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People Trafficking

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

The Oven of Akhnai 

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

The Importance of Community

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

Torah Sketch

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

The Jewish obligation to the rest of humanity

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

Mon, 3 August 2020 13 Av 5780