moral compass.  We have brought these curses upon ourselves.  How have we got ourselves into this mess?

On Monday, Rabbi Igor Zinkov, Tim Simon – the Chairman of our Yom Kippur Appeal Committee  – and I met with Clare Gilboa, the UK Development Director for Leket Israel.  Leket is the LJS’s Yom Kippur Israeli charity this coming year and you will hear more about it on Yom Kippur itself.

It is Israel’s national food bank with a significant difference.  Unlike food banks here in Britain which provide non-perishable food to families and individuals, Leket Israel took a policy decision in 2017, to provide only fresh fruit, vegetables and freshly cooked meals for those who need it.  The whole exercise of rescuing Israel’s surplus food – cooked and fresh, no tins or packets – is massive.

35% of food harvested and produced in Israel is wasted. That figure is similar in the USA and the UK.  In hotels, supermarkets, army bases, at catered events, there is a wild tendency to overproduce and over-cater.  Leket feeds 17.5 thousand people each week – a high proportion of whom are working families, Shoah survivors, the elderly, Arab, Ethiopian, Druze, Bedouin and Russian families.  Leket work with non-profit organisations, getting the food to them in a time sensitive way, so that it doesn’t go off.  The NPOs then distribute it in various areas.

The challenges of food banking – overseeing the quality of the food, ensuring that supply meets demand, health and food safety and the long-term need, are all dealt with at an operational and logistical level by employees, and also by 52,000 volunteers.

The idea of children and adults going hungry is anathema.  And yet, the Trussell Trust in the UK reports a 19% increase on last year in distribution of food through their food banks.  1.6 million three day emergency food supplies were distributed between 1 April 2018 and 31 March, 2019.

To find out how we have got here and what is driving this relentless increase, please join us for a panel discussion this Saturday evening 21st September at 6.30 pm at the LJS, with Professor Geraldine van Bueren QC, Professor Human Rights Law at Queen Mary University, Dr Anna Isaacs, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Food Policy at City University, London and Garry Lemon, Director of Policy, External Affairs and Research at the Trussell Trust.

Is there some symbolic truth that emerges from the list of blessings and curses that make up this week’s Torah portion? Not that God as an omnipotent force for good or evil rewards or punishes, but that we must be held accountable and responsible for bringing this catastrophic situation to pass.

Food sustainability is part of the larger picture that has to do with how we are living on our burning planet.  As Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal puts it: ‘…the factors that are destroying our planet are also destroying people’s lives in many other ways, from wage stagnation to gaping inequalities to crumbling services to surging white supremacy to the collapse of our information ecology.’

By ourselves, we cannot extinguish the fire; we cannot create equity among all peoples, but we need to engender in ourselves a sense of urgency and join the worldwide movements and younger generations who are crying out for all of us to join the climate strike this Friday and to grasp at this last chance for change and transformation of the toxic model we have been living with for too long.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 13 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Next Friday September 20th there will be a global school climate strike. This strike is in part is inspired by Greta Thunberg, the 15 year old teenager who began her School Strike for Climate in August 2018.

Talking about the need for action, Thunberg said, ‘In Sweden, we live our lives as if we had the resources of 4.2 planets. Our carbon footprint is one of the ten worst in the world. This means that Sweden steals 3.2 years of natural resources from future generations every year. Those of us who are part of the future generations would like Sweden to stop doing that. Right now. This is not a political text. Our school strike has nothing to do with party politics. Because the climate and the biosphere don’t care about our politics and our empty words for a single second.’

I have heard similar concerns in conversations with our young people at the LJS where I listened to their fears about the future, and witnessed their resolute passion to take part in enduring change. They are not alone. On that Friday, young people will take the day off school and make their way to London where they will demand policy changes to protect their future. Many schools, unions and organisations will be supporting the strike, and adults are encouraged to support these young people who together will join the millions around the world protesting that day.

The issue could not be more important. It affects us all. And it’s going to take a lot of people getting together and making their voices heard to wake up our leaders and get them to take the urgent actions needed to address the crisis we find ourselves in.

This call to protect our environment is a theme throughout our sacred texts. In last week’s Torah portion, in the midst of a discussion on the ethics of war, we are given this teaching:

‘When in your war against a city, you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the axe against them, You may eat of them, but you may not cut them down.’ (Deuteronomy 20:19)

The trees are independent entities from those who live around them, who rest in their shade, who eat from them. And the Israelites are commanded to protect them.

This lesson, that we should not use our power and abilities to take advantage or unnecessarily do damage to our natural world, is present in our texts; biblical, Mishnaic, Talmudic, Midrashic and contemporary.

We do not own the Earth, we are commanded to live in partnership with it. This sentiment is shared in Psalm 24:

‘The earth is Adonai’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants.’

Our Torah shares the narrative that the natural world was created and that God showed Adam all of the wonders of the world and put the responsibility on him to maintain it.

As Kohelet Rabbah 7:13:1 shares:

‘At the time that the Holy One created the first man, He introduced him to every tree in the Garden of Eden, and said to him, ‘See how wonderful and pleasant these trees are. And all of this I have created for you; therefore take great care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you do there is no one else to put right what you have destroyed.’’

There is no-one else to put right what we have destroyed.

These teachings are painfully poignant today. May we all commit ourselves to doing what we can, to make small or large changes in the way that we are living, to ensure that we are acting as God’s partner as we forge a relationship of care and protection with our natural world.

I will be joining the strike with my children on the 20th to let our young people know that their LJS family is behind them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 6 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Between 1st Ellul and Rosh Hashanah, and some go as far as Hoshanah Rabbah – the day preceding Shemini Atzeret – it is customary to read Psalm 27, the Psalm that begins with the words ‘The Eternal One is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?’

It is not an ancient custom and can be dated back only to the year 1745 when Rabbi Jacob Emden, the German scholar and polemicist published his Siddur Bet Yaakov.  Various theories are given as to why this Psalm was chosen for this time of year – the period of the year when we prepare ourselves spiritually for the Yamim Nora’im and begin the journey of returning to God.

One theory suggests that the Psalm was chosen because it mentions the name of God 13 times – perhaps a veiled reference to the 13 attributes of God in Exodus 34, a passage sung before the open ark at the High Holy Days – Adonai, Adonai el rachum v’chanun – ‘The Eternal, the Eternal God is merciful and gracious, endlessly patient, loving and true, showing mercy to thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon.’

Another theory is based on a midrash which expounds the first verse in this way:  The Eternal One is my light – on Rosh Hashanah.  And my salvation – on Yom Kippur.

A more recent explanation highlights the Hebrew word at the beginning of verse 13 lulé – which means ‘if only’ – “If only I shall look on the goodness of the Eternal One.” In the Masoretic text, the word is dotted – a hint that in reverse the word spells Elul, the month we are now in.

More simply, it is a Psalm which addresses our fears  – the madness of the world on our own doorstep and further afield.  It encourages us to look, not for external help to contain our anxiety and distress, but for the strength that is in each one of us, that comes from the faith of our heart.  It tells us not to be stirred up by hysteria or hyperbole, but to search out the beauty of the world: ‘One thing only do I ask of God: to dwell in the house of the Eternal One all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Eternal God, and to seek God in the sanctuary.’

It is a Psalm about resisting evil and finding resilience in ourselves, a Psalm about how we speak to and about each other; it’s about trust and finding strength in times of affliction.  It’s about music and longing; about the fear of God’s hiddenness, of being abandoned; it’s about morality in a bewildering world and it’s about doubt: ‘If only I could trust that I shall see the goodness of the Eternal One in the land of the living.’

And in a world where truth and righteousness have been abandoned, it’s about patience, courage and hope, not that the world will revert to an old order, but that we will learn to adapt with honesty to something new, a new connection with each other and with the universe.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

 

To download our Calendar of Repentance for the second week of the month of Ellul, please click HERE.

To download last week’s calendar, please click HERE.

Thought for the Week

Friday 31 January 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

What is one to make of President Trump’s peace plan for Israel?  Delivered just days after presidents, princes and prime ministers assembled in Jerusalem at Yad Va-Shem, to mark the 75th anniversary since Soviet troops entered Auschwitz and ‘liberated’ a living remnant, Trump spoke from the White House, the Prime Minister of Israel by his side, to announce his ‘two-state solution.’

Israel was born in the shadow of the Shoah, three years after the world learnt of the depredations of Auschwitz, Sobibor, Mauthausen, Bergen-Belsen and countless other concentration and death camps.  It was to be a place of refuge, where displaced Jews, who had no home to return to in Europe, who had lost parents and children, brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins and whole generations who had perished in the unspeakable underworld of the camps, could make their home, find work, build families and live without threat or danger.  The new State would be built on the principles of ‘liberty, justice and peace as conceived by the Prophets of Israel; would uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of religion, race, or sex, would guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, education and culture; would safeguard the holy places of all religions…’

Many of us have wondered if the two-state ‘solution’ is still alive.  It may be in intensive care, says Dr Tony Klug, special advisor on the Middle East to the Oxford Research Group and a consultant to the Palestine Strategy Group and the Israel Strategic Forum, but there is no alternative. If there is to be peace, there needs to be two neighbouring governments, exercising sovereign control over their own territory and population.

But Trump’s peace plan, which envisages an opportunity for Palestinians ‘to achieve an independent state of their very own’ and would provide a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, forgets one crucial element.  Where is the Palestinian presence on Trump’s platform in the White House?  Where are the Palestinian voices?

How can Trump and Netanyahu, one facing impeachment, the other corruption charges, stand together with impunity and state, among other things, that Israel will effectively annexe part of the Palestinian territories? Can they not see, not only the lack of symmetry in such a proposal – a not-yet formed Palestinian state is given no absolute right to self-determination – but the grotesque, colonialist immorality of such a plan that will whittle away Palestinian territory?

No doubt there are political reasons for the timing and nature of Trump’s ‘peace plan’ and Netanyahu’s laudatory remarks towards his ally.  Which makes the UK government’s statement that it ‘welcomes’ the proposal an ill-judged response.

But perhaps we should not dismiss the ‘peace plan’ so lightly.  After all, didn’t the Rabbis teach that peace outweighs all other blessings, that peace dispels strife and discord, hatred and envy?  So perhaps it is better to have a peace plan in some shape or form than nothing at all.

But peace can only exist when and where it is supported by justice and truth – as the Mishnah says, Al sh’losha d’varim ha-olam kayam: al ha-din, v’al ha-emet, v’al ha-shalom – ‘The world rests on three pillars: justice, truth and peace’ (mAvot 1:1) and further on, ‘The sword enters the world because of justice delayed and justice denied’ (Avot 5:8).

Seeing the quiet dignity of those increasingly fewer survivors of the Shoah returning to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen in moving televised programmes this week, how can we be indifferent to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the millions of Palestinians who live there?  How can we conceive of a peace plan without two partners and without justice and truth on both sides of the equation?

Perhaps Mr Netanyahu, who is indicted for crimes of bribery and fraud, and for breach of trust, will stop and reflect on the Jewish prophetic values on which Israel was built and ask himself: how true is this peace-plan to the pursuit of justice and peace?  And how can peace be built without bringing on board the partner who, like Israel more than seventy years ago, aspires to independence and sovereignty over a small strip of land and its five million inhabitants.  And those of us, who grew up in the Diaspora, basking in Israel’s early achievements and aspirations, must consider our own responsibility as Jews in support of a state that carries a fundamental part of our identity as Jews.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 24 January 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

Moses and Aaron’s first meeting with Pharaoh does not go well.  Their demand to let the people go provokes a cruel response.  Dismissing the two men, the king bats away the ministers of this competing God with the words, ‘Who is Adonai that I should heed him and let Israel go?  I do not know Adonai, nor will I let Israel go’ (Exodus 5.2).  Do you think I’m going to dismiss the people from their labours, he says; and he instructs the overseers to double the Israelites’ workload – they must provide their own straw for the bricks and complete the same quota of bricks as when the straw had been provided.

Moses is stunned by this turn of affairs.  Did he think that Pharaoh would give him a positive answer immediately, saying, ‘Yes, of course, let the people go and let them take whatever they want with them to sustain in the wilderness?’  Was this the Pharaoh in whose house he had been raised?  The Pharaoh whose daughter had rescued him from the River Nile?  Seeing the sufferings of his people, beaten, exhausted, unable to keep up with the tasks given to them, he stands silently, while the overseers spit out insults towards him and his brother.

It seems poignantly appropriate to recall the harsh labour imposed on the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion, as we witness an international gathering of 40 heads of state and government in Jerusalem to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  The date, January 27th, was chosen by Germany in 1996, the UK in 2001 and by other nations, to mark Holocaust Memorial Day and to recall genocides that have taken place in other parts of the world since then.

On Thursday, a retired doctor from Leicestershire was interviewed on Radio 4’s World at One.  Martin Stern’s parents had fled from Germany to Amsterdam to escape the Nazis, because his Jewish father had married a non-Jewish woman.  His mother had died giving birth to his younger sister and the children were looked after by friends, the boy attending a little school until sent to a transit camp in the Netherlands at the age of five.  The living conditions and the food were miserable, he said, describing the late harvested runner beans with wooden splinters still in them where they had been split down the middle.

From the transit camp, he and his sister were taken to Terezin, the garrison town just to the north of Prague, renamed Theresienstadt by the Germans.  Jews were ‘stored there’, says Dr Stern, prior to their destruction and used as propaganda.  1,500 children ended up in Theresienstadt, very few survived.

He tells his story as though it happened yesterday, every tiny detail clear in his memory: on the day he arrived, he was shoved into a building and found himself among a lot of little boys.  ‘I kept pleading for food,’ he says in his interview; eventually, a young inmate, about eighteen years old who was charged with looking after the boys, ordered an eight year old child to take him into another room where he took an aluminium pan and a crumpled paper bag in which there were some rolled oats in the bottom.  ‘There was a stove in the middle of the room which was lit; the boy poured a teaspoon of rolled oats into the pan and then went to a sink, turned on a tap and a trickle of brown water came out which was added to oats to make some porridge.’ It was, he said, the most memorable meal he had ever had.

From the children’s dormitory, he was rescued by a Dutch woman called Catharina De Jong.  Martin and his little sister were to remain with her for the rest of the time they were in Theresienstadt.  She worked in the kitchens and so, although hungry, they never starved.

And meanwhile, trains were taking about 1,000 people at a time, including children to their deaths in extermination camps. And on each occasion, Martin and his sister escaped deportation, perhaps because they were in adult dormitories with Catharina, perhaps because there had been some correspondence between Theresienstadt and Amsterdam, where people had been trying to secure the children’s rescue and transport to Switzerland.

Dr Stern remained in Theresienstadt until after liberation by the Soviet Army because there was an outbreak of typhus and then travelled back in a perilous journey to the Netherlands in a convoy of army lorries.  The following day, he and his sister were ‘stolen’ by the family who had looked after his sister before their time in Theresienstadt.  Moving away from the woman who had saved him in Theresienstadt broke his heart.

He speaks in measured and thoughtful tones. Of course, he says, I feel anger towards the actions of the Nazis, ‘but I refuse to let my mind be occupied by anger at these very stupid people who did evil things because that only harms me.’

In his commentary to a verse in this week’s parashah, Rashi remarks on Moses’ reaction to Pharaoh’s cruelty.  He sees, says Rashi, that this turn of events has come about on account of his plea to Pharaoh to let the people go.  It’s his fault, but it’s also God’s fault. His reflex action is to return to the source of the trouble and exchange words with God:  ‘O God, why did You bring harm upon this people?  Why did you send me?’  Look how things have got so much worse for this people (Exodus 5.22-23).

For the Rabbis, the enslavement of the Israelites is the fulfillment of God’s words in Genesis: ‘Know that your descendants will be strangers in a land not theirs; they shall be enslaved and afflicted for four hundred years’ (Genesis 15.13).

How did individuals like Martin Stern find hope and faith in the future?  Like many who came to this country as young children and teenagers, there is a sense of deep gratitude for the education and opportunities received and the fulfilment of creating his own family, remembering the past, but not harbouring hatred or anger.  Of course, it is not like that for everyone – there are those who endure poverty, loneliness, the undying sense of loss of close family members and will always live with the trauma of having survived the unspeakable years of the Shoah.

We hold all these things in our mind as we mark Holocaust Memorial Day on Monday and pledge ourselves to eradicate the harm and evil that come from tribal hatred and violence.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 17 January 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, is mentioned only fourteen times in the Hebrew Bible  – eleven times in the Torah, only once in the prophets and twice in the Book of Chronicles, and one reference there is probably not to the Miriam in this week’s parashah, but another unknown daughter of an even less known father.

We meet her as Moses’ sister in this week’s Torah portion, although she is not given a name here.  Moses’ mother has placed her youngest child in a basket which she has put among the reeds in the River Nile, fearful that he will be discovered by Pharaoh who has issued a decree to kill all male Hebrew babies.  Of his sister, we know that she stations herself at a distance from the baby to see what is going to happen to him.  The midrash mentions her sensitivity and protectiveness towards her youngest sibling.

As soon as she notices that the daughter of Pharaoh has found the basket, she goes to the princess and offers a ‘Hebrew nurse to suckle the child.’  Pharaoh’s daughter agrees and so the girl goes and fetches her mother. Her assertiveness and immediate actions complement that early tenderness she shows her brother.

The second time we meet Miriam she is given a name and to her name is added the title n’viah – ‘prophet’, a title that is not even given to Moses in the Book of Exodus.  At the other side of the Sea of Reeds, relieved and full of joy, she takes up her timbrel or hand-drum, and with all the women following her dancing, she sings a shorter version of Moses’ Song at the Sea:  ‘I will sing to the Eternal One for He has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.’

It is an extraordinary glimpse into the scenes of triumph among the women and men on the shores of the Sea of Reeds, after the Israelites have safely crossed over and the Egyptian charioteers are no more.  This is a woman with a voice, with qualities of leadership and greatness, strong and tender, courageous, full of verve and determined.

In the Book of Numbers she is mentioned five times in the same chapter.  Here, for unknown reasons – perhaps jealousy, perhaps challenging the leadership and authority of Moses, she speaks out against Moses’ Cushite wife. We do not know whether this reference is to Zipporah, the Midianite wife he has taken while a shepherd in Midian, or a second wife from Cush (modern day Ethiopia).  Even as she is punished by God, afflicted with a skin disease that turns her skin white, Moses prays for Miriam to be healed. She is brought back into the camp after seven days, but she remains a condemned woman and we hear only that she has died in the wilderness of Kadesh.

Deuteronomy remembers her only as a warning to Israel: ‘In cases of a skin affection be most careful to do exactly as the Levitical priests instruct you…  Remember what the Eternal One your God did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt’ (Deut. 24.9). The young girl on the banks of the Nile, the leader of women on the shores of the Sea of Reeds, is brought to shame in the wilderness.

Does she marry?  Does she bear children?  The Torah makes no mention of this. Rabbinic literature sees her as part of a triumvirate of leaders, bringing about redemption for Israel. And because the Book of Numbers, mentions that the well of water dried up after she died, the Rabbis attribute to her the miracle of a well that accompanied the Israelites as they journeyed through the desert.  When she died, the well, Miriam’s well as it came to be known, ceased to exist.

In the midrash she is married off to Caleb, one of the twelve spies sent by Moses to spy out the land of Israel.  She is, thus, brought into the tribe of Judah and gives birth to Hur.  The Torah itself, however, leaves her proudly single and in this week’s parashah we learn of her essential qualities: responsible, curious, a young girl with initiative, courage and vision, in no one’s shadow.

We also encounter, in this week’s Torah portion, five other women who all play a redemptive role in saving the life of Moses and moving our story towards the Exodus from Egypt.  They are Yocheved, the mother of Moses, the two midwives who defy Pharaoh’s decree to throw the male Israelite babies into the  River Nile, Shifrah and Puah, the daughter of Pharaoh who rescues Moses from the river and  Moses’ Midianite wife, Zipporah.

When women assume a mantle of leadership and responsibility, it is not always easy. We challenge the status quo simply by our presence. We do not need to say or do anything.  Male primacy and authority, in place for thousands of years have marginalised and silenced women and now as we emerge from the shadows and find our voices, many still find it difficult.

‘Has not God spoken through us as well?’ asks Miriam of Moses in Numbers.  For this stepping over the line, she is punished. Not Aaron who joined with her in challenging authority, but Miriam alone.  Chastised because of her own sense of self-esteem, for courage, truth and strength.  After this, her role disappears and death follows swiftly.  She is all but brutally trampled out of history.

In our attempts to wrestle with our egos, women in leadership must be careful not to lose that self-esteem and little sense of pride they have in themselves.  There will be those who resent the authority and power we have, but we must continue to use our voices and influence – and use them with sensitivity and humility.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 10 January 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

This week we will read the Torah portion Va-y’chi, the last portion of the book of Genesis. Next week we begin with Exodus, our narrative of enslavement and redemption.

In this Torah portion we read of the end of both Jacob and Joseph’s life. The majority of the Torah portion is filled with Jacob’s blessings to his children and his grandchildren. He speaks to each of his sons and offers his blessings on them. In looking at Jacob’s blessing and his final words to his sons each of the tribes are described very differently. As Rabbi Gunther Plaut shares in his commentary on the Torah “It is obvious that the tribes are still in a state of ferment, and it is equally remarkable that they seemingly have little cohesion. What unites them is not a sense of national purpose or identity; neither is in evidence. If anything binds them, it is their sense of common ancestry and the memory of an old covenant.” We end Genesis with a parsha that is dominated by Jacob’s blessing to his sons detailing Jacob’s hopes and beliefs about the future of each tribe. Perhaps not surprisingly Dinah the daughter of Jacob is not included.  After the narrative of the rape of Dinah her name is never mentioned again.

Her absence in Jacob’s blessing is striking. Was she still a part of the family? Was she still alive? Why was her life not important enough to be mentioned by Jacob in his final words? American Rabbis Rachel Bearman and Paul Kipnes are working together in a chevruta partnership, creating a modern midrash on Genesis. They crafted a midrash imagining that Dinah did receive a blessing.

In their midrash, Dinah comes to Jacob and she shares with him how difficult it has been for her to have this vast distance between them, how painful that Jacob no longer speaks to her. Jacob shares that he didn’t know how to speak with her and that their distance isn’t a lack of love.

In their midrash, Jacob then offers to Dinah this blessing:

Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah,
You are my heart and the strength of my spirit.
You are the piece of me that wrestled with angels,
And that survived when assailed by challenges.

You, who have been denied what you are due by your father for so long,
Have offered a broken man kindness and mercy.
You are strength and love.
You are the best of your parents and so much more than we could ever be.
Our people will learn from your endurance.

I bless you and ask God, who has accompanied me, to walk with you all the days of your life.

Jacob then asks Dinah if she will offer him a blessing, to which she shares these words:

Jacob, son of Rebekah and Isaac,
You are my father and the guide of our people.
You have not lived a perfect life, but you have always tried to walk with God.

At times, you have tripped over your own limitations and have failed your family.
But when I tell my children stories of their grandfather’s life, these failings will not define you.
I will tell them of a man who lived a very human life who fell down, but struggled back to his feet again and again.
I will tell them of my father who called me to his side, asked for my forgiveness, and offered me a blessing filled with love.
Jacob, son of Rebekah and Isaac, father of our people, you will be remembered. 

Rabbis Bearman and Kipnes moved past focusing on the void, focusing on the absence of the voice of Dinah and instead reimagined her into the narrative.

We read the same texts year after year after year, as Rabbi Ben Bag Bag shares in Pirkei Avot, “Turn it and turn it again for everything lies in it”. We return to the text year after year because we change, and our understanding of the text changes. This creating and recreating our understanding of Torah, rooted in tradition with limbs reaching out into the future not only applies to our understanding of Torah but also our worship and ritual.

Many of our traditional Jewish rituals focused on the life transitions of men and Jewish women moved through transitions without the same rituals giving meaning, comfort and wisdom to their experiences. Over time Jewish leaders have started to create rituals for Jewish women, some of them like the baby naming blessing and the Bat Mitzvah have become very common. The book ‘Taking up the Timbrel’ offers other rituals that are not part of our normal body of Jewish lifecycles: rituals for fertility, for infertility, on the breakdown of a relationship, for the moment of birth, rituals for leaving, arriving and journeying. As Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild states in the book, “Prayer is deeply personal. At its best it addresses the feelings and needs of the individual who is praying. It crystallizes them and reorders them, providing a context in which the pray-er can grow, a space within which the connection with God can emerge. Rather like the best Torah study, bringing yourself, your own perspectives, your own experiences to the text means that you and it live in a different way.”

Judaism continues to speak to us today, and will speak to us in the future, because we allow it to inform our present, and we allow our present to inform our text and our prayer.

I become excited when I think about what the next decade will bring in terms of our understanding of text and ritual. It will happen through all of us honestly and openly engaging with our texts and traditions, identifying the voids and filling in the spaces with creativity, faith, a commitment to tradition and vulnerable reflections of the needs of our day.

Shabbat shalom

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 3 January 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

I am torn between wanting to write about this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash, in which Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and about which there is so much to say about reconciliation and forgiveness, and the way Pharaoh helps this family – a family from a foreign land – to settle in his country; and wanting also to acknowledge this strange and disturbing, almost unintelligible time in which we are living.  I do not have the words for the bloody attack that took place on the seventh night of Chanukkah in Monsey, a hamlet to the west of the Hudson River in New York State, home to thousands of Hasidic Jews.  Five members of the community were stabbed, one critically.  What can one say?  In the last three weeks, there have been more than thirteen attacks against Jewish communities or individuals in New York State alone.

Over the same weekend and nearer home, antisemitic graffiti was sprayed on the wall of the newly-constructed South Hampstead Synagogue and in various places in Hampstead and Belsize Park.  One wants to ask – why?  Why do people hate? What is it that drives them to such anger that they are willing to kill, to maim, to commit wanton damage on property, to use language in such abhorrent and destructive ways.

We are more likely to put ourselves into the shoes of victims, to find ways of expressing compassion and empathy by reaching out, by offering succour, practical help or a kind word.  Just this week, I visited someone whose family member had very recently died and who left express wishes for no funeral ritual or prayers, simply a cremation with no one present.  The relative was heartbroken to lose someone she loved, crushed and utterly lost that she had not been allowed to say farewell in a meaningful or prayerful way.  And there was nothing anyone could do to change the course of these events.  My heart went out to her and, in a brief visit, all I could offer was the recitation of a few prayers and a psalm without a body present.

These moments of witnessing loss, of seeing someone so utterly distraught, touch us very deeply and awaken our compassion and desire to do something that will mitigate against long-term trauma or disaster.

But what of perpetrators? Can I put myself in the shoes of the man or woman who hates with such bitterness they are willing to go on the attack?  There have been times – most often when on my bike and a van or car overtakes too fast and too near – when I react with a compulsion to use insulting language against the driver, to catch them up (nearly always impossible on a bike unless there is traffic), glare at them, knock firmly against the side of their vehicle to let them know my displeasure, my anxiety and resentment.  Rarely does this elicit any kind of apology, only an aggressive gesture in response or tearing away up a hill, brushing too closely against another cyclist or getting too near to the vehicle in front.  It is then that I experience a frustrated anger and I know that to hold on to it, to allow it to devour me, can hurt and destroy only one person – myself.

Imagine if Joseph had failed to let go of the grudge that he must have nurtured against his brothers throughout the years in Egypt.  It was there all right.  Why else would he punish them by ordering them to bring Benjamin down to Egypt?  Why test them and charge them with theft of his own silver cup?  Why threaten them to leave Benjamin as hostage, while they return to their father in Canaan?  Was this his way of manipulating their feelings, hurting them for the hurt they had inflicted on his seventeen year old self?

And yet, he is not hard-hearted, for Judah’s plea offering himself as a hostage instead of Benjamin, touches something deep inside him – his affection and love for his father and a constructed, yet real narrative about his own life – ‘it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you’ (Genesis 45.5).

It is Rashi who understands that there is no hatred in Joseph’s heart: ‘Just as there is no hatred in my heart for my brother Benjamin, who was not involved in my sale, neither is there any hatred in my heart toward you’ (Rashi to Genesis 45.12).  Joseph, the chancellor of all Egypt, the grandiose, shrewd saviour of Egypt’s recession and architect of its people’s economic survival, is freed from the burden of animosity towards his brothers.  He can no longer be a stranger to them. ‘In a startling moment of collapse,’ says Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg,

‘Joseph rejoins the human race.  He surrenders his project, shrivelled, reduced to human size.  A sinister grandiosity had informed that project; now, compassion, the benign infection of Judah’s words, compels him to relinquish his secret idea’ (The Beginning of Desire, p. 337).

May this Shabbat, the first Shabbat of a secular new year and new decade, release us from the burdens of our grudges, our age-old resentments and sense of failed entitlement.  May we learn from those who have taught themselves to accept serenely and with gratitude what God has given them; those who practise humility, kindness, who speak with compassion but also with just cause.  These are my prayers for this new year.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 27 December 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

As we bring the secular year to a close, I find myself reflecting on the words spoken by a friend in recent days: ‘We have so much to be grateful for.’

In the warmth of my own home, I watch the candles of Chanukkah burn, surrounded by my family and friends, and for these eight days of the festival, reflecting on the tumultuous events of the second century BCE, when the Seleucid emperor, Antiochus Ephiphanes attempted to force the Jewish community of Judea to abandon belief in the God of Israel for adulation of himself, a self-declared god – ‘weening in his arrogance to make the land navigable and the sea passable by foot, because his heart was lifted up’ (2 Maccabees 5:21).

At the centre of this conflict between Antiochus and the Jewish community of Judea, is a story of martyrdom: the willingness of young Jews to die in excruciating pain for their Jewish faith. Seven brothers, together with their mother (named Hannah in later sources), are captured at the king’s command, ‘shamefully handled with scourges and cords and compelled to taste of the abominable swine’s flesh’ (ibid. 7.1). What do you want from us, asks the first of her sons. The king falls into a rage and the boy is brutally tortured, burned and killed, his mother and brothers looking on. The second brother is similarly ordered to eat the forbidden food; he refuses and is mocked, tortured and dies gasping for breath. And so with the third and fourth and the rest of the seven brothers, all maimed, tortured and killed, each one declaring their faith in God and their hope in everlasting life, while their mother endures the violent death of her sons until she too dies.

Enter Judah the Maccabee, rounding up young men from the villages, training them in military manoeuvres, setting fire to cities and villages at night time and winning back the most important positions, putting to flight no small number of the enemies. Two years after Antiochus’s men have captured the Temple and defiled it with false idols, Judah and his soldiers recapture it, cleanse it and falling prostrate before God they pray that they might fall no more into such evils.

‘And they kept eight days with gladness in the manner of the feast of tabernacles, remembering how that not long before, during the feast of tabernacles, they were wandering in the mountains and in the caves after the manner of wild beasts’ (ibid. 10:6).

If we are discomfited by this violent story of martyrdom and the military victories of Judah the Maccabee, we might remember another story of a mighty king whose power is pitched against the judgements of the God of Israel. Pharaoh, whose heart is hardened and whose own people will suffer the ten plagues is finally defeated by God with the tenth plague, the death of the Egyptian firstborn. At the very moment when the hope of the Hebrews seems to ebb, God acts to vindicate His people, rescuing them from Egypt.

The story of Chanukkah turns on this moment of suffering and deliverance – the agonising and grotesque torments of this family and God’s deliverance of those who survived.

It is why we thank God for the wonders and deliverances that were performed for our ancestors in days of old at this season.

Our people have known cruelty, suffering and oppression. We have been persecuted, forced to abandon our faith and observances; we have been mocked for being different and punished for not conforming to the faith and practices of the so-called ‘host’ countries in which we have lived.

But at this time and at this season, I hope the festival of Chanukkah will help us, not only to reflect on the history that lies behind our lighting of the candles, but also on the blessings that these lights bring to us: blessings of family and community, of freedom to be faithful to the God of our ancestors and to the observances that bring meaning and purpose into our lives.

It was another Hannah – Hannah Senesh, ready to die for her people, who left Hungary for Palestine in 1939 and who, in 1944 volunteered to return to Hungary to help defeat the Nazis. She too, like the mother of the seven sons, was tortured, but never gave in to her torturers or betrayed her people. Before her death she wrote these words:

                    Blessed is the match that is consumed in kindling flame.

                    Blessed is the flame that burns in the heart’s secret places.

                    Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honour’s sake.

                    Blessed is the match that is consumed in kindling flame.

May these last days of Chanukkah bring all of us light and courage, faithfulness to defeat the darkness of tyranny and oppression and gratitude that we live in times when we can serve God and our fellow human beings in freedom and with love.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukkah Sameach.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 20 December 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

We live in a multicultural world, our synagogue is in the centre of one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth, our tradition is a result of living among and adapting many aspects from other cultures. This week we celebrate Chanukkah – a good example of the multi-layered nature of Jewish tradition.

On an historical level, we celebrate the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its defilement by Greeks in 164 BCE. A small band of faithful but poorly-armed Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated one of the mightiest armies in the world, reclaimed the Temple and rededicated it to the service of God. This event was observed in an eight-day celebration. About six centuries after the event, rabbinic sages were uncomfortable with the military aspect of the festival and ascribed the length of the festival to a miraculous small amount of oil that burned for eight days.

On a metaphorical level, this is a festival of lights which is celebrated at the time of year when the days are shortest in the northern hemisphere. Many cultures have similar festivals at this time of year. All highlight the importance of light, warmth and spending time together with community, friends and family.

In 2019, Chanukkah begins on Sunday night, December 22 and lasts until Monday night, December 30. Please consider coming to the LJS Chanukkah programme on Monday, December 23:

3.00-4.00 pm   Rabbi Elana will be doing arts and crafts for children – all ages welcome.

3.00-4.00 pm   Rabbi Alex will be leading an informal study session for adults.

4.00 pm           Candle-lighting with Rabbi Igor, tea, doughnuts and latkes.

The multi-layered nature of our tradition allows us, modern Jews, to look beyond time and culture and see the relevance in Judaism today. It allows us to adopt successful forms and customs from the world around us and adapt them according to our principles. This forces us, progressive Jews, to keep looking for the best forms which would allow Jewish tradition to remain meaningful and suited for modern realities.

Chanukkah Sameach and Shabbat Shalom!

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 13 December 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

The Council has gritted the pavement outside the church hall where I cast not only my own vote on Thursday morning, but also a proxy vote for my daughter, who lives abroad.  Despite arming myself with a file of paperwork she has sent to me, her voting card and my passport for identification, her name is not on the list.  I keep calm.  There is a long queue of people behind me, impatient and also needing to get to work.  Eventually, they add my daughter’s name to the list in pencil, record her number – which exists on one list but not on another – and I cast both mine and her vote.

Following my neighbours out of the hall, it is hard not to feel despondent about the state of the world and I ask myself how it can get better.

A few weeks ago, on Mitzvah Day, a small group of LJS members joined a Sikh charity called Niksham Swat to provide hot food and drink for nearly two hundred homeless men and a handful of women. It was a Sunday evening, dark and cold and as I hurried along the Strand, I noticed a crowd of people gathering, forming themselves into an orderly queue.  A large van had pulled up in sight of Covent Garden; the side doors slid open and within minutes long tables were set up on the pavement with huge dishes of hot food, pizzas, rice, vegetable dishes, a delicious carrot cake, an urn of hot water for teas and coffees.  We were given specific tasks, serving food, hot drinks and bottles of water.

It was only after three hours, the food gone, the people dispersed, as we cleared up and I was walking to the tube station at Charing Cross that I was able to process what I had just witnessed.  People of all ages, of all nationalities, faiths, backgrounds, some looking more resilient than others, some obviously desperately ill and in need of medical help – hungry, thirsty, lonely, hurting, vulnerable, some angry, some full of gratitude, others able to laugh and enter into a bit of conversation.  But it was the people who averted their gaze and who couldn’t reply to the ‘Good evening sir’, couldn’t respond to the offer of a bottle of water, whose pride was so deeply damaged by having to accept charitable giving, that one feared for their future and mental health.

I was shocked and angry – angry that so many have nowhere to rest their heads, but the concrete ground of the underpass at Charing Cross Station or elsewhere, some lucky enough to sleep in flimsy tent, but more lying nearby, exhausted and dead to the world, with only a sleeping bag between them and the cold winter air of a November night.

This is the world we are living in at the moment.  Many will undoubtedly be relieved when this night is over and the votes counted.  Others will already be expressing their devastation at the result of this election.  We will be setting up more tables along the Strand and cooking ever more quantities of food; more charities will spring up to support asylum seekers; we will have to find different and creative ways of combating poverty; we will have to work that much harder to put pressure on a new government to enact legislation that will reduce carbon emissions, and we will have to honour our own commitments on an individual level.

On Monday 16th December, the LJS will be holding its annual ‘Festivals for All’ Chanukkah (or pre-Chanukkah in this case) gathering at the synagogue.  I hope you will join us with so many others: individuals, schools, institutions, faith communities and organisations who always look forward to coming together to celebrate and to express a unified message of friendship, hope and peace.  It is so easy to lose hope, to be drawn back to a place where we ignore the suffering and privation around us.

‘Not always shall the needy be ignored, nor the hope of the afflicted forever lost…’ (Psalm 9:19).  As people of hope and faith, let not our mood be darkened by the national temper of impatient zeal and fear.  We must look to the long term with patience; we must turn to those organisations – community organisations – capable of effecting change at a grass roots level.

In the midst of one of the darkest moments in Jewish history, the prophet Jeremiah speaks these words to the people: ‘For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Eternal One, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope’ (Jeremiah 29.11).  Let us go forward with this message on our tongues, knowing that those plans must be ours – for welfare and not for harm – and so build a future of hope for the generations yet to come.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 6 December 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Recently I had a conversation with someone in the process of conversion, they shared with me how connected they feel to God when they are in synagogue, but struggle to feel as connected when they are away from the community. I think this is something we can all relate to, for most of us we probably feel the deepest connection to our faith and our people when we are in a community. We are blessed to live in a diverse community and to be alive at a time and place where, as Jews, we are integrated into the wider society. How do we continue to feel connected even when we are not within the walls of the sanctuary or engaging in Jewish ritual ?

In the Shema we are encouraged to love God, to allow for this connection to our faith to be a part of our rising in the morning, our thoughts at the end of the night and in our hearts, minds and souls as we go on our way. On a practical level this is difficult, isn’t it? How can we remain connected?

There have been times in my life where I have strongly felt God’s presence, and times when I had to remind myself to look. In my late teens, in a period of questioning, my father encouraged me to say the Shehechiyanu every time I felt God’s presence. Throughout the day I found myself reciting this prayer, I was surprised to see how often I felt connected even during a time when intellectually I was questioning. This is a practice I have now taken on any time I am in a place of doubt, within a few weeks I am able to see how connected I do feel. Though God is mysterious, God is also there as a stable and loving force even if we are in a place of disconnection.

The Shehechiyanu prayer is traditionally said when one experiences something for the first time: when one wears a new article of clothing or when one eats a fruit for the first time in the growing season. This blessing is also often said at lifecycle events: baby namings, b’nei mitzvah, conversions, weddings. We learn in the Talmud that the Shehechiyanu prayer can also be recited if you see a friend you haven’t seen for more than 30 days. The translation of the blessing is “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, who has given us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this moment.” Every moment we experience is a first, the Shehechiyanu prayer can be recited any time we feel grateful for the moment we are in. Perhaps you might find this exercise helpful/interesting as well. You might want to try reciting this blessing every time you feel grateful or aware of God’s presence.

There is a lot of emphasis in Judaism on recognising the sacredness of the moment. Perhaps the clearest example we have of this idea in our Torah comes from this week’s Torah portion. Jacob has fled Esau who has threatened to kill him for stealing his birthright. He stops for the night, using a rock as a pillow he falls asleep. He dreams of a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending. He awakes and proclaims, “God was in this place and I, I did not know it.”

Let us attempt, even in times of doubt and struggle, to recognise that God is in this place and to offer gratitude for the gift of the moment.

Shabbat Shalom

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 29 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

There has always been a tension in Judaism between particularism and universalism: concern and care for our own people, and a reaching out to help others for the greater good of the societies in which we live.  It is quite natural to express unease and disquiet at circumstances that may affect our own families and communities.  We have to work much harder to express our interest in and apprehension for those who are not like ourselves.

So when the current Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, a gentle man of compassion and integrity, is asked by members of our community, ‘What will become of Jews and Judaism in Britain if the Labour Party forms the next government,’ his response should be finely balanced between concern for ourselves and our own interests and an equally profound attention and awareness of others.

That tension and balance are an essential part of the teaching that Jews should be both ‘for ourselves,’ but not ‘only for ourselves.’   This dual imperative can be found in texts that go back to the Hebrew Bible:  the commandment not to harden one’s heart towards our kinsfolk but to lend sufficient for their needs is set next to the interdiction against oppressing the stranger.  ‘For you were a stranger in the land of Egypt,’ is a constant refrain in the Torah – repeated more often than any other commandment, because we need to work harder and train ourselves to identify with those who are not part of our own people.

The prophets, too, identified that tension.  Amos makes no distinction between God who brings up the Israelites from Egypt and the Philistines from Caphtor or the Arameans from Kir (Amos 9:7).  And Malachi may have been referring to the people of Israel in his prophecy, but subsequent interpretations have universalised his message to refer to all humanity: ‘Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?  Why do we break faith with one another..?’ (Malachi 2.10).

The Talmud, in a clear reference to these verses, relates that on one occasion, when it was decreed that the Jews were prohibited from studying the Torah, infant male circumcision and observing the Sabbath, the Rabbis went and took counsel with a Roman woman, well-known to prominent Romans.  She advised them to raise an alarm by night, and as they did so, they said, ‘O you heavens, are we not your brothers and sisters? Are we not the children of one father? Are we not the children of one mother?  In what way are we different from every other nation and tongue that you make harsh decrees against us?’  One wonders where Shakespeare drew his inspiration for Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice, ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh…?’

In Jewish law, as well as lore, Jews have obligations to the rest of humanity: ‘We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, mi-p’nei darchei shalom – for the sake of peace (bGittin 61a). And on a daily basis, the liturgy of our prayer books instructs the community to recall our specific Jewish task as well as our obligations to the rest of humanity.

The Chief Rabbi is right in drawing attention to all victims of racism and reminding those of us who live securely and without the anxiety of being harassed on a train, beaten up on a bus, or hounded out of a political party, that antisemitism, along with other insidious and violent forms of racism and senseless hatred, including Islamophobia, are very real dangers to freedom and well-being in our democracy.

Yet, in this fruitless war of words, we, the Jewish community, have lost our balance.  We have been trapped in a cycle that focuses only on ourselves as victims of antisemitism, rather than as agents for good in the world.  Jeremy Corbyn is not going to apologise for past associations or present weakness in failing to address antisemitism in his party; just as Boris Johnson will continue to use words irresponsibly, stirring the flames of Islamophobia and other forms of racism.

Leadership – whether political or religious – requires humility, wisdom, courage and admission of wrong-doing.    It is time for us as leaders of the Jewish community to take a step back, to redress a balance and to speak out, not only for ourselves, but for all victims of racism, and for all those in our own country who have suffered because of years of austerity.

The Jewish people have survived because we have held this delicate and creative balance of particularism and universalism, of understanding our specific responsibility as Jews with our own narrative, and seeing ourselves as part of the human family, children of One God, with the obligation to seek the welfare of all people.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 22 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A few weeks ago, I started a personal project. I decided to read a Torah portion in advance, study some commentaries, midrashim, interpretations and stories related to it and draw a sketch. My hope was that the sketch would depict one of the ideas I found relevant in the Torah portion. I called the project Torah Sketch. I hope I will have enough patience, creativity and inspiration to complete the year-long journey.

I started with Torah portion Lech Lecha. My inspiration was the moment I discovered that you can customise the back of Nike trainers with your initials. The theme of the journey which Abraham took in Genesis 12 fits the shoes’ customisation feature very well. Therefore, I decided to draw the following sketch:

This journey led me to this week’s Torah portion Chayei Sarah. Its opening verse says:

And the life of Sarah was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years. These were the years of the life of Sarah (Gen 23:1)

Rashi, a great Torah scholar from the eleventh century, asked why the text doesn’t just say, “Sarah lived one hundred and twenty seven years?” The repetition of the word ‘year’ and the splitting of Sarah’s age into three periods seems unnecessary and superfluous, yet Rashi concluded that the wording is repeated to indicate that all of her years were good.

It is easy to think that the best years of your life are ahead of you, leading you to live your life dreaming of a better future. Or you may think that your best years were in the past, meaning you spend your time reminiscing. While it is important to remember the past and think of the future, the story of Sarah reminds us that any age can be equally good. Whether you are seven, twenty or hundred years old, you can be happy and lead a life of fulfilment and accomplishment, joy and happiness.

Pirkei Avot, a two thousand year old collection of Rabbinic wisdom, records a saying of Judah ben Tema about different stages of people’s lives (Pirkei Avot 5:21):

At five to the study of Scripture;

At ten to the study of Mishnah;

At thirteen to the commandments;

At fifteen to the study of Talmud;

At eighteen to the bridal canopy;

At twenty to the pursuit of livelihood;

At thirty to the peak of strength;

At forty to wisdom;

At fifty to give counsel;

At sixty to the old age;

At seventy to fullness of years;

At eighty to strength.

Perhaps not all of the above activities are relevant for our world today, but the principle remains the same: At any age we can find ourselves, discover new sides of life, and be happy.

May this week be the one of fulfilment, health, strength and fullness of years!

Shabbat Shalom

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 15 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Finally, I find a quiet moment to sweep the fallen leaves from outside my house.  They line the path leading to the front door and the pavement of my road; they lie in the gutter – some dry and curled, fragile like moth-eaten pages of an old manuscript.  Some are freshly fallen and beautiful still – gold and red, the rich colours of this autumn season.  As a child, I would collect fallen leaves and flowers and press them between the pages of thick books and sometimes now, opening an old volume  – very occasionally – I will come across the dry, compacted form of a leaf or a few petals.  How far I seem from those days when every leaf seemed precious and something new that I had never seen before – each blade defined by its unique shape, the midrib running from the base to its apex, the delicate veins branching out to the edges, essential to the health of the leaf as they carry the nutrients necessary to its life.

In the short time, I am outside, I encounter four of my neighbours and miraculously, we find time to chat.  The man next door, who piles his three small children into his car every morning to take them to school and nursery, my neighbour the other side who always watches for parcels or packets left outside the front door, and on the other side of her, my lovely neighbour who will always lend me an egg or some milk if I find myself without an essential ingredient when I am cooking.

This is a rare moment of privilege and pleasure – of feeling embedded in my neighbourhood where I have lived for a long time. These are the people whom I so often wave to, but find little time to chat, to find out what is happening in their lives, to discover the challenges they are living with?  Each of them has a story or many stories – the loneliness of a widow, battling her own health problems; the worry of a sick child or grandchild; the difficulties of bringing up a family in the cramped surroundings of a small flat.

There is something hidden, yet precious that binds us together as neighbours – that we share the same road, that we live in such close proximity to each other, with only a fence or thin wall separating our houses and gardens.  We hear the movements we make in each other’s homes, we take in each other’s post, we sweep each other’s leaves and put away each other’s dustbins, we lend each other books. We are a small community, a micro-community of this larger society in which we live. And we have learned to live with each other’s foibles and habits, to speak courteously to each other if something crops up that bothers us.

We are like the birds gathering around the feeders in the garden: two parakeets alighting on a thin branch, the family of dunnocks chirping noisily, the jays and a large, black crow, the fat pigeons that fancy themselves as lighter versions of themselves, swaying awkwardly, pushing themselves towards the feeder.  They come and go throughout the day, occasionally on their own, more often as a small community, busy feeding, singing, perching and swaying, curling themselves into little acrobats to feed from the seeds.

It was Hillel who said: Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur – ‘Do not separate yourself from the community’ (Pirkei Avot 2:5) – an appeal to strengthen the Jewish community, to pray and study with the congregation, to volunteer one’s times and strengths, not to withdraw into an ascetic life of seclusion.

Those few minutes of sweeping the leaves in front of my houses reminded me of the importance of community: of collaboration and reaching out, listening and sharing, of gratitude and love.  And I see the individuals of our community as veins in a leaf, the seams that connect us to each other, that reach out to the very edges of our congregation with the warmth and friendship that are required to counter loneliness, to bring consolation and to share in each other’s joys.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 8 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to teach one of our teenage class sessions at Rimon. This particular class is a very engaged and thoughtful group. I facilitated an exercise with them, I shared a statement of theology or belief and if they strongly agreed they would stand on one side of the room, if they strongly disagreed they would stand on the other side of the room. If they weren’t certain they stood in the middle. After a few rounds I shared the statement I was most curious about “I believe in God”. One student went to the “strongly agree” side of the room, one went to the “strongly disagree” side of the room, and the rest found themselves somewhere in the middle. We spoke about this one for about 10 minutes and through the conversation I learned that all of the students believe in some sort of higher power, in a greater force that acts in this world but each of them understood God differently. Most stated that they don’t believe in the God as presented in the Torah, a God of creation who is capable of reward or punishment though many of them think (hope) that God is capable of providing healing. The next statement I shared was “Studying Torah is one of the most important parts of being Jewish.” Every single student went to the “Strongly Agree” side of the room. How wonderful! In their own words, the students shared that Torah gives them a sense of history, it connects them with past generations, it teaches important lessons and values. I was inspired by this group of young people and their open conversation, they had clarity about their relationship with the past and with our texts and a connection to but questions about God. I was reminded of a famous text from the Talmud, “The Oven of Akhnai”. It is a text often studied in progressive Judaism as it emphasis the sacred importance of human conversation.   

The Oven of Akhnai is one of my favourite passages from the Talmud, it is from Bava Metzia 59a. It is a story that comes in the midst of a conversation around keeping an over ritually pure. If the oven becomes impure one can purify it by breaking it into pieces and then placing the pieces back together, with a cement like substance between each piece. Rabbi Eleazer has an idea, if an oven is purified by breaking it into pieces and then putting those pieces back together with mortar between the pieces, then could it be possible to create an oven that could never be deemed impure by placing together with mortar many small pieces, instead of having one large oven.  

If you’re confused then you are in good company, like much of the Talmud the halachik discussions are full of complicated minutiae. It’s not important that you understand Rabbi Eliezar’s argument, what is important is that you understand that Rabbi Eleazar was trying to convince the Talmudic sages who were making decisions about the community, kind of like the counsel  of Talmudic times, that his argument was valid and should be followed. Here is the text:  

On that day, when they discussed this matter, Rabbi Eliezer answered all possible answers in the world to support his opinion, but the Rabbis did not accept his explanations from him. After failing to convince the Rabbis logically, Rabbi Eliezer said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, this carob tree will prove it. The carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, and some say four hundred cubits. The Rabbis said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from the carob tree. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the stream will prove it. The water in the stream turned backward and began flowing in the opposite direction. They said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from a stream. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the walls of the study hall will prove it. The walls of the study hall leaned inward and began to fall. Rabbi Yehoshua scolded the walls and said to them: If Torah scholars are contending with each other in matters of halakha, what is the nature of your involvement in this dispute? The Gemara relates: The walls did not fall because of the deference due Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten because of the deference due Rabbi Eliezer, and they still remain leaning. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, Heaven will prove it. A Divine Voice emerged from Heaven and said: Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion? Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: It is written: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of the phrase “It is not in heaven” in this context? Rabbi Yirmeya says: Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a Divine Voice, as You already wrote at Mount Sinai, in the Torah: “After a majority to incline” (Exodus 23:2). Since the majority of Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, the halakha is not ruled in accordance with his opinion. The Gemara relates: Years after, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time, when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration? Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.  

(Non-gendered God language has been used to reflect an honest translation of the Talmud.)  

Time and time again the rabbis are shown that God agrees with Rabbi Eleazar, (the waters flow backwards, the tree is uprooted, a heavenly voice comes down!) but in the end it is the discussions and decisions of the people that are more important than the will of God.   

Though our thoughts and opinions may be divinely inspired, this text reminds us that what we are doing within community is sacred work, as humans we hold the responsibility of creating and maintaining an ethical framework.  It is not in heaven that the rules of the community are decided it is the work of humans to look through the details of how a community functions and to decide how our sacred text and traditions will be manifest in our communities. It is not in heaven, it is here, in the halls and rooms of the LJS and in any room where Jewish individuals come together to discuss, plan and commit ourselves to Torah in all its many forms. 

Shabbat Shalom

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 1 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A seventeen year old boy, his mother dead, his father an old man to whom he is close, is sold to people traders, slave owners, by his own brothers, and is taken to a foreign country where he is trafficked to a soldier in the king’s army.  He works hard and is given responsibility and authority over the household.  The man is often away from home and soon the man’s wife sets her sights on the young teenager, tries to get him to sleep with her and one day, takes hold of him saying, ‘Lie with me!’  The boy escapes, leaving his garment in her hand.  Outraged, she calls her husband and accuses the boy of trying to rape her.  His master has the boy thrown into prison and there he languishes for a long time.

This is the story of Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel – the first individual in the Hebrew Bible we know to be trafficked by people smugglers from Judah into Egypt and then sold into slavery to Potiphar and his wife.

I have thought about this story, its initial similarities and then the stark and tragic differences between Joseph’s ultimate success and the thirty-nine individuals trafficked into the UK and found dead inside a freezer container just one week ago.

We do not know all the details: why these young men and women left their homes in the first place, making the long, costly, precarious and unknown journeys to Europe. Why would someone leave parents and family, homeland and everything that is familiar and risk losing their lives if not for reasons that are quite desperate?  Why did our own grandparents or great-grandparents leave their homes for England or Ireland or the United States?  They saw no future for themselves under oppressive regimes, their lives blighted by poverty and hardship.  Perhaps it is freedom or the urgent need for money, for meaningful work and the possibility of a brighter future that gives individuals the motivation to undertake such long and frightening journeys, their families mortgaging land and movables for tens of thousands of pounds.

These young people – if they came from Vietnam – had risked everything, including tragically their lives, in order to make it into this country.  Did they know the kind of work they might have ended up in?  In cannabis farms, in nail bars, perhaps even in prostitution and sex work?

Some people’s lives are so desperate that they would rather make these perilous journeys, knowing the difficulty of entering Western Europe, than stay where they are.  Nearly 18,000 people have drowned crossing seas and trying to enter other countries since 2014.

The death of these 39 women and men is tragic.  Tragic in that a journey that began with hope has ended in irreversible catastrophe.  Such tragedies have been more apparent to all of us since the three year old Syrian child of Kurdish ethnic background, Alan Kurdi, was found face down on a beach after he drowned in the Mediterranean.

This world in which we live is one of uncertainty and doubt; it engenders a feeling of unease in a place that has unlearnt the customs of hospitality.  And we bear a responsibility for this unlearning, for this environment of suspicion and lack of interest in the lives of individuals who only wish for freedom – to go where they wish to go, to live where they wish to live, to speak with truth what they believe, to love with honesty and openness.

The lives of these individuals, their aspirations and hope, came into tragic conflict with the limitations and demands of a world that is fundamentally hostile to asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.

As Noah and his family and the animals he has saved emerge from the Ark in this week’s parashah, God rethinks the guidelines he has given to humanity and adds this law for Noah and his descendants:

                Whoever sheds the blood of human beings,

                By humanity shall his blood be shed;

                For in God’s image

                Did God make human beings (Genesis 9:6).

Human life, the life of all creatures, says God, is precious; I will now bind myself to you in an everlasting covenant and promise never again to destroy the earth and all flesh by the waters of a flood. God sees the grandeur of each human spirit, the preciousness of each human life.  And that is what it means for all human beings to be created in God’s image.  Our deeds, our words and actions have repercussions and when we lose our faith in a God who has created us in the divine image, we lose that sense and acknowledgement of the nobility and dignity of the human spirit, the body that encases it and the obligations that fall on us and the countries in which we live, to ensure that such tragedies will never happen again.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 25 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Any end must be followed by a new beginning – such is the hope embedded in our tradition. This week we celebrated Simchat Torah, which marks several ends and beginnings. After a 22 day chain of festivals, we observed the end of a Jewish marathon of individual and communal reflection, and marked the beginning of a new calendar and agricultural year. After a year-long journey through weekly Torah portions, we marked the completion of the annual cycle of the Torah reading and acknowledged the beginning of the new one. After many years of Moses’ leadership, we read about the end of his life, and the beginning of Joshua’s term as a leader of the Jewish people.

In his new book ‘Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope’, Johann Hari offers a personal perspective on depression and anxiety. Hari selects concepts that explain some aspects of depression and its causes. He interviews and summarises research of many scholars who have uncovered evidence for nine different causes of depression. Some are in our biology, but most can be found in the way we live today. Among these causes are: disconnection from meaningful work, disconnection from other people, disconnection from meaningful values, and disconnection from a hopeful and secure future. I don’t think any of the book’s points are new, nevertheless they remain important and worth speaking about.

Perhaps the Jewish community might offer a solution to some of them. Liberal Judaism takes the position that Jewish tradition must keep in tune with modern and relevant trends to remain meaningful to modern society. The Jewish way of living is a spiral. Each year we begin a new old journey, developing a new circuit of our lives. Each year we begin with a new Creation and, therefore, articulate a new hope. It helps us to find meaning in life, support from our community, and stability in today’s world.

As Progressive Jews, it is our responsibility to develop and defend Judaism which offers people a medium for meaningful life and meaningful values, connection to a community of caring people, and the sense of a helpful and secure future. As we begin the new cycle of the Torah reading, let us not forget that any end must be followed by a new beginning, such is the hope embedded in our tradition.

Shabbat Shalom

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 18 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

On the first day of Sukkot, my colleague, 77 year old Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, taking part in the Extinction Rebellion protests, wearing a tallit and carrying a lulav and etrog in his hand, was arrested outside the Bank of England.  A passionate campaigner on the climate emergency, it was distressing to see him carried away by the police, who wrested the lulav and etrog from his hand so that it dropped carelessly to the ground.

This action affected me deeply. It was a stark reminder that so many were willing to put their lives, their bodies and their liberty on the line for the sake of the future of our planet.  As George Monbiot said, in the moments before he was arrested on Wednesday:

‘At the moment we are facing the destruction of life on earth, the destruction of our life support systems; so to stand up against that destruction, I feel, is our human duty. By being arrested in defence of the living planet, I feel I can look my children, and maybe one day my grandchildren in the eye. This feels exactly the right place to be, under arrest for trying to defend life on earth.’

‘It’s not OK,’ said Rabbi Newman as he was lifted off the ground by two policeman and we knew what that meant.  This wanton destruction of the earth, capitalisation through investment in fossil fuel industries, our moral distance and ignorance of what is happening, not only in our own hemisphere, but thousands of miles away, where it is the poorest of the world, whose impact on the climate is small, but who suffer most from  environmental breakdown – thousands of refugees who seek refuge from the climate chaos in places such as Somalia, Mozambique, Bangladesh, the Caribbean, Central America and many other parts of the world.

A curious thing is happening, not for the first time in our public spaces.  Seeing Rabbi Newman on the first day of the festival, walking with the ritual objects of Sukkot and wearing his tallit reminded me of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words that prayer should be a ‘radical, subversive act.’  Prayer and ritual are no longer confined to the home and the synagogue, but – like the civil rights movement in the United States for which Heschel marched – it has been moved into the public space, beyond the walls of our religious institutions.

Dr Susanna Heschel, wrote of her father on his return from the non-violent civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama:

‘When he came home from Selma in 1965, my father wrote, ‘For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.’’

An early Aramaic chronicle of significant days in the Jewish calendar demonstrates the power of protesting in a public space in this account about Caligula who had sent an idol to be placed in the Temple.  This shocking news reached Jerusalem on the eve of Sukkot.  Shimon Ha-Tzaddik instructed the Jews to go out and stand before the soldiers of the Roman Empire.   In every city throughout Judea, they stood in their numbers to confront the Emperor’s emissary and cried out, ‘We will die before we accept this decree.’  They lay down in the market places in sackcloth and ashes.  When a letter arrived announcing Caligula’s assassination, the idol was immediately taken down and dragged through the streets and Shimon Ha-Tzaddik heard a voice from the Holy of Holies that said: ‘The worship of idols in the Temple is nullified. Caligula has been slain and his decrees nullified.’  And the same day was declared a Yom Tov (Megillat Ta’anit 11.9).

Before this month of Tishri with its festivals of judgement, atonement and rejoicing is over, I know I must take my prayers out of the Sanctuary and into a public place.  I am frightened that my own inaction has rendered me complacent and paralysed by helpless distress.

If we care about the future our children and – please God – our grandchildren are going to inherit, then if we can, we need to take our prayers across the threshold of our interior spaces and outside into a public place.  Prayer is political; it has always been thus, from the moment that Moses hesitated at the Sea of Reeds to utter a supplication to God.  What are you doing, says God, get up and move on!

Shabbat Shalom and may the closing festival of Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah be a time we turn away from despair and embrace an uplifting hope for the future.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 11 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

I feel so grateful and honoured to have spent the Days of Awe within our community. For me personally, and I do hope for you as well, the worship experiences of the last two weeks have been deep and moving, made even more powerful by being surrounded by our community. This was my second Yom Kippur at the LJS, but I had only just started before last year’s festival season. I was moved this year to look out from the Bimah and to see your faces, having had the immense honour of getting to know you better over the last year. Thank you for sharing your life and faith with me. What we have at the LJS really is very special.

To think about all the people who worked tirelessly to bring it all together! From the office team to the Shammashim, the stewards, Karen Newman who projected the sermons, our teachers who led art activities upstairs, and everyone who attended either at the synagogue or through streaming, adding their voices to the community prayers.

Since the closing of the service of Yom Kippur, I have been thinking about the small Jewish community in Halle Germany. Like us, they too had joined together in prayer, with their community, having readied themselves for a Day of Atonement and spiritual renewal. Like us, they were engaging in peaceful prayer and working towards being better. Until their prayers were brutally interrupted by a right-wing extremist who attempted to break into the synagogue, killing two innocent individuals, all with a camera live streaming mounted on his head. He filmed himself before the attack, identifying himself as a Holocaust denier and blamed “the Jew” for the worlds problem.

The security plan that this synagogue in Halle had set up kept them safe, though the attacker shot repeatedly at the door and threw several Molotov cocktails he was not able to force himself in. There were 70-80 people gathered in the synagogue, after hearing the shots they saw the attacker trying to get in through the security camera.

Only hours after the attack we sat in our synagogue and joined together in the Mussaf service. A service honouring those whose lives have been cut short only because they were Jewish, because hatred and fear of the other is violent and dangerous and is too familiar to us as a people. I think about the words of Claude Montefiore that we read during the Mussaf service, “It was not an ibn Gabirol or a Maimonides, still less a Spuinoza, who fulfilled the Jewish mission most truly, or rendered the greatest service to the Jewish cause. No. It was the many little obscure Jewish communities through the ages, persecuted and despised, who kept alive the flame of the purest Monotheism and the supremacy and divisiveness of the moral Law.” We still do not know many details about the victims or how many others were injured. We hold their bereaved families, and this terrified community in our prayers.

We are grateful to the CST and to our own security team at the LJS who ensures our security as we come together in prayer and study.

May this new year be one of safety for us and all people. May we find ourselves in a world of greater tolerance and love, and may this day come soon.

Shanah Tovah,

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 4 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

During the month of Ellul, preceding Rosh Hashanah, a colleague and dear friend ran three online sessions from her home in the States on Musar literature – a genre of Jewish teaching and literature that Rabbi Bahya ibn Pakuda in the eleventh century calls ‘the science of inner life.’  Musar focuses on ways in which we can practise moral discipline and attempt to overcome our ‘weaker’ qualities.  How can we cultivate our own sense of dignity and self-worth? How can we overcome persistent anger or resentment? How can we become more patient, more tolerant and more forgiving of others? And so there is a practical and pious (I admit the word has awkward connotations in our own time) dimension to the application of Musar.

There were four students, an intimate group, all speaking to each other via our computer or smart phones using the technology ‘Zoom’.  Apart from receiving the wisdom of my colleague with teachings that had been sent to us in advance, it was so lovely to feel connected to her in these days leading up to the festivals and, of course, to be searching our own souls; refining – if you like – the traits that are part of us seemed supremely important as we considered the days of repentance before us.

She presented us with texts on three ‘virtues’ over the three weekly sessions we were together: Anavah (humility), Hakarat ha-Tov (gratitude) and Menuchat ha-Nefesh (equanimity – ‘rising above the good and bad’).

Setting us some daily ‘homework’ to reflect on these qualities, she allowed us to reflect on our own traits, on how we had spent our week, whether we had been able to ‘practise’ or at least think about the way we are with ourselves and with others.

One of the most famous tracts of Musar literature is named after a woman – Tomer D’vorah – ‘The Palm Tree of Deborah’ by the sixteenth century kabbalist and scholar, Moses Cordovero.  Cordovero opens the first of the ten chapters of his book with a phrase by phrase interpretation of Micah 7:18-20 – these are the verses that conclude the Haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah, this Shabbat.  The first part begins with the famous verses from Hosea: ‘Return, O Israel, to the Eternal One your God…’ (Hosea 14:2).

This Shabbat, in the middle of the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah – the Ten Days of Repentance, the message is not only Hosea’s exhortation to repent, but God’s readiness to forgive:

‘Who is a God like You,

Forgiving iniquity, passing over transgression;

You do not cling to Your anger with the remnant of Your people,

Because you delight in showing love!’ (Micah 7:18)

Cordovero sees in these words divine attributes – endless kindness, forgiveness, willingness to let go of anger, love and patience.  These, he says, are the attributes of our Divine Creator and these are the moral and spiritual qualities to which we should aspire. We may cling to our anger, but God does not. Even if a person fails to repent of their sins, God neutralises or nullifies divine fury with mercy and love and the expectation of repentance.

It is hard to let go of anger and hurt.  Yet, this is what Yom Kippur demands of us.  In our short-tempered world, we have to swim against the current of impatience with forgiveness, forgetfulness even, with a sense that we can let go and stop bearing grudges or feeling victimised.

How hard it is when the words we hear around us are not always tender, kind or forgiving.  How hard to be patient when our attention span grows weaker the more technology tests and assaults our perseverance; how hard to love and be loved; how difficult to show gratitude, to practise humility and cultivate that sense of equanimity in our own souls.

We need a week of Yom Kippur, a month, a retreat of silence, an escape away from the chaotic uncertainties of our lives and the political landscape we live in.

Can we forgive iniquity; can we be forgiven?  Can we pass over the transgression of others and let go of our anger?  As we enter these days of holiness, help us O God to be like You, delighting in showing love and gratitude and remaining true and faithful to our Judaism, to the Jewish people and the teachings of our faith, as You, O God showed ‘faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham… from days of old’ (Micah 7.20).

Shabbat Shalom and Chatimah Tovah – May you be inscribed for a  healthy and peaceful year of 5780.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 27 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

As a Liberal Rabbi, I believe in development and critical approach to religion and life. Knowing the past helps me to navigate in the uncertainty of the present. As bestselling writer and historian Yuval Harari put it: ‘The cold hand of the past… grips us by the neck and directs our gaze towards a single future. We have felt that grip from the moment we were born, so we assume that it is a natural and inescapable part of who we are. Therefore we seldom try to shake ourselves free, and envision alternative futures.’ (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, p. 59) There are only few days left before Rosh Hashanah – the day of hearing awakening shofar blasts, the day when we remember the creation of humanity, the day when we begin a journey of reflection, the day of hope for forgiveness, a better future, and inner peace.

This week, I decided to spend a day of learning about leaders of Liberal Judaism and their thoughts. I came across a Rabbi John Rayner lecture given at the Carmel College on 19 August 1957. In this lecture, Rabbi Rayner expressed key values of Liberal Judaism. He wrote:

‘Liberal Judaism values truth above tradition, freedom above authority, and sincerity above uniformity. It reverences Jewish tradition, but not in an uncritical way. It holds that it is the duty of every generation so to develop the tradition that it may always be compatible with the best contemporary thought and appropriate to the best contemporary life, or, which is another way of putting it, that it may always be intellectually acceptable, spiritually satisfying and practically efficacious. It is not a rebellion against Judaism but an attempt to rescue it; it does aim to weaken Judaism but to strengthen it; it is not motivated by dislike for Judaism, but by a profound and passionate love. Without it Jewish scholarship would be poorer, Jewish-Christian relations less happy, and thousands of Jews would have been lost. Without it there would be no hope for the Jewish future’

The lecture was given over 60 year ago, but the Liberal Jewish values remain the same. The wisdom of our tradition teaches us to reflect on our past so we could begin the New Year with a sense of direction. I wish all of us to spend the upcoming 5780 year with a deep sense of hope and integrity and to live our lives full of truth, freedom and sincerity.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tovah,

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 20 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

‘Blessed shall be… your produce from the soil, the offspring from your cattle, your calving from the herd and your lambing from the flock.  Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl’ (Deuteronomy 28:4-5).

These verses, from the weekly parashah Ki Tavo, come from a longer section of blessings, promised to Israel if they are faithful in their observance of the commandments enjoined upon them by God.  Fourteen verses describing the blessings are followed by fifty-three verses of curses that will punish the people if they fail to keep the commandments.

In a simplistic way, one might argue that the incontinence of western populations, our avarice and sense of entitlement, our consumption of the planet’s resources, the creation of an unconscionably wide gap between rich and poor, the shockingly uneven distribution of food in the world and here, even in our own wealthy country, are the results of living without a clear moral compass.  We have brought these curses upon ourselves.  How have we got ourselves into this mess?

On Monday, Rabbi Igor Zinkov, Tim Simon – the Chairman of our Yom Kippur Appeal Committee  – and I met with Clare Gilboa, the UK Development Director for Leket Israel.  Leket is the LJS’s Yom Kippur Israeli charity this coming year and you will hear more about it on Yom Kippur itself.

It is Israel’s national food bank with a significant difference.  Unlike food banks here in Britain which provide non-perishable food to families and individuals, Leket Israel took a policy decision in 2017, to provide only fresh fruit, vegetables and freshly cooked meals for those who need it.  The whole exercise of rescuing Israel’s surplus food – cooked and fresh, no tins or packets – is massive.

35% of food harvested and produced in Israel is wasted. That figure is similar in the USA and the UK.  In hotels, supermarkets, army bases, at catered events, there is a wild tendency to overproduce and over-cater.  Leket feeds 17.5 thousand people each week – a high proportion of whom are working families, Shoah survivors, the elderly, Arab, Ethiopian, Druze, Bedouin and Russian families.  Leket work with non-profit organisations, getting the food to them in a time sensitive way, so that it doesn’t go off.  The NPOs then distribute it in various areas.

The challenges of food banking – overseeing the quality of the food, ensuring that supply meets demand, health and food safety and the long-term need, are all dealt with at an operational and logistical level by employees, and also by 52,000 volunteers.

The idea of children and adults going hungry is anathema.  And yet, the Trussell Trust in the UK reports a 19% increase on last year in distribution of food through their food banks.  1.6 million three day emergency food supplies were distributed between 1 April 2018 and 31 March, 2019.

To find out how we have got here and what is driving this relentless increase, please join us for a panel discussion this Saturday evening 21st September at 6.30 pm at the LJS, with Professor Geraldine van Bueren QC, Professor Human Rights Law at Queen Mary University, Dr Anna Isaacs, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Food Policy at City University, London and Garry Lemon, Director of Policy, External Affairs and Research at the Trussell Trust.

Is there some symbolic truth that emerges from the list of blessings and curses that make up this week’s Torah portion? Not that God as an omnipotent force for good or evil rewards or punishes, but that we must be held accountable and responsible for bringing this catastrophic situation to pass.

Food sustainability is part of the larger picture that has to do with how we are living on our burning planet.  As Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal puts it: ‘…the factors that are destroying our planet are also destroying people’s lives in many other ways, from wage stagnation to gaping inequalities to crumbling services to surging white supremacy to the collapse of our information ecology.’

By ourselves, we cannot extinguish the fire; we cannot create equity among all peoples, but we need to engender in ourselves a sense of urgency and join the worldwide movements and younger generations who are crying out for all of us to join the climate strike this Friday and to grasp at this last chance for change and transformation of the toxic model we have been living with for too long.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 13 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Next Friday September 20th there will be a global school climate strike. This strike is in part is inspired by Greta Thunberg, the 15 year old teenager who began her School Strike for Climate in August 2018.

Talking about the need for action, Thunberg said, ‘In Sweden, we live our lives as if we had the resources of 4.2 planets. Our carbon footprint is one of the ten worst in the world. This means that Sweden steals 3.2 years of natural resources from future generations every year. Those of us who are part of the future generations would like Sweden to stop doing that. Right now. This is not a political text. Our school strike has nothing to do with party politics. Because the climate and the biosphere don’t care about our politics and our empty words for a single second.’

I have heard similar concerns in conversations with our young people at the LJS where I listened to their fears about the future, and witnessed their resolute passion to take part in enduring change. They are not alone. On that Friday, young people will take the day off school and make their way to London where they will demand policy changes to protect their future. Many schools, unions and organisations will be supporting the strike, and adults are encouraged to support these young people who together will join the millions around the world protesting that day.

The issue could not be more important. It affects us all. And it’s going to take a lot of people getting together and making their voices heard to wake up our leaders and get them to take the urgent actions needed to address the crisis we find ourselves in.

This call to protect our environment is a theme throughout our sacred texts. In last week’s Torah portion, in the midst of a discussion on the ethics of war, we are given this teaching:

‘When in your war against a city, you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the axe against them, You may eat of them, but you may not cut them down.’ (Deuteronomy 20:19)

The trees are independent entities from those who live around them, who rest in their shade, who eat from them. And the Israelites are commanded to protect them.

This lesson, that we should not use our power and abilities to take advantage or unnecessarily do damage to our natural world, is present in our texts; biblical, Mishnaic, Talmudic, Midrashic and contemporary.

We do not own the Earth, we are commanded to live in partnership with it. This sentiment is shared in Psalm 24:

‘The earth is Adonai’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants.’

Our Torah shares the narrative that the natural world was created and that God showed Adam all of the wonders of the world and put the responsibility on him to maintain it.

As Kohelet Rabbah 7:13:1 shares:

‘At the time that the Holy One created the first man, He introduced him to every tree in the Garden of Eden, and said to him, ‘See how wonderful and pleasant these trees are. And all of this I have created for you; therefore take great care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you do there is no one else to put right what you have destroyed.’’

There is no-one else to put right what we have destroyed.

These teachings are painfully poignant today. May we all commit ourselves to doing what we can, to make small or large changes in the way that we are living, to ensure that we are acting as God’s partner as we forge a relationship of care and protection with our natural world.

I will be joining the strike with my children on the 20th to let our young people know that their LJS family is behind them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 6 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Between 1st Ellul and Rosh Hashanah, and some go as far as Hoshanah Rabbah – the day preceding Shemini Atzeret – it is customary to read Psalm 27, the Psalm that begins with the words ‘The Eternal One is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?’

It is not an ancient custom and can be dated back only to the year 1745 when Rabbi Jacob Emden, the German scholar and polemicist published his Siddur Bet Yaakov.  Various theories are given as to why this Psalm was chosen for this time of year – the period of the year when we prepare ourselves spiritually for the Yamim Nora’im and begin the journey of returning to God.

One theory suggests that the Psalm was chosen because it mentions the name of God 13 times – perhaps a veiled reference to the 13 attributes of God in Exodus 34, a passage sung before the open ark at the High Holy Days – Adonai, Adonai el rachum v’chanun – ‘The Eternal, the Eternal God is merciful and gracious, endlessly patient, loving and true, showing mercy to thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon.’

Another theory is based on a midrash which expounds the first verse in this way:  The Eternal One is my light – on Rosh Hashanah.  And my salvation – on Yom Kippur.

A more recent explanation highlights the Hebrew word at the beginning of verse 13 lulé – which means ‘if only’ – “If only I shall look on the goodness of the Eternal One.” In the Masoretic text, the word is dotted – a hint that in reverse the word spells Elul, the month we are now in.

More simply, it is a Psalm which addresses our fears  – the madness of the world on our own doorstep and further afield.  It encourages us to look, not for external help to contain our anxiety and distress, but for the strength that is in each one of us, that comes from the faith of our heart.  It tells us not to be stirred up by hysteria or hyperbole, but to search out the beauty of the world: ‘One thing only do I ask of God: to dwell in the house of the Eternal One all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Eternal God, and to seek God in the sanctuary.’

It is a Psalm about resisting evil and finding resilience in ourselves, a Psalm about how we speak to and about each other; it’s about trust and finding strength in times of affliction.  It’s about music and longing; about the fear of God’s hiddenness, of being abandoned; it’s about morality in a bewildering world and it’s about doubt: ‘If only I could trust that I shall see the goodness of the Eternal One in the land of the living.’

And in a world where truth and righteousness have been abandoned, it’s about patience, courage and hope, not that the world will revert to an old order, but that we will learn to adapt with honesty to something new, a new connection with each other and with the universe.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

 

To download our Calendar of Repentance for the second week of the month of Ellul, please click HERE.

To download last week’s calendar, please click HERE.

Thought for the Week

Friday 31 January 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

What is one to make of President Trump’s peace plan for Israel?  Delivered just days after presidents, princes and prime ministers assembled in Jerusalem at Yad Va-Shem, to mark the 75th anniversary since Soviet troops entered Auschwitz and ‘liberated’ a living remnant, Trump spoke from the White House, the Prime Minister of Israel by his side, to announce his ‘two-state solution.’

Israel was born in the shadow of the Shoah, three years after the world learnt of the depredations of Auschwitz, Sobibor, Mauthausen, Bergen-Belsen and countless other concentration and death camps.  It was to be a place of refuge, where displaced Jews, who had no home to return to in Europe, who had lost parents and children, brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins and whole generations who had perished in the unspeakable underworld of the camps, could make their home, find work, build families and live without threat or danger.  The new State would be built on the principles of ‘liberty, justice and peace as conceived by the Prophets of Israel; would uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of religion, race, or sex, would guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, education and culture; would safeguard the holy places of all religions…’

Many of us have wondered if the two-state ‘solution’ is still alive.  It may be in intensive care, says Dr Tony Klug, special advisor on the Middle East to the Oxford Research Group and a consultant to the Palestine Strategy Group and the Israel Strategic Forum, but there is no alternative. If there is to be peace, there needs to be two neighbouring governments, exercising sovereign control over their own territory and population.

But Trump’s peace plan, which envisages an opportunity for Palestinians ‘to achieve an independent state of their very own’ and would provide a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, forgets one crucial element.  Where is the Palestinian presence on Trump’s platform in the White House?  Where are the Palestinian voices?

How can Trump and Netanyahu, one facing impeachment, the other corruption charges, stand together with impunity and state, among other things, that Israel will effectively annexe part of the Palestinian territories? Can they not see, not only the lack of symmetry in such a proposal – a not-yet formed Palestinian state is given no absolute right to self-determination – but the grotesque, colonialist immorality of such a plan that will whittle away Palestinian territory?

No doubt there are political reasons for the timing and nature of Trump’s ‘peace plan’ and Netanyahu’s laudatory remarks towards his ally.  Which makes the UK government’s statement that it ‘welcomes’ the proposal an ill-judged response.

But perhaps we should not dismiss the ‘peace plan’ so lightly.  After all, didn’t the Rabbis teach that peace outweighs all other blessings, that peace dispels strife and discord, hatred and envy?  So perhaps it is better to have a peace plan in some shape or form than nothing at all.

But peace can only exist when and where it is supported by justice and truth – as the Mishnah says, Al sh’losha d’varim ha-olam kayam: al ha-din, v’al ha-emet, v’al ha-shalom – ‘The world rests on three pillars: justice, truth and peace’ (mAvot 1:1) and further on, ‘The sword enters the world because of justice delayed and justice denied’ (Avot 5:8).

Seeing the quiet dignity of those increasingly fewer survivors of the Shoah returning to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen in moving televised programmes this week, how can we be indifferent to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the millions of Palestinians who live there?  How can we conceive of a peace plan without two partners and without justice and truth on both sides of the equation?

Perhaps Mr Netanyahu, who is indicted for crimes of bribery and fraud, and for breach of trust, will stop and reflect on the Jewish prophetic values on which Israel was built and ask himself: how true is this peace-plan to the pursuit of justice and peace?  And how can peace be built without bringing on board the partner who, like Israel more than seventy years ago, aspires to independence and sovereignty over a small strip of land and its five million inhabitants.  And those of us, who grew up in the Diaspora, basking in Israel’s early achievements and aspirations, must consider our own responsibility as Jews in support of a state that carries a fundamental part of our identity as Jews.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 24 January 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

Moses and Aaron’s first meeting with Pharaoh does not go well.  Their demand to let the people go provokes a cruel response.  Dismissing the two men, the king bats away the ministers of this competing God with the words, ‘Who is Adonai that I should heed him and let Israel go?  I do not know Adonai, nor will I let Israel go’ (Exodus 5.2).  Do you think I’m going to dismiss the people from their labours, he says; and he instructs the overseers to double the Israelites’ workload – they must provide their own straw for the bricks and complete the same quota of bricks as when the straw had been provided.

Moses is stunned by this turn of affairs.  Did he think that Pharaoh would give him a positive answer immediately, saying, ‘Yes, of course, let the people go and let them take whatever they want with them to sustain in the wilderness?’  Was this the Pharaoh in whose house he had been raised?  The Pharaoh whose daughter had rescued him from the River Nile?  Seeing the sufferings of his people, beaten, exhausted, unable to keep up with the tasks given to them, he stands silently, while the overseers spit out insults towards him and his brother.

It seems poignantly appropriate to recall the harsh labour imposed on the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion, as we witness an international gathering of 40 heads of state and government in Jerusalem to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  The date, January 27th, was chosen by Germany in 1996, the UK in 2001 and by other nations, to mark Holocaust Memorial Day and to recall genocides that have taken place in other parts of the world since then.

On Thursday, a retired doctor from Leicestershire was interviewed on Radio 4’s World at One.  Martin Stern’s parents had fled from Germany to Amsterdam to escape the Nazis, because his Jewish father had married a non-Jewish woman.  His mother had died giving birth to his younger sister and the children were looked after by friends, the boy attending a little school until sent to a transit camp in the Netherlands at the age of five.  The living conditions and the food were miserable, he said, describing the late harvested runner beans with wooden splinters still in them where they had been split down the middle.

From the transit camp, he and his sister were taken to Terezin, the garrison town just to the north of Prague, renamed Theresienstadt by the Germans.  Jews were ‘stored there’, says Dr Stern, prior to their destruction and used as propaganda.  1,500 children ended up in Theresienstadt, very few survived.

He tells his story as though it happened yesterday, every tiny detail clear in his memory: on the day he arrived, he was shoved into a building and found himself among a lot of little boys.  ‘I kept pleading for food,’ he says in his interview; eventually, a young inmate, about eighteen years old who was charged with looking after the boys, ordered an eight year old child to take him into another room where he took an aluminium pan and a crumpled paper bag in which there were some rolled oats in the bottom.  ‘There was a stove in the middle of the room which was lit; the boy poured a teaspoon of rolled oats into the pan and then went to a sink, turned on a tap and a trickle of brown water came out which was added to oats to make some porridge.’ It was, he said, the most memorable meal he had ever had.

From the children’s dormitory, he was rescued by a Dutch woman called Catharina De Jong.  Martin and his little sister were to remain with her for the rest of the time they were in Theresienstadt.  She worked in the kitchens and so, although hungry, they never starved.

And meanwhile, trains were taking about 1,000 people at a time, including children to their deaths in extermination camps. And on each occasion, Martin and his sister escaped deportation, perhaps because they were in adult dormitories with Catharina, perhaps because there had been some correspondence between Theresienstadt and Amsterdam, where people had been trying to secure the children’s rescue and transport to Switzerland.

Dr Stern remained in Theresienstadt until after liberation by the Soviet Army because there was an outbreak of typhus and then travelled back in a perilous journey to the Netherlands in a convoy of army lorries.  The following day, he and his sister were ‘stolen’ by the family who had looked after his sister before their time in Theresienstadt.  Moving away from the woman who had saved him in Theresienstadt broke his heart.

He speaks in measured and thoughtful tones. Of course, he says, I feel anger towards the actions of the Nazis, ‘but I refuse to let my mind be occupied by anger at these very stupid people who did evil things because that only harms me.’

In his commentary to a verse in this week’s parashah, Rashi remarks on Moses’ reaction to Pharaoh’s cruelty.  He sees, says Rashi, that this turn of events has come about on account of his plea to Pharaoh to let the people go.  It’s his fault, but it’s also God’s fault. His reflex action is to return to the source of the trouble and exchange words with God:  ‘O God, why did You bring harm upon this people?  Why did you send me?’  Look how things have got so much worse for this people (Exodus 5.22-23).

For the Rabbis, the enslavement of the Israelites is the fulfillment of God’s words in Genesis: ‘Know that your descendants will be strangers in a land not theirs; they shall be enslaved and afflicted for four hundred years’ (Genesis 15.13).

How did individuals like Martin Stern find hope and faith in the future?  Like many who came to this country as young children and teenagers, there is a sense of deep gratitude for the education and opportunities received and the fulfilment of creating his own family, remembering the past, but not harbouring hatred or anger.  Of course, it is not like that for everyone – there are those who endure poverty, loneliness, the undying sense of loss of close family members and will always live with the trauma of having survived the unspeakable years of the Shoah.

We hold all these things in our mind as we mark Holocaust Memorial Day on Monday and pledge ourselves to eradicate the harm and evil that come from tribal hatred and violence.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 17 January 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, is mentioned only fourteen times in the Hebrew Bible  – eleven times in the Torah, only once in the prophets and twice in the Book of Chronicles, and one reference there is probably not to the Miriam in this week’s parashah, but another unknown daughter of an even less known father.

We meet her as Moses’ sister in this week’s Torah portion, although she is not given a name here.  Moses’ mother has placed her youngest child in a basket which she has put among the reeds in the River Nile, fearful that he will be discovered by Pharaoh who has issued a decree to kill all male Hebrew babies.  Of his sister, we know that she stations herself at a distance from the baby to see what is going to happen to him.  The midrash mentions her sensitivity and protectiveness towards her youngest sibling.

As soon as she notices that the daughter of Pharaoh has found the basket, she goes to the princess and offers a ‘Hebrew nurse to suckle the child.’  Pharaoh’s daughter agrees and so the girl goes and fetches her mother. Her assertiveness and immediate actions complement that early tenderness she shows her brother.

The second time we meet Miriam she is given a name and to her name is added the title n’viah – ‘prophet’, a title that is not even given to Moses in the Book of Exodus.  At the other side of the Sea of Reeds, relieved and full of joy, she takes up her timbrel or hand-drum, and with all the women following her dancing, she sings a shorter version of Moses’ Song at the Sea:  ‘I will sing to the Eternal One for He has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.’

It is an extraordinary glimpse into the scenes of triumph among the women and men on the shores of the Sea of Reeds, after the Israelites have safely crossed over and the Egyptian charioteers are no more.  This is a woman with a voice, with qualities of leadership and greatness, strong and tender, courageous, full of verve and determined.

In the Book of Numbers she is mentioned five times in the same chapter.  Here, for unknown reasons – perhaps jealousy, perhaps challenging the leadership and authority of Moses, she speaks out against Moses’ Cushite wife. We do not know whether this reference is to Zipporah, the Midianite wife he has taken while a shepherd in Midian, or a second wife from Cush (modern day Ethiopia).  Even as she is punished by God, afflicted with a skin disease that turns her skin white, Moses prays for Miriam to be healed. She is brought back into the camp after seven days, but she remains a condemned woman and we hear only that she has died in the wilderness of Kadesh.

Deuteronomy remembers her only as a warning to Israel: ‘In cases of a skin affection be most careful to do exactly as the Levitical priests instruct you…  Remember what the Eternal One your God did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt’ (Deut. 24.9). The young girl on the banks of the Nile, the leader of women on the shores of the Sea of Reeds, is brought to shame in the wilderness.

Does she marry?  Does she bear children?  The Torah makes no mention of this. Rabbinic literature sees her as part of a triumvirate of leaders, bringing about redemption for Israel. And because the Book of Numbers, mentions that the well of water dried up after she died, the Rabbis attribute to her the miracle of a well that accompanied the Israelites as they journeyed through the desert.  When she died, the well, Miriam’s well as it came to be known, ceased to exist.

In the midrash she is married off to Caleb, one of the twelve spies sent by Moses to spy out the land of Israel.  She is, thus, brought into the tribe of Judah and gives birth to Hur.  The Torah itself, however, leaves her proudly single and in this week’s parashah we learn of her essential qualities: responsible, curious, a young girl with initiative, courage and vision, in no one’s shadow.

We also encounter, in this week’s Torah portion, five other women who all play a redemptive role in saving the life of Moses and moving our story towards the Exodus from Egypt.  They are Yocheved, the mother of Moses, the two midwives who defy Pharaoh’s decree to throw the male Israelite babies into the  River Nile, Shifrah and Puah, the daughter of Pharaoh who rescues Moses from the river and  Moses’ Midianite wife, Zipporah.

When women assume a mantle of leadership and responsibility, it is not always easy. We challenge the status quo simply by our presence. We do not need to say or do anything.  Male primacy and authority, in place for thousands of years have marginalised and silenced women and now as we emerge from the shadows and find our voices, many still find it difficult.

‘Has not God spoken through us as well?’ asks Miriam of Moses in Numbers.  For this stepping over the line, she is punished. Not Aaron who joined with her in challenging authority, but Miriam alone.  Chastised because of her own sense of self-esteem, for courage, truth and strength.  After this, her role disappears and death follows swiftly.  She is all but brutally trampled out of history.

In our attempts to wrestle with our egos, women in leadership must be careful not to lose that self-esteem and little sense of pride they have in themselves.  There will be those who resent the authority and power we have, but we must continue to use our voices and influence – and use them with sensitivity and humility.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 10 January 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

This week we will read the Torah portion Va-y’chi, the last portion of the book of Genesis. Next week we begin with Exodus, our narrative of enslavement and redemption.

In this Torah portion we read of the end of both Jacob and Joseph’s life. The majority of the Torah portion is filled with Jacob’s blessings to his children and his grandchildren. He speaks to each of his sons and offers his blessings on them. In looking at Jacob’s blessing and his final words to his sons each of the tribes are described very differently. As Rabbi Gunther Plaut shares in his commentary on the Torah “It is obvious that the tribes are still in a state of ferment, and it is equally remarkable that they seemingly have little cohesion. What unites them is not a sense of national purpose or identity; neither is in evidence. If anything binds them, it is their sense of common ancestry and the memory of an old covenant.” We end Genesis with a parsha that is dominated by Jacob’s blessing to his sons detailing Jacob’s hopes and beliefs about the future of each tribe. Perhaps not surprisingly Dinah the daughter of Jacob is not included.  After the narrative of the rape of Dinah her name is never mentioned again.

Her absence in Jacob’s blessing is striking. Was she still a part of the family? Was she still alive? Why was her life not important enough to be mentioned by Jacob in his final words? American Rabbis Rachel Bearman and Paul Kipnes are working together in a chevruta partnership, creating a modern midrash on Genesis. They crafted a midrash imagining that Dinah did receive a blessing.

In their midrash, Dinah comes to Jacob and she shares with him how difficult it has been for her to have this vast distance between them, how painful that Jacob no longer speaks to her. Jacob shares that he didn’t know how to speak with her and that their distance isn’t a lack of love.

In their midrash, Jacob then offers to Dinah this blessing:

Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah,
You are my heart and the strength of my spirit.
You are the piece of me that wrestled with angels,
And that survived when assailed by challenges.

You, who have been denied what you are due by your father for so long,
Have offered a broken man kindness and mercy.
You are strength and love.
You are the best of your parents and so much more than we could ever be.
Our people will learn from your endurance.

I bless you and ask God, who has accompanied me, to walk with you all the days of your life.

Jacob then asks Dinah if she will offer him a blessing, to which she shares these words:

Jacob, son of Rebekah and Isaac,
You are my father and the guide of our people.
You have not lived a perfect life, but you have always tried to walk with God.

At times, you have tripped over your own limitations and have failed your family.
But when I tell my children stories of their grandfather’s life, these failings will not define you.
I will tell them of a man who lived a very human life who fell down, but struggled back to his feet again and again.
I will tell them of my father who called me to his side, asked for my forgiveness, and offered me a blessing filled with love.
Jacob, son of Rebekah and Isaac, father of our people, you will be remembered. 

Rabbis Bearman and Kipnes moved past focusing on the void, focusing on the absence of the voice of Dinah and instead reimagined her into the narrative.

We read the same texts year after year after year, as Rabbi Ben Bag Bag shares in Pirkei Avot, “Turn it and turn it again for everything lies in it”. We return to the text year after year because we change, and our understanding of the text changes. This creating and recreating our understanding of Torah, rooted in tradition with limbs reaching out into the future not only applies to our understanding of Torah but also our worship and ritual.

Many of our traditional Jewish rituals focused on the life transitions of men and Jewish women moved through transitions without the same rituals giving meaning, comfort and wisdom to their experiences. Over time Jewish leaders have started to create rituals for Jewish women, some of them like the baby naming blessing and the Bat Mitzvah have become very common. The book ‘Taking up the Timbrel’ offers other rituals that are not part of our normal body of Jewish lifecycles: rituals for fertility, for infertility, on the breakdown of a relationship, for the moment of birth, rituals for leaving, arriving and journeying. As Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild states in the book, “Prayer is deeply personal. At its best it addresses the feelings and needs of the individual who is praying. It crystallizes them and reorders them, providing a context in which the pray-er can grow, a space within which the connection with God can emerge. Rather like the best Torah study, bringing yourself, your own perspectives, your own experiences to the text means that you and it live in a different way.”

Judaism continues to speak to us today, and will speak to us in the future, because we allow it to inform our present, and we allow our present to inform our text and our prayer.

I become excited when I think about what the next decade will bring in terms of our understanding of text and ritual. It will happen through all of us honestly and openly engaging with our texts and traditions, identifying the voids and filling in the spaces with creativity, faith, a commitment to tradition and vulnerable reflections of the needs of our day.

Shabbat shalom

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 3 January 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

I am torn between wanting to write about this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash, in which Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and about which there is so much to say about reconciliation and forgiveness, and the way Pharaoh helps this family – a family from a foreign land – to settle in his country; and wanting also to acknowledge this strange and disturbing, almost unintelligible time in which we are living.  I do not have the words for the bloody attack that took place on the seventh night of Chanukkah in Monsey, a hamlet to the west of the Hudson River in New York State, home to thousands of Hasidic Jews.  Five members of the community were stabbed, one critically.  What can one say?  In the last three weeks, there have been more than thirteen attacks against Jewish communities or individuals in New York State alone.

Over the same weekend and nearer home, antisemitic graffiti was sprayed on the wall of the newly-constructed South Hampstead Synagogue and in various places in Hampstead and Belsize Park.  One wants to ask – why?  Why do people hate? What is it that drives them to such anger that they are willing to kill, to maim, to commit wanton damage on property, to use language in such abhorrent and destructive ways.

We are more likely to put ourselves into the shoes of victims, to find ways of expressing compassion and empathy by reaching out, by offering succour, practical help or a kind word.  Just this week, I visited someone whose family member had very recently died and who left express wishes for no funeral ritual or prayers, simply a cremation with no one present.  The relative was heartbroken to lose someone she loved, crushed and utterly lost that she had not been allowed to say farewell in a meaningful or prayerful way.  And there was nothing anyone could do to change the course of these events.  My heart went out to her and, in a brief visit, all I could offer was the recitation of a few prayers and a psalm without a body present.

These moments of witnessing loss, of seeing someone so utterly distraught, touch us very deeply and awaken our compassion and desire to do something that will mitigate against long-term trauma or disaster.

But what of perpetrators? Can I put myself in the shoes of the man or woman who hates with such bitterness they are willing to go on the attack?  There have been times – most often when on my bike and a van or car overtakes too fast and too near – when I react with a compulsion to use insulting language against the driver, to catch them up (nearly always impossible on a bike unless there is traffic), glare at them, knock firmly against the side of their vehicle to let them know my displeasure, my anxiety and resentment.  Rarely does this elicit any kind of apology, only an aggressive gesture in response or tearing away up a hill, brushing too closely against another cyclist or getting too near to the vehicle in front.  It is then that I experience a frustrated anger and I know that to hold on to it, to allow it to devour me, can hurt and destroy only one person – myself.

Imagine if Joseph had failed to let go of the grudge that he must have nurtured against his brothers throughout the years in Egypt.  It was there all right.  Why else would he punish them by ordering them to bring Benjamin down to Egypt?  Why test them and charge them with theft of his own silver cup?  Why threaten them to leave Benjamin as hostage, while they return to their father in Canaan?  Was this his way of manipulating their feelings, hurting them for the hurt they had inflicted on his seventeen year old self?

And yet, he is not hard-hearted, for Judah’s plea offering himself as a hostage instead of Benjamin, touches something deep inside him – his affection and love for his father and a constructed, yet real narrative about his own life – ‘it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you’ (Genesis 45.5).

It is Rashi who understands that there is no hatred in Joseph’s heart: ‘Just as there is no hatred in my heart for my brother Benjamin, who was not involved in my sale, neither is there any hatred in my heart toward you’ (Rashi to Genesis 45.12).  Joseph, the chancellor of all Egypt, the grandiose, shrewd saviour of Egypt’s recession and architect of its people’s economic survival, is freed from the burden of animosity towards his brothers.  He can no longer be a stranger to them. ‘In a startling moment of collapse,’ says Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg,

‘Joseph rejoins the human race.  He surrenders his project, shrivelled, reduced to human size.  A sinister grandiosity had informed that project; now, compassion, the benign infection of Judah’s words, compels him to relinquish his secret idea’ (The Beginning of Desire, p. 337).

May this Shabbat, the first Shabbat of a secular new year and new decade, release us from the burdens of our grudges, our age-old resentments and sense of failed entitlement.  May we learn from those who have taught themselves to accept serenely and with gratitude what God has given them; those who practise humility, kindness, who speak with compassion but also with just cause.  These are my prayers for this new year.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 27 December 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

As we bring the secular year to a close, I find myself reflecting on the words spoken by a friend in recent days: ‘We have so much to be grateful for.’

In the warmth of my own home, I watch the candles of Chanukkah burn, surrounded by my family and friends, and for these eight days of the festival, reflecting on the tumultuous events of the second century BCE, when the Seleucid emperor, Antiochus Ephiphanes attempted to force the Jewish community of Judea to abandon belief in the God of Israel for adulation of himself, a self-declared god – ‘weening in his arrogance to make the land navigable and the sea passable by foot, because his heart was lifted up’ (2 Maccabees 5:21).

At the centre of this conflict between Antiochus and the Jewish community of Judea, is a story of martyrdom: the willingness of young Jews to die in excruciating pain for their Jewish faith. Seven brothers, together with their mother (named Hannah in later sources), are captured at the king’s command, ‘shamefully handled with scourges and cords and compelled to taste of the abominable swine’s flesh’ (ibid. 7.1). What do you want from us, asks the first of her sons. The king falls into a rage and the boy is brutally tortured, burned and killed, his mother and brothers looking on. The second brother is similarly ordered to eat the forbidden food; he refuses and is mocked, tortured and dies gasping for breath. And so with the third and fourth and the rest of the seven brothers, all maimed, tortured and killed, each one declaring their faith in God and their hope in everlasting life, while their mother endures the violent death of her sons until she too dies.

Enter Judah the Maccabee, rounding up young men from the villages, training them in military manoeuvres, setting fire to cities and villages at night time and winning back the most important positions, putting to flight no small number of the enemies. Two years after Antiochus’s men have captured the Temple and defiled it with false idols, Judah and his soldiers recapture it, cleanse it and falling prostrate before God they pray that they might fall no more into such evils.

‘And they kept eight days with gladness in the manner of the feast of tabernacles, remembering how that not long before, during the feast of tabernacles, they were wandering in the mountains and in the caves after the manner of wild beasts’ (ibid. 10:6).

If we are discomfited by this violent story of martyrdom and the military victories of Judah the Maccabee, we might remember another story of a mighty king whose power is pitched against the judgements of the God of Israel. Pharaoh, whose heart is hardened and whose own people will suffer the ten plagues is finally defeated by God with the tenth plague, the death of the Egyptian firstborn. At the very moment when the hope of the Hebrews seems to ebb, God acts to vindicate His people, rescuing them from Egypt.

The story of Chanukkah turns on this moment of suffering and deliverance – the agonising and grotesque torments of this family and God’s deliverance of those who survived.

It is why we thank God for the wonders and deliverances that were performed for our ancestors in days of old at this season.

Our people have known cruelty, suffering and oppression. We have been persecuted, forced to abandon our faith and observances; we have been mocked for being different and punished for not conforming to the faith and practices of the so-called ‘host’ countries in which we have lived.

But at this time and at this season, I hope the festival of Chanukkah will help us, not only to reflect on the history that lies behind our lighting of the candles, but also on the blessings that these lights bring to us: blessings of family and community, of freedom to be faithful to the God of our ancestors and to the observances that bring meaning and purpose into our lives.

It was another Hannah – Hannah Senesh, ready to die for her people, who left Hungary for Palestine in 1939 and who, in 1944 volunteered to return to Hungary to help defeat the Nazis. She too, like the mother of the seven sons, was tortured, but never gave in to her torturers or betrayed her people. Before her death she wrote these words:

                    Blessed is the match that is consumed in kindling flame.

                    Blessed is the flame that burns in the heart’s secret places.

                    Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honour’s sake.

                    Blessed is the match that is consumed in kindling flame.

May these last days of Chanukkah bring all of us light and courage, faithfulness to defeat the darkness of tyranny and oppression and gratitude that we live in times when we can serve God and our fellow human beings in freedom and with love.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukkah Sameach.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 20 December 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

We live in a multicultural world, our synagogue is in the centre of one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth, our tradition is a result of living among and adapting many aspects from other cultures. This week we celebrate Chanukkah – a good example of the multi-layered nature of Jewish tradition.

On an historical level, we celebrate the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its defilement by Greeks in 164 BCE. A small band of faithful but poorly-armed Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated one of the mightiest armies in the world, reclaimed the Temple and rededicated it to the service of God. This event was observed in an eight-day celebration. About six centuries after the event, rabbinic sages were uncomfortable with the military aspect of the festival and ascribed the length of the festival to a miraculous small amount of oil that burned for eight days.

On a metaphorical level, this is a festival of lights which is celebrated at the time of year when the days are shortest in the northern hemisphere. Many cultures have similar festivals at this time of year. All highlight the importance of light, warmth and spending time together with community, friends and family.

In 2019, Chanukkah begins on Sunday night, December 22 and lasts until Monday night, December 30. Please consider coming to the LJS Chanukkah programme on Monday, December 23:

3.00-4.00 pm   Rabbi Elana will be doing arts and crafts for children – all ages welcome.

3.00-4.00 pm   Rabbi Alex will be leading an informal study session for adults.

4.00 pm           Candle-lighting with Rabbi Igor, tea, doughnuts and latkes.

The multi-layered nature of our tradition allows us, modern Jews, to look beyond time and culture and see the relevance in Judaism today. It allows us to adopt successful forms and customs from the world around us and adapt them according to our principles. This forces us, progressive Jews, to keep looking for the best forms which would allow Jewish tradition to remain meaningful and suited for modern realities.

Chanukkah Sameach and Shabbat Shalom!

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 13 December 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

The Council has gritted the pavement outside the church hall where I cast not only my own vote on Thursday morning, but also a proxy vote for my daughter, who lives abroad.  Despite arming myself with a file of paperwork she has sent to me, her voting card and my passport for identification, her name is not on the list.  I keep calm.  There is a long queue of people behind me, impatient and also needing to get to work.  Eventually, they add my daughter’s name to the list in pencil, record her number – which exists on one list but not on another – and I cast both mine and her vote.

Following my neighbours out of the hall, it is hard not to feel despondent about the state of the world and I ask myself how it can get better.

A few weeks ago, on Mitzvah Day, a small group of LJS members joined a Sikh charity called Niksham Swat to provide hot food and drink for nearly two hundred homeless men and a handful of women. It was a Sunday evening, dark and cold and as I hurried along the Strand, I noticed a crowd of people gathering, forming themselves into an orderly queue.  A large van had pulled up in sight of Covent Garden; the side doors slid open and within minutes long tables were set up on the pavement with huge dishes of hot food, pizzas, rice, vegetable dishes, a delicious carrot cake, an urn of hot water for teas and coffees.  We were given specific tasks, serving food, hot drinks and bottles of water.

It was only after three hours, the food gone, the people dispersed, as we cleared up and I was walking to the tube station at Charing Cross that I was able to process what I had just witnessed.  People of all ages, of all nationalities, faiths, backgrounds, some looking more resilient than others, some obviously desperately ill and in need of medical help – hungry, thirsty, lonely, hurting, vulnerable, some angry, some full of gratitude, others able to laugh and enter into a bit of conversation.  But it was the people who averted their gaze and who couldn’t reply to the ‘Good evening sir’, couldn’t respond to the offer of a bottle of water, whose pride was so deeply damaged by having to accept charitable giving, that one feared for their future and mental health.

I was shocked and angry – angry that so many have nowhere to rest their heads, but the concrete ground of the underpass at Charing Cross Station or elsewhere, some lucky enough to sleep in flimsy tent, but more lying nearby, exhausted and dead to the world, with only a sleeping bag between them and the cold winter air of a November night.

This is the world we are living in at the moment.  Many will undoubtedly be relieved when this night is over and the votes counted.  Others will already be expressing their devastation at the result of this election.  We will be setting up more tables along the Strand and cooking ever more quantities of food; more charities will spring up to support asylum seekers; we will have to find different and creative ways of combating poverty; we will have to work that much harder to put pressure on a new government to enact legislation that will reduce carbon emissions, and we will have to honour our own commitments on an individual level.

On Monday 16th December, the LJS will be holding its annual ‘Festivals for All’ Chanukkah (or pre-Chanukkah in this case) gathering at the synagogue.  I hope you will join us with so many others: individuals, schools, institutions, faith communities and organisations who always look forward to coming together to celebrate and to express a unified message of friendship, hope and peace.  It is so easy to lose hope, to be drawn back to a place where we ignore the suffering and privation around us.

‘Not always shall the needy be ignored, nor the hope of the afflicted forever lost…’ (Psalm 9:19).  As people of hope and faith, let not our mood be darkened by the national temper of impatient zeal and fear.  We must look to the long term with patience; we must turn to those organisations – community organisations – capable of effecting change at a grass roots level.

In the midst of one of the darkest moments in Jewish history, the prophet Jeremiah speaks these words to the people: ‘For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Eternal One, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope’ (Jeremiah 29.11).  Let us go forward with this message on our tongues, knowing that those plans must be ours – for welfare and not for harm – and so build a future of hope for the generations yet to come.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 6 December 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Recently I had a conversation with someone in the process of conversion, they shared with me how connected they feel to God when they are in synagogue, but struggle to feel as connected when they are away from the community. I think this is something we can all relate to, for most of us we probably feel the deepest connection to our faith and our people when we are in a community. We are blessed to live in a diverse community and to be alive at a time and place where, as Jews, we are integrated into the wider society. How do we continue to feel connected even when we are not within the walls of the sanctuary or engaging in Jewish ritual ?

In the Shema we are encouraged to love God, to allow for this connection to our faith to be a part of our rising in the morning, our thoughts at the end of the night and in our hearts, minds and souls as we go on our way. On a practical level this is difficult, isn’t it? How can we remain connected?

There have been times in my life where I have strongly felt God’s presence, and times when I had to remind myself to look. In my late teens, in a period of questioning, my father encouraged me to say the Shehechiyanu every time I felt God’s presence. Throughout the day I found myself reciting this prayer, I was surprised to see how often I felt connected even during a time when intellectually I was questioning. This is a practice I have now taken on any time I am in a place of doubt, within a few weeks I am able to see how connected I do feel. Though God is mysterious, God is also there as a stable and loving force even if we are in a place of disconnection.

The Shehechiyanu prayer is traditionally said when one experiences something for the first time: when one wears a new article of clothing or when one eats a fruit for the first time in the growing season. This blessing is also often said at lifecycle events: baby namings, b’nei mitzvah, conversions, weddings. We learn in the Talmud that the Shehechiyanu prayer can also be recited if you see a friend you haven’t seen for more than 30 days. The translation of the blessing is “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, who has given us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this moment.” Every moment we experience is a first, the Shehechiyanu prayer can be recited any time we feel grateful for the moment we are in. Perhaps you might find this exercise helpful/interesting as well. You might want to try reciting this blessing every time you feel grateful or aware of God’s presence.

There is a lot of emphasis in Judaism on recognising the sacredness of the moment. Perhaps the clearest example we have of this idea in our Torah comes from this week’s Torah portion. Jacob has fled Esau who has threatened to kill him for stealing his birthright. He stops for the night, using a rock as a pillow he falls asleep. He dreams of a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending. He awakes and proclaims, “God was in this place and I, I did not know it.”

Let us attempt, even in times of doubt and struggle, to recognise that God is in this place and to offer gratitude for the gift of the moment.

Shabbat Shalom

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 29 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

There has always been a tension in Judaism between particularism and universalism: concern and care for our own people, and a reaching out to help others for the greater good of the societies in which we live.  It is quite natural to express unease and disquiet at circumstances that may affect our own families and communities.  We have to work much harder to express our interest in and apprehension for those who are not like ourselves.

So when the current Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, a gentle man of compassion and integrity, is asked by members of our community, ‘What will become of Jews and Judaism in Britain if the Labour Party forms the next government,’ his response should be finely balanced between concern for ourselves and our own interests and an equally profound attention and awareness of others.

That tension and balance are an essential part of the teaching that Jews should be both ‘for ourselves,’ but not ‘only for ourselves.’   This dual imperative can be found in texts that go back to the Hebrew Bible:  the commandment not to harden one’s heart towards our kinsfolk but to lend sufficient for their needs is set next to the interdiction against oppressing the stranger.  ‘For you were a stranger in the land of Egypt,’ is a constant refrain in the Torah – repeated more often than any other commandment, because we need to work harder and train ourselves to identify with those who are not part of our own people.

The prophets, too, identified that tension.  Amos makes no distinction between God who brings up the Israelites from Egypt and the Philistines from Caphtor or the Arameans from Kir (Amos 9:7).  And Malachi may have been referring to the people of Israel in his prophecy, but subsequent interpretations have universalised his message to refer to all humanity: ‘Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?  Why do we break faith with one another..?’ (Malachi 2.10).

The Talmud, in a clear reference to these verses, relates that on one occasion, when it was decreed that the Jews were prohibited from studying the Torah, infant male circumcision and observing the Sabbath, the Rabbis went and took counsel with a Roman woman, well-known to prominent Romans.  She advised them to raise an alarm by night, and as they did so, they said, ‘O you heavens, are we not your brothers and sisters? Are we not the children of one father? Are we not the children of one mother?  In what way are we different from every other nation and tongue that you make harsh decrees against us?’  One wonders where Shakespeare drew his inspiration for Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice, ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh…?’

In Jewish law, as well as lore, Jews have obligations to the rest of humanity: ‘We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, mi-p’nei darchei shalom – for the sake of peace (bGittin 61a). And on a daily basis, the liturgy of our prayer books instructs the community to recall our specific Jewish task as well as our obligations to the rest of humanity.

The Chief Rabbi is right in drawing attention to all victims of racism and reminding those of us who live securely and without the anxiety of being harassed on a train, beaten up on a bus, or hounded out of a political party, that antisemitism, along with other insidious and violent forms of racism and senseless hatred, including Islamophobia, are very real dangers to freedom and well-being in our democracy.

Yet, in this fruitless war of words, we, the Jewish community, have lost our balance.  We have been trapped in a cycle that focuses only on ourselves as victims of antisemitism, rather than as agents for good in the world.  Jeremy Corbyn is not going to apologise for past associations or present weakness in failing to address antisemitism in his party; just as Boris Johnson will continue to use words irresponsibly, stirring the flames of Islamophobia and other forms of racism.

Leadership – whether political or religious – requires humility, wisdom, courage and admission of wrong-doing.    It is time for us as leaders of the Jewish community to take a step back, to redress a balance and to speak out, not only for ourselves, but for all victims of racism, and for all those in our own country who have suffered because of years of austerity.

The Jewish people have survived because we have held this delicate and creative balance of particularism and universalism, of understanding our specific responsibility as Jews with our own narrative, and seeing ourselves as part of the human family, children of One God, with the obligation to seek the welfare of all people.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 22 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A few weeks ago, I started a personal project. I decided to read a Torah portion in advance, study some commentaries, midrashim, interpretations and stories related to it and draw a sketch. My hope was that the sketch would depict one of the ideas I found relevant in the Torah portion. I called the project Torah Sketch. I hope I will have enough patience, creativity and inspiration to complete the year-long journey.

I started with Torah portion Lech Lecha. My inspiration was the moment I discovered that you can customise the back of Nike trainers with your initials. The theme of the journey which Abraham took in Genesis 12 fits the shoes’ customisation feature very well. Therefore, I decided to draw the following sketch:

This journey led me to this week’s Torah portion Chayei Sarah. Its opening verse says:

And the life of Sarah was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years. These were the years of the life of Sarah (Gen 23:1)

Rashi, a great Torah scholar from the eleventh century, asked why the text doesn’t just say, “Sarah lived one hundred and twenty seven years?” The repetition of the word ‘year’ and the splitting of Sarah’s age into three periods seems unnecessary and superfluous, yet Rashi concluded that the wording is repeated to indicate that all of her years were good.

It is easy to think that the best years of your life are ahead of you, leading you to live your life dreaming of a better future. Or you may think that your best years were in the past, meaning you spend your time reminiscing. While it is important to remember the past and think of the future, the story of Sarah reminds us that any age can be equally good. Whether you are seven, twenty or hundred years old, you can be happy and lead a life of fulfilment and accomplishment, joy and happiness.

Pirkei Avot, a two thousand year old collection of Rabbinic wisdom, records a saying of Judah ben Tema about different stages of people’s lives (Pirkei Avot 5:21):

At five to the study of Scripture;

At ten to the study of Mishnah;

At thirteen to the commandments;

At fifteen to the study of Talmud;

At eighteen to the bridal canopy;

At twenty to the pursuit of livelihood;

At thirty to the peak of strength;

At forty to wisdom;

At fifty to give counsel;

At sixty to the old age;

At seventy to fullness of years;

At eighty to strength.

Perhaps not all of the above activities are relevant for our world today, but the principle remains the same: At any age we can find ourselves, discover new sides of life, and be happy.

May this week be the one of fulfilment, health, strength and fullness of years!

Shabbat Shalom

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 15 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Finally, I find a quiet moment to sweep the fallen leaves from outside my house.  They line the path leading to the front door and the pavement of my road; they lie in the gutter – some dry and curled, fragile like moth-eaten pages of an old manuscript.  Some are freshly fallen and beautiful still – gold and red, the rich colours of this autumn season.  As a child, I would collect fallen leaves and flowers and press them between the pages of thick books and sometimes now, opening an old volume  – very occasionally – I will come across the dry, compacted form of a leaf or a few petals.  How far I seem from those days when every leaf seemed precious and something new that I had never seen before – each blade defined by its unique shape, the midrib running from the base to its apex, the delicate veins branching out to the edges, essential to the health of the leaf as they carry the nutrients necessary to its life.

In the short time, I am outside, I encounter four of my neighbours and miraculously, we find time to chat.  The man next door, who piles his three small children into his car every morning to take them to school and nursery, my neighbour the other side who always watches for parcels or packets left outside the front door, and on the other side of her, my lovely neighbour who will always lend me an egg or some milk if I find myself without an essential ingredient when I am cooking.

This is a rare moment of privilege and pleasure – of feeling embedded in my neighbourhood where I have lived for a long time. These are the people whom I so often wave to, but find little time to chat, to find out what is happening in their lives, to discover the challenges they are living with?  Each of them has a story or many stories – the loneliness of a widow, battling her own health problems; the worry of a sick child or grandchild; the difficulties of bringing up a family in the cramped surroundings of a small flat.

There is something hidden, yet precious that binds us together as neighbours – that we share the same road, that we live in such close proximity to each other, with only a fence or thin wall separating our houses and gardens.  We hear the movements we make in each other’s homes, we take in each other’s post, we sweep each other’s leaves and put away each other’s dustbins, we lend each other books. We are a small community, a micro-community of this larger society in which we live. And we have learned to live with each other’s foibles and habits, to speak courteously to each other if something crops up that bothers us.

We are like the birds gathering around the feeders in the garden: two parakeets alighting on a thin branch, the family of dunnocks chirping noisily, the jays and a large, black crow, the fat pigeons that fancy themselves as lighter versions of themselves, swaying awkwardly, pushing themselves towards the feeder.  They come and go throughout the day, occasionally on their own, more often as a small community, busy feeding, singing, perching and swaying, curling themselves into little acrobats to feed from the seeds.

It was Hillel who said: Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur – ‘Do not separate yourself from the community’ (Pirkei Avot 2:5) – an appeal to strengthen the Jewish community, to pray and study with the congregation, to volunteer one’s times and strengths, not to withdraw into an ascetic life of seclusion.

Those few minutes of sweeping the leaves in front of my houses reminded me of the importance of community: of collaboration and reaching out, listening and sharing, of gratitude and love.  And I see the individuals of our community as veins in a leaf, the seams that connect us to each other, that reach out to the very edges of our congregation with the warmth and friendship that are required to counter loneliness, to bring consolation and to share in each other’s joys.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 8 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to teach one of our teenage class sessions at Rimon. This particular class is a very engaged and thoughtful group. I facilitated an exercise with them, I shared a statement of theology or belief and if they strongly agreed they would stand on one side of the room, if they strongly disagreed they would stand on the other side of the room. If they weren’t certain they stood in the middle. After a few rounds I shared the statement I was most curious about “I believe in God”. One student went to the “strongly agree” side of the room, one went to the “strongly disagree” side of the room, and the rest found themselves somewhere in the middle. We spoke about this one for about 10 minutes and through the conversation I learned that all of the students believe in some sort of higher power, in a greater force that acts in this world but each of them understood God differently. Most stated that they don’t believe in the God as presented in the Torah, a God of creation who is capable of reward or punishment though many of them think (hope) that God is capable of providing healing. The next statement I shared was “Studying Torah is one of the most important parts of being Jewish.” Every single student went to the “Strongly Agree” side of the room. How wonderful! In their own words, the students shared that Torah gives them a sense of history, it connects them with past generations, it teaches important lessons and values. I was inspired by this group of young people and their open conversation, they had clarity about their relationship with the past and with our texts and a connection to but questions about God. I was reminded of a famous text from the Talmud, “The Oven of Akhnai”. It is a text often studied in progressive Judaism as it emphasis the sacred importance of human conversation.   

The Oven of Akhnai is one of my favourite passages from the Talmud, it is from Bava Metzia 59a. It is a story that comes in the midst of a conversation around keeping an over ritually pure. If the oven becomes impure one can purify it by breaking it into pieces and then placing the pieces back together, with a cement like substance between each piece. Rabbi Eleazer has an idea, if an oven is purified by breaking it into pieces and then putting those pieces back together with mortar between the pieces, then could it be possible to create an oven that could never be deemed impure by placing together with mortar many small pieces, instead of having one large oven.  

If you’re confused then you are in good company, like much of the Talmud the halachik discussions are full of complicated minutiae. It’s not important that you understand Rabbi Eliezar’s argument, what is important is that you understand that Rabbi Eleazar was trying to convince the Talmudic sages who were making decisions about the community, kind of like the counsel  of Talmudic times, that his argument was valid and should be followed. Here is the text:  

On that day, when they discussed this matter, Rabbi Eliezer answered all possible answers in the world to support his opinion, but the Rabbis did not accept his explanations from him. After failing to convince the Rabbis logically, Rabbi Eliezer said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, this carob tree will prove it. The carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, and some say four hundred cubits. The Rabbis said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from the carob tree. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the stream will prove it. The water in the stream turned backward and began flowing in the opposite direction. They said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from a stream. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the walls of the study hall will prove it. The walls of the study hall leaned inward and began to fall. Rabbi Yehoshua scolded the walls and said to them: If Torah scholars are contending with each other in matters of halakha, what is the nature of your involvement in this dispute? The Gemara relates: The walls did not fall because of the deference due Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten because of the deference due Rabbi Eliezer, and they still remain leaning. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, Heaven will prove it. A Divine Voice emerged from Heaven and said: Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion? Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: It is written: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of the phrase “It is not in heaven” in this context? Rabbi Yirmeya says: Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a Divine Voice, as You already wrote at Mount Sinai, in the Torah: “After a majority to incline” (Exodus 23:2). Since the majority of Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, the halakha is not ruled in accordance with his opinion. The Gemara relates: Years after, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time, when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration? Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.  

(Non-gendered God language has been used to reflect an honest translation of the Talmud.)  

Time and time again the rabbis are shown that God agrees with Rabbi Eleazar, (the waters flow backwards, the tree is uprooted, a heavenly voice comes down!) but in the end it is the discussions and decisions of the people that are more important than the will of God.   

Though our thoughts and opinions may be divinely inspired, this text reminds us that what we are doing within community is sacred work, as humans we hold the responsibility of creating and maintaining an ethical framework.  It is not in heaven that the rules of the community are decided it is the work of humans to look through the details of how a community functions and to decide how our sacred text and traditions will be manifest in our communities. It is not in heaven, it is here, in the halls and rooms of the LJS and in any room where Jewish individuals come together to discuss, plan and commit ourselves to Torah in all its many forms. 

Shabbat Shalom

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 1 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A seventeen year old boy, his mother dead, his father an old man to whom he is close, is sold to people traders, slave owners, by his own brothers, and is taken to a foreign country where he is trafficked to a soldier in the king’s army.  He works hard and is given responsibility and authority over the household.  The man is often away from home and soon the man’s wife sets her sights on the young teenager, tries to get him to sleep with her and one day, takes hold of him saying, ‘Lie with me!’  The boy escapes, leaving his garment in her hand.  Outraged, she calls her husband and accuses the boy of trying to rape her.  His master has the boy thrown into prison and there he languishes for a long time.

This is the story of Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel – the first individual in the Hebrew Bible we know to be trafficked by people smugglers from Judah into Egypt and then sold into slavery to Potiphar and his wife.

I have thought about this story, its initial similarities and then the stark and tragic differences between Joseph’s ultimate success and the thirty-nine individuals trafficked into the UK and found dead inside a freezer container just one week ago.

We do not know all the details: why these young men and women left their homes in the first place, making the long, costly, precarious and unknown journeys to Europe. Why would someone leave parents and family, homeland and everything that is familiar and risk losing their lives if not for reasons that are quite desperate?  Why did our own grandparents or great-grandparents leave their homes for England or Ireland or the United States?  They saw no future for themselves under oppressive regimes, their lives blighted by poverty and hardship.  Perhaps it is freedom or the urgent need for money, for meaningful work and the possibility of a brighter future that gives individuals the motivation to undertake such long and frightening journeys, their families mortgaging land and movables for tens of thousands of pounds.

These young people – if they came from Vietnam – had risked everything, including tragically their lives, in order to make it into this country.  Did they know the kind of work they might have ended up in?  In cannabis farms, in nail bars, perhaps even in prostitution and sex work?

Some people’s lives are so desperate that they would rather make these perilous journeys, knowing the difficulty of entering Western Europe, than stay where they are.  Nearly 18,000 people have drowned crossing seas and trying to enter other countries since 2014.

The death of these 39 women and men is tragic.  Tragic in that a journey that began with hope has ended in irreversible catastrophe.  Such tragedies have been more apparent to all of us since the three year old Syrian child of Kurdish ethnic background, Alan Kurdi, was found face down on a beach after he drowned in the Mediterranean.

This world in which we live is one of uncertainty and doubt; it engenders a feeling of unease in a place that has unlearnt the customs of hospitality.  And we bear a responsibility for this unlearning, for this environment of suspicion and lack of interest in the lives of individuals who only wish for freedom – to go where they wish to go, to live where they wish to live, to speak with truth what they believe, to love with honesty and openness.

The lives of these individuals, their aspirations and hope, came into tragic conflict with the limitations and demands of a world that is fundamentally hostile to asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.

As Noah and his family and the animals he has saved emerge from the Ark in this week’s parashah, God rethinks the guidelines he has given to humanity and adds this law for Noah and his descendants:

                Whoever sheds the blood of human beings,

                By humanity shall his blood be shed;

                For in God’s image

                Did God make human beings (Genesis 9:6).

Human life, the life of all creatures, says God, is precious; I will now bind myself to you in an everlasting covenant and promise never again to destroy the earth and all flesh by the waters of a flood. God sees the grandeur of each human spirit, the preciousness of each human life.  And that is what it means for all human beings to be created in God’s image.  Our deeds, our words and actions have repercussions and when we lose our faith in a God who has created us in the divine image, we lose that sense and acknowledgement of the nobility and dignity of the human spirit, the body that encases it and the obligations that fall on us and the countries in which we live, to ensure that such tragedies will never happen again.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 25 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Any end must be followed by a new beginning – such is the hope embedded in our tradition. This week we celebrated Simchat Torah, which marks several ends and beginnings. After a 22 day chain of festivals, we observed the end of a Jewish marathon of individual and communal reflection, and marked the beginning of a new calendar and agricultural year. After a year-long journey through weekly Torah portions, we marked the completion of the annual cycle of the Torah reading and acknowledged the beginning of the new one. After many years of Moses’ leadership, we read about the end of his life, and the beginning of Joshua’s term as a leader of the Jewish people.

In his new book ‘Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope’, Johann Hari offers a personal perspective on depression and anxiety. Hari selects concepts that explain some aspects of depression and its causes. He interviews and summarises research of many scholars who have uncovered evidence for nine different causes of depression. Some are in our biology, but most can be found in the way we live today. Among these causes are: disconnection from meaningful work, disconnection from other people, disconnection from meaningful values, and disconnection from a hopeful and secure future. I don’t think any of the book’s points are new, nevertheless they remain important and worth speaking about.

Perhaps the Jewish community might offer a solution to some of them. Liberal Judaism takes the position that Jewish tradition must keep in tune with modern and relevant trends to remain meaningful to modern society. The Jewish way of living is a spiral. Each year we begin a new old journey, developing a new circuit of our lives. Each year we begin with a new Creation and, therefore, articulate a new hope. It helps us to find meaning in life, support from our community, and stability in today’s world.

As Progressive Jews, it is our responsibility to develop and defend Judaism which offers people a medium for meaningful life and meaningful values, connection to a community of caring people, and the sense of a helpful and secure future. As we begin the new cycle of the Torah reading, let us not forget that any end must be followed by a new beginning, such is the hope embedded in our tradition.

Shabbat Shalom

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 18 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

On the first day of Sukkot, my colleague, 77 year old Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, taking part in the Extinction Rebellion protests, wearing a tallit and carrying a lulav and etrog in his hand, was arrested outside the Bank of England.  A passionate campaigner on the climate emergency, it was distressing to see him carried away by the police, who wrested the lulav and etrog from his hand so that it dropped carelessly to the ground.

This action affected me deeply. It was a stark reminder that so many were willing to put their lives, their bodies and their liberty on the line for the sake of the future of our planet.  As George Monbiot said, in the moments before he was arrested on Wednesday:

‘At the moment we are facing the destruction of life on earth, the destruction of our life support systems; so to stand up against that destruction, I feel, is our human duty. By being arrested in defence of the living planet, I feel I can look my children, and maybe one day my grandchildren in the eye. This feels exactly the right place to be, under arrest for trying to defend life on earth.’

‘It’s not OK,’ said Rabbi Newman as he was lifted off the ground by two policeman and we knew what that meant.  This wanton destruction of the earth, capitalisation through investment in fossil fuel industries, our moral distance and ignorance of what is happening, not only in our own hemisphere, but thousands of miles away, where it is the poorest of the world, whose impact on the climate is small, but who suffer most from  environmental breakdown – thousands of refugees who seek refuge from the climate chaos in places such as Somalia, Mozambique, Bangladesh, the Caribbean, Central America and many other parts of the world.

A curious thing is happening, not for the first time in our public spaces.  Seeing Rabbi Newman on the first day of the festival, walking with the ritual objects of Sukkot and wearing his tallit reminded me of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words that prayer should be a ‘radical, subversive act.’  Prayer and ritual are no longer confined to the home and the synagogue, but – like the civil rights movement in the United States for which Heschel marched – it has been moved into the public space, beyond the walls of our religious institutions.

Dr Susanna Heschel, wrote of her father on his return from the non-violent civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama:

‘When he came home from Selma in 1965, my father wrote, ‘For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.’’

An early Aramaic chronicle of significant days in the Jewish calendar demonstrates the power of protesting in a public space in this account about Caligula who had sent an idol to be placed in the Temple.  This shocking news reached Jerusalem on the eve of Sukkot.  Shimon Ha-Tzaddik instructed the Jews to go out and stand before the soldiers of the Roman Empire.   In every city throughout Judea, they stood in their numbers to confront the Emperor’s emissary and cried out, ‘We will die before we accept this decree.’  They lay down in the market places in sackcloth and ashes.  When a letter arrived announcing Caligula’s assassination, the idol was immediately taken down and dragged through the streets and Shimon Ha-Tzaddik heard a voice from the Holy of Holies that said: ‘The worship of idols in the Temple is nullified. Caligula has been slain and his decrees nullified.’  And the same day was declared a Yom Tov (Megillat Ta’anit 11.9).

Before this month of Tishri with its festivals of judgement, atonement and rejoicing is over, I know I must take my prayers out of the Sanctuary and into a public place.  I am frightened that my own inaction has rendered me complacent and paralysed by helpless distress.

If we care about the future our children and – please God – our grandchildren are going to inherit, then if we can, we need to take our prayers across the threshold of our interior spaces and outside into a public place.  Prayer is political; it has always been thus, from the moment that Moses hesitated at the Sea of Reeds to utter a supplication to God.  What are you doing, says God, get up and move on!

Shabbat Shalom and may the closing festival of Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah be a time we turn away from despair and embrace an uplifting hope for the future.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 11 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

I feel so grateful and honoured to have spent the Days of Awe within our community. For me personally, and I do hope for you as well, the worship experiences of the last two weeks have been deep and moving, made even more powerful by being surrounded by our community. This was my second Yom Kippur at the LJS, but I had only just started before last year’s festival season. I was moved this year to look out from the Bimah and to see your faces, having had the immense honour of getting to know you better over the last year. Thank you for sharing your life and faith with me. What we have at the LJS really is very special.

To think about all the people who worked tirelessly to bring it all together! From the office team to the Shammashim, the stewards, Karen Newman who projected the sermons, our teachers who led art activities upstairs, and everyone who attended either at the synagogue or through streaming, adding their voices to the community prayers.

Since the closing of the service of Yom Kippur, I have been thinking about the small Jewish community in Halle Germany. Like us, they too had joined together in prayer, with their community, having readied themselves for a Day of Atonement and spiritual renewal. Like us, they were engaging in peaceful prayer and working towards being better. Until their prayers were brutally interrupted by a right-wing extremist who attempted to break into the synagogue, killing two innocent individuals, all with a camera live streaming mounted on his head. He filmed himself before the attack, identifying himself as a Holocaust denier and blamed “the Jew” for the worlds problem.

The security plan that this synagogue in Halle had set up kept them safe, though the attacker shot repeatedly at the door and threw several Molotov cocktails he was not able to force himself in. There were 70-80 people gathered in the synagogue, after hearing the shots they saw the attacker trying to get in through the security camera.

Only hours after the attack we sat in our synagogue and joined together in the Mussaf service. A service honouring those whose lives have been cut short only because they were Jewish, because hatred and fear of the other is violent and dangerous and is too familiar to us as a people. I think about the words of Claude Montefiore that we read during the Mussaf service, “It was not an ibn Gabirol or a Maimonides, still less a Spuinoza, who fulfilled the Jewish mission most truly, or rendered the greatest service to the Jewish cause. No. It was the many little obscure Jewish communities through the ages, persecuted and despised, who kept alive the flame of the purest Monotheism and the supremacy and divisiveness of the moral Law.” We still do not know many details about the victims or how many others were injured. We hold their bereaved families, and this terrified community in our prayers.

We are grateful to the CST and to our own security team at the LJS who ensures our security as we come together in prayer and study.

May this new year be one of safety for us and all people. May we find ourselves in a world of greater tolerance and love, and may this day come soon.

Shanah Tovah,

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 4 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

During the month of Ellul, preceding Rosh Hashanah, a colleague and dear friend ran three online sessions from her home in the States on Musar literature – a genre of Jewish teaching and literature that Rabbi Bahya ibn Pakuda in the eleventh century calls ‘the science of inner life.’  Musar focuses on ways in which we can practise moral discipline and attempt to overcome our ‘weaker’ qualities.  How can we cultivate our own sense of dignity and self-worth? How can we overcome persistent anger or resentment? How can we become more patient, more tolerant and more forgiving of others? And so there is a practical and pious (I admit the word has awkward connotations in our own time) dimension to the application of Musar.

There were four students, an intimate group, all speaking to each other via our computer or smart phones using the technology ‘Zoom’.  Apart from receiving the wisdom of my colleague with teachings that had been sent to us in advance, it was so lovely to feel connected to her in these days leading up to the festivals and, of course, to be searching our own souls; refining – if you like – the traits that are part of us seemed supremely important as we considered the days of repentance before us.

She presented us with texts on three ‘virtues’ over the three weekly sessions we were together: Anavah (humility), Hakarat ha-Tov (gratitude) and Menuchat ha-Nefesh (equanimity – ‘rising above the good and bad’).

Setting us some daily ‘homework’ to reflect on these qualities, she allowed us to reflect on our own traits, on how we had spent our week, whether we had been able to ‘practise’ or at least think about the way we are with ourselves and with others.

One of the most famous tracts of Musar literature is named after a woman – Tomer D’vorah – ‘The Palm Tree of Deborah’ by the sixteenth century kabbalist and scholar, Moses Cordovero.  Cordovero opens the first of the ten chapters of his book with a phrase by phrase interpretation of Micah 7:18-20 – these are the verses that conclude the Haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah, this Shabbat.  The first part begins with the famous verses from Hosea: ‘Return, O Israel, to the Eternal One your God…’ (Hosea 14:2).

This Shabbat, in the middle of the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah – the Ten Days of Repentance, the message is not only Hosea’s exhortation to repent, but God’s readiness to forgive:

‘Who is a God like You,

Forgiving iniquity, passing over transgression;

You do not cling to Your anger with the remnant of Your people,

Because you delight in showing love!’ (Micah 7:18)

Cordovero sees in these words divine attributes – endless kindness, forgiveness, willingness to let go of anger, love and patience.  These, he says, are the attributes of our Divine Creator and these are the moral and spiritual qualities to which we should aspire. We may cling to our anger, but God does not. Even if a person fails to repent of their sins, God neutralises or nullifies divine fury with mercy and love and the expectation of repentance.

It is hard to let go of anger and hurt.  Yet, this is what Yom Kippur demands of us.  In our short-tempered world, we have to swim against the current of impatience with forgiveness, forgetfulness even, with a sense that we can let go and stop bearing grudges or feeling victimised.

How hard it is when the words we hear around us are not always tender, kind or forgiving.  How hard to be patient when our attention span grows weaker the more technology tests and assaults our perseverance; how hard to love and be loved; how difficult to show gratitude, to practise humility and cultivate that sense of equanimity in our own souls.

We need a week of Yom Kippur, a month, a retreat of silence, an escape away from the chaotic uncertainties of our lives and the political landscape we live in.

Can we forgive iniquity; can we be forgiven?  Can we pass over the transgression of others and let go of our anger?  As we enter these days of holiness, help us O God to be like You, delighting in showing love and gratitude and remaining true and faithful to our Judaism, to the Jewish people and the teachings of our faith, as You, O God showed ‘faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham… from days of old’ (Micah 7.20).

Shabbat Shalom and Chatimah Tovah – May you be inscribed for a  healthy and peaceful year of 5780.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 27 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

As a Liberal Rabbi, I believe in development and critical approach to religion and life. Knowing the past helps me to navigate in the uncertainty of the present. As bestselling writer and historian Yuval Harari put it: ‘The cold hand of the past… grips us by the neck and directs our gaze towards a single future. We have felt that grip from the moment we were born, so we assume that it is a natural and inescapable part of who we are. Therefore we seldom try to shake ourselves free, and envision alternative futures.’ (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, p. 59) There are only few days left before Rosh Hashanah – the day of hearing awakening shofar blasts, the day when we remember the creation of humanity, the day when we begin a journey of reflection, the day of hope for forgiveness, a better future, and inner peace.

This week, I decided to spend a day of learning about leaders of Liberal Judaism and their thoughts. I came across a Rabbi John Rayner lecture given at the Carmel College on 19 August 1957. In this lecture, Rabbi Rayner expressed key values of Liberal Judaism. He wrote:

‘Liberal Judaism values truth above tradition, freedom above authority, and sincerity above uniformity. It reverences Jewish tradition, but not in an uncritical way. It holds that it is the duty of every generation so to develop the tradition that it may always be compatible with the best contemporary thought and appropriate to the best contemporary life, or, which is another way of putting it, that it may always be intellectually acceptable, spiritually satisfying and practically efficacious. It is not a rebellion against Judaism but an attempt to rescue it; it does aim to weaken Judaism but to strengthen it; it is not motivated by dislike for Judaism, but by a profound and passionate love. Without it Jewish scholarship would be poorer, Jewish-Christian relations less happy, and thousands of Jews would have been lost. Without it there would be no hope for the Jewish future’

The lecture was given over 60 year ago, but the Liberal Jewish values remain the same. The wisdom of our tradition teaches us to reflect on our past so we could begin the New Year with a sense of direction. I wish all of us to spend the upcoming 5780 year with a deep sense of hope and integrity and to live our lives full of truth, freedom and sincerity.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tovah,

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 20 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

‘Blessed shall be… your produce from the soil, the offspring from your cattle, your calving from the herd and your lambing from the flock.  Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl’ (Deuteronomy 28:4-5).

These verses, from the weekly parashah Ki Tavo, come from a longer section of blessings, promised to Israel if they are faithful in their observance of the commandments enjoined upon them by God.  Fourteen verses describing the blessings are followed by fifty-three verses of curses that will punish the people if they fail to keep the commandments.

In a simplistic way, one might argue that the incontinence of western populations, our avarice and sense of entitlement, our consumption of the planet’s resources, the creation of an unconscionably wide gap between rich and poor, the shockingly uneven distribution of food in the world and here, even in our own wealthy country, are the results of living without a clear moral compass.  We have brought these curses upon ourselves.  How have we got ourselves into this mess?

On Monday, Rabbi Igor Zinkov, Tim Simon – the Chairman of our Yom Kippur Appeal Committee  – and I met with Clare Gilboa, the UK Development Director for Leket Israel.  Leket is the LJS’s Yom Kippur Israeli charity this coming year and you will hear more about it on Yom Kippur itself.

It is Israel’s national food bank with a significant difference.  Unlike food banks here in Britain which provide non-perishable food to families and individuals, Leket Israel took a policy decision in 2017, to provide only fresh fruit, vegetables and freshly cooked meals for those who need it.  The whole exercise of rescuing Israel’s surplus food – cooked and fresh, no tins or packets – is massive.

35% of food harvested and produced in Israel is wasted. That figure is similar in the USA and the UK.  In hotels, supermarkets, army bases, at catered events, there is a wild tendency to overproduce and over-cater.  Leket feeds 17.5 thousand people each week – a high proportion of whom are working families, Shoah survivors, the elderly, Arab, Ethiopian, Druze, Bedouin and Russian families.  Leket work with non-profit organisations, getting the food to them in a time sensitive way, so that it doesn’t go off.  The NPOs then distribute it in various areas.

The challenges of food banking – overseeing the quality of the food, ensuring that supply meets demand, health and food safety and the long-term need, are all dealt with at an operational and logistical level by employees, and also by 52,000 volunteers.

The idea of children and adults going hungry is anathema.  And yet, the Trussell Trust in the UK reports a 19% increase on last year in distribution of food through their food banks.  1.6 million three day emergency food supplies were distributed between 1 April 2018 and 31 March, 2019.

To find out how we have got here and what is driving this relentless increase, please join us for a panel discussion this Saturday evening 21st September at 6.30 pm at the LJS, with Professor Geraldine van Bueren QC, Professor Human Rights Law at Queen Mary University, Dr Anna Isaacs, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Food Policy at City University, London and Garry Lemon, Director of Policy, External Affairs and Research at the Trussell Trust.

Is there some symbolic truth that emerges from the list of blessings and curses that make up this week’s Torah portion? Not that God as an omnipotent force for good or evil rewards or punishes, but that we must be held accountable and responsible for bringing this catastrophic situation to pass.

Food sustainability is part of the larger picture that has to do with how we are living on our burning planet.  As Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal puts it: ‘…the factors that are destroying our planet are also destroying people’s lives in many other ways, from wage stagnation to gaping inequalities to crumbling services to surging white supremacy to the collapse of our information ecology.’

By ourselves, we cannot extinguish the fire; we cannot create equity among all peoples, but we need to engender in ourselves a sense of urgency and join the worldwide movements and younger generations who are crying out for all of us to join the climate strike this Friday and to grasp at this last chance for change and transformation of the toxic model we have been living with for too long.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 13 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Next Friday September 20th there will be a global school climate strike. This strike is in part is inspired by Greta Thunberg, the 15 year old teenager who began her School Strike for Climate in August 2018.

Talking about the need for action, Thunberg said, ‘In Sweden, we live our lives as if we had the resources of 4.2 planets. Our carbon footprint is one of the ten worst in the world. This means that Sweden steals 3.2 years of natural resources from future generations every year. Those of us who are part of the future generations would like Sweden to stop doing that. Right now. This is not a political text. Our school strike has nothing to do with party politics. Because the climate and the biosphere don’t care about our politics and our empty words for a single second.’

I have heard similar concerns in conversations with our young people at the LJS where I listened to their fears about the future, and witnessed their resolute passion to take part in enduring change. They are not alone. On that Friday, young people will take the day off school and make their way to London where they will demand policy changes to protect their future. Many schools, unions and organisations will be supporting the strike, and adults are encouraged to support these young people who together will join the millions around the world protesting that day.

The issue could not be more important. It affects us all. And it’s going to take a lot of people getting together and making their voices heard to wake up our leaders and get them to take the urgent actions needed to address the crisis we find ourselves in.

This call to protect our environment is a theme throughout our sacred texts. In last week’s Torah portion, in the midst of a discussion on the ethics of war, we are given this teaching:

‘When in your war against a city, you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the axe against them, You may eat of them, but you may not cut them down.’ (Deuteronomy 20:19)

The trees are independent entities from those who live around them, who rest in their shade, who eat from them. And the Israelites are commanded to protect them.

This lesson, that we should not use our power and abilities to take advantage or unnecessarily do damage to our natural world, is present in our texts; biblical, Mishnaic, Talmudic, Midrashic and contemporary.

We do not own the Earth, we are commanded to live in partnership with it. This sentiment is shared in Psalm 24:

‘The earth is Adonai’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants.’

Our Torah shares the narrative that the natural world was created and that God showed Adam all of the wonders of the world and put the responsibility on him to maintain it.

As Kohelet Rabbah 7:13:1 shares:

‘At the time that the Holy One created the first man, He introduced him to every tree in the Garden of Eden, and said to him, ‘See how wonderful and pleasant these trees are. And all of this I have created for you; therefore take great care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you do there is no one else to put right what you have destroyed.’’

There is no-one else to put right what we have destroyed.

These teachings are painfully poignant today. May we all commit ourselves to doing what we can, to make small or large changes in the way that we are living, to ensure that we are acting as God’s partner as we forge a relationship of care and protection with our natural world.

I will be joining the strike with my children on the 20th to let our young people know that their LJS family is behind them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 6 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Between 1st Ellul and Rosh Hashanah, and some go as far as Hoshanah Rabbah – the day preceding Shemini Atzeret – it is customary to read Psalm 27, the Psalm that begins with the words ‘The Eternal One is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?’

It is not an ancient custom and can be dated back only to the year 1745 when Rabbi Jacob Emden, the German scholar and polemicist published his Siddur Bet Yaakov.  Various theories are given as to why this Psalm was chosen for this time of year – the period of the year when we prepare ourselves spiritually for the Yamim Nora’im and begin the journey of returning to God.

One theory suggests that the Psalm was chosen because it mentions the name of God 13 times – perhaps a veiled reference to the 13 attributes of God in Exodus 34, a passage sung before the open ark at the High Holy Days – Adonai, Adonai el rachum v’chanun – ‘The Eternal, the Eternal God is merciful and gracious, endlessly patient, loving and true, showing mercy to thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon.’

Another theory is based on a midrash which expounds the first verse in this way:  The Eternal One is my light – on Rosh Hashanah.  And my salvation – on Yom Kippur.

A more recent explanation highlights the Hebrew word at the beginning of verse 13 lulé – which means ‘if only’ – “If only I shall look on the goodness of the Eternal One.” In the Masoretic text, the word is dotted – a hint that in reverse the word spells Elul, the month we are now in.

More simply, it is a Psalm which addresses our fears  – the madness of the world on our own doorstep and further afield.  It encourages us to look, not for external help to contain our anxiety and distress, but for the strength that is in each one of us, that comes from the faith of our heart.  It tells us not to be stirred up by hysteria or hyperbole, but to search out the beauty of the world: ‘One thing only do I ask of God: to dwell in the house of the Eternal One all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Eternal God, and to seek God in the sanctuary.’

It is a Psalm about resisting evil and finding resilience in ourselves, a Psalm about how we speak to and about each other; it’s about trust and finding strength in times of affliction.  It’s about music and longing; about the fear of God’s hiddenness, of being abandoned; it’s about morality in a bewildering world and it’s about doubt: ‘If only I could trust that I shall see the goodness of the Eternal One in the land of the living.’

And in a world where truth and righteousness have been abandoned, it’s about patience, courage and hope, not that the world will revert to an old order, but that we will learn to adapt with honesty to something new, a new connection with each other and with the universe.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

 

To download our Calendar of Repentance for the second week of the month of Ellul, please click HERE.

To download last week’s calendar, please click HERE.

Thought for the Week

Friday 6 December 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Recently I had a conversation with someone in the process of conversion, they shared with me how connected they feel to God when they are in synagogue, but struggle to feel as connected when they are away from the community. I think this is something we can all relate to, for most of us we probably feel the deepest connection to our faith and our people when we are in a community. We are blessed to live in a diverse community and to be alive at a time and place where, as Jews, we are integrated into the wider society. How do we continue to feel connected even when we are not within the walls of the sanctuary or engaging in Jewish ritual ?

In the Shema we are encouraged to love God, to allow for this connection to our faith to be a part of our rising in the morning, our thoughts at the end of the night and in our hearts, minds and souls as we go on our way. On a practical level this is difficult, isn’t it? How can we remain connected?

There have been times in my life where I have strongly felt God’s presence, and times when I had to remind myself to look. In my late teens, in a period of questioning, my father encouraged me to say the Shehechiyanu every time I felt God’s presence. Throughout the day I found myself reciting this prayer, I was surprised to see how often I felt connected even during a time when intellectually I was questioning. This is a practice I have now taken on any time I am in a place of doubt, within a few weeks I am able to see how connected I do feel. Though God is mysterious, God is also there as a stable and loving force even if we are in a place of disconnection.

The Shehechiyanu prayer is traditionally said when one experiences something for the first time: when one wears a new article of clothing or when one eats a fruit for the first time in the growing season. This blessing is also often said at lifecycle events: baby namings, b’nei mitzvah, conversions, weddings. We learn in the Talmud that the Shehechiyanu prayer can also be recited if you see a friend you haven’t seen for more than 30 days. The translation of the blessing is “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, who has given us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this moment.” Every moment we experience is a first, the Shehechiyanu prayer can be recited any time we feel grateful for the moment we are in. Perhaps you might find this exercise helpful/interesting as well. You might want to try reciting this blessing every time you feel grateful or aware of God’s presence.

There is a lot of emphasis in Judaism on recognising the sacredness of the moment. Perhaps the clearest example we have of this idea in our Torah comes from this week’s Torah portion. Jacob has fled Esau who has threatened to kill him for stealing his birthright. He stops for the night, using a rock as a pillow he falls asleep. He dreams of a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending. He awakes and proclaims, “God was in this place and I, I did not know it.”

Let us attempt, even in times of doubt and struggle, to recognise that God is in this place and to offer gratitude for the gift of the moment.

Shabbat Shalom

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 29 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

There has always been a tension in Judaism between particularism and universalism: concern and care for our own people, and a reaching out to help others for the greater good of the societies in which we live.  It is quite natural to express unease and disquiet at circumstances that may affect our own families and communities.  We have to work much harder to express our interest in and apprehension for those who are not like ourselves.

So when the current Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, a gentle man of compassion and integrity, is asked by members of our community, ‘What will become of Jews and Judaism in Britain if the Labour Party forms the next government,’ his response should be finely balanced between concern for ourselves and our own interests and an equally profound attention and awareness of others.

That tension and balance are an essential part of the teaching that Jews should be both ‘for ourselves,’ but not ‘only for ourselves.’   This dual imperative can be found in texts that go back to the Hebrew Bible:  the commandment not to harden one’s heart towards our kinsfolk but to lend sufficient for their needs is set next to the interdiction against oppressing the stranger.  ‘For you were a stranger in the land of Egypt,’ is a constant refrain in the Torah – repeated more often than any other commandment, because we need to work harder and train ourselves to identify with those who are not part of our own people.

The prophets, too, identified that tension.  Amos makes no distinction between God who brings up the Israelites from Egypt and the Philistines from Caphtor or the Arameans from Kir (Amos 9:7).  And Malachi may have been referring to the people of Israel in his prophecy, but subsequent interpretations have universalised his message to refer to all humanity: ‘Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?  Why do we break faith with one another..?’ (Malachi 2.10).

The Talmud, in a clear reference to these verses, relates that on one occasion, when it was decreed that the Jews were prohibited from studying the Torah, infant male circumcision and observing the Sabbath, the Rabbis went and took counsel with a Roman woman, well-known to prominent Romans.  She advised them to raise an alarm by night, and as they did so, they said, ‘O you heavens, are we not your brothers and sisters? Are we not the children of one father? Are we not the children of one mother?  In what way are we different from every other nation and tongue that you make harsh decrees against us?’  One wonders where Shakespeare drew his inspiration for Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice, ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh…?’

In Jewish law, as well as lore, Jews have obligations to the rest of humanity: ‘We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, mi-p’nei darchei shalom – for the sake of peace (bGittin 61a). And on a daily basis, the liturgy of our prayer books instructs the community to recall our specific Jewish task as well as our obligations to the rest of humanity.

The Chief Rabbi is right in drawing attention to all victims of racism and reminding those of us who live securely and without the anxiety of being harassed on a train, beaten up on a bus, or hounded out of a political party, that antisemitism, along with other insidious and violent forms of racism and senseless hatred, including Islamophobia, are very real dangers to freedom and well-being in our democracy.

Yet, in this fruitless war of words, we, the Jewish community, have lost our balance.  We have been trapped in a cycle that focuses only on ourselves as victims of antisemitism, rather than as agents for good in the world.  Jeremy Corbyn is not going to apologise for past associations or present weakness in failing to address antisemitism in his party; just as Boris Johnson will continue to use words irresponsibly, stirring the flames of Islamophobia and other forms of racism.

Leadership – whether political or religious – requires humility, wisdom, courage and admission of wrong-doing.    It is time for us as leaders of the Jewish community to take a step back, to redress a balance and to speak out, not only for ourselves, but for all victims of racism, and for all those in our own country who have suffered because of years of austerity.

The Jewish people have survived because we have held this delicate and creative balance of particularism and universalism, of understanding our specific responsibility as Jews with our own narrative, and seeing ourselves as part of the human family, children of One God, with the obligation to seek the welfare of all people.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 22 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A few weeks ago, I started a personal project. I decided to read a Torah portion in advance, study some commentaries, midrashim, interpretations and stories related to it and draw a sketch. My hope was that the sketch would depict one of the ideas I found relevant in the Torah portion. I called the project Torah Sketch. I hope I will have enough patience, creativity and inspiration to complete the year-long journey.

I started with Torah portion Lech Lecha. My inspiration was the moment I discovered that you can customise the back of Nike trainers with your initials. The theme of the journey which Abraham took in Genesis 12 fits the shoes’ customisation feature very well. Therefore, I decided to draw the following sketch:

This journey led me to this week’s Torah portion Chayei Sarah. Its opening verse says:

And the life of Sarah was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years. These were the years of the life of Sarah (Gen 23:1)

Rashi, a great Torah scholar from the eleventh century, asked why the text doesn’t just say, “Sarah lived one hundred and twenty seven years?” The repetition of the word ‘year’ and the splitting of Sarah’s age into three periods seems unnecessary and superfluous, yet Rashi concluded that the wording is repeated to indicate that all of her years were good.

It is easy to think that the best years of your life are ahead of you, leading you to live your life dreaming of a better future. Or you may think that your best years were in the past, meaning you spend your time reminiscing. While it is important to remember the past and think of the future, the story of Sarah reminds us that any age can be equally good. Whether you are seven, twenty or hundred years old, you can be happy and lead a life of fulfilment and accomplishment, joy and happiness.

Pirkei Avot, a two thousand year old collection of Rabbinic wisdom, records a saying of Judah ben Tema about different stages of people’s lives (Pirkei Avot 5:21):

At five to the study of Scripture;

At ten to the study of Mishnah;

At thirteen to the commandments;

At fifteen to the study of Talmud;

At eighteen to the bridal canopy;

At twenty to the pursuit of livelihood;

At thirty to the peak of strength;

At forty to wisdom;

At fifty to give counsel;

At sixty to the old age;

At seventy to fullness of years;

At eighty to strength.

Perhaps not all of the above activities are relevant for our world today, but the principle remains the same: At any age we can find ourselves, discover new sides of life, and be happy.

May this week be the one of fulfilment, health, strength and fullness of years!

Shabbat Shalom

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 15 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Finally, I find a quiet moment to sweep the fallen leaves from outside my house.  They line the path leading to the front door and the pavement of my road; they lie in the gutter – some dry and curled, fragile like moth-eaten pages of an old manuscript.  Some are freshly fallen and beautiful still – gold and red, the rich colours of this autumn season.  As a child, I would collect fallen leaves and flowers and press them between the pages of thick books and sometimes now, opening an old volume  – very occasionally – I will come across the dry, compacted form of a leaf or a few petals.  How far I seem from those days when every leaf seemed precious and something new that I had never seen before – each blade defined by its unique shape, the midrib running from the base to its apex, the delicate veins branching out to the edges, essential to the health of the leaf as they carry the nutrients necessary to its life.

In the short time, I am outside, I encounter four of my neighbours and miraculously, we find time to chat.  The man next door, who piles his three small children into his car every morning to take them to school and nursery, my neighbour the other side who always watches for parcels or packets left outside the front door, and on the other side of her, my lovely neighbour who will always lend me an egg or some milk if I find myself without an essential ingredient when I am cooking.

This is a rare moment of privilege and pleasure – of feeling embedded in my neighbourhood where I have lived for a long time. These are the people whom I so often wave to, but find little time to chat, to find out what is happening in their lives, to discover the challenges they are living with?  Each of them has a story or many stories – the loneliness of a widow, battling her own health problems; the worry of a sick child or grandchild; the difficulties of bringing up a family in the cramped surroundings of a small flat.

There is something hidden, yet precious that binds us together as neighbours – that we share the same road, that we live in such close proximity to each other, with only a fence or thin wall separating our houses and gardens.  We hear the movements we make in each other’s homes, we take in each other’s post, we sweep each other’s leaves and put away each other’s dustbins, we lend each other books. We are a small community, a micro-community of this larger society in which we live. And we have learned to live with each other’s foibles and habits, to speak courteously to each other if something crops up that bothers us.

We are like the birds gathering around the feeders in the garden: two parakeets alighting on a thin branch, the family of dunnocks chirping noisily, the jays and a large, black crow, the fat pigeons that fancy themselves as lighter versions of themselves, swaying awkwardly, pushing themselves towards the feeder.  They come and go throughout the day, occasionally on their own, more often as a small community, busy feeding, singing, perching and swaying, curling themselves into little acrobats to feed from the seeds.

It was Hillel who said: Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur – ‘Do not separate yourself from the community’ (Pirkei Avot 2:5) – an appeal to strengthen the Jewish community, to pray and study with the congregation, to volunteer one’s times and strengths, not to withdraw into an ascetic life of seclusion.

Those few minutes of sweeping the leaves in front of my houses reminded me of the importance of community: of collaboration and reaching out, listening and sharing, of gratitude and love.  And I see the individuals of our community as veins in a leaf, the seams that connect us to each other, that reach out to the very edges of our congregation with the warmth and friendship that are required to counter loneliness, to bring consolation and to share in each other’s joys.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 8 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to teach one of our teenage class sessions at Rimon. This particular class is a very engaged and thoughtful group. I facilitated an exercise with them, I shared a statement of theology or belief and if they strongly agreed they would stand on one side of the room, if they strongly disagreed they would stand on the other side of the room. If they weren’t certain they stood in the middle. After a few rounds I shared the statement I was most curious about “I believe in God”. One student went to the “strongly agree” side of the room, one went to the “strongly disagree” side of the room, and the rest found themselves somewhere in the middle. We spoke about this one for about 10 minutes and through the conversation I learned that all of the students believe in some sort of higher power, in a greater force that acts in this world but each of them understood God differently. Most stated that they don’t believe in the God as presented in the Torah, a God of creation who is capable of reward or punishment though many of them think (hope) that God is capable of providing healing. The next statement I shared was “Studying Torah is one of the most important parts of being Jewish.” Every single student went to the “Strongly Agree” side of the room. How wonderful! In their own words, the students shared that Torah gives them a sense of history, it connects them with past generations, it teaches important lessons and values. I was inspired by this group of young people and their open conversation, they had clarity about their relationship with the past and with our texts and a connection to but questions about God. I was reminded of a famous text from the Talmud, “The Oven of Akhnai”. It is a text often studied in progressive Judaism as it emphasis the sacred importance of human conversation.   

The Oven of Akhnai is one of my favourite passages from the Talmud, it is from Bava Metzia 59a. It is a story that comes in the midst of a conversation around keeping an over ritually pure. If the oven becomes impure one can purify it by breaking it into pieces and then placing the pieces back together, with a cement like substance between each piece. Rabbi Eleazer has an idea, if an oven is purified by breaking it into pieces and then putting those pieces back together with mortar between the pieces, then could it be possible to create an oven that could never be deemed impure by placing together with mortar many small pieces, instead of having one large oven.  

If you’re confused then you are in good company, like much of the Talmud the halachik discussions are full of complicated minutiae. It’s not important that you understand Rabbi Eliezar’s argument, what is important is that you understand that Rabbi Eleazar was trying to convince the Talmudic sages who were making decisions about the community, kind of like the counsel  of Talmudic times, that his argument was valid and should be followed. Here is the text:  

On that day, when they discussed this matter, Rabbi Eliezer answered all possible answers in the world to support his opinion, but the Rabbis did not accept his explanations from him. After failing to convince the Rabbis logically, Rabbi Eliezer said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, this carob tree will prove it. The carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, and some say four hundred cubits. The Rabbis said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from the carob tree. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the stream will prove it. The water in the stream turned backward and began flowing in the opposite direction. They said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from a stream. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the walls of the study hall will prove it. The walls of the study hall leaned inward and began to fall. Rabbi Yehoshua scolded the walls and said to them: If Torah scholars are contending with each other in matters of halakha, what is the nature of your involvement in this dispute? The Gemara relates: The walls did not fall because of the deference due Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten because of the deference due Rabbi Eliezer, and they still remain leaning. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, Heaven will prove it. A Divine Voice emerged from Heaven and said: Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion? Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: It is written: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of the phrase “It is not in heaven” in this context? Rabbi Yirmeya says: Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a Divine Voice, as You already wrote at Mount Sinai, in the Torah: “After a majority to incline” (Exodus 23:2). Since the majority of Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, the halakha is not ruled in accordance with his opinion. The Gemara relates: Years after, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time, when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration? Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.  

(Non-gendered God language has been used to reflect an honest translation of the Talmud.)  

Time and time again the rabbis are shown that God agrees with Rabbi Eleazar, (the waters flow backwards, the tree is uprooted, a heavenly voice comes down!) but in the end it is the discussions and decisions of the people that are more important than the will of God.   

Though our thoughts and opinions may be divinely inspired, this text reminds us that what we are doing within community is sacred work, as humans we hold the responsibility of creating and maintaining an ethical framework.  It is not in heaven that the rules of the community are decided it is the work of humans to look through the details of how a community functions and to decide how our sacred text and traditions will be manifest in our communities. It is not in heaven, it is here, in the halls and rooms of the LJS and in any room where Jewish individuals come together to discuss, plan and commit ourselves to Torah in all its many forms. 

Shabbat Shalom

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 1 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A seventeen year old boy, his mother dead, his father an old man to whom he is close, is sold to people traders, slave owners, by his own brothers, and is taken to a foreign country where he is trafficked to a soldier in the king’s army.  He works hard and is given responsibility and authority over the household.  The man is often away from home and soon the man’s wife sets her sights on the young teenager, tries to get him to sleep with her and one day, takes hold of him saying, ‘Lie with me!’  The boy escapes, leaving his garment in her hand.  Outraged, she calls her husband and accuses the boy of trying to rape her.  His master has the boy thrown into prison and there he languishes for a long time.

This is the story of Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel – the first individual in the Hebrew Bible we know to be trafficked by people smugglers from Judah into Egypt and then sold into slavery to Potiphar and his wife.

I have thought about this story, its initial similarities and then the stark and tragic differences between Joseph’s ultimate success and the thirty-nine individuals trafficked into the UK and found dead inside a freezer container just one week ago.

We do not know all the details: why these young men and women left their homes in the first place, making the long, costly, precarious and unknown journeys to Europe. Why would someone leave parents and family, homeland and everything that is familiar and risk losing their lives if not for reasons that are quite desperate?  Why did our own grandparents or great-grandparents leave their homes for England or Ireland or the United States?  They saw no future for themselves under oppressive regimes, their lives blighted by poverty and hardship.  Perhaps it is freedom or the urgent need for money, for meaningful work and the possibility of a brighter future that gives individuals the motivation to undertake such long and frightening journeys, their families mortgaging land and movables for tens of thousands of pounds.

These young people – if they came from Vietnam – had risked everything, including tragically their lives, in order to make it into this country.  Did they know the kind of work they might have ended up in?  In cannabis farms, in nail bars, perhaps even in prostitution and sex work?

Some people’s lives are so desperate that they would rather make these perilous journeys, knowing the difficulty of entering Western Europe, than stay where they are.  Nearly 18,000 people have drowned crossing seas and trying to enter other countries since 2014.

The death of these 39 women and men is tragic.  Tragic in that a journey that began with hope has ended in irreversible catastrophe.  Such tragedies have been more apparent to all of us since the three year old Syrian child of Kurdish ethnic background, Alan Kurdi, was found face down on a beach after he drowned in the Mediterranean.

This world in which we live is one of uncertainty and doubt; it engenders a feeling of unease in a place that has unlearnt the customs of hospitality.  And we bear a responsibility for this unlearning, for this environment of suspicion and lack of interest in the lives of individuals who only wish for freedom – to go where they wish to go, to live where they wish to live, to speak with truth what they believe, to love with honesty and openness.

The lives of these individuals, their aspirations and hope, came into tragic conflict with the limitations and demands of a world that is fundamentally hostile to asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.

As Noah and his family and the animals he has saved emerge from the Ark in this week’s parashah, God rethinks the guidelines he has given to humanity and adds this law for Noah and his descendants:

                Whoever sheds the blood of human beings,

                By humanity shall his blood be shed;

                For in God’s image

                Did God make human beings (Genesis 9:6).

Human life, the life of all creatures, says God, is precious; I will now bind myself to you in an everlasting covenant and promise never again to destroy the earth and all flesh by the waters of a flood. God sees the grandeur of each human spirit, the preciousness of each human life.  And that is what it means for all human beings to be created in God’s image.  Our deeds, our words and actions have repercussions and when we lose our faith in a God who has created us in the divine image, we lose that sense and acknowledgement of the nobility and dignity of the human spirit, the body that encases it and the obligations that fall on us and the countries in which we live, to ensure that such tragedies will never happen again.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 25 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Any end must be followed by a new beginning – such is the hope embedded in our tradition. This week we celebrated Simchat Torah, which marks several ends and beginnings. After a 22 day chain of festivals, we observed the end of a Jewish marathon of individual and communal reflection, and marked the beginning of a new calendar and agricultural year. After a year-long journey through weekly Torah portions, we marked the completion of the annual cycle of the Torah reading and acknowledged the beginning of the new one. After many years of Moses’ leadership, we read about the end of his life, and the beginning of Joshua’s term as a leader of the Jewish people.

In his new book ‘Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope’, Johann Hari offers a personal perspective on depression and anxiety. Hari selects concepts that explain some aspects of depression and its causes. He interviews and summarises research of many scholars who have uncovered evidence for nine different causes of depression. Some are in our biology, but most can be found in the way we live today. Among these causes are: disconnection from meaningful work, disconnection from other people, disconnection from meaningful values, and disconnection from a hopeful and secure future. I don’t think any of the book’s points are new, nevertheless they remain important and worth speaking about.

Perhaps the Jewish community might offer a solution to some of them. Liberal Judaism takes the position that Jewish tradition must keep in tune with modern and relevant trends to remain meaningful to modern society. The Jewish way of living is a spiral. Each year we begin a new old journey, developing a new circuit of our lives. Each year we begin with a new Creation and, therefore, articulate a new hope. It helps us to find meaning in life, support from our community, and stability in today’s world.

As Progressive Jews, it is our responsibility to develop and defend Judaism which offers people a medium for meaningful life and meaningful values, connection to a community of caring people, and the sense of a helpful and secure future. As we begin the new cycle of the Torah reading, let us not forget that any end must be followed by a new beginning, such is the hope embedded in our tradition.

Shabbat Shalom

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 18 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

On the first day of Sukkot, my colleague, 77 year old Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, taking part in the Extinction Rebellion protests, wearing a tallit and carrying a lulav and etrog in his hand, was arrested outside the Bank of England.  A passionate campaigner on the climate emergency, it was distressing to see him carried away by the police, who wrested the lulav and etrog from his hand so that it dropped carelessly to the ground.

This action affected me deeply. It was a stark reminder that so many were willing to put their lives, their bodies and their liberty on the line for the sake of the future of our planet.  As George Monbiot said, in the moments before he was arrested on Wednesday:

‘At the moment we are facing the destruction of life on earth, the destruction of our life support systems; so to stand up against that destruction, I feel, is our human duty. By being arrested in defence of the living planet, I feel I can look my children, and maybe one day my grandchildren in the eye. This feels exactly the right place to be, under arrest for trying to defend life on earth.’

‘It’s not OK,’ said Rabbi Newman as he was lifted off the ground by two policeman and we knew what that meant.  This wanton destruction of the earth, capitalisation through investment in fossil fuel industries, our moral distance and ignorance of what is happening, not only in our own hemisphere, but thousands of miles away, where it is the poorest of the world, whose impact on the climate is small, but who suffer most from  environmental breakdown – thousands of refugees who seek refuge from the climate chaos in places such as Somalia, Mozambique, Bangladesh, the Caribbean, Central America and many other parts of the world.

A curious thing is happening, not for the first time in our public spaces.  Seeing Rabbi Newman on the first day of the festival, walking with the ritual objects of Sukkot and wearing his tallit reminded me of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words that prayer should be a ‘radical, subversive act.’  Prayer and ritual are no longer confined to the home and the synagogue, but – like the civil rights movement in the United States for which Heschel marched – it has been moved into the public space, beyond the walls of our religious institutions.

Dr Susanna Heschel, wrote of her father on his return from the non-violent civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama:

‘When he came home from Selma in 1965, my father wrote, ‘For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.’’

An early Aramaic chronicle of significant days in the Jewish calendar demonstrates the power of protesting in a public space in this account about Caligula who had sent an idol to be placed in the Temple.  This shocking news reached Jerusalem on the eve of Sukkot.  Shimon Ha-Tzaddik instructed the Jews to go out and stand before the soldiers of the Roman Empire.   In every city throughout Judea, they stood in their numbers to confront the Emperor’s emissary and cried out, ‘We will die before we accept this decree.’  They lay down in the market places in sackcloth and ashes.  When a letter arrived announcing Caligula’s assassination, the idol was immediately taken down and dragged through the streets and Shimon Ha-Tzaddik heard a voice from the Holy of Holies that said: ‘The worship of idols in the Temple is nullified. Caligula has been slain and his decrees nullified.’  And the same day was declared a Yom Tov (Megillat Ta’anit 11.9).

Before this month of Tishri with its festivals of judgement, atonement and rejoicing is over, I know I must take my prayers out of the Sanctuary and into a public place.  I am frightened that my own inaction has rendered me complacent and paralysed by helpless distress.

If we care about the future our children and – please God – our grandchildren are going to inherit, then if we can, we need to take our prayers across the threshold of our interior spaces and outside into a public place.  Prayer is political; it has always been thus, from the moment that Moses hesitated at the Sea of Reeds to utter a supplication to God.  What are you doing, says God, get up and move on!

Shabbat Shalom and may the closing festival of Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah be a time we turn away from despair and embrace an uplifting hope for the future.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 11 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

I feel so grateful and honoured to have spent the Days of Awe within our community. For me personally, and I do hope for you as well, the worship experiences of the last two weeks have been deep and moving, made even more powerful by being surrounded by our community. This was my second Yom Kippur at the LJS, but I had only just started before last year’s festival season. I was moved this year to look out from the Bimah and to see your faces, having had the immense honour of getting to know you better over the last year. Thank you for sharing your life and faith with me. What we have at the LJS really is very special.

To think about all the people who worked tirelessly to bring it all together! From the office team to the Shammashim, the stewards, Karen Newman who projected the sermons, our teachers who led art activities upstairs, and everyone who attended either at the synagogue or through streaming, adding their voices to the community prayers.

Since the closing of the service of Yom Kippur, I have been thinking about the small Jewish community in Halle Germany. Like us, they too had joined together in prayer, with their community, having readied themselves for a Day of Atonement and spiritual renewal. Like us, they were engaging in peaceful prayer and working towards being better. Until their prayers were brutally interrupted by a right-wing extremist who attempted to break into the synagogue, killing two innocent individuals, all with a camera live streaming mounted on his head. He filmed himself before the attack, identifying himself as a Holocaust denier and blamed “the Jew” for the worlds problem.

The security plan that this synagogue in Halle had set up kept them safe, though the attacker shot repeatedly at the door and threw several Molotov cocktails he was not able to force himself in. There were 70-80 people gathered in the synagogue, after hearing the shots they saw the attacker trying to get in through the security camera.

Only hours after the attack we sat in our synagogue and joined together in the Mussaf service. A service honouring those whose lives have been cut short only because they were Jewish, because hatred and fear of the other is violent and dangerous and is too familiar to us as a people. I think about the words of Claude Montefiore that we read during the Mussaf service, “It was not an ibn Gabirol or a Maimonides, still less a Spuinoza, who fulfilled the Jewish mission most truly, or rendered the greatest service to the Jewish cause. No. It was the many little obscure Jewish communities through the ages, persecuted and despised, who kept alive the flame of the purest Monotheism and the supremacy and divisiveness of the moral Law.” We still do not know many details about the victims or how many others were injured. We hold their bereaved families, and this terrified community in our prayers.

We are grateful to the CST and to our own security team at the LJS who ensures our security as we come together in prayer and study.

May this new year be one of safety for us and all people. May we find ourselves in a world of greater tolerance and love, and may this day come soon.

Shanah Tovah,

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 4 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

During the month of Ellul, preceding Rosh Hashanah, a colleague and dear friend ran three online sessions from her home in the States on Musar literature – a genre of Jewish teaching and literature that Rabbi Bahya ibn Pakuda in the eleventh century calls ‘the science of inner life.’  Musar focuses on ways in which we can practise moral discipline and attempt to overcome our ‘weaker’ qualities.  How can we cultivate our own sense of dignity and self-worth? How can we overcome persistent anger or resentment? How can we become more patient, more tolerant and more forgiving of others? And so there is a practical and pious (I admit the word has awkward connotations in our own time) dimension to the application of Musar.

There were four students, an intimate group, all speaking to each other via our computer or smart phones using the technology ‘Zoom’.  Apart from receiving the wisdom of my colleague with teachings that had been sent to us in advance, it was so lovely to feel connected to her in these days leading up to the festivals and, of course, to be searching our own souls; refining – if you like – the traits that are part of us seemed supremely important as we considered the days of repentance before us.

She presented us with texts on three ‘virtues’ over the three weekly sessions we were together: Anavah (humility), Hakarat ha-Tov (gratitude) and Menuchat ha-Nefesh (equanimity – ‘rising above the good and bad’).

Setting us some daily ‘homework’ to reflect on these qualities, she allowed us to reflect on our own traits, on how we had spent our week, whether we had been able to ‘practise’ or at least think about the way we are with ourselves and with others.

One of the most famous tracts of Musar literature is named after a woman – Tomer D’vorah – ‘The Palm Tree of Deborah’ by the sixteenth century kabbalist and scholar, Moses Cordovero.  Cordovero opens the first of the ten chapters of his book with a phrase by phrase interpretation of Micah 7:18-20 – these are the verses that conclude the Haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah, this Shabbat.  The first part begins with the famous verses from Hosea: ‘Return, O Israel, to the Eternal One your God…’ (Hosea 14:2).

This Shabbat, in the middle of the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah – the Ten Days of Repentance, the message is not only Hosea’s exhortation to repent, but God’s readiness to forgive:

‘Who is a God like You,

Forgiving iniquity, passing over transgression;

You do not cling to Your anger with the remnant of Your people,

Because you delight in showing love!’ (Micah 7:18)

Cordovero sees in these words divine attributes – endless kindness, forgiveness, willingness to let go of anger, love and patience.  These, he says, are the attributes of our Divine Creator and these are the moral and spiritual qualities to which we should aspire. We may cling to our anger, but God does not. Even if a person fails to repent of their sins, God neutralises or nullifies divine fury with mercy and love and the expectation of repentance.

It is hard to let go of anger and hurt.  Yet, this is what Yom Kippur demands of us.  In our short-tempered world, we have to swim against the current of impatience with forgiveness, forgetfulness even, with a sense that we can let go and stop bearing grudges or feeling victimised.

How hard it is when the words we hear around us are not always tender, kind or forgiving.  How hard to be patient when our attention span grows weaker the more technology tests and assaults our perseverance; how hard to love and be loved; how difficult to show gratitude, to practise humility and cultivate that sense of equanimity in our own souls.

We need a week of Yom Kippur, a month, a retreat of silence, an escape away from the chaotic uncertainties of our lives and the political landscape we live in.

Can we forgive iniquity; can we be forgiven?  Can we pass over the transgression of others and let go of our anger?  As we enter these days of holiness, help us O God to be like You, delighting in showing love and gratitude and remaining true and faithful to our Judaism, to the Jewish people and the teachings of our faith, as You, O God showed ‘faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham… from days of old’ (Micah 7.20).

Shabbat Shalom and Chatimah Tovah – May you be inscribed for a  healthy and peaceful year of 5780.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 27 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

As a Liberal Rabbi, I believe in development and critical approach to religion and life. Knowing the past helps me to navigate in the uncertainty of the present. As bestselling writer and historian Yuval Harari put it: ‘The cold hand of the past… grips us by the neck and directs our gaze towards a single future. We have felt that grip from the moment we were born, so we assume that it is a natural and inescapable part of who we are. Therefore we seldom try to shake ourselves free, and envision alternative futures.’ (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, p. 59) There are only few days left before Rosh Hashanah – the day of hearing awakening shofar blasts, the day when we remember the creation of humanity, the day when we begin a journey of reflection, the day of hope for forgiveness, a better future, and inner peace.

This week, I decided to spend a day of learning about leaders of Liberal Judaism and their thoughts. I came across a Rabbi John Rayner lecture given at the Carmel College on 19 August 1957. In this lecture, Rabbi Rayner expressed key values of Liberal Judaism. He wrote:

‘Liberal Judaism values truth above tradition, freedom above authority, and sincerity above uniformity. It reverences Jewish tradition, but not in an uncritical way. It holds that it is the duty of every generation so to develop the tradition that it may always be compatible with the best contemporary thought and appropriate to the best contemporary life, or, which is another way of putting it, that it may always be intellectually acceptable, spiritually satisfying and practically efficacious. It is not a rebellion against Judaism but an attempt to rescue it; it does aim to weaken Judaism but to strengthen it; it is not motivated by dislike for Judaism, but by a profound and passionate love. Without it Jewish scholarship would be poorer, Jewish-Christian relations less happy, and thousands of Jews would have been lost. Without it there would be no hope for the Jewish future’

The lecture was given over 60 year ago, but the Liberal Jewish values remain the same. The wisdom of our tradition teaches us to reflect on our past so we could begin the New Year with a sense of direction. I wish all of us to spend the upcoming 5780 year with a deep sense of hope and integrity and to live our lives full of truth, freedom and sincerity.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tovah,

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 20 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

‘Blessed shall be… your produce from the soil, the offspring from your cattle, your calving from the herd and your lambing from the flock.  Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl’ (Deuteronomy 28:4-5).

These verses, from the weekly parashah Ki Tavo, come from a longer section of blessings, promised to Israel if they are faithful in their observance of the commandments enjoined upon them by God.  Fourteen verses describing the blessings are followed by fifty-three verses of curses that will punish the people if they fail to keep the commandments.

In a simplistic way, one might argue that the incontinence of western populations, our avarice and sense of entitlement, our consumption of the planet’s resources, the creation of an unconscionably wide gap between rich and poor, the shockingly uneven distribution of food in the world and here, even in our own wealthy country, are the results of living without a clear moral compass.  We have brought these curses upon ourselves.  How have we got ourselves into this mess?

On Monday, Rabbi Igor Zinkov, Tim Simon – the Chairman of our Yom Kippur Appeal Committee  – and I met with Clare Gilboa, the UK Development Director for Leket Israel.  Leket is the LJS’s Yom Kippur Israeli charity this coming year and you will hear more about it on Yom Kippur itself.

It is Israel’s national food bank with a significant difference.  Unlike food banks here in Britain which provide non-perishable food to families and individuals, Leket Israel took a policy decision in 2017, to provide only fresh fruit, vegetables and freshly cooked meals for those who need it.  The whole exercise of rescuing Israel’s surplus food – cooked and fresh, no tins or packets – is massive.

35% of food harvested and produced in Israel is wasted. That figure is similar in the USA and the UK.  In hotels, supermarkets, army bases, at catered events, there is a wild tendency to overproduce and over-cater.  Leket feeds 17.5 thousand people each week – a high proportion of whom are working families, Shoah survivors, the elderly, Arab, Ethiopian, Druze, Bedouin and Russian families.  Leket work with non-profit organisations, getting the food to them in a time sensitive way, so that it doesn’t go off.  The NPOs then distribute it in various areas.

The challenges of food banking – overseeing the quality of the food, ensuring that supply meets demand, health and food safety and the long-term need, are all dealt with at an operational and logistical level by employees, and also by 52,000 volunteers.

The idea of children and adults going hungry is anathema.  And yet, the Trussell Trust in the UK reports a 19% increase on last year in distribution of food through their food banks.  1.6 million three day emergency food supplies were distributed between 1 April 2018 and 31 March, 2019.

To find out how we have got here and what is driving this relentless increase, please join us for a panel discussion this Saturday evening 21st September at 6.30 pm at the LJS, with Professor Geraldine van Bueren QC, Professor Human Rights Law at Queen Mary University, Dr Anna Isaacs, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Food Policy at City University, London and Garry Lemon, Director of Policy, External Affairs and Research at the Trussell Trust.

Is there some symbolic truth that emerges from the list of blessings and curses that make up this week’s Torah portion? Not that God as an omnipotent force for good or evil rewards or punishes, but that we must be held accountable and responsible for bringing this catastrophic situation to pass.

Food sustainability is part of the larger picture that has to do with how we are living on our burning planet.  As Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal puts it: ‘…the factors that are destroying our planet are also destroying people’s lives in many other ways, from wage stagnation to gaping inequalities to crumbling services to surging white supremacy to the collapse of our information ecology.’

By ourselves, we cannot extinguish the fire; we cannot create equity among all peoples, but we need to engender in ourselves a sense of urgency and join the worldwide movements and younger generations who are crying out for all of us to join the climate strike this Friday and to grasp at this last chance for change and transformation of the toxic model we have been living with for too long.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 13 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Next Friday September 20th there will be a global school climate strike. This strike is in part is inspired by Greta Thunberg, the 15 year old teenager who began her School Strike for Climate in August 2018.

Talking about the need for action, Thunberg said, ‘In Sweden, we live our lives as if we had the resources of 4.2 planets. Our carbon footprint is one of the ten worst in the world. This means that Sweden steals 3.2 years of natural resources from future generations every year. Those of us who are part of the future generations would like Sweden to stop doing that. Right now. This is not a political text. Our school strike has nothing to do with party politics. Because the climate and the biosphere don’t care about our politics and our empty words for a single second.’

I have heard similar concerns in conversations with our young people at the LJS where I listened to their fears about the future, and witnessed their resolute passion to take part in enduring change. They are not alone. On that Friday, young people will take the day off school and make their way to London where they will demand policy changes to protect their future. Many schools, unions and organisations will be supporting the strike, and adults are encouraged to support these young people who together will join the millions around the world protesting that day.

The issue could not be more important. It affects us all. And it’s going to take a lot of people getting together and making their voices heard to wake up our leaders and get them to take the urgent actions needed to address the crisis we find ourselves in.

This call to protect our environment is a theme throughout our sacred texts. In last week’s Torah portion, in the midst of a discussion on the ethics of war, we are given this teaching:

‘When in your war against a city, you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the axe against them, You may eat of them, but you may not cut them down.’ (Deuteronomy 20:19)

The trees are independent entities from those who live around them, who rest in their shade, who eat from them. And the Israelites are commanded to protect them.

This lesson, that we should not use our power and abilities to take advantage or unnecessarily do damage to our natural world, is present in our texts; biblical, Mishnaic, Talmudic, Midrashic and contemporary.

We do not own the Earth, we are commanded to live in partnership with it. This sentiment is shared in Psalm 24:

‘The earth is Adonai’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants.’

Our Torah shares the narrative that the natural world was created and that God showed Adam all of the wonders of the world and put the responsibility on him to maintain it.

As Kohelet Rabbah 7:13:1 shares:

‘At the time that the Holy One created the first man, He introduced him to every tree in the Garden of Eden, and said to him, ‘See how wonderful and pleasant these trees are. And all of this I have created for you; therefore take great care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you do there is no one else to put right what you have destroyed.’’

There is no-one else to put right what we have destroyed.

These teachings are painfully poignant today. May we all commit ourselves to doing what we can, to make small or large changes in the way that we are living, to ensure that we are acting as God’s partner as we forge a relationship of care and protection with our natural world.

I will be joining the strike with my children on the 20th to let our young people know that their LJS family is behind them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 6 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Between 1st Ellul and Rosh Hashanah, and some go as far as Hoshanah Rabbah – the day preceding Shemini Atzeret – it is customary to read Psalm 27, the Psalm that begins with the words ‘The Eternal One is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?’

It is not an ancient custom and can be dated back only to the year 1745 when Rabbi Jacob Emden, the German scholar and polemicist published his Siddur Bet Yaakov.  Various theories are given as to why this Psalm was chosen for this time of year – the period of the year when we prepare ourselves spiritually for the Yamim Nora’im and begin the journey of returning to God.

One theory suggests that the Psalm was chosen because it mentions the name of God 13 times – perhaps a veiled reference to the 13 attributes of God in Exodus 34, a passage sung before the open ark at the High Holy Days – Adonai, Adonai el rachum v’chanun – ‘The Eternal, the Eternal God is merciful and gracious, endlessly patient, loving and true, showing mercy to thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon.’

Another theory is based on a midrash which expounds the first verse in this way:  The Eternal One is my light – on Rosh Hashanah.  And my salvation – on Yom Kippur.

A more recent explanation highlights the Hebrew word at the beginning of verse 13 lulé – which means ‘if only’ – “If only I shall look on the goodness of the Eternal One.” In the Masoretic text, the word is dotted – a hint that in reverse the word spells Elul, the month we are now in.

More simply, it is a Psalm which addresses our fears  – the madness of the world on our own doorstep and further afield.  It encourages us to look, not for external help to contain our anxiety and distress, but for the strength that is in each one of us, that comes from the faith of our heart.  It tells us not to be stirred up by hysteria or hyperbole, but to search out the beauty of the world: ‘One thing only do I ask of God: to dwell in the house of the Eternal One all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Eternal God, and to seek God in the sanctuary.’

It is a Psalm about resisting evil and finding resilience in ourselves, a Psalm about how we speak to and about each other; it’s about trust and finding strength in times of affliction.  It’s about music and longing; about the fear of God’s hiddenness, of being abandoned; it’s about morality in a bewildering world and it’s about doubt: ‘If only I could trust that I shall see the goodness of the Eternal One in the land of the living.’

And in a world where truth and righteousness have been abandoned, it’s about patience, courage and hope, not that the world will revert to an old order, but that we will learn to adapt with honesty to something new, a new connection with each other and with the universe.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

 

To download our Calendar of Repentance for the second week of the month of Ellul, please click HERE.

To download last week’s calendar, please click HERE.

Thought for the Week

Friday 6 December 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Recently I had a conversation with someone in the process of conversion, they shared with me how connected they feel to God when they are in synagogue, but struggle to feel as connected when they are away from the community. I think this is something we can all relate to, for most of us we probably feel the deepest connection to our faith and our people when we are in a community. We are blessed to live in a diverse community and to be alive at a time and place where, as Jews, we are integrated into the wider society. How do we continue to feel connected even when we are not within the walls of the sanctuary or engaging in Jewish ritual ?

In the Shema we are encouraged to love God, to allow for this connection to our faith to be a part of our rising in the morning, our thoughts at the end of the night and in our hearts, minds and souls as we go on our way. On a practical level this is difficult, isn’t it? How can we remain connected?

There have been times in my life where I have strongly felt God’s presence, and times when I had to remind myself to look. In my late teens, in a period of questioning, my father encouraged me to say the Shehechiyanu every time I felt God’s presence. Throughout the day I found myself reciting this prayer, I was surprised to see how often I felt connected even during a time when intellectually I was questioning. This is a practice I have now taken on any time I am in a place of doubt, within a few weeks I am able to see how connected I do feel. Though God is mysterious, God is also there as a stable and loving force even if we are in a place of disconnection.

The Shehechiyanu prayer is traditionally said when one experiences something for the first time: when one wears a new article of clothing or when one eats a fruit for the first time in the growing season. This blessing is also often said at lifecycle events: baby namings, b’nei mitzvah, conversions, weddings. We learn in the Talmud that the Shehechiyanu prayer can also be recited if you see a friend you haven’t seen for more than 30 days. The translation of the blessing is “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, who has given us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this moment.” Every moment we experience is a first, the Shehechiyanu prayer can be recited any time we feel grateful for the moment we are in. Perhaps you might find this exercise helpful/interesting as well. You might want to try reciting this blessing every time you feel grateful or aware of God’s presence.

There is a lot of emphasis in Judaism on recognising the sacredness of the moment. Perhaps the clearest example we have of this idea in our Torah comes from this week’s Torah portion. Jacob has fled Esau who has threatened to kill him for stealing his birthright. He stops for the night, using a rock as a pillow he falls asleep. He dreams of a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending. He awakes and proclaims, “God was in this place and I, I did not know it.”

Let us attempt, even in times of doubt and struggle, to recognise that God is in this place and to offer gratitude for the gift of the moment.

Shabbat Shalom

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 29 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

There has always been a tension in Judaism between particularism and universalism: concern and care for our own people, and a reaching out to help others for the greater good of the societies in which we live.  It is quite natural to express unease and disquiet at circumstances that may affect our own families and communities.  We have to work much harder to express our interest in and apprehension for those who are not like ourselves.

So when the current Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, a gentle man of compassion and integrity, is asked by members of our community, ‘What will become of Jews and Judaism in Britain if the Labour Party forms the next government,’ his response should be finely balanced between concern for ourselves and our own interests and an equally profound attention and awareness of others.

That tension and balance are an essential part of the teaching that Jews should be both ‘for ourselves,’ but not ‘only for ourselves.’   This dual imperative can be found in texts that go back to the Hebrew Bible:  the commandment not to harden one’s heart towards our kinsfolk but to lend sufficient for their needs is set next to the interdiction against oppressing the stranger.  ‘For you were a stranger in the land of Egypt,’ is a constant refrain in the Torah – repeated more often than any other commandment, because we need to work harder and train ourselves to identify with those who are not part of our own people.

The prophets, too, identified that tension.  Amos makes no distinction between God who brings up the Israelites from Egypt and the Philistines from Caphtor or the Arameans from Kir (Amos 9:7).  And Malachi may have been referring to the people of Israel in his prophecy, but subsequent interpretations have universalised his message to refer to all humanity: ‘Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?  Why do we break faith with one another..?’ (Malachi 2.10).

The Talmud, in a clear reference to these verses, relates that on one occasion, when it was decreed that the Jews were prohibited from studying the Torah, infant male circumcision and observing the Sabbath, the Rabbis went and took counsel with a Roman woman, well-known to prominent Romans.  She advised them to raise an alarm by night, and as they did so, they said, ‘O you heavens, are we not your brothers and sisters? Are we not the children of one father? Are we not the children of one mother?  In what way are we different from every other nation and tongue that you make harsh decrees against us?’  One wonders where Shakespeare drew his inspiration for Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice, ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh…?’

In Jewish law, as well as lore, Jews have obligations to the rest of humanity: ‘We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, mi-p’nei darchei shalom – for the sake of peace (bGittin 61a). And on a daily basis, the liturgy of our prayer books instructs the community to recall our specific Jewish task as well as our obligations to the rest of humanity.

The Chief Rabbi is right in drawing attention to all victims of racism and reminding those of us who live securely and without the anxiety of being harassed on a train, beaten up on a bus, or hounded out of a political party, that antisemitism, along with other insidious and violent forms of racism and senseless hatred, including Islamophobia, are very real dangers to freedom and well-being in our democracy.

Yet, in this fruitless war of words, we, the Jewish community, have lost our balance.  We have been trapped in a cycle that focuses only on ourselves as victims of antisemitism, rather than as agents for good in the world.  Jeremy Corbyn is not going to apologise for past associations or present weakness in failing to address antisemitism in his party; just as Boris Johnson will continue to use words irresponsibly, stirring the flames of Islamophobia and other forms of racism.

Leadership – whether political or religious – requires humility, wisdom, courage and admission of wrong-doing.    It is time for us as leaders of the Jewish community to take a step back, to redress a balance and to speak out, not only for ourselves, but for all victims of racism, and for all those in our own country who have suffered because of years of austerity.

The Jewish people have survived because we have held this delicate and creative balance of particularism and universalism, of understanding our specific responsibility as Jews with our own narrative, and seeing ourselves as part of the human family, children of One God, with the obligation to seek the welfare of all people.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 22 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A few weeks ago, I started a personal project. I decided to read a Torah portion in advance, study some commentaries, midrashim, interpretations and stories related to it and draw a sketch. My hope was that the sketch would depict one of the ideas I found relevant in the Torah portion. I called the project Torah Sketch. I hope I will have enough patience, creativity and inspiration to complete the year-long journey.

I started with Torah portion Lech Lecha. My inspiration was the moment I discovered that you can customise the back of Nike trainers with your initials. The theme of the journey which Abraham took in Genesis 12 fits the shoes’ customisation feature very well. Therefore, I decided to draw the following sketch:

This journey led me to this week’s Torah portion Chayei Sarah. Its opening verse says:

And the life of Sarah was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years. These were the years of the life of Sarah (Gen 23:1)

Rashi, a great Torah scholar from the eleventh century, asked why the text doesn’t just say, “Sarah lived one hundred and twenty seven years?” The repetition of the word ‘year’ and the splitting of Sarah’s age into three periods seems unnecessary and superfluous, yet Rashi concluded that the wording is repeated to indicate that all of her years were good.

It is easy to think that the best years of your life are ahead of you, leading you to live your life dreaming of a better future. Or you may think that your best years were in the past, meaning you spend your time reminiscing. While it is important to remember the past and think of the future, the story of Sarah reminds us that any age can be equally good. Whether you are seven, twenty or hundred years old, you can be happy and lead a life of fulfilment and accomplishment, joy and happiness.

Pirkei Avot, a two thousand year old collection of Rabbinic wisdom, records a saying of Judah ben Tema about different stages of people’s lives (Pirkei Avot 5:21):

At five to the study of Scripture;

At ten to the study of Mishnah;

At thirteen to the commandments;

At fifteen to the study of Talmud;

At eighteen to the bridal canopy;

At twenty to the pursuit of livelihood;

At thirty to the peak of strength;

At forty to wisdom;

At fifty to give counsel;

At sixty to the old age;

At seventy to fullness of years;

At eighty to strength.

Perhaps not all of the above activities are relevant for our world today, but the principle remains the same: At any age we can find ourselves, discover new sides of life, and be happy.

May this week be the one of fulfilment, health, strength and fullness of years!

Shabbat Shalom

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 15 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Finally, I find a quiet moment to sweep the fallen leaves from outside my house.  They line the path leading to the front door and the pavement of my road; they lie in the gutter – some dry and curled, fragile like moth-eaten pages of an old manuscript.  Some are freshly fallen and beautiful still – gold and red, the rich colours of this autumn season.  As a child, I would collect fallen leaves and flowers and press them between the pages of thick books and sometimes now, opening an old volume  – very occasionally – I will come across the dry, compacted form of a leaf or a few petals.  How far I seem from those days when every leaf seemed precious and something new that I had never seen before – each blade defined by its unique shape, the midrib running from the base to its apex, the delicate veins branching out to the edges, essential to the health of the leaf as they carry the nutrients necessary to its life.

In the short time, I am outside, I encounter four of my neighbours and miraculously, we find time to chat.  The man next door, who piles his three small children into his car every morning to take them to school and nursery, my neighbour the other side who always watches for parcels or packets left outside the front door, and on the other side of her, my lovely neighbour who will always lend me an egg or some milk if I find myself without an essential ingredient when I am cooking.

This is a rare moment of privilege and pleasure – of feeling embedded in my neighbourhood where I have lived for a long time. These are the people whom I so often wave to, but find little time to chat, to find out what is happening in their lives, to discover the challenges they are living with?  Each of them has a story or many stories – the loneliness of a widow, battling her own health problems; the worry of a sick child or grandchild; the difficulties of bringing up a family in the cramped surroundings of a small flat.

There is something hidden, yet precious that binds us together as neighbours – that we share the same road, that we live in such close proximity to each other, with only a fence or thin wall separating our houses and gardens.  We hear the movements we make in each other’s homes, we take in each other’s post, we sweep each other’s leaves and put away each other’s dustbins, we lend each other books. We are a small community, a micro-community of this larger society in which we live. And we have learned to live with each other’s foibles and habits, to speak courteously to each other if something crops up that bothers us.

We are like the birds gathering around the feeders in the garden: two parakeets alighting on a thin branch, the family of dunnocks chirping noisily, the jays and a large, black crow, the fat pigeons that fancy themselves as lighter versions of themselves, swaying awkwardly, pushing themselves towards the feeder.  They come and go throughout the day, occasionally on their own, more often as a small community, busy feeding, singing, perching and swaying, curling themselves into little acrobats to feed from the seeds.

It was Hillel who said: Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur – ‘Do not separate yourself from the community’ (Pirkei Avot 2:5) – an appeal to strengthen the Jewish community, to pray and study with the congregation, to volunteer one’s times and strengths, not to withdraw into an ascetic life of seclusion.

Those few minutes of sweeping the leaves in front of my houses reminded me of the importance of community: of collaboration and reaching out, listening and sharing, of gratitude and love.  And I see the individuals of our community as veins in a leaf, the seams that connect us to each other, that reach out to the very edges of our congregation with the warmth and friendship that are required to counter loneliness, to bring consolation and to share in each other’s joys.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 8 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to teach one of our teenage class sessions at Rimon. This particular class is a very engaged and thoughtful group. I facilitated an exercise with them, I shared a statement of theology or belief and if they strongly agreed they would stand on one side of the room, if they strongly disagreed they would stand on the other side of the room. If they weren’t certain they stood in the middle. After a few rounds I shared the statement I was most curious about “I believe in God”. One student went to the “strongly agree” side of the room, one went to the “strongly disagree” side of the room, and the rest found themselves somewhere in the middle. We spoke about this one for about 10 minutes and through the conversation I learned that all of the students believe in some sort of higher power, in a greater force that acts in this world but each of them understood God differently. Most stated that they don’t believe in the God as presented in the Torah, a God of creation who is capable of reward or punishment though many of them think (hope) that God is capable of providing healing. The next statement I shared was “Studying Torah is one of the most important parts of being Jewish.” Every single student went to the “Strongly Agree” side of the room. How wonderful! In their own words, the students shared that Torah gives them a sense of history, it connects them with past generations, it teaches important lessons and values. I was inspired by this group of young people and their open conversation, they had clarity about their relationship with the past and with our texts and a connection to but questions about God. I was reminded of a famous text from the Talmud, “The Oven of Akhnai”. It is a text often studied in progressive Judaism as it emphasis the sacred importance of human conversation.   

The Oven of Akhnai is one of my favourite passages from the Talmud, it is from Bava Metzia 59a. It is a story that comes in the midst of a conversation around keeping an over ritually pure. If the oven becomes impure one can purify it by breaking it into pieces and then placing the pieces back together, with a cement like substance between each piece. Rabbi Eleazer has an idea, if an oven is purified by breaking it into pieces and then putting those pieces back together with mortar between the pieces, then could it be possible to create an oven that could never be deemed impure by placing together with mortar many small pieces, instead of having one large oven.  

If you’re confused then you are in good company, like much of the Talmud the halachik discussions are full of complicated minutiae. It’s not important that you understand Rabbi Eliezar’s argument, what is important is that you understand that Rabbi Eleazar was trying to convince the Talmudic sages who were making decisions about the community, kind of like the counsel  of Talmudic times, that his argument was valid and should be followed. Here is the text:  

On that day, when they discussed this matter, Rabbi Eliezer answered all possible answers in the world to support his opinion, but the Rabbis did not accept his explanations from him. After failing to convince the Rabbis logically, Rabbi Eliezer said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, this carob tree will prove it. The carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, and some say four hundred cubits. The Rabbis said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from the carob tree. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the stream will prove it. The water in the stream turned backward and began flowing in the opposite direction. They said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from a stream. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the walls of the study hall will prove it. The walls of the study hall leaned inward and began to fall. Rabbi Yehoshua scolded the walls and said to them: If Torah scholars are contending with each other in matters of halakha, what is the nature of your involvement in this dispute? The Gemara relates: The walls did not fall because of the deference due Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten because of the deference due Rabbi Eliezer, and they still remain leaning. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, Heaven will prove it. A Divine Voice emerged from Heaven and said: Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion? Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: It is written: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of the phrase “It is not in heaven” in this context? Rabbi Yirmeya says: Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a Divine Voice, as You already wrote at Mount Sinai, in the Torah: “After a majority to incline” (Exodus 23:2). Since the majority of Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, the halakha is not ruled in accordance with his opinion. The Gemara relates: Years after, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time, when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration? Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.  

(Non-gendered God language has been used to reflect an honest translation of the Talmud.)  

Time and time again the rabbis are shown that God agrees with Rabbi Eleazar, (the waters flow backwards, the tree is uprooted, a heavenly voice comes down!) but in the end it is the discussions and decisions of the people that are more important than the will of God.   

Though our thoughts and opinions may be divinely inspired, this text reminds us that what we are doing within community is sacred work, as humans we hold the responsibility of creating and maintaining an ethical framework.  It is not in heaven that the rules of the community are decided it is the work of humans to look through the details of how a community functions and to decide how our sacred text and traditions will be manifest in our communities. It is not in heaven, it is here, in the halls and rooms of the LJS and in any room where Jewish individuals come together to discuss, plan and commit ourselves to Torah in all its many forms. 

Shabbat Shalom

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 1 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A seventeen year old boy, his mother dead, his father an old man to whom he is close, is sold to people traders, slave owners, by his own brothers, and is taken to a foreign country where he is trafficked to a soldier in the king’s army.  He works hard and is given responsibility and authority over the household.  The man is often away from home and soon the man’s wife sets her sights on the young teenager, tries to get him to sleep with her and one day, takes hold of him saying, ‘Lie with me!’  The boy escapes, leaving his garment in her hand.  Outraged, she calls her husband and accuses the boy of trying to rape her.  His master has the boy thrown into prison and there he languishes for a long time.

This is the story of Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel – the first individual in the Hebrew Bible we know to be trafficked by people smugglers from Judah into Egypt and then sold into slavery to Potiphar and his wife.

I have thought about this story, its initial similarities and then the stark and tragic differences between Joseph’s ultimate success and the thirty-nine individuals trafficked into the UK and found dead inside a freezer container just one week ago.

We do not know all the details: why these young men and women left their homes in the first place, making the long, costly, precarious and unknown journeys to Europe. Why would someone leave parents and family, homeland and everything that is familiar and risk losing their lives if not for reasons that are quite desperate?  Why did our own grandparents or great-grandparents leave their homes for England or Ireland or the United States?  They saw no future for themselves under oppressive regimes, their lives blighted by poverty and hardship.  Perhaps it is freedom or the urgent need for money, for meaningful work and the possibility of a brighter future that gives individuals the motivation to undertake such long and frightening journeys, their families mortgaging land and movables for tens of thousands of pounds.

These young people – if they came from Vietnam – had risked everything, including tragically their lives, in order to make it into this country.  Did they know the kind of work they might have ended up in?  In cannabis farms, in nail bars, perhaps even in prostitution and sex work?

Some people’s lives are so desperate that they would rather make these perilous journeys, knowing the difficulty of entering Western Europe, than stay where they are.  Nearly 18,000 people have drowned crossing seas and trying to enter other countries since 2014.

The death of these 39 women and men is tragic.  Tragic in that a journey that began with hope has ended in irreversible catastrophe.  Such tragedies have been more apparent to all of us since the three year old Syrian child of Kurdish ethnic background, Alan Kurdi, was found face down on a beach after he drowned in the Mediterranean.

This world in which we live is one of uncertainty and doubt; it engenders a feeling of unease in a place that has unlearnt the customs of hospitality.  And we bear a responsibility for this unlearning, for this environment of suspicion and lack of interest in the lives of individuals who only wish for freedom – to go where they wish to go, to live where they wish to live, to speak with truth what they believe, to love with honesty and openness.

The lives of these individuals, their aspirations and hope, came into tragic conflict with the limitations and demands of a world that is fundamentally hostile to asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.

As Noah and his family and the animals he has saved emerge from the Ark in this week’s parashah, God rethinks the guidelines he has given to humanity and adds this law for Noah and his descendants:

                Whoever sheds the blood of human beings,

                By humanity shall his blood be shed;

                For in God’s image

                Did God make human beings (Genesis 9:6).

Human life, the life of all creatures, says God, is precious; I will now bind myself to you in an everlasting covenant and promise never again to destroy the earth and all flesh by the waters of a flood. God sees the grandeur of each human spirit, the preciousness of each human life.  And that is what it means for all human beings to be created in God’s image.  Our deeds, our words and actions have repercussions and when we lose our faith in a God who has created us in the divine image, we lose that sense and acknowledgement of the nobility and dignity of the human spirit, the body that encases it and the obligations that fall on us and the countries in which we live, to ensure that such tragedies will never happen again.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 25 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Any end must be followed by a new beginning – such is the hope embedded in our tradition. This week we celebrated Simchat Torah, which marks several ends and beginnings. After a 22 day chain of festivals, we observed the end of a Jewish marathon of individual and communal reflection, and marked the beginning of a new calendar and agricultural year. After a year-long journey through weekly Torah portions, we marked the completion of the annual cycle of the Torah reading and acknowledged the beginning of the new one. After many years of Moses’ leadership, we read about the end of his life, and the beginning of Joshua’s term as a leader of the Jewish people.

In his new book ‘Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope’, Johann Hari offers a personal perspective on depression and anxiety. Hari selects concepts that explain some aspects of depression and its causes. He interviews and summarises research of many scholars who have uncovered evidence for nine different causes of depression. Some are in our biology, but most can be found in the way we live today. Among these causes are: disconnection from meaningful work, disconnection from other people, disconnection from meaningful values, and disconnection from a hopeful and secure future. I don’t think any of the book’s points are new, nevertheless they remain important and worth speaking about.

Perhaps the Jewish community might offer a solution to some of them. Liberal Judaism takes the position that Jewish tradition must keep in tune with modern and relevant trends to remain meaningful to modern society. The Jewish way of living is a spiral. Each year we begin a new old journey, developing a new circuit of our lives. Each year we begin with a new Creation and, therefore, articulate a new hope. It helps us to find meaning in life, support from our community, and stability in today’s world.

As Progressive Jews, it is our responsibility to develop and defend Judaism which offers people a medium for meaningful life and meaningful values, connection to a community of caring people, and the sense of a helpful and secure future. As we begin the new cycle of the Torah reading, let us not forget that any end must be followed by a new beginning, such is the hope embedded in our tradition.

Shabbat Shalom

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 18 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

On the first day of Sukkot, my colleague, 77 year old Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, taking part in the Extinction Rebellion protests, wearing a tallit and carrying a lulav and etrog in his hand, was arrested outside the Bank of England.  A passionate campaigner on the climate emergency, it was distressing to see him carried away by the police, who wrested the lulav and etrog from his hand so that it dropped carelessly to the ground.

This action affected me deeply. It was a stark reminder that so many were willing to put their lives, their bodies and their liberty on the line for the sake of the future of our planet.  As George Monbiot said, in the moments before he was arrested on Wednesday:

‘At the moment we are facing the destruction of life on earth, the destruction of our life support systems; so to stand up against that destruction, I feel, is our human duty. By being arrested in defence of the living planet, I feel I can look my children, and maybe one day my grandchildren in the eye. This feels exactly the right place to be, under arrest for trying to defend life on earth.’

‘It’s not OK,’ said Rabbi Newman as he was lifted off the ground by two policeman and we knew what that meant.  This wanton destruction of the earth, capitalisation through investment in fossil fuel industries, our moral distance and ignorance of what is happening, not only in our own hemisphere, but thousands of miles away, where it is the poorest of the world, whose impact on the climate is small, but who suffer most from  environmental breakdown – thousands of refugees who seek refuge from the climate chaos in places such as Somalia, Mozambique, Bangladesh, the Caribbean, Central America and many other parts of the world.

A curious thing is happening, not for the first time in our public spaces.  Seeing Rabbi Newman on the first day of the festival, walking with the ritual objects of Sukkot and wearing his tallit reminded me of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words that prayer should be a ‘radical, subversive act.’  Prayer and ritual are no longer confined to the home and the synagogue, but – like the civil rights movement in the United States for which Heschel marched – it has been moved into the public space, beyond the walls of our religious institutions.

Dr Susanna Heschel, wrote of her father on his return from the non-violent civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama:

‘When he came home from Selma in 1965, my father wrote, ‘For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.’’

An early Aramaic chronicle of significant days in the Jewish calendar demonstrates the power of protesting in a public space in this account about Caligula who had sent an idol to be placed in the Temple.  This shocking news reached Jerusalem on the eve of Sukkot.  Shimon Ha-Tzaddik instructed the Jews to go out and stand before the soldiers of the Roman Empire.   In every city throughout Judea, they stood in their numbers to confront the Emperor’s emissary and cried out, ‘We will die before we accept this decree.’  They lay down in the market places in sackcloth and ashes.  When a letter arrived announcing Caligula’s assassination, the idol was immediately taken down and dragged through the streets and Shimon Ha-Tzaddik heard a voice from the Holy of Holies that said: ‘The worship of idols in the Temple is nullified. Caligula has been slain and his decrees nullified.’  And the same day was declared a Yom Tov (Megillat Ta’anit 11.9).

Before this month of Tishri with its festivals of judgement, atonement and rejoicing is over, I know I must take my prayers out of the Sanctuary and into a public place.  I am frightened that my own inaction has rendered me complacent and paralysed by helpless distress.

If we care about the future our children and – please God – our grandchildren are going to inherit, then if we can, we need to take our prayers across the threshold of our interior spaces and outside into a public place.  Prayer is political; it has always been thus, from the moment that Moses hesitated at the Sea of Reeds to utter a supplication to God.  What are you doing, says God, get up and move on!

Shabbat Shalom and may the closing festival of Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah be a time we turn away from despair and embrace an uplifting hope for the future.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 11 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

I feel so grateful and honoured to have spent the Days of Awe within our community. For me personally, and I do hope for you as well, the worship experiences of the last two weeks have been deep and moving, made even more powerful by being surrounded by our community. This was my second Yom Kippur at the LJS, but I had only just started before last year’s festival season. I was moved this year to look out from the Bimah and to see your faces, having had the immense honour of getting to know you better over the last year. Thank you for sharing your life and faith with me. What we have at the LJS really is very special.

To think about all the people who worked tirelessly to bring it all together! From the office team to the Shammashim, the stewards, Karen Newman who projected the sermons, our teachers who led art activities upstairs, and everyone who attended either at the synagogue or through streaming, adding their voices to the community prayers.

Since the closing of the service of Yom Kippur, I have been thinking about the small Jewish community in Halle Germany. Like us, they too had joined together in prayer, with their community, having readied themselves for a Day of Atonement and spiritual renewal. Like us, they were engaging in peaceful prayer and working towards being better. Until their prayers were brutally interrupted by a right-wing extremist who attempted to break into the synagogue, killing two innocent individuals, all with a camera live streaming mounted on his head. He filmed himself before the attack, identifying himself as a Holocaust denier and blamed “the Jew” for the worlds problem.

The security plan that this synagogue in Halle had set up kept them safe, though the attacker shot repeatedly at the door and threw several Molotov cocktails he was not able to force himself in. There were 70-80 people gathered in the synagogue, after hearing the shots they saw the attacker trying to get in through the security camera.

Only hours after the attack we sat in our synagogue and joined together in the Mussaf service. A service honouring those whose lives have been cut short only because they were Jewish, because hatred and fear of the other is violent and dangerous and is too familiar to us as a people. I think about the words of Claude Montefiore that we read during the Mussaf service, “It was not an ibn Gabirol or a Maimonides, still less a Spuinoza, who fulfilled the Jewish mission most truly, or rendered the greatest service to the Jewish cause. No. It was the many little obscure Jewish communities through the ages, persecuted and despised, who kept alive the flame of the purest Monotheism and the supremacy and divisiveness of the moral Law.” We still do not know many details about the victims or how many others were injured. We hold their bereaved families, and this terrified community in our prayers.

We are grateful to the CST and to our own security team at the LJS who ensures our security as we come together in prayer and study.

May this new year be one of safety for us and all people. May we find ourselves in a world of greater tolerance and love, and may this day come soon.

Shanah Tovah,

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 4 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

During the month of Ellul, preceding Rosh Hashanah, a colleague and dear friend ran three online sessions from her home in the States on Musar literature – a genre of Jewish teaching and literature that Rabbi Bahya ibn Pakuda in the eleventh century calls ‘the science of inner life.’  Musar focuses on ways in which we can practise moral discipline and attempt to overcome our ‘weaker’ qualities.  How can we cultivate our own sense of dignity and self-worth? How can we overcome persistent anger or resentment? How can we become more patient, more tolerant and more forgiving of others? And so there is a practical and pious (I admit the word has awkward connotations in our own time) dimension to the application of Musar.

There were four students, an intimate group, all speaking to each other via our computer or smart phones using the technology ‘Zoom’.  Apart from receiving the wisdom of my colleague with teachings that had been sent to us in advance, it was so lovely to feel connected to her in these days leading up to the festivals and, of course, to be searching our own souls; refining – if you like – the traits that are part of us seemed supremely important as we considered the days of repentance before us.

She presented us with texts on three ‘virtues’ over the three weekly sessions we were together: Anavah (humility), Hakarat ha-Tov (gratitude) and Menuchat ha-Nefesh (equanimity – ‘rising above the good and bad’).

Setting us some daily ‘homework’ to reflect on these qualities, she allowed us to reflect on our own traits, on how we had spent our week, whether we had been able to ‘practise’ or at least think about the way we are with ourselves and with others.

One of the most famous tracts of Musar literature is named after a woman – Tomer D’vorah – ‘The Palm Tree of Deborah’ by the sixteenth century kabbalist and scholar, Moses Cordovero.  Cordovero opens the first of the ten chapters of his book with a phrase by phrase interpretation of Micah 7:18-20 – these are the verses that conclude the Haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah, this Shabbat.  The first part begins with the famous verses from Hosea: ‘Return, O Israel, to the Eternal One your God…’ (Hosea 14:2).

This Shabbat, in the middle of the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah – the Ten Days of Repentance, the message is not only Hosea’s exhortation to repent, but God’s readiness to forgive:

‘Who is a God like You,

Forgiving iniquity, passing over transgression;

You do not cling to Your anger with the remnant of Your people,

Because you delight in showing love!’ (Micah 7:18)

Cordovero sees in these words divine attributes – endless kindness, forgiveness, willingness to let go of anger, love and patience.  These, he says, are the attributes of our Divine Creator and these are the moral and spiritual qualities to which we should aspire. We may cling to our anger, but God does not. Even if a person fails to repent of their sins, God neutralises or nullifies divine fury with mercy and love and the expectation of repentance.

It is hard to let go of anger and hurt.  Yet, this is what Yom Kippur demands of us.  In our short-tempered world, we have to swim against the current of impatience with forgiveness, forgetfulness even, with a sense that we can let go and stop bearing grudges or feeling victimised.

How hard it is when the words we hear around us are not always tender, kind or forgiving.  How hard to be patient when our attention span grows weaker the more technology tests and assaults our perseverance; how hard to love and be loved; how difficult to show gratitude, to practise humility and cultivate that sense of equanimity in our own souls.

We need a week of Yom Kippur, a month, a retreat of silence, an escape away from the chaotic uncertainties of our lives and the political landscape we live in.

Can we forgive iniquity; can we be forgiven?  Can we pass over the transgression of others and let go of our anger?  As we enter these days of holiness, help us O God to be like You, delighting in showing love and gratitude and remaining true and faithful to our Judaism, to the Jewish people and the teachings of our faith, as You, O God showed ‘faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham… from days of old’ (Micah 7.20).

Shabbat Shalom and Chatimah Tovah – May you be inscribed for a  healthy and peaceful year of 5780.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 27 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

As a Liberal Rabbi, I believe in development and critical approach to religion and life. Knowing the past helps me to navigate in the uncertainty of the present. As bestselling writer and historian Yuval Harari put it: ‘The cold hand of the past… grips us by the neck and directs our gaze towards a single future. We have felt that grip from the moment we were born, so we assume that it is a natural and inescapable part of who we are. Therefore we seldom try to shake ourselves free, and envision alternative futures.’ (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, p. 59) There are only few days left before Rosh Hashanah – the day of hearing awakening shofar blasts, the day when we remember the creation of humanity, the day when we begin a journey of reflection, the day of hope for forgiveness, a better future, and inner peace.

This week, I decided to spend a day of learning about leaders of Liberal Judaism and their thoughts. I came across a Rabbi John Rayner lecture given at the Carmel College on 19 August 1957. In this lecture, Rabbi Rayner expressed key values of Liberal Judaism. He wrote:

‘Liberal Judaism values truth above tradition, freedom above authority, and sincerity above uniformity. It reverences Jewish tradition, but not in an uncritical way. It holds that it is the duty of every generation so to develop the tradition that it may always be compatible with the best contemporary thought and appropriate to the best contemporary life, or, which is another way of putting it, that it may always be intellectually acceptable, spiritually satisfying and practically efficacious. It is not a rebellion against Judaism but an attempt to rescue it; it does aim to weaken Judaism but to strengthen it; it is not motivated by dislike for Judaism, but by a profound and passionate love. Without it Jewish scholarship would be poorer, Jewish-Christian relations less happy, and thousands of Jews would have been lost. Without it there would be no hope for the Jewish future’

The lecture was given over 60 year ago, but the Liberal Jewish values remain the same. The wisdom of our tradition teaches us to reflect on our past so we could begin the New Year with a sense of direction. I wish all of us to spend the upcoming 5780 year with a deep sense of hope and integrity and to live our lives full of truth, freedom and sincerity.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tovah,

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 20 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

‘Blessed shall be… your produce from the soil, the offspring from your cattle, your calving from the herd and your lambing from the flock.  Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl’ (Deuteronomy 28:4-5).

These verses, from the weekly parashah Ki Tavo, come from a longer section of blessings, promised to Israel if they are faithful in their observance of the commandments enjoined upon them by God.  Fourteen verses describing the blessings are followed by fifty-three verses of curses that will punish the people if they fail to keep the commandments.

In a simplistic way, one might argue that the incontinence of western populations, our avarice and sense of entitlement, our consumption of the planet’s resources, the creation of an unconscionably wide gap between rich and poor, the shockingly uneven distribution of food in the world and here, even in our own wealthy country, are the results of living without a clear moral compass.  We have brought these curses upon ourselves.  How have we got ourselves into this mess?

On Monday, Rabbi Igor Zinkov, Tim Simon – the Chairman of our Yom Kippur Appeal Committee  – and I met with Clare Gilboa, the UK Development Director for Leket Israel.  Leket is the LJS’s Yom Kippur Israeli charity this coming year and you will hear more about it on Yom Kippur itself.

It is Israel’s national food bank with a significant difference.  Unlike food banks here in Britain which provide non-perishable food to families and individuals, Leket Israel took a policy decision in 2017, to provide only fresh fruit, vegetables and freshly cooked meals for those who need it.  The whole exercise of rescuing Israel’s surplus food – cooked and fresh, no tins or packets – is massive.

35% of food harvested and produced in Israel is wasted. That figure is similar in the USA and the UK.  In hotels, supermarkets, army bases, at catered events, there is a wild tendency to overproduce and over-cater.  Leket feeds 17.5 thousand people each week – a high proportion of whom are working families, Shoah survivors, the elderly, Arab, Ethiopian, Druze, Bedouin and Russian families.  Leket work with non-profit organisations, getting the food to them in a time sensitive way, so that it doesn’t go off.  The NPOs then distribute it in various areas.

The challenges of food banking – overseeing the quality of the food, ensuring that supply meets demand, health and food safety and the long-term need, are all dealt with at an operational and logistical level by employees, and also by 52,000 volunteers.

The idea of children and adults going hungry is anathema.  And yet, the Trussell Trust in the UK reports a 19% increase on last year in distribution of food through their food banks.  1.6 million three day emergency food supplies were distributed between 1 April 2018 and 31 March, 2019.

To find out how we have got here and what is driving this relentless increase, please join us for a panel discussion this Saturday evening 21st September at 6.30 pm at the LJS, with Professor Geraldine van Bueren QC, Professor Human Rights Law at Queen Mary University, Dr Anna Isaacs, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Food Policy at City University, London and Garry Lemon, Director of Policy, External Affairs and Research at the Trussell Trust.

Is there some symbolic truth that emerges from the list of blessings and curses that make up this week’s Torah portion? Not that God as an omnipotent force for good or evil rewards or punishes, but that we must be held accountable and responsible for bringing this catastrophic situation to pass.

Food sustainability is part of the larger picture that has to do with how we are living on our burning planet.  As Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal puts it: ‘…the factors that are destroying our planet are also destroying people’s lives in many other ways, from wage stagnation to gaping inequalities to crumbling services to surging white supremacy to the collapse of our information ecology.’

By ourselves, we cannot extinguish the fire; we cannot create equity among all peoples, but we need to engender in ourselves a sense of urgency and join the worldwide movements and younger generations who are crying out for all of us to join the climate strike this Friday and to grasp at this last chance for change and transformation of the toxic model we have been living with for too long.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 13 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Next Friday September 20th there will be a global school climate strike. This strike is in part is inspired by Greta Thunberg, the 15 year old teenager who began her School Strike for Climate in August 2018.

Talking about the need for action, Thunberg said, ‘In Sweden, we live our lives as if we had the resources of 4.2 planets. Our carbon footprint is one of the ten worst in the world. This means that Sweden steals 3.2 years of natural resources from future generations every year. Those of us who are part of the future generations would like Sweden to stop doing that. Right now. This is not a political text. Our school strike has nothing to do with party politics. Because the climate and the biosphere don’t care about our politics and our empty words for a single second.’

I have heard similar concerns in conversations with our young people at the LJS where I listened to their fears about the future, and witnessed their resolute passion to take part in enduring change. They are not alone. On that Friday, young people will take the day off school and make their way to London where they will demand policy changes to protect their future. Many schools, unions and organisations will be supporting the strike, and adults are encouraged to support these young people who together will join the millions around the world protesting that day.

The issue could not be more important. It affects us all. And it’s going to take a lot of people getting together and making their voices heard to wake up our leaders and get them to take the urgent actions needed to address the crisis we find ourselves in.

This call to protect our environment is a theme throughout our sacred texts. In last week’s Torah portion, in the midst of a discussion on the ethics of war, we are given this teaching:

‘When in your war against a city, you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the axe against them, You may eat of them, but you may not cut them down.’ (Deuteronomy 20:19)

The trees are independent entities from those who live around them, who rest in their shade, who eat from them. And the Israelites are commanded to protect them.

This lesson, that we should not use our power and abilities to take advantage or unnecessarily do damage to our natural world, is present in our texts; biblical, Mishnaic, Talmudic, Midrashic and contemporary.

We do not own the Earth, we are commanded to live in partnership with it. This sentiment is shared in Psalm 24:

‘The earth is Adonai’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants.’

Our Torah shares the narrative that the natural world was created and that God showed Adam all of the wonders of the world and put the responsibility on him to maintain it.

As Kohelet Rabbah 7:13:1 shares:

‘At the time that the Holy One created the first man, He introduced him to every tree in the Garden of Eden, and said to him, ‘See how wonderful and pleasant these trees are. And all of this I have created for you; therefore take great care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you do there is no one else to put right what you have destroyed.’’

There is no-one else to put right what we have destroyed.

These teachings are painfully poignant today. May we all commit ourselves to doing what we can, to make small or large changes in the way that we are living, to ensure that we are acting as God’s partner as we forge a relationship of care and protection with our natural world.

I will be joining the strike with my children on the 20th to let our young people know that their LJS family is behind them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 6 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Between 1st Ellul and Rosh Hashanah, and some go as far as Hoshanah Rabbah – the day preceding Shemini Atzeret – it is customary to read Psalm 27, the Psalm that begins with the words ‘The Eternal One is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?’

It is not an ancient custom and can be dated back only to the year 1745 when Rabbi Jacob Emden, the German scholar and polemicist published his Siddur Bet Yaakov.  Various theories are given as to why this Psalm was chosen for this time of year – the period of the year when we prepare ourselves spiritually for the Yamim Nora’im and begin the journey of returning to God.

One theory suggests that the Psalm was chosen because it mentions the name of God 13 times – perhaps a veiled reference to the 13 attributes of God in Exodus 34, a passage sung before the open ark at the High Holy Days – Adonai, Adonai el rachum v’chanun – ‘The Eternal, the Eternal God is merciful and gracious, endlessly patient, loving and true, showing mercy to thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon.’

Another theory is based on a midrash which expounds the first verse in this way:  The Eternal One is my light – on Rosh Hashanah.  And my salvation – on Yom Kippur.

A more recent explanation highlights the Hebrew word at the beginning of verse 13 lulé – which means ‘if only’ – “If only I shall look on the goodness of the Eternal One.” In the Masoretic text, the word is dotted – a hint that in reverse the word spells Elul, the month we are now in.

More simply, it is a Psalm which addresses our fears  – the madness of the world on our own doorstep and further afield.  It encourages us to look, not for external help to contain our anxiety and distress, but for the strength that is in each one of us, that comes from the faith of our heart.  It tells us not to be stirred up by hysteria or hyperbole, but to search out the beauty of the world: ‘One thing only do I ask of God: to dwell in the house of the Eternal One all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Eternal God, and to seek God in the sanctuary.’

It is a Psalm about resisting evil and finding resilience in ourselves, a Psalm about how we speak to and about each other; it’s about trust and finding strength in times of affliction.  It’s about music and longing; about the fear of God’s hiddenness, of being abandoned; it’s about morality in a bewildering world and it’s about doubt: ‘If only I could trust that I shall see the goodness of the Eternal One in the land of the living.’

And in a world where truth and righteousness have been abandoned, it’s about patience, courage and hope, not that the world will revert to an old order, but that we will learn to adapt with honesty to something new, a new connection with each other and with the universe.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

 

To download our Calendar of Repentance for the second week of the month of Ellul, please click HERE.

To download last week’s calendar, please click HERE.

Thought for the Week

Friday 29 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

There has always been a tension in Judaism between particularism and universalism: concern and care for our own people, and a reaching out to help others for the greater good of the societies in which we live.  It is quite natural to express unease and disquiet at circumstances that may affect our own families and communities.  We have to work much harder to express our interest in and apprehension for those who are not like ourselves.

So when the current Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, a gentle man of compassion and integrity, is asked by members of our community, ‘What will become of Jews and Judaism in Britain if the Labour Party forms the next government,’ his response should be finely balanced between concern for ourselves and our own interests and an equally profound attention and awareness of others.

That tension and balance are an essential part of the teaching that Jews should be both ‘for ourselves,’ but not ‘only for ourselves.’   This dual imperative can be found in texts that go back to the Hebrew Bible:  the commandment not to harden one’s heart towards our kinsfolk but to lend sufficient for their needs is set next to the interdiction against oppressing the stranger.  ‘For you were a stranger in the land of Egypt,’ is a constant refrain in the Torah – repeated more often than any other commandment, because we need to work harder and train ourselves to identify with those who are not part of our own people.

The prophets, too, identified that tension.  Amos makes no distinction between God who brings up the Israelites from Egypt and the Philistines from Caphtor or the Arameans from Kir (Amos 9:7).  And Malachi may have been referring to the people of Israel in his prophecy, but subsequent interpretations have universalised his message to refer to all humanity: ‘Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?  Why do we break faith with one another..?’ (Malachi 2.10).

The Talmud, in a clear reference to these verses, relates that on one occasion, when it was decreed that the Jews were prohibited from studying the Torah, infant male circumcision and observing the Sabbath, the Rabbis went and took counsel with a Roman woman, well-known to prominent Romans.  She advised them to raise an alarm by night, and as they did so, they said, ‘O you heavens, are we not your brothers and sisters? Are we not the children of one father? Are we not the children of one mother?  In what way are we different from every other nation and tongue that you make harsh decrees against us?’  One wonders where Shakespeare drew his inspiration for Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice, ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh…?’

In Jewish law, as well as lore, Jews have obligations to the rest of humanity: ‘We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, mi-p’nei darchei shalom – for the sake of peace (bGittin 61a). And on a daily basis, the liturgy of our prayer books instructs the community to recall our specific Jewish task as well as our obligations to the rest of humanity.

The Chief Rabbi is right in drawing attention to all victims of racism and reminding those of us who live securely and without the anxiety of being harassed on a train, beaten up on a bus, or hounded out of a political party, that antisemitism, along with other insidious and violent forms of racism and senseless hatred, including Islamophobia, are very real dangers to freedom and well-being in our democracy.

Yet, in this fruitless war of words, we, the Jewish community, have lost our balance.  We have been trapped in a cycle that focuses only on ourselves as victims of antisemitism, rather than as agents for good in the world.  Jeremy Corbyn is not going to apologise for past associations or present weakness in failing to address antisemitism in his party; just as Boris Johnson will continue to use words irresponsibly, stirring the flames of Islamophobia and other forms of racism.

Leadership – whether political or religious – requires humility, wisdom, courage and admission of wrong-doing.    It is time for us as leaders of the Jewish community to take a step back, to redress a balance and to speak out, not only for ourselves, but for all victims of racism, and for all those in our own country who have suffered because of years of austerity.

The Jewish people have survived because we have held this delicate and creative balance of particularism and universalism, of understanding our specific responsibility as Jews with our own narrative, and seeing ourselves as part of the human family, children of One God, with the obligation to seek the welfare of all people.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 22 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A few weeks ago, I started a personal project. I decided to read a Torah portion in advance, study some commentaries, midrashim, interpretations and stories related to it and draw a sketch. My hope was that the sketch would depict one of the ideas I found relevant in the Torah portion. I called the project Torah Sketch. I hope I will have enough patience, creativity and inspiration to complete the year-long journey.

I started with Torah portion Lech Lecha. My inspiration was the moment I discovered that you can customise the back of Nike trainers with your initials. The theme of the journey which Abraham took in Genesis 12 fits the shoes’ customisation feature very well. Therefore, I decided to draw the following sketch:

This journey led me to this week’s Torah portion Chayei Sarah. Its opening verse says:

And the life of Sarah was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years. These were the years of the life of Sarah (Gen 23:1)

Rashi, a great Torah scholar from the eleventh century, asked why the text doesn’t just say, “Sarah lived one hundred and twenty seven years?” The repetition of the word ‘year’ and the splitting of Sarah’s age into three periods seems unnecessary and superfluous, yet Rashi concluded that the wording is repeated to indicate that all of her years were good.

It is easy to think that the best years of your life are ahead of you, leading you to live your life dreaming of a better future. Or you may think that your best years were in the past, meaning you spend your time reminiscing. While it is important to remember the past and think of the future, the story of Sarah reminds us that any age can be equally good. Whether you are seven, twenty or hundred years old, you can be happy and lead a life of fulfilment and accomplishment, joy and happiness.

Pirkei Avot, a two thousand year old collection of Rabbinic wisdom, records a saying of Judah ben Tema about different stages of people’s lives (Pirkei Avot 5:21):

At five to the study of Scripture;

At ten to the study of Mishnah;

At thirteen to the commandments;

At fifteen to the study of Talmud;

At eighteen to the bridal canopy;

At twenty to the pursuit of livelihood;

At thirty to the peak of strength;

At forty to wisdom;

At fifty to give counsel;

At sixty to the old age;

At seventy to fullness of years;

At eighty to strength.

Perhaps not all of the above activities are relevant for our world today, but the principle remains the same: At any age we can find ourselves, discover new sides of life, and be happy.

May this week be the one of fulfilment, health, strength and fullness of years!

Shabbat Shalom

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 15 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Finally, I find a quiet moment to sweep the fallen leaves from outside my house.  They line the path leading to the front door and the pavement of my road; they lie in the gutter – some dry and curled, fragile like moth-eaten pages of an old manuscript.  Some are freshly fallen and beautiful still – gold and red, the rich colours of this autumn season.  As a child, I would collect fallen leaves and flowers and press them between the pages of thick books and sometimes now, opening an old volume  – very occasionally – I will come across the dry, compacted form of a leaf or a few petals.  How far I seem from those days when every leaf seemed precious and something new that I had never seen before – each blade defined by its unique shape, the midrib running from the base to its apex, the delicate veins branching out to the edges, essential to the health of the leaf as they carry the nutrients necessary to its life.

In the short time, I am outside, I encounter four of my neighbours and miraculously, we find time to chat.  The man next door, who piles his three small children into his car every morning to take them to school and nursery, my neighbour the other side who always watches for parcels or packets left outside the front door, and on the other side of her, my lovely neighbour who will always lend me an egg or some milk if I find myself without an essential ingredient when I am cooking.

This is a rare moment of privilege and pleasure – of feeling embedded in my neighbourhood where I have lived for a long time. These are the people whom I so often wave to, but find little time to chat, to find out what is happening in their lives, to discover the challenges they are living with?  Each of them has a story or many stories – the loneliness of a widow, battling her own health problems; the worry of a sick child or grandchild; the difficulties of bringing up a family in the cramped surroundings of a small flat.

There is something hidden, yet precious that binds us together as neighbours – that we share the same road, that we live in such close proximity to each other, with only a fence or thin wall separating our houses and gardens.  We hear the movements we make in each other’s homes, we take in each other’s post, we sweep each other’s leaves and put away each other’s dustbins, we lend each other books. We are a small community, a micro-community of this larger society in which we live. And we have learned to live with each other’s foibles and habits, to speak courteously to each other if something crops up that bothers us.

We are like the birds gathering around the feeders in the garden: two parakeets alighting on a thin branch, the family of dunnocks chirping noisily, the jays and a large, black crow, the fat pigeons that fancy themselves as lighter versions of themselves, swaying awkwardly, pushing themselves towards the feeder.  They come and go throughout the day, occasionally on their own, more often as a small community, busy feeding, singing, perching and swaying, curling themselves into little acrobats to feed from the seeds.

It was Hillel who said: Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur – ‘Do not separate yourself from the community’ (Pirkei Avot 2:5) – an appeal to strengthen the Jewish community, to pray and study with the congregation, to volunteer one’s times and strengths, not to withdraw into an ascetic life of seclusion.

Those few minutes of sweeping the leaves in front of my houses reminded me of the importance of community: of collaboration and reaching out, listening and sharing, of gratitude and love.  And I see the individuals of our community as veins in a leaf, the seams that connect us to each other, that reach out to the very edges of our congregation with the warmth and friendship that are required to counter loneliness, to bring consolation and to share in each other’s joys.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 8 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to teach one of our teenage class sessions at Rimon. This particular class is a very engaged and thoughtful group. I facilitated an exercise with them, I shared a statement of theology or belief and if they strongly agreed they would stand on one side of the room, if they strongly disagreed they would stand on the other side of the room. If they weren’t certain they stood in the middle. After a few rounds I shared the statement I was most curious about “I believe in God”. One student went to the “strongly agree” side of the room, one went to the “strongly disagree” side of the room, and the rest found themselves somewhere in the middle. We spoke about this one for about 10 minutes and through the conversation I learned that all of the students believe in some sort of higher power, in a greater force that acts in this world but each of them understood God differently. Most stated that they don’t believe in the God as presented in the Torah, a God of creation who is capable of reward or punishment though many of them think (hope) that God is capable of providing healing. The next statement I shared was “Studying Torah is one of the most important parts of being Jewish.” Every single student went to the “Strongly Agree” side of the room. How wonderful! In their own words, the students shared that Torah gives them a sense of history, it connects them with past generations, it teaches important lessons and values. I was inspired by this group of young people and their open conversation, they had clarity about their relationship with the past and with our texts and a connection to but questions about God. I was reminded of a famous text from the Talmud, “The Oven of Akhnai”. It is a text often studied in progressive Judaism as it emphasis the sacred importance of human conversation.   

The Oven of Akhnai is one of my favourite passages from the Talmud, it is from Bava Metzia 59a. It is a story that comes in the midst of a conversation around keeping an over ritually pure. If the oven becomes impure one can purify it by breaking it into pieces and then placing the pieces back together, with a cement like substance between each piece. Rabbi Eleazer has an idea, if an oven is purified by breaking it into pieces and then putting those pieces back together with mortar between the pieces, then could it be possible to create an oven that could never be deemed impure by placing together with mortar many small pieces, instead of having one large oven.  

If you’re confused then you are in good company, like much of the Talmud the halachik discussions are full of complicated minutiae. It’s not important that you understand Rabbi Eliezar’s argument, what is important is that you understand that Rabbi Eleazar was trying to convince the Talmudic sages who were making decisions about the community, kind of like the counsel  of Talmudic times, that his argument was valid and should be followed. Here is the text:  

On that day, when they discussed this matter, Rabbi Eliezer answered all possible answers in the world to support his opinion, but the Rabbis did not accept his explanations from him. After failing to convince the Rabbis logically, Rabbi Eliezer said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, this carob tree will prove it. The carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, and some say four hundred cubits. The Rabbis said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from the carob tree. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the stream will prove it. The water in the stream turned backward and began flowing in the opposite direction. They said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from a stream. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the walls of the study hall will prove it. The walls of the study hall leaned inward and began to fall. Rabbi Yehoshua scolded the walls and said to them: If Torah scholars are contending with each other in matters of halakha, what is the nature of your involvement in this dispute? The Gemara relates: The walls did not fall because of the deference due Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten because of the deference due Rabbi Eliezer, and they still remain leaning. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, Heaven will prove it. A Divine Voice emerged from Heaven and said: Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion? Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: It is written: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of the phrase “It is not in heaven” in this context? Rabbi Yirmeya says: Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a Divine Voice, as You already wrote at Mount Sinai, in the Torah: “After a majority to incline” (Exodus 23:2). Since the majority of Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, the halakha is not ruled in accordance with his opinion. The Gemara relates: Years after, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time, when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration? Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.  

(Non-gendered God language has been used to reflect an honest translation of the Talmud.)  

Time and time again the rabbis are shown that God agrees with Rabbi Eleazar, (the waters flow backwards, the tree is uprooted, a heavenly voice comes down!) but in the end it is the discussions and decisions of the people that are more important than the will of God.   

Though our thoughts and opinions may be divinely inspired, this text reminds us that what we are doing within community is sacred work, as humans we hold the responsibility of creating and maintaining an ethical framework.  It is not in heaven that the rules of the community are decided it is the work of humans to look through the details of how a community functions and to decide how our sacred text and traditions will be manifest in our communities. It is not in heaven, it is here, in the halls and rooms of the LJS and in any room where Jewish individuals come together to discuss, plan and commit ourselves to Torah in all its many forms. 

Shabbat Shalom

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 1 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A seventeen year old boy, his mother dead, his father an old man to whom he is close, is sold to people traders, slave owners, by his own brothers, and is taken to a foreign country where he is trafficked to a soldier in the king’s army.  He works hard and is given responsibility and authority over the household.  The man is often away from home and soon the man’s wife sets her sights on the young teenager, tries to get him to sleep with her and one day, takes hold of him saying, ‘Lie with me!’  The boy escapes, leaving his garment in her hand.  Outraged, she calls her husband and accuses the boy of trying to rape her.  His master has the boy thrown into prison and there he languishes for a long time.

This is the story of Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel – the first individual in the Hebrew Bible we know to be trafficked by people smugglers from Judah into Egypt and then sold into slavery to Potiphar and his wife.

I have thought about this story, its initial similarities and then the stark and tragic differences between Joseph’s ultimate success and the thirty-nine individuals trafficked into the UK and found dead inside a freezer container just one week ago.

We do not know all the details: why these young men and women left their homes in the first place, making the long, costly, precarious and unknown journeys to Europe. Why would someone leave parents and family, homeland and everything that is familiar and risk losing their lives if not for reasons that are quite desperate?  Why did our own grandparents or great-grandparents leave their homes for England or Ireland or the United States?  They saw no future for themselves under oppressive regimes, their lives blighted by poverty and hardship.  Perhaps it is freedom or the urgent need for money, for meaningful work and the possibility of a brighter future that gives individuals the motivation to undertake such long and frightening journeys, their families mortgaging land and movables for tens of thousands of pounds.

These young people – if they came from Vietnam – had risked everything, including tragically their lives, in order to make it into this country.  Did they know the kind of work they might have ended up in?  In cannabis farms, in nail bars, perhaps even in prostitution and sex work?

Some people’s lives are so desperate that they would rather make these perilous journeys, knowing the difficulty of entering Western Europe, than stay where they are.  Nearly 18,000 people have drowned crossing seas and trying to enter other countries since 2014.

The death of these 39 women and men is tragic.  Tragic in that a journey that began with hope has ended in irreversible catastrophe.  Such tragedies have been more apparent to all of us since the three year old Syrian child of Kurdish ethnic background, Alan Kurdi, was found face down on a beach after he drowned in the Mediterranean.

This world in which we live is one of uncertainty and doubt; it engenders a feeling of unease in a place that has unlearnt the customs of hospitality.  And we bear a responsibility for this unlearning, for this environment of suspicion and lack of interest in the lives of individuals who only wish for freedom – to go where they wish to go, to live where they wish to live, to speak with truth what they believe, to love with honesty and openness.

The lives of these individuals, their aspirations and hope, came into tragic conflict with the limitations and demands of a world that is fundamentally hostile to asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.

As Noah and his family and the animals he has saved emerge from the Ark in this week’s parashah, God rethinks the guidelines he has given to humanity and adds this law for Noah and his descendants:

                Whoever sheds the blood of human beings,

                By humanity shall his blood be shed;

                For in God’s image

                Did God make human beings (Genesis 9:6).

Human life, the life of all creatures, says God, is precious; I will now bind myself to you in an everlasting covenant and promise never again to destroy the earth and all flesh by the waters of a flood. God sees the grandeur of each human spirit, the preciousness of each human life.  And that is what it means for all human beings to be created in God’s image.  Our deeds, our words and actions have repercussions and when we lose our faith in a God who has created us in the divine image, we lose that sense and acknowledgement of the nobility and dignity of the human spirit, the body that encases it and the obligations that fall on us and the countries in which we live, to ensure that such tragedies will never happen again.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 25 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Any end must be followed by a new beginning – such is the hope embedded in our tradition. This week we celebrated Simchat Torah, which marks several ends and beginnings. After a 22 day chain of festivals, we observed the end of a Jewish marathon of individual and communal reflection, and marked the beginning of a new calendar and agricultural year. After a year-long journey through weekly Torah portions, we marked the completion of the annual cycle of the Torah reading and acknowledged the beginning of the new one. After many years of Moses’ leadership, we read about the end of his life, and the beginning of Joshua’s term as a leader of the Jewish people.

In his new book ‘Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope’, Johann Hari offers a personal perspective on depression and anxiety. Hari selects concepts that explain some aspects of depression and its causes. He interviews and summarises research of many scholars who have uncovered evidence for nine different causes of depression. Some are in our biology, but most can be found in the way we live today. Among these causes are: disconnection from meaningful work, disconnection from other people, disconnection from meaningful values, and disconnection from a hopeful and secure future. I don’t think any of the book’s points are new, nevertheless they remain important and worth speaking about.

Perhaps the Jewish community might offer a solution to some of them. Liberal Judaism takes the position that Jewish tradition must keep in tune with modern and relevant trends to remain meaningful to modern society. The Jewish way of living is a spiral. Each year we begin a new old journey, developing a new circuit of our lives. Each year we begin with a new Creation and, therefore, articulate a new hope. It helps us to find meaning in life, support from our community, and stability in today’s world.

As Progressive Jews, it is our responsibility to develop and defend Judaism which offers people a medium for meaningful life and meaningful values, connection to a community of caring people, and the sense of a helpful and secure future. As we begin the new cycle of the Torah reading, let us not forget that any end must be followed by a new beginning, such is the hope embedded in our tradition.

Shabbat Shalom

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 18 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

On the first day of Sukkot, my colleague, 77 year old Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, taking part in the Extinction Rebellion protests, wearing a tallit and carrying a lulav and etrog in his hand, was arrested outside the Bank of England.  A passionate campaigner on the climate emergency, it was distressing to see him carried away by the police, who wrested the lulav and etrog from his hand so that it dropped carelessly to the ground.

This action affected me deeply. It was a stark reminder that so many were willing to put their lives, their bodies and their liberty on the line for the sake of the future of our planet.  As George Monbiot said, in the moments before he was arrested on Wednesday:

‘At the moment we are facing the destruction of life on earth, the destruction of our life support systems; so to stand up against that destruction, I feel, is our human duty. By being arrested in defence of the living planet, I feel I can look my children, and maybe one day my grandchildren in the eye. This feels exactly the right place to be, under arrest for trying to defend life on earth.’

‘It’s not OK,’ said Rabbi Newman as he was lifted off the ground by two policeman and we knew what that meant.  This wanton destruction of the earth, capitalisation through investment in fossil fuel industries, our moral distance and ignorance of what is happening, not only in our own hemisphere, but thousands of miles away, where it is the poorest of the world, whose impact on the climate is small, but who suffer most from  environmental breakdown – thousands of refugees who seek refuge from the climate chaos in places such as Somalia, Mozambique, Bangladesh, the Caribbean, Central America and many other parts of the world.

A curious thing is happening, not for the first time in our public spaces.  Seeing Rabbi Newman on the first day of the festival, walking with the ritual objects of Sukkot and wearing his tallit reminded me of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words that prayer should be a ‘radical, subversive act.’  Prayer and ritual are no longer confined to the home and the synagogue, but – like the civil rights movement in the United States for which Heschel marched – it has been moved into the public space, beyond the walls of our religious institutions.

Dr Susanna Heschel, wrote of her father on his return from the non-violent civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama:

‘When he came home from Selma in 1965, my father wrote, ‘For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.’’

An early Aramaic chronicle of significant days in the Jewish calendar demonstrates the power of protesting in a public space in this account about Caligula who had sent an idol to be placed in the Temple.  This shocking news reached Jerusalem on the eve of Sukkot.  Shimon Ha-Tzaddik instructed the Jews to go out and stand before the soldiers of the Roman Empire.   In every city throughout Judea, they stood in their numbers to confront the Emperor’s emissary and cried out, ‘We will die before we accept this decree.’  They lay down in the market places in sackcloth and ashes.  When a letter arrived announcing Caligula’s assassination, the idol was immediately taken down and dragged through the streets and Shimon Ha-Tzaddik heard a voice from the Holy of Holies that said: ‘The worship of idols in the Temple is nullified. Caligula has been slain and his decrees nullified.’  And the same day was declared a Yom Tov (Megillat Ta’anit 11.9).

Before this month of Tishri with its festivals of judgement, atonement and rejoicing is over, I know I must take my prayers out of the Sanctuary and into a public place.  I am frightened that my own inaction has rendered me complacent and paralysed by helpless distress.

If we care about the future our children and – please God – our grandchildren are going to inherit, then if we can, we need to take our prayers across the threshold of our interior spaces and outside into a public place.  Prayer is political; it has always been thus, from the moment that Moses hesitated at the Sea of Reeds to utter a supplication to God.  What are you doing, says God, get up and move on!

Shabbat Shalom and may the closing festival of Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah be a time we turn away from despair and embrace an uplifting hope for the future.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 11 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

I feel so grateful and honoured to have spent the Days of Awe within our community. For me personally, and I do hope for you as well, the worship experiences of the last two weeks have been deep and moving, made even more powerful by being surrounded by our community. This was my second Yom Kippur at the LJS, but I had only just started before last year’s festival season. I was moved this year to look out from the Bimah and to see your faces, having had the immense honour of getting to know you better over the last year. Thank you for sharing your life and faith with me. What we have at the LJS really is very special.

To think about all the people who worked tirelessly to bring it all together! From the office team to the Shammashim, the stewards, Karen Newman who projected the sermons, our teachers who led art activities upstairs, and everyone who attended either at the synagogue or through streaming, adding their voices to the community prayers.

Since the closing of the service of Yom Kippur, I have been thinking about the small Jewish community in Halle Germany. Like us, they too had joined together in prayer, with their community, having readied themselves for a Day of Atonement and spiritual renewal. Like us, they were engaging in peaceful prayer and working towards being better. Until their prayers were brutally interrupted by a right-wing extremist who attempted to break into the synagogue, killing two innocent individuals, all with a camera live streaming mounted on his head. He filmed himself before the attack, identifying himself as a Holocaust denier and blamed “the Jew” for the worlds problem.

The security plan that this synagogue in Halle had set up kept them safe, though the attacker shot repeatedly at the door and threw several Molotov cocktails he was not able to force himself in. There were 70-80 people gathered in the synagogue, after hearing the shots they saw the attacker trying to get in through the security camera.

Only hours after the attack we sat in our synagogue and joined together in the Mussaf service. A service honouring those whose lives have been cut short only because they were Jewish, because hatred and fear of the other is violent and dangerous and is too familiar to us as a people. I think about the words of Claude Montefiore that we read during the Mussaf service, “It was not an ibn Gabirol or a Maimonides, still less a Spuinoza, who fulfilled the Jewish mission most truly, or rendered the greatest service to the Jewish cause. No. It was the many little obscure Jewish communities through the ages, persecuted and despised, who kept alive the flame of the purest Monotheism and the supremacy and divisiveness of the moral Law.” We still do not know many details about the victims or how many others were injured. We hold their bereaved families, and this terrified community in our prayers.

We are grateful to the CST and to our own security team at the LJS who ensures our security as we come together in prayer and study.

May this new year be one of safety for us and all people. May we find ourselves in a world of greater tolerance and love, and may this day come soon.

Shanah Tovah,

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 4 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

During the month of Ellul, preceding Rosh Hashanah, a colleague and dear friend ran three online sessions from her home in the States on Musar literature – a genre of Jewish teaching and literature that Rabbi Bahya ibn Pakuda in the eleventh century calls ‘the science of inner life.’  Musar focuses on ways in which we can practise moral discipline and attempt to overcome our ‘weaker’ qualities.  How can we cultivate our own sense of dignity and self-worth? How can we overcome persistent anger or resentment? How can we become more patient, more tolerant and more forgiving of others? And so there is a practical and pious (I admit the word has awkward connotations in our own time) dimension to the application of Musar.

There were four students, an intimate group, all speaking to each other via our computer or smart phones using the technology ‘Zoom’.  Apart from receiving the wisdom of my colleague with teachings that had been sent to us in advance, it was so lovely to feel connected to her in these days leading up to the festivals and, of course, to be searching our own souls; refining – if you like – the traits that are part of us seemed supremely important as we considered the days of repentance before us.

She presented us with texts on three ‘virtues’ over the three weekly sessions we were together: Anavah (humility), Hakarat ha-Tov (gratitude) and Menuchat ha-Nefesh (equanimity – ‘rising above the good and bad’).

Setting us some daily ‘homework’ to reflect on these qualities, she allowed us to reflect on our own traits, on how we had spent our week, whether we had been able to ‘practise’ or at least think about the way we are with ourselves and with others.

One of the most famous tracts of Musar literature is named after a woman – Tomer D’vorah – ‘The Palm Tree of Deborah’ by the sixteenth century kabbalist and scholar, Moses Cordovero.  Cordovero opens the first of the ten chapters of his book with a phrase by phrase interpretation of Micah 7:18-20 – these are the verses that conclude the Haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah, this Shabbat.  The first part begins with the famous verses from Hosea: ‘Return, O Israel, to the Eternal One your God…’ (Hosea 14:2).

This Shabbat, in the middle of the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah – the Ten Days of Repentance, the message is not only Hosea’s exhortation to repent, but God’s readiness to forgive:

‘Who is a God like You,

Forgiving iniquity, passing over transgression;

You do not cling to Your anger with the remnant of Your people,

Because you delight in showing love!’ (Micah 7:18)

Cordovero sees in these words divine attributes – endless kindness, forgiveness, willingness to let go of anger, love and patience.  These, he says, are the attributes of our Divine Creator and these are the moral and spiritual qualities to which we should aspire. We may cling to our anger, but God does not. Even if a person fails to repent of their sins, God neutralises or nullifies divine fury with mercy and love and the expectation of repentance.

It is hard to let go of anger and hurt.  Yet, this is what Yom Kippur demands of us.  In our short-tempered world, we have to swim against the current of impatience with forgiveness, forgetfulness even, with a sense that we can let go and stop bearing grudges or feeling victimised.

How hard it is when the words we hear around us are not always tender, kind or forgiving.  How hard to be patient when our attention span grows weaker the more technology tests and assaults our perseverance; how hard to love and be loved; how difficult to show gratitude, to practise humility and cultivate that sense of equanimity in our own souls.

We need a week of Yom Kippur, a month, a retreat of silence, an escape away from the chaotic uncertainties of our lives and the political landscape we live in.

Can we forgive iniquity; can we be forgiven?  Can we pass over the transgression of others and let go of our anger?  As we enter these days of holiness, help us O God to be like You, delighting in showing love and gratitude and remaining true and faithful to our Judaism, to the Jewish people and the teachings of our faith, as You, O God showed ‘faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham… from days of old’ (Micah 7.20).

Shabbat Shalom and Chatimah Tovah – May you be inscribed for a  healthy and peaceful year of 5780.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 27 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

As a Liberal Rabbi, I believe in development and critical approach to religion and life. Knowing the past helps me to navigate in the uncertainty of the present. As bestselling writer and historian Yuval Harari put it: ‘The cold hand of the past… grips us by the neck and directs our gaze towards a single future. We have felt that grip from the moment we were born, so we assume that it is a natural and inescapable part of who we are. Therefore we seldom try to shake ourselves free, and envision alternative futures.’ (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, p. 59) There are only few days left before Rosh Hashanah – the day of hearing awakening shofar blasts, the day when we remember the creation of humanity, the day when we begin a journey of reflection, the day of hope for forgiveness, a better future, and inner peace.

This week, I decided to spend a day of learning about leaders of Liberal Judaism and their thoughts. I came across a Rabbi John Rayner lecture given at the Carmel College on 19 August 1957. In this lecture, Rabbi Rayner expressed key values of Liberal Judaism. He wrote:

‘Liberal Judaism values truth above tradition, freedom above authority, and sincerity above uniformity. It reverences Jewish tradition, but not in an uncritical way. It holds that it is the duty of every generation so to develop the tradition that it may always be compatible with the best contemporary thought and appropriate to the best contemporary life, or, which is another way of putting it, that it may always be intellectually acceptable, spiritually satisfying and practically efficacious. It is not a rebellion against Judaism but an attempt to rescue it; it does aim to weaken Judaism but to strengthen it; it is not motivated by dislike for Judaism, but by a profound and passionate love. Without it Jewish scholarship would be poorer, Jewish-Christian relations less happy, and thousands of Jews would have been lost. Without it there would be no hope for the Jewish future’

The lecture was given over 60 year ago, but the Liberal Jewish values remain the same. The wisdom of our tradition teaches us to reflect on our past so we could begin the New Year with a sense of direction. I wish all of us to spend the upcoming 5780 year with a deep sense of hope and integrity and to live our lives full of truth, freedom and sincerity.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tovah,

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 20 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

‘Blessed shall be… your produce from the soil, the offspring from your cattle, your calving from the herd and your lambing from the flock.  Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl’ (Deuteronomy 28:4-5).

These verses, from the weekly parashah Ki Tavo, come from a longer section of blessings, promised to Israel if they are faithful in their observance of the commandments enjoined upon them by God.  Fourteen verses describing the blessings are followed by fifty-three verses of curses that will punish the people if they fail to keep the commandments.

In a simplistic way, one might argue that the incontinence of western populations, our avarice and sense of entitlement, our consumption of the planet’s resources, the creation of an unconscionably wide gap between rich and poor, the shockingly uneven distribution of food in the world and here, even in our own wealthy country, are the results of living without a clear moral compass.  We have brought these curses upon ourselves.  How have we got ourselves into this mess?

On Monday, Rabbi Igor Zinkov, Tim Simon – the Chairman of our Yom Kippur Appeal Committee  – and I met with Clare Gilboa, the UK Development Director for Leket Israel.  Leket is the LJS’s Yom Kippur Israeli charity this coming year and you will hear more about it on Yom Kippur itself.

It is Israel’s national food bank with a significant difference.  Unlike food banks here in Britain which provide non-perishable food to families and individuals, Leket Israel took a policy decision in 2017, to provide only fresh fruit, vegetables and freshly cooked meals for those who need it.  The whole exercise of rescuing Israel’s surplus food – cooked and fresh, no tins or packets – is massive.

35% of food harvested and produced in Israel is wasted. That figure is similar in the USA and the UK.  In hotels, supermarkets, army bases, at catered events, there is a wild tendency to overproduce and over-cater.  Leket feeds 17.5 thousand people each week – a high proportion of whom are working families, Shoah survivors, the elderly, Arab, Ethiopian, Druze, Bedouin and Russian families.  Leket work with non-profit organisations, getting the food to them in a time sensitive way, so that it doesn’t go off.  The NPOs then distribute it in various areas.

The challenges of food banking – overseeing the quality of the food, ensuring that supply meets demand, health and food safety and the long-term need, are all dealt with at an operational and logistical level by employees, and also by 52,000 volunteers.

The idea of children and adults going hungry is anathema.  And yet, the Trussell Trust in the UK reports a 19% increase on last year in distribution of food through their food banks.  1.6 million three day emergency food supplies were distributed between 1 April 2018 and 31 March, 2019.

To find out how we have got here and what is driving this relentless increase, please join us for a panel discussion this Saturday evening 21st September at 6.30 pm at the LJS, with Professor Geraldine van Bueren QC, Professor Human Rights Law at Queen Mary University, Dr Anna Isaacs, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Food Policy at City University, London and Garry Lemon, Director of Policy, External Affairs and Research at the Trussell Trust.

Is there some symbolic truth that emerges from the list of blessings and curses that make up this week’s Torah portion? Not that God as an omnipotent force for good or evil rewards or punishes, but that we must be held accountable and responsible for bringing this catastrophic situation to pass.

Food sustainability is part of the larger picture that has to do with how we are living on our burning planet.  As Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal puts it: ‘…the factors that are destroying our planet are also destroying people’s lives in many other ways, from wage stagnation to gaping inequalities to crumbling services to surging white supremacy to the collapse of our information ecology.’

By ourselves, we cannot extinguish the fire; we cannot create equity among all peoples, but we need to engender in ourselves a sense of urgency and join the worldwide movements and younger generations who are crying out for all of us to join the climate strike this Friday and to grasp at this last chance for change and transformation of the toxic model we have been living with for too long.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 13 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Next Friday September 20th there will be a global school climate strike. This strike is in part is inspired by Greta Thunberg, the 15 year old teenager who began her School Strike for Climate in August 2018.

Talking about the need for action, Thunberg said, ‘In Sweden, we live our lives as if we had the resources of 4.2 planets. Our carbon footprint is one of the ten worst in the world. This means that Sweden steals 3.2 years of natural resources from future generations every year. Those of us who are part of the future generations would like Sweden to stop doing that. Right now. This is not a political text. Our school strike has nothing to do with party politics. Because the climate and the biosphere don’t care about our politics and our empty words for a single second.’

I have heard similar concerns in conversations with our young people at the LJS where I listened to their fears about the future, and witnessed their resolute passion to take part in enduring change. They are not alone. On that Friday, young people will take the day off school and make their way to London where they will demand policy changes to protect their future. Many schools, unions and organisations will be supporting the strike, and adults are encouraged to support these young people who together will join the millions around the world protesting that day.

The issue could not be more important. It affects us all. And it’s going to take a lot of people getting together and making their voices heard to wake up our leaders and get them to take the urgent actions needed to address the crisis we find ourselves in.

This call to protect our environment is a theme throughout our sacred texts. In last week’s Torah portion, in the midst of a discussion on the ethics of war, we are given this teaching:

‘When in your war against a city, you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the axe against them, You may eat of them, but you may not cut them down.’ (Deuteronomy 20:19)

The trees are independent entities from those who live around them, who rest in their shade, who eat from them. And the Israelites are commanded to protect them.

This lesson, that we should not use our power and abilities to take advantage or unnecessarily do damage to our natural world, is present in our texts; biblical, Mishnaic, Talmudic, Midrashic and contemporary.

We do not own the Earth, we are commanded to live in partnership with it. This sentiment is shared in Psalm 24:

‘The earth is Adonai’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants.’

Our Torah shares the narrative that the natural world was created and that God showed Adam all of the wonders of the world and put the responsibility on him to maintain it.

As Kohelet Rabbah 7:13:1 shares:

‘At the time that the Holy One created the first man, He introduced him to every tree in the Garden of Eden, and said to him, ‘See how wonderful and pleasant these trees are. And all of this I have created for you; therefore take great care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you do there is no one else to put right what you have destroyed.’’

There is no-one else to put right what we have destroyed.

These teachings are painfully poignant today. May we all commit ourselves to doing what we can, to make small or large changes in the way that we are living, to ensure that we are acting as God’s partner as we forge a relationship of care and protection with our natural world.

I will be joining the strike with my children on the 20th to let our young people know that their LJS family is behind them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 6 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Between 1st Ellul and Rosh Hashanah, and some go as far as Hoshanah Rabbah – the day preceding Shemini Atzeret – it is customary to read Psalm 27, the Psalm that begins with the words ‘The Eternal One is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?’

It is not an ancient custom and can be dated back only to the year 1745 when Rabbi Jacob Emden, the German scholar and polemicist published his Siddur Bet Yaakov.  Various theories are given as to why this Psalm was chosen for this time of year – the period of the year when we prepare ourselves spiritually for the Yamim Nora’im and begin the journey of returning to God.

One theory suggests that the Psalm was chosen because it mentions the name of God 13 times – perhaps a veiled reference to the 13 attributes of God in Exodus 34, a passage sung before the open ark at the High Holy Days – Adonai, Adonai el rachum v’chanun – ‘The Eternal, the Eternal God is merciful and gracious, endlessly patient, loving and true, showing mercy to thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon.’

Another theory is based on a midrash which expounds the first verse in this way:  The Eternal One is my light – on Rosh Hashanah.  And my salvation – on Yom Kippur.

A more recent explanation highlights the Hebrew word at the beginning of verse 13 lulé – which means ‘if only’ – “If only I shall look on the goodness of the Eternal One.” In the Masoretic text, the word is dotted – a hint that in reverse the word spells Elul, the month we are now in.

More simply, it is a Psalm which addresses our fears  – the madness of the world on our own doorstep and further afield.  It encourages us to look, not for external help to contain our anxiety and distress, but for the strength that is in each one of us, that comes from the faith of our heart.  It tells us not to be stirred up by hysteria or hyperbole, but to search out the beauty of the world: ‘One thing only do I ask of God: to dwell in the house of the Eternal One all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Eternal God, and to seek God in the sanctuary.’

It is a Psalm about resisting evil and finding resilience in ourselves, a Psalm about how we speak to and about each other; it’s about trust and finding strength in times of affliction.  It’s about music and longing; about the fear of God’s hiddenness, of being abandoned; it’s about morality in a bewildering world and it’s about doubt: ‘If only I could trust that I shall see the goodness of the Eternal One in the land of the living.’

And in a world where truth and righteousness have been abandoned, it’s about patience, courage and hope, not that the world will revert to an old order, but that we will learn to adapt with honesty to something new, a new connection with each other and with the universe.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

 

To download our Calendar of Repentance for the second week of the month of Ellul, please click HERE.

To download last week’s calendar, please click HERE.

Thought for the Week

Friday 15 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Finally, I find a quiet moment to sweep the fallen leaves from outside my house.  They line the path leading to the front door and the pavement of my road; they lie in the gutter – some dry and curled, fragile like moth-eaten pages of an old manuscript.  Some are freshly fallen and beautiful still – gold and red, the rich colours of this autumn season.  As a child, I would collect fallen leaves and flowers and press them between the pages of thick books and sometimes now, opening an old volume  – very occasionally – I will come across the dry, compacted form of a leaf or a few petals.  How far I seem from those days when every leaf seemed precious and something new that I had never seen before – each blade defined by its unique shape, the midrib running from the base to its apex, the delicate veins branching out to the edges, essential to the health of the leaf as they carry the nutrients necessary to its life.

In the short time, I am outside, I encounter four of my neighbours and miraculously, we find time to chat.  The man next door, who piles his three small children into his car every morning to take them to school and nursery, my neighbour the other side who always watches for parcels or packets left outside the front door, and on the other side of her, my lovely neighbour who will always lend me an egg or some milk if I find myself without an essential ingredient when I am cooking.

This is a rare moment of privilege and pleasure – of feeling embedded in my neighbourhood where I have lived for a long time. These are the people whom I so often wave to, but find little time to chat, to find out what is happening in their lives, to discover the challenges they are living with?  Each of them has a story or many stories – the loneliness of a widow, battling her own health problems; the worry of a sick child or grandchild; the difficulties of bringing up a family in the cramped surroundings of a small flat.

There is something hidden, yet precious that binds us together as neighbours – that we share the same road, that we live in such close proximity to each other, with only a fence or thin wall separating our houses and gardens.  We hear the movements we make in each other’s homes, we take in each other’s post, we sweep each other’s leaves and put away each other’s dustbins, we lend each other books. We are a small community, a micro-community of this larger society in which we live. And we have learned to live with each other’s foibles and habits, to speak courteously to each other if something crops up that bothers us.

We are like the birds gathering around the feeders in the garden: two parakeets alighting on a thin branch, the family of dunnocks chirping noisily, the jays and a large, black crow, the fat pigeons that fancy themselves as lighter versions of themselves, swaying awkwardly, pushing themselves towards the feeder.  They come and go throughout the day, occasionally on their own, more often as a small community, busy feeding, singing, perching and swaying, curling themselves into little acrobats to feed from the seeds.

It was Hillel who said: Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur – ‘Do not separate yourself from the community’ (Pirkei Avot 2:5) – an appeal to strengthen the Jewish community, to pray and study with the congregation, to volunteer one’s times and strengths, not to withdraw into an ascetic life of seclusion.

Those few minutes of sweeping the leaves in front of my houses reminded me of the importance of community: of collaboration and reaching out, listening and sharing, of gratitude and love.  And I see the individuals of our community as veins in a leaf, the seams that connect us to each other, that reach out to the very edges of our congregation with the warmth and friendship that are required to counter loneliness, to bring consolation and to share in each other’s joys.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 8 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to teach one of our teenage class sessions at Rimon. This particular class is a very engaged and thoughtful group. I facilitated an exercise with them, I shared a statement of theology or belief and if they strongly agreed they would stand on one side of the room, if they strongly disagreed they would stand on the other side of the room. If they weren’t certain they stood in the middle. After a few rounds I shared the statement I was most curious about “I believe in God”. One student went to the “strongly agree” side of the room, one went to the “strongly disagree” side of the room, and the rest found themselves somewhere in the middle. We spoke about this one for about 10 minutes and through the conversation I learned that all of the students believe in some sort of higher power, in a greater force that acts in this world but each of them understood God differently. Most stated that they don’t believe in the God as presented in the Torah, a God of creation who is capable of reward or punishment though many of them think (hope) that God is capable of providing healing. The next statement I shared was “Studying Torah is one of the most important parts of being Jewish.” Every single student went to the “Strongly Agree” side of the room. How wonderful! In their own words, the students shared that Torah gives them a sense of history, it connects them with past generations, it teaches important lessons and values. I was inspired by this group of young people and their open conversation, they had clarity about their relationship with the past and with our texts and a connection to but questions about God. I was reminded of a famous text from the Talmud, “The Oven of Akhnai”. It is a text often studied in progressive Judaism as it emphasis the sacred importance of human conversation.   

The Oven of Akhnai is one of my favourite passages from the Talmud, it is from Bava Metzia 59a. It is a story that comes in the midst of a conversation around keeping an over ritually pure. If the oven becomes impure one can purify it by breaking it into pieces and then placing the pieces back together, with a cement like substance between each piece. Rabbi Eleazer has an idea, if an oven is purified by breaking it into pieces and then putting those pieces back together with mortar between the pieces, then could it be possible to create an oven that could never be deemed impure by placing together with mortar many small pieces, instead of having one large oven.  

If you’re confused then you are in good company, like much of the Talmud the halachik discussions are full of complicated minutiae. It’s not important that you understand Rabbi Eliezar’s argument, what is important is that you understand that Rabbi Eleazar was trying to convince the Talmudic sages who were making decisions about the community, kind of like the counsel  of Talmudic times, that his argument was valid and should be followed. Here is the text:  

On that day, when they discussed this matter, Rabbi Eliezer answered all possible answers in the world to support his opinion, but the Rabbis did not accept his explanations from him. After failing to convince the Rabbis logically, Rabbi Eliezer said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, this carob tree will prove it. The carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, and some say four hundred cubits. The Rabbis said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from the carob tree. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the stream will prove it. The water in the stream turned backward and began flowing in the opposite direction. They said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from a stream. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the walls of the study hall will prove it. The walls of the study hall leaned inward and began to fall. Rabbi Yehoshua scolded the walls and said to them: If Torah scholars are contending with each other in matters of halakha, what is the nature of your involvement in this dispute? The Gemara relates: The walls did not fall because of the deference due Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten because of the deference due Rabbi Eliezer, and they still remain leaning. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, Heaven will prove it. A Divine Voice emerged from Heaven and said: Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion? Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: It is written: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of the phrase “It is not in heaven” in this context? Rabbi Yirmeya says: Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a Divine Voice, as You already wrote at Mount Sinai, in the Torah: “After a majority to incline” (Exodus 23:2). Since the majority of Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, the halakha is not ruled in accordance with his opinion. The Gemara relates: Years after, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time, when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration? Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.  

(Non-gendered God language has been used to reflect an honest translation of the Talmud.)  

Time and time again the rabbis are shown that God agrees with Rabbi Eleazar, (the waters flow backwards, the tree is uprooted, a heavenly voice comes down!) but in the end it is the discussions and decisions of the people that are more important than the will of God.   

Though our thoughts and opinions may be divinely inspired, this text reminds us that what we are doing within community is sacred work, as humans we hold the responsibility of creating and maintaining an ethical framework.  It is not in heaven that the rules of the community are decided it is the work of humans to look through the details of how a community functions and to decide how our sacred text and traditions will be manifest in our communities. It is not in heaven, it is here, in the halls and rooms of the LJS and in any room where Jewish individuals come together to discuss, plan and commit ourselves to Torah in all its many forms. 

Shabbat Shalom

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 1 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A seventeen year old boy, his mother dead, his father an old man to whom he is close, is sold to people traders, slave owners, by his own brothers, and is taken to a foreign country where he is trafficked to a soldier in the king’s army.  He works hard and is given responsibility and authority over the household.  The man is often away from home and soon the man’s wife sets her sights on the young teenager, tries to get him to sleep with her and one day, takes hold of him saying, ‘Lie with me!’  The boy escapes, leaving his garment in her hand.  Outraged, she calls her husband and accuses the boy of trying to rape her.  His master has the boy thrown into prison and there he languishes for a long time.

This is the story of Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel – the first individual in the Hebrew Bible we know to be trafficked by people smugglers from Judah into Egypt and then sold into slavery to Potiphar and his wife.

I have thought about this story, its initial similarities and then the stark and tragic differences between Joseph’s ultimate success and the thirty-nine individuals trafficked into the UK and found dead inside a freezer container just one week ago.

We do not know all the details: why these young men and women left their homes in the first place, making the long, costly, precarious and unknown journeys to Europe. Why would someone leave parents and family, homeland and everything that is familiar and risk losing their lives if not for reasons that are quite desperate?  Why did our own grandparents or great-grandparents leave their homes for England or Ireland or the United States?  They saw no future for themselves under oppressive regimes, their lives blighted by poverty and hardship.  Perhaps it is freedom or the urgent need for money, for meaningful work and the possibility of a brighter future that gives individuals the motivation to undertake such long and frightening journeys, their families mortgaging land and movables for tens of thousands of pounds.

These young people – if they came from Vietnam – had risked everything, including tragically their lives, in order to make it into this country.  Did they know the kind of work they might have ended up in?  In cannabis farms, in nail bars, perhaps even in prostitution and sex work?

Some people’s lives are so desperate that they would rather make these perilous journeys, knowing the difficulty of entering Western Europe, than stay where they are.  Nearly 18,000 people have drowned crossing seas and trying to enter other countries since 2014.

The death of these 39 women and men is tragic.  Tragic in that a journey that began with hope has ended in irreversible catastrophe.  Such tragedies have been more apparent to all of us since the three year old Syrian child of Kurdish ethnic background, Alan Kurdi, was found face down on a beach after he drowned in the Mediterranean.

This world in which we live is one of uncertainty and doubt; it engenders a feeling of unease in a place that has unlearnt the customs of hospitality.  And we bear a responsibility for this unlearning, for this environment of suspicion and lack of interest in the lives of individuals who only wish for freedom – to go where they wish to go, to live where they wish to live, to speak with truth what they believe, to love with honesty and openness.

The lives of these individuals, their aspirations and hope, came into tragic conflict with the limitations and demands of a world that is fundamentally hostile to asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.

As Noah and his family and the animals he has saved emerge from the Ark in this week’s parashah, God rethinks the guidelines he has given to humanity and adds this law for Noah and his descendants:

                Whoever sheds the blood of human beings,

                By humanity shall his blood be shed;

                For in God’s image

                Did God make human beings (Genesis 9:6).

Human life, the life of all creatures, says God, is precious; I will now bind myself to you in an everlasting covenant and promise never again to destroy the earth and all flesh by the waters of a flood. God sees the grandeur of each human spirit, the preciousness of each human life.  And that is what it means for all human beings to be created in God’s image.  Our deeds, our words and actions have repercussions and when we lose our faith in a God who has created us in the divine image, we lose that sense and acknowledgement of the nobility and dignity of the human spirit, the body that encases it and the obligations that fall on us and the countries in which we live, to ensure that such tragedies will never happen again.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 25 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Any end must be followed by a new beginning – such is the hope embedded in our tradition. This week we celebrated Simchat Torah, which marks several ends and beginnings. After a 22 day chain of festivals, we observed the end of a Jewish marathon of individual and communal reflection, and marked the beginning of a new calendar and agricultural year. After a year-long journey through weekly Torah portions, we marked the completion of the annual cycle of the Torah reading and acknowledged the beginning of the new one. After many years of Moses’ leadership, we read about the end of his life, and the beginning of Joshua’s term as a leader of the Jewish people.

In his new book ‘Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope’, Johann Hari offers a personal perspective on depression and anxiety. Hari selects concepts that explain some aspects of depression and its causes. He interviews and summarises research of many scholars who have uncovered evidence for nine different causes of depression. Some are in our biology, but most can be found in the way we live today. Among these causes are: disconnection from meaningful work, disconnection from other people, disconnection from meaningful values, and disconnection from a hopeful and secure future. I don’t think any of the book’s points are new, nevertheless they remain important and worth speaking about.

Perhaps the Jewish community might offer a solution to some of them. Liberal Judaism takes the position that Jewish tradition must keep in tune with modern and relevant trends to remain meaningful to modern society. The Jewish way of living is a spiral. Each year we begin a new old journey, developing a new circuit of our lives. Each year we begin with a new Creation and, therefore, articulate a new hope. It helps us to find meaning in life, support from our community, and stability in today’s world.

As Progressive Jews, it is our responsibility to develop and defend Judaism which offers people a medium for meaningful life and meaningful values, connection to a community of caring people, and the sense of a helpful and secure future. As we begin the new cycle of the Torah reading, let us not forget that any end must be followed by a new beginning, such is the hope embedded in our tradition.

Shabbat Shalom

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 18 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

On the first day of Sukkot, my colleague, 77 year old Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, taking part in the Extinction Rebellion protests, wearing a tallit and carrying a lulav and etrog in his hand, was arrested outside the Bank of England.  A passionate campaigner on the climate emergency, it was distressing to see him carried away by the police, who wrested the lulav and etrog from his hand so that it dropped carelessly to the ground.

This action affected me deeply. It was a stark reminder that so many were willing to put their lives, their bodies and their liberty on the line for the sake of the future of our planet.  As George Monbiot said, in the moments before he was arrested on Wednesday:

‘At the moment we are facing the destruction of life on earth, the destruction of our life support systems; so to stand up against that destruction, I feel, is our human duty. By being arrested in defence of the living planet, I feel I can look my children, and maybe one day my grandchildren in the eye. This feels exactly the right place to be, under arrest for trying to defend life on earth.’

‘It’s not OK,’ said Rabbi Newman as he was lifted off the ground by two policeman and we knew what that meant.  This wanton destruction of the earth, capitalisation through investment in fossil fuel industries, our moral distance and ignorance of what is happening, not only in our own hemisphere, but thousands of miles away, where it is the poorest of the world, whose impact on the climate is small, but who suffer most from  environmental breakdown – thousands of refugees who seek refuge from the climate chaos in places such as Somalia, Mozambique, Bangladesh, the Caribbean, Central America and many other parts of the world.

A curious thing is happening, not for the first time in our public spaces.  Seeing Rabbi Newman on the first day of the festival, walking with the ritual objects of Sukkot and wearing his tallit reminded me of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words that prayer should be a ‘radical, subversive act.’  Prayer and ritual are no longer confined to the home and the synagogue, but – like the civil rights movement in the United States for which Heschel marched – it has been moved into the public space, beyond the walls of our religious institutions.

Dr Susanna Heschel, wrote of her father on his return from the non-violent civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama:

‘When he came home from Selma in 1965, my father wrote, ‘For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.’’

An early Aramaic chronicle of significant days in the Jewish calendar demonstrates the power of protesting in a public space in this account about Caligula who had sent an idol to be placed in the Temple.  This shocking news reached Jerusalem on the eve of Sukkot.  Shimon Ha-Tzaddik instructed the Jews to go out and stand before the soldiers of the Roman Empire.   In every city throughout Judea, they stood in their numbers to confront the Emperor’s emissary and cried out, ‘We will die before we accept this decree.’  They lay down in the market places in sackcloth and ashes.  When a letter arrived announcing Caligula’s assassination, the idol was immediately taken down and dragged through the streets and Shimon Ha-Tzaddik heard a voice from the Holy of Holies that said: ‘The worship of idols in the Temple is nullified. Caligula has been slain and his decrees nullified.’  And the same day was declared a Yom Tov (Megillat Ta’anit 11.9).

Before this month of Tishri with its festivals of judgement, atonement and rejoicing is over, I know I must take my prayers out of the Sanctuary and into a public place.  I am frightened that my own inaction has rendered me complacent and paralysed by helpless distress.

If we care about the future our children and – please God – our grandchildren are going to inherit, then if we can, we need to take our prayers across the threshold of our interior spaces and outside into a public place.  Prayer is political; it has always been thus, from the moment that Moses hesitated at the Sea of Reeds to utter a supplication to God.  What are you doing, says God, get up and move on!

Shabbat Shalom and may the closing festival of Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah be a time we turn away from despair and embrace an uplifting hope for the future.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 11 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

I feel so grateful and honoured to have spent the Days of Awe within our community. For me personally, and I do hope for you as well, the worship experiences of the last two weeks have been deep and moving, made even more powerful by being surrounded by our community. This was my second Yom Kippur at the LJS, but I had only just started before last year’s festival season. I was moved this year to look out from the Bimah and to see your faces, having had the immense honour of getting to know you better over the last year. Thank you for sharing your life and faith with me. What we have at the LJS really is very special.

To think about all the people who worked tirelessly to bring it all together! From the office team to the Shammashim, the stewards, Karen Newman who projected the sermons, our teachers who led art activities upstairs, and everyone who attended either at the synagogue or through streaming, adding their voices to the community prayers.

Since the closing of the service of Yom Kippur, I have been thinking about the small Jewish community in Halle Germany. Like us, they too had joined together in prayer, with their community, having readied themselves for a Day of Atonement and spiritual renewal. Like us, they were engaging in peaceful prayer and working towards being better. Until their prayers were brutally interrupted by a right-wing extremist who attempted to break into the synagogue, killing two innocent individuals, all with a camera live streaming mounted on his head. He filmed himself before the attack, identifying himself as a Holocaust denier and blamed “the Jew” for the worlds problem.

The security plan that this synagogue in Halle had set up kept them safe, though the attacker shot repeatedly at the door and threw several Molotov cocktails he was not able to force himself in. There were 70-80 people gathered in the synagogue, after hearing the shots they saw the attacker trying to get in through the security camera.

Only hours after the attack we sat in our synagogue and joined together in the Mussaf service. A service honouring those whose lives have been cut short only because they were Jewish, because hatred and fear of the other is violent and dangerous and is too familiar to us as a people. I think about the words of Claude Montefiore that we read during the Mussaf service, “It was not an ibn Gabirol or a Maimonides, still less a Spuinoza, who fulfilled the Jewish mission most truly, or rendered the greatest service to the Jewish cause. No. It was the many little obscure Jewish communities through the ages, persecuted and despised, who kept alive the flame of the purest Monotheism and the supremacy and divisiveness of the moral Law.” We still do not know many details about the victims or how many others were injured. We hold their bereaved families, and this terrified community in our prayers.

We are grateful to the CST and to our own security team at the LJS who ensures our security as we come together in prayer and study.

May this new year be one of safety for us and all people. May we find ourselves in a world of greater tolerance and love, and may this day come soon.

Shanah Tovah,

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 4 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

During the month of Ellul, preceding Rosh Hashanah, a colleague and dear friend ran three online sessions from her home in the States on Musar literature – a genre of Jewish teaching and literature that Rabbi Bahya ibn Pakuda in the eleventh century calls ‘the science of inner life.’  Musar focuses on ways in which we can practise moral discipline and attempt to overcome our ‘weaker’ qualities.  How can we cultivate our own sense of dignity and self-worth? How can we overcome persistent anger or resentment? How can we become more patient, more tolerant and more forgiving of others? And so there is a practical and pious (I admit the word has awkward connotations in our own time) dimension to the application of Musar.

There were four students, an intimate group, all speaking to each other via our computer or smart phones using the technology ‘Zoom’.  Apart from receiving the wisdom of my colleague with teachings that had been sent to us in advance, it was so lovely to feel connected to her in these days leading up to the festivals and, of course, to be searching our own souls; refining – if you like – the traits that are part of us seemed supremely important as we considered the days of repentance before us.

She presented us with texts on three ‘virtues’ over the three weekly sessions we were together: Anavah (humility), Hakarat ha-Tov (gratitude) and Menuchat ha-Nefesh (equanimity – ‘rising above the good and bad’).

Setting us some daily ‘homework’ to reflect on these qualities, she allowed us to reflect on our own traits, on how we had spent our week, whether we had been able to ‘practise’ or at least think about the way we are with ourselves and with others.

One of the most famous tracts of Musar literature is named after a woman – Tomer D’vorah – ‘The Palm Tree of Deborah’ by the sixteenth century kabbalist and scholar, Moses Cordovero.  Cordovero opens the first of the ten chapters of his book with a phrase by phrase interpretation of Micah 7:18-20 – these are the verses that conclude the Haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah, this Shabbat.  The first part begins with the famous verses from Hosea: ‘Return, O Israel, to the Eternal One your God…’ (Hosea 14:2).

This Shabbat, in the middle of the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah – the Ten Days of Repentance, the message is not only Hosea’s exhortation to repent, but God’s readiness to forgive:

‘Who is a God like You,

Forgiving iniquity, passing over transgression;

You do not cling to Your anger with the remnant of Your people,

Because you delight in showing love!’ (Micah 7:18)

Cordovero sees in these words divine attributes – endless kindness, forgiveness, willingness to let go of anger, love and patience.  These, he says, are the attributes of our Divine Creator and these are the moral and spiritual qualities to which we should aspire. We may cling to our anger, but God does not. Even if a person fails to repent of their sins, God neutralises or nullifies divine fury with mercy and love and the expectation of repentance.

It is hard to let go of anger and hurt.  Yet, this is what Yom Kippur demands of us.  In our short-tempered world, we have to swim against the current of impatience with forgiveness, forgetfulness even, with a sense that we can let go and stop bearing grudges or feeling victimised.

How hard it is when the words we hear around us are not always tender, kind or forgiving.  How hard to be patient when our attention span grows weaker the more technology tests and assaults our perseverance; how hard to love and be loved; how difficult to show gratitude, to practise humility and cultivate that sense of equanimity in our own souls.

We need a week of Yom Kippur, a month, a retreat of silence, an escape away from the chaotic uncertainties of our lives and the political landscape we live in.

Can we forgive iniquity; can we be forgiven?  Can we pass over the transgression of others and let go of our anger?  As we enter these days of holiness, help us O God to be like You, delighting in showing love and gratitude and remaining true and faithful to our Judaism, to the Jewish people and the teachings of our faith, as You, O God showed ‘faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham… from days of old’ (Micah 7.20).

Shabbat Shalom and Chatimah Tovah – May you be inscribed for a  healthy and peaceful year of 5780.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 27 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

As a Liberal Rabbi, I believe in development and critical approach to religion and life. Knowing the past helps me to navigate in the uncertainty of the present. As bestselling writer and historian Yuval Harari put it: ‘The cold hand of the past… grips us by the neck and directs our gaze towards a single future. We have felt that grip from the moment we were born, so we assume that it is a natural and inescapable part of who we are. Therefore we seldom try to shake ourselves free, and envision alternative futures.’ (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, p. 59) There are only few days left before Rosh Hashanah – the day of hearing awakening shofar blasts, the day when we remember the creation of humanity, the day when we begin a journey of reflection, the day of hope for forgiveness, a better future, and inner peace.

This week, I decided to spend a day of learning about leaders of Liberal Judaism and their thoughts. I came across a Rabbi John Rayner lecture given at the Carmel College on 19 August 1957. In this lecture, Rabbi Rayner expressed key values of Liberal Judaism. He wrote:

‘Liberal Judaism values truth above tradition, freedom above authority, and sincerity above uniformity. It reverences Jewish tradition, but not in an uncritical way. It holds that it is the duty of every generation so to develop the tradition that it may always be compatible with the best contemporary thought and appropriate to the best contemporary life, or, which is another way of putting it, that it may always be intellectually acceptable, spiritually satisfying and practically efficacious. It is not a rebellion against Judaism but an attempt to rescue it; it does aim to weaken Judaism but to strengthen it; it is not motivated by dislike for Judaism, but by a profound and passionate love. Without it Jewish scholarship would be poorer, Jewish-Christian relations less happy, and thousands of Jews would have been lost. Without it there would be no hope for the Jewish future’

The lecture was given over 60 year ago, but the Liberal Jewish values remain the same. The wisdom of our tradition teaches us to reflect on our past so we could begin the New Year with a sense of direction. I wish all of us to spend the upcoming 5780 year with a deep sense of hope and integrity and to live our lives full of truth, freedom and sincerity.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tovah,

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 20 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

‘Blessed shall be… your produce from the soil, the offspring from your cattle, your calving from the herd and your lambing from the flock.  Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl’ (Deuteronomy 28:4-5).

These verses, from the weekly parashah Ki Tavo, come from a longer section of blessings, promised to Israel if they are faithful in their observance of the commandments enjoined upon them by God.  Fourteen verses describing the blessings are followed by fifty-three verses of curses that will punish the people if they fail to keep the commandments.

In a simplistic way, one might argue that the incontinence of western populations, our avarice and sense of entitlement, our consumption of the planet’s resources, the creation of an unconscionably wide gap between rich and poor, the shockingly uneven distribution of food in the world and here, even in our own wealthy country, are the results of living without a clear moral compass.  We have brought these curses upon ourselves.  How have we got ourselves into this mess?

On Monday, Rabbi Igor Zinkov, Tim Simon – the Chairman of our Yom Kippur Appeal Committee  – and I met with Clare Gilboa, the UK Development Director for Leket Israel.  Leket is the LJS’s Yom Kippur Israeli charity this coming year and you will hear more about it on Yom Kippur itself.

It is Israel’s national food bank with a significant difference.  Unlike food banks here in Britain which provide non-perishable food to families and individuals, Leket Israel took a policy decision in 2017, to provide only fresh fruit, vegetables and freshly cooked meals for those who need it.  The whole exercise of rescuing Israel’s surplus food – cooked and fresh, no tins or packets – is massive.

35% of food harvested and produced in Israel is wasted. That figure is similar in the USA and the UK.  In hotels, supermarkets, army bases, at catered events, there is a wild tendency to overproduce and over-cater.  Leket feeds 17.5 thousand people each week – a high proportion of whom are working families, Shoah survivors, the elderly, Arab, Ethiopian, Druze, Bedouin and Russian families.  Leket work with non-profit organisations, getting the food to them in a time sensitive way, so that it doesn’t go off.  The NPOs then distribute it in various areas.

The challenges of food banking – overseeing the quality of the food, ensuring that supply meets demand, health and food safety and the long-term need, are all dealt with at an operational and logistical level by employees, and also by 52,000 volunteers.

The idea of children and adults going hungry is anathema.  And yet, the Trussell Trust in the UK reports a 19% increase on last year in distribution of food through their food banks.  1.6 million three day emergency food supplies were distributed between 1 April 2018 and 31 March, 2019.

To find out how we have got here and what is driving this relentless increase, please join us for a panel discussion this Saturday evening 21st September at 6.30 pm at the LJS, with Professor Geraldine van Bueren QC, Professor Human Rights Law at Queen Mary University, Dr Anna Isaacs, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Food Policy at City University, London and Garry Lemon, Director of Policy, External Affairs and Research at the Trussell Trust.

Is there some symbolic truth that emerges from the list of blessings and curses that make up this week’s Torah portion? Not that God as an omnipotent force for good or evil rewards or punishes, but that we must be held accountable and responsible for bringing this catastrophic situation to pass.

Food sustainability is part of the larger picture that has to do with how we are living on our burning planet.  As Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal puts it: ‘…the factors that are destroying our planet are also destroying people’s lives in many other ways, from wage stagnation to gaping inequalities to crumbling services to surging white supremacy to the collapse of our information ecology.’

By ourselves, we cannot extinguish the fire; we cannot create equity among all peoples, but we need to engender in ourselves a sense of urgency and join the worldwide movements and younger generations who are crying out for all of us to join the climate strike this Friday and to grasp at this last chance for change and transformation of the toxic model we have been living with for too long.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 13 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Next Friday September 20th there will be a global school climate strike. This strike is in part is inspired by Greta Thunberg, the 15 year old teenager who began her School Strike for Climate in August 2018.

Talking about the need for action, Thunberg said, ‘In Sweden, we live our lives as if we had the resources of 4.2 planets. Our carbon footprint is one of the ten worst in the world. This means that Sweden steals 3.2 years of natural resources from future generations every year. Those of us who are part of the future generations would like Sweden to stop doing that. Right now. This is not a political text. Our school strike has nothing to do with party politics. Because the climate and the biosphere don’t care about our politics and our empty words for a single second.’

I have heard similar concerns in conversations with our young people at the LJS where I listened to their fears about the future, and witnessed their resolute passion to take part in enduring change. They are not alone. On that Friday, young people will take the day off school and make their way to London where they will demand policy changes to protect their future. Many schools, unions and organisations will be supporting the strike, and adults are encouraged to support these young people who together will join the millions around the world protesting that day.

The issue could not be more important. It affects us all. And it’s going to take a lot of people getting together and making their voices heard to wake up our leaders and get them to take the urgent actions needed to address the crisis we find ourselves in.

This call to protect our environment is a theme throughout our sacred texts. In last week’s Torah portion, in the midst of a discussion on the ethics of war, we are given this teaching:

‘When in your war against a city, you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the axe against them, You may eat of them, but you may not cut them down.’ (Deuteronomy 20:19)

The trees are independent entities from those who live around them, who rest in their shade, who eat from them. And the Israelites are commanded to protect them.

This lesson, that we should not use our power and abilities to take advantage or unnecessarily do damage to our natural world, is present in our texts; biblical, Mishnaic, Talmudic, Midrashic and contemporary.

We do not own the Earth, we are commanded to live in partnership with it. This sentiment is shared in Psalm 24:

‘The earth is Adonai’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants.’

Our Torah shares the narrative that the natural world was created and that God showed Adam all of the wonders of the world and put the responsibility on him to maintain it.

As Kohelet Rabbah 7:13:1 shares:

‘At the time that the Holy One created the first man, He introduced him to every tree in the Garden of Eden, and said to him, ‘See how wonderful and pleasant these trees are. And all of this I have created for you; therefore take great care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you do there is no one else to put right what you have destroyed.’’

There is no-one else to put right what we have destroyed.

These teachings are painfully poignant today. May we all commit ourselves to doing what we can, to make small or large changes in the way that we are living, to ensure that we are acting as God’s partner as we forge a relationship of care and protection with our natural world.

I will be joining the strike with my children on the 20th to let our young people know that their LJS family is behind them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 6 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Between 1st Ellul and Rosh Hashanah, and some go as far as Hoshanah Rabbah – the day preceding Shemini Atzeret – it is customary to read Psalm 27, the Psalm that begins with the words ‘The Eternal One is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?’

It is not an ancient custom and can be dated back only to the year 1745 when Rabbi Jacob Emden, the German scholar and polemicist published his Siddur Bet Yaakov.  Various theories are given as to why this Psalm was chosen for this time of year – the period of the year when we prepare ourselves spiritually for the Yamim Nora’im and begin the journey of returning to God.

One theory suggests that the Psalm was chosen because it mentions the name of God 13 times – perhaps a veiled reference to the 13 attributes of God in Exodus 34, a passage sung before the open ark at the High Holy Days – Adonai, Adonai el rachum v’chanun – ‘The Eternal, the Eternal God is merciful and gracious, endlessly patient, loving and true, showing mercy to thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon.’

Another theory is based on a midrash which expounds the first verse in this way:  The Eternal One is my light – on Rosh Hashanah.  And my salvation – on Yom Kippur.

A more recent explanation highlights the Hebrew word at the beginning of verse 13 lulé – which means ‘if only’ – “If only I shall look on the goodness of the Eternal One.” In the Masoretic text, the word is dotted – a hint that in reverse the word spells Elul, the month we are now in.

More simply, it is a Psalm which addresses our fears  – the madness of the world on our own doorstep and further afield.  It encourages us to look, not for external help to contain our anxiety and distress, but for the strength that is in each one of us, that comes from the faith of our heart.  It tells us not to be stirred up by hysteria or hyperbole, but to search out the beauty of the world: ‘One thing only do I ask of God: to dwell in the house of the Eternal One all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Eternal God, and to seek God in the sanctuary.’

It is a Psalm about resisting evil and finding resilience in ourselves, a Psalm about how we speak to and about each other; it’s about trust and finding strength in times of affliction.  It’s about music and longing; about the fear of God’s hiddenness, of being abandoned; it’s about morality in a bewildering world and it’s about doubt: ‘If only I could trust that I shall see the goodness of the Eternal One in the land of the living.’

And in a world where truth and righteousness have been abandoned, it’s about patience, courage and hope, not that the world will revert to an old order, but that we will learn to adapt with honesty to something new, a new connection with each other and with the universe.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

 

To download our Calendar of Repentance for the second week of the month of Ellul, please click HERE.

To download last week’s calendar, please click HERE.

Thought for the Week

Friday 15 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Finally, I find a quiet moment to sweep the fallen leaves from outside my house.  They line the path leading to the front door and the pavement of my road; they lie in the gutter – some dry and curled, fragile like moth-eaten pages of an old manuscript.  Some are freshly fallen and beautiful still – gold and red, the rich colours of this autumn season.  As a child, I would collect fallen leaves and flowers and press them between the pages of thick books and sometimes now, opening an old volume  – very occasionally – I will come across the dry, compacted form of a leaf or a few petals.  How far I seem from those days when every leaf seemed precious and something new that I had never seen before – each blade defined by its unique shape, the midrib running from the base to its apex, the delicate veins branching out to the edges, essential to the health of the leaf as they carry the nutrients necessary to its life.

In the short time, I am outside, I encounter four of my neighbours and miraculously, we find time to chat.  The man next door, who piles his three small children into his car every morning to take them to school and nursery, my neighbour the other side who always watches for parcels or packets left outside the front door, and on the other side of her, my lovely neighbour who will always lend me an egg or some milk if I find myself without an essential ingredient when I am cooking.

This is a rare moment of privilege and pleasure – of feeling embedded in my neighbourhood where I have lived for a long time. These are the people whom I so often wave to, but find little time to chat, to find out what is happening in their lives, to discover the challenges they are living with?  Each of them has a story or many stories – the loneliness of a widow, battling her own health problems; the worry of a sick child or grandchild; the difficulties of bringing up a family in the cramped surroundings of a small flat.

There is something hidden, yet precious that binds us together as neighbours – that we share the same road, that we live in such close proximity to each other, with only a fence or thin wall separating our houses and gardens.  We hear the movements we make in each other’s homes, we take in each other’s post, we sweep each other’s leaves and put away each other’s dustbins, we lend each other books. We are a small community, a micro-community of this larger society in which we live. And we have learned to live with each other’s foibles and habits, to speak courteously to each other if something crops up that bothers us.

We are like the birds gathering around the feeders in the garden: two parakeets alighting on a thin branch, the family of dunnocks chirping noisily, the jays and a large, black crow, the fat pigeons that fancy themselves as lighter versions of themselves, swaying awkwardly, pushing themselves towards the feeder.  They come and go throughout the day, occasionally on their own, more often as a small community, busy feeding, singing, perching and swaying, curling themselves into little acrobats to feed from the seeds.

It was Hillel who said: Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur – ‘Do not separate yourself from the community’ (Pirkei Avot 2:5) – an appeal to strengthen the Jewish community, to pray and study with the congregation, to volunteer one’s times and strengths, not to withdraw into an ascetic life of seclusion.

Those few minutes of sweeping the leaves in front of my houses reminded me of the importance of community: of collaboration and reaching out, listening and sharing, of gratitude and love.  And I see the individuals of our community as veins in a leaf, the seams that connect us to each other, that reach out to the very edges of our congregation with the warmth and friendship that are required to counter loneliness, to bring consolation and to share in each other’s joys.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 8 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to teach one of our teenage class sessions at Rimon. This particular class is a very engaged and thoughtful group. I facilitated an exercise with them, I shared a statement of theology or belief and if they strongly agreed they would stand on one side of the room, if they strongly disagreed they would stand on the other side of the room. If they weren’t certain they stood in the middle. After a few rounds I shared the statement I was most curious about “I believe in God”. One student went to the “strongly agree” side of the room, one went to the “strongly disagree” side of the room, and the rest found themselves somewhere in the middle. We spoke about this one for about 10 minutes and through the conversation I learned that all of the students believe in some sort of higher power, in a greater force that acts in this world but each of them understood God differently. Most stated that they don’t believe in the God as presented in the Torah, a God of creation who is capable of reward or punishment though many of them think (hope) that God is capable of providing healing. The next statement I shared was “Studying Torah is one of the most important parts of being Jewish.” Every single student went to the “Strongly Agree” side of the room. How wonderful! In their own words, the students shared that Torah gives them a sense of history, it connects them with past generations, it teaches important lessons and values. I was inspired by this group of young people and their open conversation, they had clarity about their relationship with the past and with our texts and a connection to but questions about God. I was reminded of a famous text from the Talmud, “The Oven of Akhnai”. It is a text often studied in progressive Judaism as it emphasis the sacred importance of human conversation.   

The Oven of Akhnai is one of my favourite passages from the Talmud, it is from Bava Metzia 59a. It is a story that comes in the midst of a conversation around keeping an over ritually pure. If the oven becomes impure one can purify it by breaking it into pieces and then placing the pieces back together, with a cement like substance between each piece. Rabbi Eleazer has an idea, if an oven is purified by breaking it into pieces and then putting those pieces back together with mortar between the pieces, then could it be possible to create an oven that could never be deemed impure by placing together with mortar many small pieces, instead of having one large oven.  

If you’re confused then you are in good company, like much of the Talmud the halachik discussions are full of complicated minutiae. It’s not important that you understand Rabbi Eliezar’s argument, what is important is that you understand that Rabbi Eleazar was trying to convince the Talmudic sages who were making decisions about the community, kind of like the counsel  of Talmudic times, that his argument was valid and should be followed. Here is the text:  

On that day, when they discussed this matter, Rabbi Eliezer answered all possible answers in the world to support his opinion, but the Rabbis did not accept his explanations from him. After failing to convince the Rabbis logically, Rabbi Eliezer said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, this carob tree will prove it. The carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, and some say four hundred cubits. The Rabbis said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from the carob tree. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the stream will prove it. The water in the stream turned backward and began flowing in the opposite direction. They said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from a stream. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the walls of the study hall will prove it. The walls of the study hall leaned inward and began to fall. Rabbi Yehoshua scolded the walls and said to them: If Torah scholars are contending with each other in matters of halakha, what is the nature of your involvement in this dispute? The Gemara relates: The walls did not fall because of the deference due Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten because of the deference due Rabbi Eliezer, and they still remain leaning. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, Heaven will prove it. A Divine Voice emerged from Heaven and said: Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion? Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: It is written: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of the phrase “It is not in heaven” in this context? Rabbi Yirmeya says: Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a Divine Voice, as You already wrote at Mount Sinai, in the Torah: “After a majority to incline” (Exodus 23:2). Since the majority of Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, the halakha is not ruled in accordance with his opinion. The Gemara relates: Years after, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time, when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration? Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.  

(Non-gendered God language has been used to reflect an honest translation of the Talmud.)  

Time and time again the rabbis are shown that God agrees with Rabbi Eleazar, (the waters flow backwards, the tree is uprooted, a heavenly voice comes down!) but in the end it is the discussions and decisions of the people that are more important than the will of God.   

Though our thoughts and opinions may be divinely inspired, this text reminds us that what we are doing within community is sacred work, as humans we hold the responsibility of creating and maintaining an ethical framework.  It is not in heaven that the rules of the community are decided it is the work of humans to look through the details of how a community functions and to decide how our sacred text and traditions will be manifest in our communities. It is not in heaven, it is here, in the halls and rooms of the LJS and in any room where Jewish individuals come together to discuss, plan and commit ourselves to Torah in all its many forms. 

Shabbat Shalom

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 1 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A seventeen year old boy, his mother dead, his father an old man to whom he is close, is sold to people traders, slave owners, by his own brothers, and is taken to a foreign country where he is trafficked to a soldier in the king’s army.  He works hard and is given responsibility and authority over the household.  The man is often away from home and soon the man’s wife sets her sights on the young teenager, tries to get him to sleep with her and one day, takes hold of him saying, ‘Lie with me!’  The boy escapes, leaving his garment in her hand.  Outraged, she calls her husband and accuses the boy of trying to rape her.  His master has the boy thrown into prison and there he languishes for a long time.

This is the story of Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel – the first individual in the Hebrew Bible we know to be trafficked by people smugglers from Judah into Egypt and then sold into slavery to Potiphar and his wife.

I have thought about this story, its initial similarities and then the stark and tragic differences between Joseph’s ultimate success and the thirty-nine individuals trafficked into the UK and found dead inside a freezer container just one week ago.

We do not know all the details: why these young men and women left their homes in the first place, making the long, costly, precarious and unknown journeys to Europe. Why would someone leave parents and family, homeland and everything that is familiar and risk losing their lives if not for reasons that are quite desperate?  Why did our own grandparents or great-grandparents leave their homes for England or Ireland or the United States?  They saw no future for themselves under oppressive regimes, their lives blighted by poverty and hardship.  Perhaps it is freedom or the urgent need for money, for meaningful work and the possibility of a brighter future that gives individuals the motivation to undertake such long and frightening journeys, their families mortgaging land and movables for tens of thousands of pounds.

These young people – if they came from Vietnam – had risked everything, including tragically their lives, in order to make it into this country.  Did they know the kind of work they might have ended up in?  In cannabis farms, in nail bars, perhaps even in prostitution and sex work?

Some people’s lives are so desperate that they would rather make these perilous journeys, knowing the difficulty of entering Western Europe, than stay where they are.  Nearly 18,000 people have drowned crossing seas and trying to enter other countries since 2014.

The death of these 39 women and men is tragic.  Tragic in that a journey that began with hope has ended in irreversible catastrophe.  Such tragedies have been more apparent to all of us since the three year old Syrian child of Kurdish ethnic background, Alan Kurdi, was found face down on a beach after he drowned in the Mediterranean.

This world in which we live is one of uncertainty and doubt; it engenders a feeling of unease in a place that has unlearnt the customs of hospitality.  And we bear a responsibility for this unlearning, for this environment of suspicion and lack of interest in the lives of individuals who only wish for freedom – to go where they wish to go, to live where they wish to live, to speak with truth what they believe, to love with honesty and openness.

The lives of these individuals, their aspirations and hope, came into tragic conflict with the limitations and demands of a world that is fundamentally hostile to asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.

As Noah and his family and the animals he has saved emerge from the Ark in this week’s parashah, God rethinks the guidelines he has given to humanity and adds this law for Noah and his descendants:

                Whoever sheds the blood of human beings,

                By humanity shall his blood be shed;

                For in God’s image

                Did God make human beings (Genesis 9:6).

Human life, the life of all creatures, says God, is precious; I will now bind myself to you in an everlasting covenant and promise never again to destroy the earth and all flesh by the waters of a flood. God sees the grandeur of each human spirit, the preciousness of each human life.  And that is what it means for all human beings to be created in God’s image.  Our deeds, our words and actions have repercussions and when we lose our faith in a God who has created us in the divine image, we lose that sense and acknowledgement of the nobility and dignity of the human spirit, the body that encases it and the obligations that fall on us and the countries in which we live, to ensure that such tragedies will never happen again.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 25 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Any end must be followed by a new beginning – such is the hope embedded in our tradition. This week we celebrated Simchat Torah, which marks several ends and beginnings. After a 22 day chain of festivals, we observed the end of a Jewish marathon of individual and communal reflection, and marked the beginning of a new calendar and agricultural year. After a year-long journey through weekly Torah portions, we marked the completion of the annual cycle of the Torah reading and acknowledged the beginning of the new one. After many years of Moses’ leadership, we read about the end of his life, and the beginning of Joshua’s term as a leader of the Jewish people.

In his new book ‘Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope’, Johann Hari offers a personal perspective on depression and anxiety. Hari selects concepts that explain some aspects of depression and its causes. He interviews and summarises research of many scholars who have uncovered evidence for nine different causes of depression. Some are in our biology, but most can be found in the way we live today. Among these causes are: disconnection from meaningful work, disconnection from other people, disconnection from meaningful values, and disconnection from a hopeful and secure future. I don’t think any of the book’s points are new, nevertheless they remain important and worth speaking about.

Perhaps the Jewish community might offer a solution to some of them. Liberal Judaism takes the position that Jewish tradition must keep in tune with modern and relevant trends to remain meaningful to modern society. The Jewish way of living is a spiral. Each year we begin a new old journey, developing a new circuit of our lives. Each year we begin with a new Creation and, therefore, articulate a new hope. It helps us to find meaning in life, support from our community, and stability in today’s world.

As Progressive Jews, it is our responsibility to develop and defend Judaism which offers people a medium for meaningful life and meaningful values, connection to a community of caring people, and the sense of a helpful and secure future. As we begin the new cycle of the Torah reading, let us not forget that any end must be followed by a new beginning, such is the hope embedded in our tradition.

Shabbat Shalom

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 18 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

On the first day of Sukkot, my colleague, 77 year old Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, taking part in the Extinction Rebellion protests, wearing a tallit and carrying a lulav and etrog in his hand, was arrested outside the Bank of England.  A passionate campaigner on the climate emergency, it was distressing to see him carried away by the police, who wrested the lulav and etrog from his hand so that it dropped carelessly to the ground.

This action affected me deeply. It was a stark reminder that so many were willing to put their lives, their bodies and their liberty on the line for the sake of the future of our planet.  As George Monbiot said, in the moments before he was arrested on Wednesday:

‘At the moment we are facing the destruction of life on earth, the destruction of our life support systems; so to stand up against that destruction, I feel, is our human duty. By being arrested in defence of the living planet, I feel I can look my children, and maybe one day my grandchildren in the eye. This feels exactly the right place to be, under arrest for trying to defend life on earth.’

‘It’s not OK,’ said Rabbi Newman as he was lifted off the ground by two policeman and we knew what that meant.  This wanton destruction of the earth, capitalisation through investment in fossil fuel industries, our moral distance and ignorance of what is happening, not only in our own hemisphere, but thousands of miles away, where it is the poorest of the world, whose impact on the climate is small, but who suffer most from  environmental breakdown – thousands of refugees who seek refuge from the climate chaos in places such as Somalia, Mozambique, Bangladesh, the Caribbean, Central America and many other parts of the world.

A curious thing is happening, not for the first time in our public spaces.  Seeing Rabbi Newman on the first day of the festival, walking with the ritual objects of Sukkot and wearing his tallit reminded me of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words that prayer should be a ‘radical, subversive act.’  Prayer and ritual are no longer confined to the home and the synagogue, but – like the civil rights movement in the United States for which Heschel marched – it has been moved into the public space, beyond the walls of our religious institutions.

Dr Susanna Heschel, wrote of her father on his return from the non-violent civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama:

‘When he came home from Selma in 1965, my father wrote, ‘For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.’’

An early Aramaic chronicle of significant days in the Jewish calendar demonstrates the power of protesting in a public space in this account about Caligula who had sent an idol to be placed in the Temple.  This shocking news reached Jerusalem on the eve of Sukkot.  Shimon Ha-Tzaddik instructed the Jews to go out and stand before the soldiers of the Roman Empire.   In every city throughout Judea, they stood in their numbers to confront the Emperor’s emissary and cried out, ‘We will die before we accept this decree.’  They lay down in the market places in sackcloth and ashes.  When a letter arrived announcing Caligula’s assassination, the idol was immediately taken down and dragged through the streets and Shimon Ha-Tzaddik heard a voice from the Holy of Holies that said: ‘The worship of idols in the Temple is nullified. Caligula has been slain and his decrees nullified.’  And the same day was declared a Yom Tov (Megillat Ta’anit 11.9).

Before this month of Tishri with its festivals of judgement, atonement and rejoicing is over, I know I must take my prayers out of the Sanctuary and into a public place.  I am frightened that my own inaction has rendered me complacent and paralysed by helpless distress.

If we care about the future our children and – please God – our grandchildren are going to inherit, then if we can, we need to take our prayers across the threshold of our interior spaces and outside into a public place.  Prayer is political; it has always been thus, from the moment that Moses hesitated at the Sea of Reeds to utter a supplication to God.  What are you doing, says God, get up and move on!

Shabbat Shalom and may the closing festival of Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah be a time we turn away from despair and embrace an uplifting hope for the future.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 11 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

I feel so grateful and honoured to have spent the Days of Awe within our community. For me personally, and I do hope for you as well, the worship experiences of the last two weeks have been deep and moving, made even more powerful by being surrounded by our community. This was my second Yom Kippur at the LJS, but I had only just started before last year’s festival season. I was moved this year to look out from the Bimah and to see your faces, having had the immense honour of getting to know you better over the last year. Thank you for sharing your life and faith with me. What we have at the LJS really is very special.

To think about all the people who worked tirelessly to bring it all together! From the office team to the Shammashim, the stewards, Karen Newman who projected the sermons, our teachers who led art activities upstairs, and everyone who attended either at the synagogue or through streaming, adding their voices to the community prayers.

Since the closing of the service of Yom Kippur, I have been thinking about the small Jewish community in Halle Germany. Like us, they too had joined together in prayer, with their community, having readied themselves for a Day of Atonement and spiritual renewal. Like us, they were engaging in peaceful prayer and working towards being better. Until their prayers were brutally interrupted by a right-wing extremist who attempted to break into the synagogue, killing two innocent individuals, all with a camera live streaming mounted on his head. He filmed himself before the attack, identifying himself as a Holocaust denier and blamed “the Jew” for the worlds problem.

The security plan that this synagogue in Halle had set up kept them safe, though the attacker shot repeatedly at the door and threw several Molotov cocktails he was not able to force himself in. There were 70-80 people gathered in the synagogue, after hearing the shots they saw the attacker trying to get in through the security camera.

Only hours after the attack we sat in our synagogue and joined together in the Mussaf service. A service honouring those whose lives have been cut short only because they were Jewish, because hatred and fear of the other is violent and dangerous and is too familiar to us as a people. I think about the words of Claude Montefiore that we read during the Mussaf service, “It was not an ibn Gabirol or a Maimonides, still less a Spuinoza, who fulfilled the Jewish mission most truly, or rendered the greatest service to the Jewish cause. No. It was the many little obscure Jewish communities through the ages, persecuted and despised, who kept alive the flame of the purest Monotheism and the supremacy and divisiveness of the moral Law.” We still do not know many details about the victims or how many others were injured. We hold their bereaved families, and this terrified community in our prayers.

We are grateful to the CST and to our own security team at the LJS who ensures our security as we come together in prayer and study.

May this new year be one of safety for us and all people. May we find ourselves in a world of greater tolerance and love, and may this day come soon.

Shanah Tovah,

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 4 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

During the month of Ellul, preceding Rosh Hashanah, a colleague and dear friend ran three online sessions from her home in the States on Musar literature – a genre of Jewish teaching and literature that Rabbi Bahya ibn Pakuda in the eleventh century calls ‘the science of inner life.’  Musar focuses on ways in which we can practise moral discipline and attempt to overcome our ‘weaker’ qualities.  How can we cultivate our own sense of dignity and self-worth? How can we overcome persistent anger or resentment? How can we become more patient, more tolerant and more forgiving of others? And so there is a practical and pious (I admit the word has awkward connotations in our own time) dimension to the application of Musar.

There were four students, an intimate group, all speaking to each other via our computer or smart phones using the technology ‘Zoom’.  Apart from receiving the wisdom of my colleague with teachings that had been sent to us in advance, it was so lovely to feel connected to her in these days leading up to the festivals and, of course, to be searching our own souls; refining – if you like – the traits that are part of us seemed supremely important as we considered the days of repentance before us.

She presented us with texts on three ‘virtues’ over the three weekly sessions we were together: Anavah (humility), Hakarat ha-Tov (gratitude) and Menuchat ha-Nefesh (equanimity – ‘rising above the good and bad’).

Setting us some daily ‘homework’ to reflect on these qualities, she allowed us to reflect on our own traits, on how we had spent our week, whether we had been able to ‘practise’ or at least think about the way we are with ourselves and with others.

One of the most famous tracts of Musar literature is named after a woman – Tomer D’vorah – ‘The Palm Tree of Deborah’ by the sixteenth century kabbalist and scholar, Moses Cordovero.  Cordovero opens the first of the ten chapters of his book with a phrase by phrase interpretation of Micah 7:18-20 – these are the verses that conclude the Haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah, this Shabbat.  The first part begins with the famous verses from Hosea: ‘Return, O Israel, to the Eternal One your God…’ (Hosea 14:2).

This Shabbat, in the middle of the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah – the Ten Days of Repentance, the message is not only Hosea’s exhortation to repent, but God’s readiness to forgive:

‘Who is a God like You,

Forgiving iniquity, passing over transgression;

You do not cling to Your anger with the remnant of Your people,

Because you delight in showing love!’ (Micah 7:18)

Cordovero sees in these words divine attributes – endless kindness, forgiveness, willingness to let go of anger, love and patience.  These, he says, are the attributes of our Divine Creator and these are the moral and spiritual qualities to which we should aspire. We may cling to our anger, but God does not. Even if a person fails to repent of their sins, God neutralises or nullifies divine fury with mercy and love and the expectation of repentance.

It is hard to let go of anger and hurt.  Yet, this is what Yom Kippur demands of us.  In our short-tempered world, we have to swim against the current of impatience with forgiveness, forgetfulness even, with a sense that we can let go and stop bearing grudges or feeling victimised.

How hard it is when the words we hear around us are not always tender, kind or forgiving.  How hard to be patient when our attention span grows weaker the more technology tests and assaults our perseverance; how hard to love and be loved; how difficult to show gratitude, to practise humility and cultivate that sense of equanimity in our own souls.

We need a week of Yom Kippur, a month, a retreat of silence, an escape away from the chaotic uncertainties of our lives and the political landscape we live in.

Can we forgive iniquity; can we be forgiven?  Can we pass over the transgression of others and let go of our anger?  As we enter these days of holiness, help us O God to be like You, delighting in showing love and gratitude and remaining true and faithful to our Judaism, to the Jewish people and the teachings of our faith, as You, O God showed ‘faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham… from days of old’ (Micah 7.20).

Shabbat Shalom and Chatimah Tovah – May you be inscribed for a  healthy and peaceful year of 5780.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 27 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

As a Liberal Rabbi, I believe in development and critical approach to religion and life. Knowing the past helps me to navigate in the uncertainty of the present. As bestselling writer and historian Yuval Harari put it: ‘The cold hand of the past… grips us by the neck and directs our gaze towards a single future. We have felt that grip from the moment we were born, so we assume that it is a natural and inescapable part of who we are. Therefore we seldom try to shake ourselves free, and envision alternative futures.’ (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, p. 59) There are only few days left before Rosh Hashanah – the day of hearing awakening shofar blasts, the day when we remember the creation of humanity, the day when we begin a journey of reflection, the day of hope for forgiveness, a better future, and inner peace.

This week, I decided to spend a day of learning about leaders of Liberal Judaism and their thoughts. I came across a Rabbi John Rayner lecture given at the Carmel College on 19 August 1957. In this lecture, Rabbi Rayner expressed key values of Liberal Judaism. He wrote:

‘Liberal Judaism values truth above tradition, freedom above authority, and sincerity above uniformity. It reverences Jewish tradition, but not in an uncritical way. It holds that it is the duty of every generation so to develop the tradition that it may always be compatible with the best contemporary thought and appropriate to the best contemporary life, or, which is another way of putting it, that it may always be intellectually acceptable, spiritually satisfying and practically efficacious. It is not a rebellion against Judaism but an attempt to rescue it; it does aim to weaken Judaism but to strengthen it; it is not motivated by dislike for Judaism, but by a profound and passionate love. Without it Jewish scholarship would be poorer, Jewish-Christian relations less happy, and thousands of Jews would have been lost. Without it there would be no hope for the Jewish future’

The lecture was given over 60 year ago, but the Liberal Jewish values remain the same. The wisdom of our tradition teaches us to reflect on our past so we could begin the New Year with a sense of direction. I wish all of us to spend the upcoming 5780 year with a deep sense of hope and integrity and to live our lives full of truth, freedom and sincerity.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tovah,

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 20 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

‘Blessed shall be… your produce from the soil, the offspring from your cattle, your calving from the herd and your lambing from the flock.  Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl’ (Deuteronomy 28:4-5).

These verses, from the weekly parashah Ki Tavo, come from a longer section of blessings, promised to Israel if they are faithful in their observance of the commandments enjoined upon them by God.  Fourteen verses describing the blessings are followed by fifty-three verses of curses that will punish the people if they fail to keep the commandments.

In a simplistic way, one might argue that the incontinence of western populations, our avarice and sense of entitlement, our consumption of the planet’s resources, the creation of an unconscionably wide gap between rich and poor, the shockingly uneven distribution of food in the world and here, even in our own wealthy country, are the results of living without a clear moral compass.  We have brought these curses upon ourselves.  How have we got ourselves into this mess?

On Monday, Rabbi Igor Zinkov, Tim Simon – the Chairman of our Yom Kippur Appeal Committee  – and I met with Clare Gilboa, the UK Development Director for Leket Israel.  Leket is the LJS’s Yom Kippur Israeli charity this coming year and you will hear more about it on Yom Kippur itself.

It is Israel’s national food bank with a significant difference.  Unlike food banks here in Britain which provide non-perishable food to families and individuals, Leket Israel took a policy decision in 2017, to provide only fresh fruit, vegetables and freshly cooked meals for those who need it.  The whole exercise of rescuing Israel’s surplus food – cooked and fresh, no tins or packets – is massive.

35% of food harvested and produced in Israel is wasted. That figure is similar in the USA and the UK.  In hotels, supermarkets, army bases, at catered events, there is a wild tendency to overproduce and over-cater.  Leket feeds 17.5 thousand people each week – a high proportion of whom are working families, Shoah survivors, the elderly, Arab, Ethiopian, Druze, Bedouin and Russian families.  Leket work with non-profit organisations, getting the food to them in a time sensitive way, so that it doesn’t go off.  The NPOs then distribute it in various areas.

The challenges of food banking – overseeing the quality of the food, ensuring that supply meets demand, health and food safety and the long-term need, are all dealt with at an operational and logistical level by employees, and also by 52,000 volunteers.

The idea of children and adults going hungry is anathema.  And yet, the Trussell Trust in the UK reports a 19% increase on last year in distribution of food through their food banks.  1.6 million three day emergency food supplies were distributed between 1 April 2018 and 31 March, 2019.

To find out how we have got here and what is driving this relentless increase, please join us for a panel discussion this Saturday evening 21st September at 6.30 pm at the LJS, with Professor Geraldine van Bueren QC, Professor Human Rights Law at Queen Mary University, Dr Anna Isaacs, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Food Policy at City University, London and Garry Lemon, Director of Policy, External Affairs and Research at the Trussell Trust.

Is there some symbolic truth that emerges from the list of blessings and curses that make up this week’s Torah portion? Not that God as an omnipotent force for good or evil rewards or punishes, but that we must be held accountable and responsible for bringing this catastrophic situation to pass.

Food sustainability is part of the larger picture that has to do with how we are living on our burning planet.  As Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal puts it: ‘…the factors that are destroying our planet are also destroying people’s lives in many other ways, from wage stagnation to gaping inequalities to crumbling services to surging white supremacy to the collapse of our information ecology.’

By ourselves, we cannot extinguish the fire; we cannot create equity among all peoples, but we need to engender in ourselves a sense of urgency and join the worldwide movements and younger generations who are crying out for all of us to join the climate strike this Friday and to grasp at this last chance for change and transformation of the toxic model we have been living with for too long.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 13 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Next Friday September 20th there will be a global school climate strike. This strike is in part is inspired by Greta Thunberg, the 15 year old teenager who began her School Strike for Climate in August 2018.

Talking about the need for action, Thunberg said, ‘In Sweden, we live our lives as if we had the resources of 4.2 planets. Our carbon footprint is one of the ten worst in the world. This means that Sweden steals 3.2 years of natural resources from future generations every year. Those of us who are part of the future generations would like Sweden to stop doing that. Right now. This is not a political text. Our school strike has nothing to do with party politics. Because the climate and the biosphere don’t care about our politics and our empty words for a single second.’

I have heard similar concerns in conversations with our young people at the LJS where I listened to their fears about the future, and witnessed their resolute passion to take part in enduring change. They are not alone. On that Friday, young people will take the day off school and make their way to London where they will demand policy changes to protect their future. Many schools, unions and organisations will be supporting the strike, and adults are encouraged to support these young people who together will join the millions around the world protesting that day.

The issue could not be more important. It affects us all. And it’s going to take a lot of people getting together and making their voices heard to wake up our leaders and get them to take the urgent actions needed to address the crisis we find ourselves in.

This call to protect our environment is a theme throughout our sacred texts. In last week’s Torah portion, in the midst of a discussion on the ethics of war, we are given this teaching:

‘When in your war against a city, you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the axe against them, You may eat of them, but you may not cut them down.’ (Deuteronomy 20:19)

The trees are independent entities from those who live around them, who rest in their shade, who eat from them. And the Israelites are commanded to protect them.

This lesson, that we should not use our power and abilities to take advantage or unnecessarily do damage to our natural world, is present in our texts; biblical, Mishnaic, Talmudic, Midrashic and contemporary.

We do not own the Earth, we are commanded to live in partnership with it. This sentiment is shared in Psalm 24:

‘The earth is Adonai’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants.’

Our Torah shares the narrative that the natural world was created and that God showed Adam all of the wonders of the world and put the responsibility on him to maintain it.

As Kohelet Rabbah 7:13:1 shares:

‘At the time that the Holy One created the first man, He introduced him to every tree in the Garden of Eden, and said to him, ‘See how wonderful and pleasant these trees are. And all of this I have created for you; therefore take great care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you do there is no one else to put right what you have destroyed.’’

There is no-one else to put right what we have destroyed.

These teachings are painfully poignant today. May we all commit ourselves to doing what we can, to make small or large changes in the way that we are living, to ensure that we are acting as God’s partner as we forge a relationship of care and protection with our natural world.

I will be joining the strike with my children on the 20th to let our young people know that their LJS family is behind them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 6 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Between 1st Ellul and Rosh Hashanah, and some go as far as Hoshanah Rabbah – the day preceding Shemini Atzeret – it is customary to read Psalm 27, the Psalm that begins with the words ‘The Eternal One is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?’

It is not an ancient custom and can be dated back only to the year 1745 when Rabbi Jacob Emden, the German scholar and polemicist published his Siddur Bet Yaakov.  Various theories are given as to why this Psalm was chosen for this time of year – the period of the year when we prepare ourselves spiritually for the Yamim Nora’im and begin the journey of returning to God.

One theory suggests that the Psalm was chosen because it mentions the name of God 13 times – perhaps a veiled reference to the 13 attributes of God in Exodus 34, a passage sung before the open ark at the High Holy Days – Adonai, Adonai el rachum v’chanun – ‘The Eternal, the Eternal God is merciful and gracious, endlessly patient, loving and true, showing mercy to thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon.’

Another theory is based on a midrash which expounds the first verse in this way:  The Eternal One is my light – on Rosh Hashanah.  And my salvation – on Yom Kippur.

A more recent explanation highlights the Hebrew word at the beginning of verse 13 lulé – which means ‘if only’ – “If only I shall look on the goodness of the Eternal One.” In the Masoretic text, the word is dotted – a hint that in reverse the word spells Elul, the month we are now in.

More simply, it is a Psalm which addresses our fears  – the madness of the world on our own doorstep and further afield.  It encourages us to look, not for external help to contain our anxiety and distress, but for the strength that is in each one of us, that comes from the faith of our heart.  It tells us not to be stirred up by hysteria or hyperbole, but to search out the beauty of the world: ‘One thing only do I ask of God: to dwell in the house of the Eternal One all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Eternal God, and to seek God in the sanctuary.’

It is a Psalm about resisting evil and finding resilience in ourselves, a Psalm about how we speak to and about each other; it’s about trust and finding strength in times of affliction.  It’s about music and longing; about the fear of God’s hiddenness, of being abandoned; it’s about morality in a bewildering world and it’s about doubt: ‘If only I could trust that I shall see the goodness of the Eternal One in the land of the living.’

And in a world where truth and righteousness have been abandoned, it’s about patience, courage and hope, not that the world will revert to an old order, but that we will learn to adapt with honesty to something new, a new connection with each other and with the universe.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

 

To download our Calendar of Repentance for the second week of the month of Ellul, please click HERE.

To download last week’s calendar, please click HERE.

Thought for the Week

Friday 1 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A seventeen year old boy, his mother dead, his father an old man to whom he is close, is sold to people traders, slave owners, by his own brothers, and is taken to a foreign country where he is trafficked to a soldier in the king’s army.  He works hard and is given responsibility and authority over the household.  The man is often away from home and soon the man’s wife sets her sights on the young teenager, tries to get him to sleep with her and one day, takes hold of him saying, ‘Lie with me!’  The boy escapes, leaving his garment in her hand.  Outraged, she calls her husband and accuses the boy of trying to rape her.  His master has the boy thrown into prison and there he languishes for a long time.

This is the story of Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel – the first individual in the Hebrew Bible we know to be trafficked by people smugglers from Judah into Egypt and then sold into slavery to Potiphar and his wife.

I have thought about this story, its initial similarities and then the stark and tragic differences between Joseph’s ultimate success and the thirty-nine individuals trafficked into the UK and found dead inside a freezer container just one week ago.

We do not know all the details: why these young men and women left their homes in the first place, making the long, costly, precarious and unknown journeys to Europe. Why would someone leave parents and family, homeland and everything that is familiar and risk losing their lives if not for reasons that are quite desperate?  Why did our own grandparents or great-grandparents leave their homes for England or Ireland or the United States?  They saw no future for themselves under oppressive regimes, their lives blighted by poverty and hardship.  Perhaps it is freedom or the urgent need for money, for meaningful work and the possibility of a brighter future that gives individuals the motivation to undertake such long and frightening journeys, their families mortgaging land and movables for tens of thousands of pounds.

These young people – if they came from Vietnam – had risked everything, including tragically their lives, in order to make it into this country.  Did they know the kind of work they might have ended up in?  In cannabis farms, in nail bars, perhaps even in prostitution and sex work?

Some people’s lives are so desperate that they would rather make these perilous journeys, knowing the difficulty of entering Western Europe, than stay where they are.  Nearly 18,000 people have drowned crossing seas and trying to enter other countries since 2014.

The death of these 39 women and men is tragic.  Tragic in that a journey that began with hope has ended in irreversible catastrophe.  Such tragedies have been more apparent to all of us since the three year old Syrian child of Kurdish ethnic background, Alan Kurdi, was found face down on a beach after he drowned in the Mediterranean.

This world in which we live is one of uncertainty and doubt; it engenders a feeling of unease in a place that has unlearnt the customs of hospitality.  And we bear a responsibility for this unlearning, for this environment of suspicion and lack of interest in the lives of individuals who only wish for freedom – to go where they wish to go, to live where they wish to live, to speak with truth what they believe, to love with honesty and openness.

The lives of these individuals, their aspirations and hope, came into tragic conflict with the limitations and demands of a world that is fundamentally hostile to asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.

As Noah and his family and the animals he has saved emerge from the Ark in this week’s parashah, God rethinks the guidelines he has given to humanity and adds this law for Noah and his descendants:

                Whoever sheds the blood of human beings,

                By humanity shall his blood be shed;

                For in God’s image

                Did God make human beings (Genesis 9:6).

Human life, the life of all creatures, says God, is precious; I will now bind myself to you in an everlasting covenant and promise never again to destroy the earth and all flesh by the waters of a flood. God sees the grandeur of each human spirit, the preciousness of each human life.  And that is what it means for all human beings to be created in God’s image.  Our deeds, our words and actions have repercussions and when we lose our faith in a God who has created us in the divine image, we lose that sense and acknowledgement of the nobility and dignity of the human spirit, the body that encases it and the obligations that fall on us and the countries in which we live, to ensure that such tragedies will never happen again.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 25 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Any end must be followed by a new beginning – such is the hope embedded in our tradition. This week we celebrated Simchat Torah, which marks several ends and beginnings. After a 22 day chain of festivals, we observed the end of a Jewish marathon of individual and communal reflection, and marked the beginning of a new calendar and agricultural year. After a year-long journey through weekly Torah portions, we marked the completion of the annual cycle of the Torah reading and acknowledged the beginning of the new one. After many years of Moses’ leadership, we read about the end of his life, and the beginning of Joshua’s term as a leader of the Jewish people.

In his new book ‘Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope’, Johann Hari offers a personal perspective on depression and anxiety. Hari selects concepts that explain some aspects of depression and its causes. He interviews and summarises research of many scholars who have uncovered evidence for nine different causes of depression. Some are in our biology, but most can be found in the way we live today. Among these causes are: disconnection from meaningful work, disconnection from other people, disconnection from meaningful values, and disconnection from a hopeful and secure future. I don’t think any of the book’s points are new, nevertheless they remain important and worth speaking about.

Perhaps the Jewish community might offer a solution to some of them. Liberal Judaism takes the position that Jewish tradition must keep in tune with modern and relevant trends to remain meaningful to modern society. The Jewish way of living is a spiral. Each year we begin a new old journey, developing a new circuit of our lives. Each year we begin with a new Creation and, therefore, articulate a new hope. It helps us to find meaning in life, support from our community, and stability in today’s world.

As Progressive Jews, it is our responsibility to develop and defend Judaism which offers people a medium for meaningful life and meaningful values, connection to a community of caring people, and the sense of a helpful and secure future. As we begin the new cycle of the Torah reading, let us not forget that any end must be followed by a new beginning, such is the hope embedded in our tradition.

Shabbat Shalom

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 18 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

On the first day of Sukkot, my colleague, 77 year old Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, taking part in the Extinction Rebellion protests, wearing a tallit and carrying a lulav and etrog in his hand, was arrested outside the Bank of England.  A passionate campaigner on the climate emergency, it was distressing to see him carried away by the police, who wrested the lulav and etrog from his hand so that it dropped carelessly to the ground.

This action affected me deeply. It was a stark reminder that so many were willing to put their lives, their bodies and their liberty on the line for the sake of the future of our planet.  As George Monbiot said, in the moments before he was arrested on Wednesday:

‘At the moment we are facing the destruction of life on earth, the destruction of our life support systems; so to stand up against that destruction, I feel, is our human duty. By being arrested in defence of the living planet, I feel I can look my children, and maybe one day my grandchildren in the eye. This feels exactly the right place to be, under arrest for trying to defend life on earth.’

‘It’s not OK,’ said Rabbi Newman as he was lifted off the ground by two policeman and we knew what that meant.  This wanton destruction of the earth, capitalisation through investment in fossil fuel industries, our moral distance and ignorance of what is happening, not only in our own hemisphere, but thousands of miles away, where it is the poorest of the world, whose impact on the climate is small, but who suffer most from  environmental breakdown – thousands of refugees who seek refuge from the climate chaos in places such as Somalia, Mozambique, Bangladesh, the Caribbean, Central America and many other parts of the world.

A curious thing is happening, not for the first time in our public spaces.  Seeing Rabbi Newman on the first day of the festival, walking with the ritual objects of Sukkot and wearing his tallit reminded me of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words that prayer should be a ‘radical, subversive act.’  Prayer and ritual are no longer confined to the home and the synagogue, but – like the civil rights movement in the United States for which Heschel marched – it has been moved into the public space, beyond the walls of our religious institutions.

Dr Susanna Heschel, wrote of her father on his return from the non-violent civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama:

‘When he came home from Selma in 1965, my father wrote, ‘For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.’’

An early Aramaic chronicle of significant days in the Jewish calendar demonstrates the power of protesting in a public space in this account about Caligula who had sent an idol to be placed in the Temple.  This shocking news reached Jerusalem on the eve of Sukkot.  Shimon Ha-Tzaddik instructed the Jews to go out and stand before the soldiers of the Roman Empire.   In every city throughout Judea, they stood in their numbers to confront the Emperor’s emissary and cried out, ‘We will die before we accept this decree.’  They lay down in the market places in sackcloth and ashes.  When a letter arrived announcing Caligula’s assassination, the idol was immediately taken down and dragged through the streets and Shimon Ha-Tzaddik heard a voice from the Holy of Holies that said: ‘The worship of idols in the Temple is nullified. Caligula has been slain and his decrees nullified.’  And the same day was declared a Yom Tov (Megillat Ta’anit 11.9).

Before this month of Tishri with its festivals of judgement, atonement and rejoicing is over, I know I must take my prayers out of the Sanctuary and into a public place.  I am frightened that my own inaction has rendered me complacent and paralysed by helpless distress.

If we care about the future our children and – please God – our grandchildren are going to inherit, then if we can, we need to take our prayers across the threshold of our interior spaces and outside into a public place.  Prayer is political; it has always been thus, from the moment that Moses hesitated at the Sea of Reeds to utter a supplication to God.  What are you doing, says God, get up and move on!

Shabbat Shalom and may the closing festival of Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah be a time we turn away from despair and embrace an uplifting hope for the future.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 11 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

I feel so grateful and honoured to have spent the Days of Awe within our community. For me personally, and I do hope for you as well, the worship experiences of the last two weeks have been deep and moving, made even more powerful by being surrounded by our community. This was my second Yom Kippur at the LJS, but I had only just started before last year’s festival season. I was moved this year to look out from the Bimah and to see your faces, having had the immense honour of getting to know you better over the last year. Thank you for sharing your life and faith with me. What we have at the LJS really is very special.

To think about all the people who worked tirelessly to bring it all together! From the office team to the Shammashim, the stewards, Karen Newman who projected the sermons, our teachers who led art activities upstairs, and everyone who attended either at the synagogue or through streaming, adding their voices to the community prayers.

Since the closing of the service of Yom Kippur, I have been thinking about the small Jewish community in Halle Germany. Like us, they too had joined together in prayer, with their community, having readied themselves for a Day of Atonement and spiritual renewal. Like us, they were engaging in peaceful prayer and working towards being better. Until their prayers were brutally interrupted by a right-wing extremist who attempted to break into the synagogue, killing two innocent individuals, all with a camera live streaming mounted on his head. He filmed himself before the attack, identifying himself as a Holocaust denier and blamed “the Jew” for the worlds problem.

The security plan that this synagogue in Halle had set up kept them safe, though the attacker shot repeatedly at the door and threw several Molotov cocktails he was not able to force himself in. There were 70-80 people gathered in the synagogue, after hearing the shots they saw the attacker trying to get in through the security camera.

Only hours after the attack we sat in our synagogue and joined together in the Mussaf service. A service honouring those whose lives have been cut short only because they were Jewish, because hatred and fear of the other is violent and dangerous and is too familiar to us as a people. I think about the words of Claude Montefiore that we read during the Mussaf service, “It was not an ibn Gabirol or a Maimonides, still less a Spuinoza, who fulfilled the Jewish mission most truly, or rendered the greatest service to the Jewish cause. No. It was the many little obscure Jewish communities through the ages, persecuted and despised, who kept alive the flame of the purest Monotheism and the supremacy and divisiveness of the moral Law.” We still do not know many details about the victims or how many others were injured. We hold their bereaved families, and this terrified community in our prayers.

We are grateful to the CST and to our own security team at the LJS who ensures our security as we come together in prayer and study.

May this new year be one of safety for us and all people. May we find ourselves in a world of greater tolerance and love, and may this day come soon.

Shanah Tovah,

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 4 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

During the month of Ellul, preceding Rosh Hashanah, a colleague and dear friend ran three online sessions from her home in the States on Musar literature – a genre of Jewish teaching and literature that Rabbi Bahya ibn Pakuda in the eleventh century calls ‘the science of inner life.’  Musar focuses on ways in which we can practise moral discipline and attempt to overcome our ‘weaker’ qualities.  How can we cultivate our own sense of dignity and self-worth? How can we overcome persistent anger or resentment? How can we become more patient, more tolerant and more forgiving of others? And so there is a practical and pious (I admit the word has awkward connotations in our own time) dimension to the application of Musar.

There were four students, an intimate group, all speaking to each other via our computer or smart phones using the technology ‘Zoom’.  Apart from receiving the wisdom of my colleague with teachings that had been sent to us in advance, it was so lovely to feel connected to her in these days leading up to the festivals and, of course, to be searching our own souls; refining – if you like – the traits that are part of us seemed supremely important as we considered the days of repentance before us.

She presented us with texts on three ‘virtues’ over the three weekly sessions we were together: Anavah (humility), Hakarat ha-Tov (gratitude) and Menuchat ha-Nefesh (equanimity – ‘rising above the good and bad’).

Setting us some daily ‘homework’ to reflect on these qualities, she allowed us to reflect on our own traits, on how we had spent our week, whether we had been able to ‘practise’ or at least think about the way we are with ourselves and with others.

One of the most famous tracts of Musar literature is named after a woman – Tomer D’vorah – ‘The Palm Tree of Deborah’ by the sixteenth century kabbalist and scholar, Moses Cordovero.  Cordovero opens the first of the ten chapters of his book with a phrase by phrase interpretation of Micah 7:18-20 – these are the verses that conclude the Haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah, this Shabbat.  The first part begins with the famous verses from Hosea: ‘Return, O Israel, to the Eternal One your God…’ (Hosea 14:2).

This Shabbat, in the middle of the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah – the Ten Days of Repentance, the message is not only Hosea’s exhortation to repent, but God’s readiness to forgive:

‘Who is a God like You,

Forgiving iniquity, passing over transgression;

You do not cling to Your anger with the remnant of Your people,

Because you delight in showing love!’ (Micah 7:18)

Cordovero sees in these words divine attributes – endless kindness, forgiveness, willingness to let go of anger, love and patience.  These, he says, are the attributes of our Divine Creator and these are the moral and spiritual qualities to which we should aspire. We may cling to our anger, but God does not. Even if a person fails to repent of their sins, God neutralises or nullifies divine fury with mercy and love and the expectation of repentance.

It is hard to let go of anger and hurt.  Yet, this is what Yom Kippur demands of us.  In our short-tempered world, we have to swim against the current of impatience with forgiveness, forgetfulness even, with a sense that we can let go and stop bearing grudges or feeling victimised.

How hard it is when the words we hear around us are not always tender, kind or forgiving.  How hard to be patient when our attention span grows weaker the more technology tests and assaults our perseverance; how hard to love and be loved; how difficult to show gratitude, to practise humility and cultivate that sense of equanimity in our own souls.

We need a week of Yom Kippur, a month, a retreat of silence, an escape away from the chaotic uncertainties of our lives and the political landscape we live in.

Can we forgive iniquity; can we be forgiven?  Can we pass over the transgression of others and let go of our anger?  As we enter these days of holiness, help us O God to be like You, delighting in showing love and gratitude and remaining true and faithful to our Judaism, to the Jewish people and the teachings of our faith, as You, O God showed ‘faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham… from days of old’ (Micah 7.20).

Shabbat Shalom and Chatimah Tovah – May you be inscribed for a  healthy and peaceful year of 5780.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 27 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

As a Liberal Rabbi, I believe in development and critical approach to religion and life. Knowing the past helps me to navigate in the uncertainty of the present. As bestselling writer and historian Yuval Harari put it: ‘The cold hand of the past… grips us by the neck and directs our gaze towards a single future. We have felt that grip from the moment we were born, so we assume that it is a natural and inescapable part of who we are. Therefore we seldom try to shake ourselves free, and envision alternative futures.’ (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, p. 59) There are only few days left before Rosh Hashanah – the day of hearing awakening shofar blasts, the day when we remember the creation of humanity, the day when we begin a journey of reflection, the day of hope for forgiveness, a better future, and inner peace.

This week, I decided to spend a day of learning about leaders of Liberal Judaism and their thoughts. I came across a Rabbi John Rayner lecture given at the Carmel College on 19 August 1957. In this lecture, Rabbi Rayner expressed key values of Liberal Judaism. He wrote:

‘Liberal Judaism values truth above tradition, freedom above authority, and sincerity above uniformity. It reverences Jewish tradition, but not in an uncritical way. It holds that it is the duty of every generation so to develop the tradition that it may always be compatible with the best contemporary thought and appropriate to the best contemporary life, or, which is another way of putting it, that it may always be intellectually acceptable, spiritually satisfying and practically efficacious. It is not a rebellion against Judaism but an attempt to rescue it; it does aim to weaken Judaism but to strengthen it; it is not motivated by dislike for Judaism, but by a profound and passionate love. Without it Jewish scholarship would be poorer, Jewish-Christian relations less happy, and thousands of Jews would have been lost. Without it there would be no hope for the Jewish future’

The lecture was given over 60 year ago, but the Liberal Jewish values remain the same. The wisdom of our tradition teaches us to reflect on our past so we could begin the New Year with a sense of direction. I wish all of us to spend the upcoming 5780 year with a deep sense of hope and integrity and to live our lives full of truth, freedom and sincerity.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tovah,

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 20 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

‘Blessed shall be… your produce from the soil, the offspring from your cattle, your calving from the herd and your lambing from the flock.  Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl’ (Deuteronomy 28:4-5).

These verses, from the weekly parashah Ki Tavo, come from a longer section of blessings, promised to Israel if they are faithful in their observance of the commandments enjoined upon them by God.  Fourteen verses describing the blessings are followed by fifty-three verses of curses that will punish the people if they fail to keep the commandments.

In a simplistic way, one might argue that the incontinence of western populations, our avarice and sense of entitlement, our consumption of the planet’s resources, the creation of an unconscionably wide gap between rich and poor, the shockingly uneven distribution of food in the world and here, even in our own wealthy country, are the results of living without a clear moral compass.  We have brought these curses upon ourselves.  How have we got ourselves into this mess?

On Monday, Rabbi Igor Zinkov, Tim Simon – the Chairman of our Yom Kippur Appeal Committee  – and I met with Clare Gilboa, the UK Development Director for Leket Israel.  Leket is the LJS’s Yom Kippur Israeli charity this coming year and you will hear more about it on Yom Kippur itself.

It is Israel’s national food bank with a significant difference.  Unlike food banks here in Britain which provide non-perishable food to families and individuals, Leket Israel took a policy decision in 2017, to provide only fresh fruit, vegetables and freshly cooked meals for those who need it.  The whole exercise of rescuing Israel’s surplus food – cooked and fresh, no tins or packets – is massive.

35% of food harvested and produced in Israel is wasted. That figure is similar in the USA and the UK.  In hotels, supermarkets, army bases, at catered events, there is a wild tendency to overproduce and over-cater.  Leket feeds 17.5 thousand people each week – a high proportion of whom are working families, Shoah survivors, the elderly, Arab, Ethiopian, Druze, Bedouin and Russian families.  Leket work with non-profit organisations, getting the food to them in a time sensitive way, so that it doesn’t go off.  The NPOs then distribute it in various areas.

The challenges of food banking – overseeing the quality of the food, ensuring that supply meets demand, health and food safety and the long-term need, are all dealt with at an operational and logistical level by employees, and also by 52,000 volunteers.

The idea of children and adults going hungry is anathema.  And yet, the Trussell Trust in the UK reports a 19% increase on last year in distribution of food through their food banks.  1.6 million three day emergency food supplies were distributed between 1 April 2018 and 31 March, 2019.

To find out how we have got here and what is driving this relentless increase, please join us for a panel discussion this Saturday evening 21st September at 6.30 pm at the LJS, with Professor Geraldine van Bueren QC, Professor Human Rights Law at Queen Mary University, Dr Anna Isaacs, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Food Policy at City University, London and Garry Lemon, Director of Policy, External Affairs and Research at the Trussell Trust.

Is there some symbolic truth that emerges from the list of blessings and curses that make up this week’s Torah portion? Not that God as an omnipotent force for good or evil rewards or punishes, but that we must be held accountable and responsible for bringing this catastrophic situation to pass.

Food sustainability is part of the larger picture that has to do with how we are living on our burning planet.  As Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal puts it: ‘…the factors that are destroying our planet are also destroying people’s lives in many other ways, from wage stagnation to gaping inequalities to crumbling services to surging white supremacy to the collapse of our information ecology.’

By ourselves, we cannot extinguish the fire; we cannot create equity among all peoples, but we need to engender in ourselves a sense of urgency and join the worldwide movements and younger generations who are crying out for all of us to join the climate strike this Friday and to grasp at this last chance for change and transformation of the toxic model we have been living with for too long.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 13 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Next Friday September 20th there will be a global school climate strike. This strike is in part is inspired by Greta Thunberg, the 15 year old teenager who began her School Strike for Climate in August 2018.

Talking about the need for action, Thunberg said, ‘In Sweden, we live our lives as if we had the resources of 4.2 planets. Our carbon footprint is one of the ten worst in the world. This means that Sweden steals 3.2 years of natural resources from future generations every year. Those of us who are part of the future generations would like Sweden to stop doing that. Right now. This is not a political text. Our school strike has nothing to do with party politics. Because the climate and the biosphere don’t care about our politics and our empty words for a single second.’

I have heard similar concerns in conversations with our young people at the LJS where I listened to their fears about the future, and witnessed their resolute passion to take part in enduring change. They are not alone. On that Friday, young people will take the day off school and make their way to London where they will demand policy changes to protect their future. Many schools, unions and organisations will be supporting the strike, and adults are encouraged to support these young people who together will join the millions around the world protesting that day.

The issue could not be more important. It affects us all. And it’s going to take a lot of people getting together and making their voices heard to wake up our leaders and get them to take the urgent actions needed to address the crisis we find ourselves in.

This call to protect our environment is a theme throughout our sacred texts. In last week’s Torah portion, in the midst of a discussion on the ethics of war, we are given this teaching:

‘When in your war against a city, you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the axe against them, You may eat of them, but you may not cut them down.’ (Deuteronomy 20:19)

The trees are independent entities from those who live around them, who rest in their shade, who eat from them. And the Israelites are commanded to protect them.

This lesson, that we should not use our power and abilities to take advantage or unnecessarily do damage to our natural world, is present in our texts; biblical, Mishnaic, Talmudic, Midrashic and contemporary.

We do not own the Earth, we are commanded to live in partnership with it. This sentiment is shared in Psalm 24:

‘The earth is Adonai’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants.’

Our Torah shares the narrative that the natural world was created and that God showed Adam all of the wonders of the world and put the responsibility on him to maintain it.

As Kohelet Rabbah 7:13:1 shares:

‘At the time that the Holy One created the first man, He introduced him to every tree in the Garden of Eden, and said to him, ‘See how wonderful and pleasant these trees are. And all of this I have created for you; therefore take great care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you do there is no one else to put right what you have destroyed.’’

There is no-one else to put right what we have destroyed.

These teachings are painfully poignant today. May we all commit ourselves to doing what we can, to make small or large changes in the way that we are living, to ensure that we are acting as God’s partner as we forge a relationship of care and protection with our natural world.

I will be joining the strike with my children on the 20th to let our young people know that their LJS family is behind them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 6 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Between 1st Ellul and Rosh Hashanah, and some go as far as Hoshanah Rabbah – the day preceding Shemini Atzeret – it is customary to read Psalm 27, the Psalm that begins with the words ‘The Eternal One is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?’

It is not an ancient custom and can be dated back only to the year 1745 when Rabbi Jacob Emden, the German scholar and polemicist published his Siddur Bet Yaakov.  Various theories are given as to why this Psalm was chosen for this time of year – the period of the year when we prepare ourselves spiritually for the Yamim Nora’im and begin the journey of returning to God.

One theory suggests that the Psalm was chosen because it mentions the name of God 13 times – perhaps a veiled reference to the 13 attributes of God in Exodus 34, a passage sung before the open ark at the High Holy Days – Adonai, Adonai el rachum v’chanun – ‘The Eternal, the Eternal God is merciful and gracious, endlessly patient, loving and true, showing mercy to thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon.’

Another theory is based on a midrash which expounds the first verse in this way:  The Eternal One is my light – on Rosh Hashanah.  And my salvation – on Yom Kippur.

A more recent explanation highlights the Hebrew word at the beginning of verse 13 lulé – which means ‘if only’ – “If only I shall look on the goodness of the Eternal One.” In the Masoretic text, the word is dotted – a hint that in reverse the word spells Elul, the month we are now in.

More simply, it is a Psalm which addresses our fears  – the madness of the world on our own doorstep and further afield.  It encourages us to look, not for external help to contain our anxiety and distress, but for the strength that is in each one of us, that comes from the faith of our heart.  It tells us not to be stirred up by hysteria or hyperbole, but to search out the beauty of the world: ‘One thing only do I ask of God: to dwell in the house of the Eternal One all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Eternal God, and to seek God in the sanctuary.’

It is a Psalm about resisting evil and finding resilience in ourselves, a Psalm about how we speak to and about each other; it’s about trust and finding strength in times of affliction.  It’s about music and longing; about the fear of God’s hiddenness, of being abandoned; it’s about morality in a bewildering world and it’s about doubt: ‘If only I could trust that I shall see the goodness of the Eternal One in the land of the living.’

And in a world where truth and righteousness have been abandoned, it’s about patience, courage and hope, not that the world will revert to an old order, but that we will learn to adapt with honesty to something new, a new connection with each other and with the universe.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

 

To download our Calendar of Repentance for the second week of the month of Ellul, please click HERE.

To download last week’s calendar, please click HERE.

Thought for the Week

Friday 1 November 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

A seventeen year old boy, his mother dead, his father an old man to whom he is close, is sold to people traders, slave owners, by his own brothers, and is taken to a foreign country where he is trafficked to a soldier in the king’s army.  He works hard and is given responsibility and authority over the household.  The man is often away from home and soon the man’s wife sets her sights on the young teenager, tries to get him to sleep with her and one day, takes hold of him saying, ‘Lie with me!’  The boy escapes, leaving his garment in her hand.  Outraged, she calls her husband and accuses the boy of trying to rape her.  His master has the boy thrown into prison and there he languishes for a long time.

This is the story of Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel – the first individual in the Hebrew Bible we know to be trafficked by people smugglers from Judah into Egypt and then sold into slavery to Potiphar and his wife.

I have thought about this story, its initial similarities and then the stark and tragic differences between Joseph’s ultimate success and the thirty-nine individuals trafficked into the UK and found dead inside a freezer container just one week ago.

We do not know all the details: why these young men and women left their homes in the first place, making the long, costly, precarious and unknown journeys to Europe. Why would someone leave parents and family, homeland and everything that is familiar and risk losing their lives if not for reasons that are quite desperate?  Why did our own grandparents or great-grandparents leave their homes for England or Ireland or the United States?  They saw no future for themselves under oppressive regimes, their lives blighted by poverty and hardship.  Perhaps it is freedom or the urgent need for money, for meaningful work and the possibility of a brighter future that gives individuals the motivation to undertake such long and frightening journeys, their families mortgaging land and movables for tens of thousands of pounds.

These young people – if they came from Vietnam – had risked everything, including tragically their lives, in order to make it into this country.  Did they know the kind of work they might have ended up in?  In cannabis farms, in nail bars, perhaps even in prostitution and sex work?

Some people’s lives are so desperate that they would rather make these perilous journeys, knowing the difficulty of entering Western Europe, than stay where they are.  Nearly 18,000 people have drowned crossing seas and trying to enter other countries since 2014.

The death of these 39 women and men is tragic.  Tragic in that a journey that began with hope has ended in irreversible catastrophe.  Such tragedies have been more apparent to all of us since the three year old Syrian child of Kurdish ethnic background, Alan Kurdi, was found face down on a beach after he drowned in the Mediterranean.

This world in which we live is one of uncertainty and doubt; it engenders a feeling of unease in a place that has unlearnt the customs of hospitality.  And we bear a responsibility for this unlearning, for this environment of suspicion and lack of interest in the lives of individuals who only wish for freedom – to go where they wish to go, to live where they wish to live, to speak with truth what they believe, to love with honesty and openness.

The lives of these individuals, their aspirations and hope, came into tragic conflict with the limitations and demands of a world that is fundamentally hostile to asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.

As Noah and his family and the animals he has saved emerge from the Ark in this week’s parashah, God rethinks the guidelines he has given to humanity and adds this law for Noah and his descendants:

                Whoever sheds the blood of human beings,

                By humanity shall his blood be shed;

                For in God’s image

                Did God make human beings (Genesis 9:6).

Human life, the life of all creatures, says God, is precious; I will now bind myself to you in an everlasting covenant and promise never again to destroy the earth and all flesh by the waters of a flood. God sees the grandeur of each human spirit, the preciousness of each human life.  And that is what it means for all human beings to be created in God’s image.  Our deeds, our words and actions have repercussions and when we lose our faith in a God who has created us in the divine image, we lose that sense and acknowledgement of the nobility and dignity of the human spirit, the body that encases it and the obligations that fall on us and the countries in which we live, to ensure that such tragedies will never happen again.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 25 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

Any end must be followed by a new beginning – such is the hope embedded in our tradition. This week we celebrated Simchat Torah, which marks several ends and beginnings. After a 22 day chain of festivals, we observed the end of a Jewish marathon of individual and communal reflection, and marked the beginning of a new calendar and agricultural year. After a year-long journey through weekly Torah portions, we marked the completion of the annual cycle of the Torah reading and acknowledged the beginning of the new one. After many years of Moses’ leadership, we read about the end of his life, and the beginning of Joshua’s term as a leader of the Jewish people.

In his new book ‘Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope’, Johann Hari offers a personal perspective on depression and anxiety. Hari selects concepts that explain some aspects of depression and its causes. He interviews and summarises research of many scholars who have uncovered evidence for nine different causes of depression. Some are in our biology, but most can be found in the way we live today. Among these causes are: disconnection from meaningful work, disconnection from other people, disconnection from meaningful values, and disconnection from a hopeful and secure future. I don’t think any of the book’s points are new, nevertheless they remain important and worth speaking about.

Perhaps the Jewish community might offer a solution to some of them. Liberal Judaism takes the position that Jewish tradition must keep in tune with modern and relevant trends to remain meaningful to modern society. The Jewish way of living is a spiral. Each year we begin a new old journey, developing a new circuit of our lives. Each year we begin with a new Creation and, therefore, articulate a new hope. It helps us to find meaning in life, support from our community, and stability in today’s world.

As Progressive Jews, it is our responsibility to develop and defend Judaism which offers people a medium for meaningful life and meaningful values, connection to a community of caring people, and the sense of a helpful and secure future. As we begin the new cycle of the Torah reading, let us not forget that any end must be followed by a new beginning, such is the hope embedded in our tradition.

Shabbat Shalom

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 18 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

On the first day of Sukkot, my colleague, 77 year old Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, taking part in the Extinction Rebellion protests, wearing a tallit and carrying a lulav and etrog in his hand, was arrested outside the Bank of England.  A passionate campaigner on the climate emergency, it was distressing to see him carried away by the police, who wrested the lulav and etrog from his hand so that it dropped carelessly to the ground.

This action affected me deeply. It was a stark reminder that so many were willing to put their lives, their bodies and their liberty on the line for the sake of the future of our planet.  As George Monbiot said, in the moments before he was arrested on Wednesday:

‘At the moment we are facing the destruction of life on earth, the destruction of our life support systems; so to stand up against that destruction, I feel, is our human duty. By being arrested in defence of the living planet, I feel I can look my children, and maybe one day my grandchildren in the eye. This feels exactly the right place to be, under arrest for trying to defend life on earth.’

‘It’s not OK,’ said Rabbi Newman as he was lifted off the ground by two policeman and we knew what that meant.  This wanton destruction of the earth, capitalisation through investment in fossil fuel industries, our moral distance and ignorance of what is happening, not only in our own hemisphere, but thousands of miles away, where it is the poorest of the world, whose impact on the climate is small, but who suffer most from  environmental breakdown – thousands of refugees who seek refuge from the climate chaos in places such as Somalia, Mozambique, Bangladesh, the Caribbean, Central America and many other parts of the world.

A curious thing is happening, not for the first time in our public spaces.  Seeing Rabbi Newman on the first day of the festival, walking with the ritual objects of Sukkot and wearing his tallit reminded me of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words that prayer should be a ‘radical, subversive act.’  Prayer and ritual are no longer confined to the home and the synagogue, but – like the civil rights movement in the United States for which Heschel marched – it has been moved into the public space, beyond the walls of our religious institutions.

Dr Susanna Heschel, wrote of her father on his return from the non-violent civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama:

‘When he came home from Selma in 1965, my father wrote, ‘For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.’’

An early Aramaic chronicle of significant days in the Jewish calendar demonstrates the power of protesting in a public space in this account about Caligula who had sent an idol to be placed in the Temple.  This shocking news reached Jerusalem on the eve of Sukkot.  Shimon Ha-Tzaddik instructed the Jews to go out and stand before the soldiers of the Roman Empire.   In every city throughout Judea, they stood in their numbers to confront the Emperor’s emissary and cried out, ‘We will die before we accept this decree.’  They lay down in the market places in sackcloth and ashes.  When a letter arrived announcing Caligula’s assassination, the idol was immediately taken down and dragged through the streets and Shimon Ha-Tzaddik heard a voice from the Holy of Holies that said: ‘The worship of idols in the Temple is nullified. Caligula has been slain and his decrees nullified.’  And the same day was declared a Yom Tov (Megillat Ta’anit 11.9).

Before this month of Tishri with its festivals of judgement, atonement and rejoicing is over, I know I must take my prayers out of the Sanctuary and into a public place.  I am frightened that my own inaction has rendered me complacent and paralysed by helpless distress.

If we care about the future our children and – please God – our grandchildren are going to inherit, then if we can, we need to take our prayers across the threshold of our interior spaces and outside into a public place.  Prayer is political; it has always been thus, from the moment that Moses hesitated at the Sea of Reeds to utter a supplication to God.  What are you doing, says God, get up and move on!

Shabbat Shalom and may the closing festival of Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah be a time we turn away from despair and embrace an uplifting hope for the future.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 11 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

I feel so grateful and honoured to have spent the Days of Awe within our community. For me personally, and I do hope for you as well, the worship experiences of the last two weeks have been deep and moving, made even more powerful by being surrounded by our community. This was my second Yom Kippur at the LJS, but I had only just started before last year’s festival season. I was moved this year to look out from the Bimah and to see your faces, having had the immense honour of getting to know you better over the last year. Thank you for sharing your life and faith with me. What we have at the LJS really is very special.

To think about all the people who worked tirelessly to bring it all together! From the office team to the Shammashim, the stewards, Karen Newman who projected the sermons, our teachers who led art activities upstairs, and everyone who attended either at the synagogue or through streaming, adding their voices to the community prayers.

Since the closing of the service of Yom Kippur, I have been thinking about the small Jewish community in Halle Germany. Like us, they too had joined together in prayer, with their community, having readied themselves for a Day of Atonement and spiritual renewal. Like us, they were engaging in peaceful prayer and working towards being better. Until their prayers were brutally interrupted by a right-wing extremist who attempted to break into the synagogue, killing two innocent individuals, all with a camera live streaming mounted on his head. He filmed himself before the attack, identifying himself as a Holocaust denier and blamed “the Jew” for the worlds problem.

The security plan that this synagogue in Halle had set up kept them safe, though the attacker shot repeatedly at the door and threw several Molotov cocktails he was not able to force himself in. There were 70-80 people gathered in the synagogue, after hearing the shots they saw the attacker trying to get in through the security camera.

Only hours after the attack we sat in our synagogue and joined together in the Mussaf service. A service honouring those whose lives have been cut short only because they were Jewish, because hatred and fear of the other is violent and dangerous and is too familiar to us as a people. I think about the words of Claude Montefiore that we read during the Mussaf service, “It was not an ibn Gabirol or a Maimonides, still less a Spuinoza, who fulfilled the Jewish mission most truly, or rendered the greatest service to the Jewish cause. No. It was the many little obscure Jewish communities through the ages, persecuted and despised, who kept alive the flame of the purest Monotheism and the supremacy and divisiveness of the moral Law.” We still do not know many details about the victims or how many others were injured. We hold their bereaved families, and this terrified community in our prayers.

We are grateful to the CST and to our own security team at the LJS who ensures our security as we come together in prayer and study.

May this new year be one of safety for us and all people. May we find ourselves in a world of greater tolerance and love, and may this day come soon.

Shanah Tovah,

Elana Dellal

Thought for the Week

Friday 4 October 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

During the month of Ellul, preceding Rosh Hashanah, a colleague and dear friend ran three online sessions from her home in the States on Musar literature – a genre of Jewish teaching and literature that Rabbi Bahya ibn Pakuda in the eleventh century calls ‘the science of inner life.’  Musar focuses on ways in which we can practise moral discipline and attempt to overcome our ‘weaker’ qualities.  How can we cultivate our own sense of dignity and self-worth? How can we overcome persistent anger or resentment? How can we become more patient, more tolerant and more forgiving of others? And so there is a practical and pious (I admit the word has awkward connotations in our own time) dimension to the application of Musar.

There were four students, an intimate group, all speaking to each other via our computer or smart phones using the technology ‘Zoom’.  Apart from receiving the wisdom of my colleague with teachings that had been sent to us in advance, it was so lovely to feel connected to her in these days leading up to the festivals and, of course, to be searching our own souls; refining – if you like – the traits that are part of us seemed supremely important as we considered the days of repentance before us.

She presented us with texts on three ‘virtues’ over the three weekly sessions we were together: Anavah (humility), Hakarat ha-Tov (gratitude) and Menuchat ha-Nefesh (equanimity – ‘rising above the good and bad’).

Setting us some daily ‘homework’ to reflect on these qualities, she allowed us to reflect on our own traits, on how we had spent our week, whether we had been able to ‘practise’ or at least think about the way we are with ourselves and with others.

One of the most famous tracts of Musar literature is named after a woman – Tomer D’vorah – ‘The Palm Tree of Deborah’ by the sixteenth century kabbalist and scholar, Moses Cordovero.  Cordovero opens the first of the ten chapters of his book with a phrase by phrase interpretation of Micah 7:18-20 – these are the verses that conclude the Haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah, this Shabbat.  The first part begins with the famous verses from Hosea: ‘Return, O Israel, to the Eternal One your God…’ (Hosea 14:2).

This Shabbat, in the middle of the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah – the Ten Days of Repentance, the message is not only Hosea’s exhortation to repent, but God’s readiness to forgive:

‘Who is a God like You,

Forgiving iniquity, passing over transgression;

You do not cling to Your anger with the remnant of Your people,

Because you delight in showing love!’ (Micah 7:18)

Cordovero sees in these words divine attributes – endless kindness, forgiveness, willingness to let go of anger, love and patience.  These, he says, are the attributes of our Divine Creator and these are the moral and spiritual qualities to which we should aspire. We may cling to our anger, but God does not. Even if a person fails to repent of their sins, God neutralises or nullifies divine fury with mercy and love and the expectation of repentance.

It is hard to let go of anger and hurt.  Yet, this is what Yom Kippur demands of us.  In our short-tempered world, we have to swim against the current of impatience with forgiveness, forgetfulness even, with a sense that we can let go and stop bearing grudges or feeling victimised.

How hard it is when the words we hear around us are not always tender, kind or forgiving.  How hard to be patient when our attention span grows weaker the more technology tests and assaults our perseverance; how hard to love and be loved; how difficult to show gratitude, to practise humility and cultivate that sense of equanimity in our own souls.

We need a week of Yom Kippur, a month, a retreat of silence, an escape away from the chaotic uncertainties of our lives and the political landscape we live in.

Can we forgive iniquity; can we be forgiven?  Can we pass over the transgression of others and let go of our anger?  As we enter these days of holiness, help us O God to be like You, delighting in showing love and gratitude and remaining true and faithful to our Judaism, to the Jewish people and the teachings of our faith, as You, O God showed ‘faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham… from days of old’ (Micah 7.20).

Shabbat Shalom and Chatimah Tovah – May you be inscribed for a  healthy and peaceful year of 5780.

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 27 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

As a Liberal Rabbi, I believe in development and critical approach to religion and life. Knowing the past helps me to navigate in the uncertainty of the present. As bestselling writer and historian Yuval Harari put it: ‘The cold hand of the past… grips us by the neck and directs our gaze towards a single future. We have felt that grip from the moment we were born, so we assume that it is a natural and inescapable part of who we are. Therefore we seldom try to shake ourselves free, and envision alternative futures.’ (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, p. 59) There are only few days left before Rosh Hashanah – the day of hearing awakening shofar blasts, the day when we remember the creation of humanity, the day when we begin a journey of reflection, the day of hope for forgiveness, a better future, and inner peace.

This week, I decided to spend a day of learning about leaders of Liberal Judaism and their thoughts. I came across a Rabbi John Rayner lecture given at the Carmel College on 19 August 1957. In this lecture, Rabbi Rayner expressed key values of Liberal Judaism. He wrote:

‘Liberal Judaism values truth above tradition, freedom above authority, and sincerity above uniformity. It reverences Jewish tradition, but not in an uncritical way. It holds that it is the duty of every generation so to develop the tradition that it may always be compatible with the best contemporary thought and appropriate to the best contemporary life, or, which is another way of putting it, that it may always be intellectually acceptable, spiritually satisfying and practically efficacious. It is not a rebellion against Judaism but an attempt to rescue it; it does aim to weaken Judaism but to strengthen it; it is not motivated by dislike for Judaism, but by a profound and passionate love. Without it Jewish scholarship would be poorer, Jewish-Christian relations less happy, and thousands of Jews would have been lost. Without it there would be no hope for the Jewish future’

The lecture was given over 60 year ago, but the Liberal Jewish values remain the same. The wisdom of our tradition teaches us to reflect on our past so we could begin the New Year with a sense of direction. I wish all of us to spend the upcoming 5780 year with a deep sense of hope and integrity and to live our lives full of truth, freedom and sincerity.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tovah,

Igor Zinkov

Thought for the Week

Friday 20 September 2019

Dear Members and Friends,

‘Blessed shall be… your produce from the soil, the offspring from your cattle, your calving from the herd and your lambing from the flock.  Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl’ (Deuteronomy 28:4-5).

These verses, from the weekly parashah Ki Tavo, come from a longer section of b