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Combatting hatred with compassion

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

The evolution of Judaic understanding

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

The story of Miriam

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

Holocaust Memorial Day

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

The Two-State proposal

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

Sat, 24 October 2020 6 Cheshvan 5781