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The New Year of the Trees

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

Coming to terms with change

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 Eve, the 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

The beauty of nature

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

Remaining healthy in the shadow of Coronavirus

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

Mon, 3 August 2020 13 Av 5780