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Reflecting on Coronavirus

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? nd 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

Support in uncertain times

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

Reconnecting with the earth during troubled times

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

The importance of sacrifice

Friday 27 March 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

‘When a person (nefesh) presents an offering of meal to the Eternal One…’ (Leviticus 2:1).

There can hardly be a more appropriate parashah for these unprecedented times than this week’s sedra, Vaykira, the opening portion of the Book of Leviticus. Overlooked by the pioneering rabbis of the early Liberal Jewish movement, who substituted these weekly portions about the sacrificial cult with other, more palatable and ethical verses from the Torah, their content was thought to be obsolete or worse, distasteful.

What relevance did animal sacrifice, or any other kinds of sacrifices have two thousand years after the destruction of the Temple? To read of some hapless animal from the herd or flock, slaughtered by the priests, its blood dashed against the sides of the altar, its flesh flayed and cut up into sections and its fat, entrails and legs turned to smoke on the altar, turned the stomach and only proved that Judaism had progressed to a higher form where the cultic Avodah (sacrificial worship) of the Temple had become Avodah she-hi-ba-lev – ‘service of the heart,’ in other words, prayer (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 2a).

The Rabbis of late antiquity, unwilling to overlook these texts, offered interpretations that substituted for sacrifice – prayer and Torah study, charity and even certain forms of asceticism, such as fasting. Examples of this kind of substitution are exemplified by the story of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, leaving Jerusalem with Rabbi Joshua walking behind him. When the latter saw the Temple in ruins, he cried out: ‘Woe to us that this is in ruins – the place where the sins of Israel were expiated!’ Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai replied: ‘My son, be not grieved, we have a means of atonement that is commensurate with it. What is this? It is the performance of acts of lovingkindness, as it is said, ‘For I desire lovingkindness and not sacrifice’‘(Hosea 6.6), (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 4:5).

Acts of lovingkindness, hospitality, giving up one’s possessions and fasting were accounted as equal to the burnt offerings that were offered up on the altar in the Temple. Literary puns on the texts of Leviticus allowed the Rabbis to give homiletic purpose to the Levitical texts – ‘The School of Hillel said: ‘Kevasim – male lambs (are so called) because they cleanse [kov’sin] the sins of Israel’ (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana). A prayer attributed to Rav Sheshet explicitly draws a parallel between the reducing of the fat and blood of an animal on the altar and the shrinking of his own body through the act of fasting. In this way, the ascetic practices against his own body become a replacement for the atonement effected by the sacrifices:

‘Sovereign of the universe, it is known to You that when the Temple was in existence, if a person sinned, they would bring a sacrifice, of which only the fat and the blood were offered up, and they would be granted atonement. Now I have observed a fast and my own fat and blood have been diminished. May it be Your will that my diminished fat and blood be accounted as though I had offered them up before You on the altar, and show me favour’ (Berakhot 17a)

If the Rabbis allowed these texts to resonate in their own age, how can we find meaning in them for our own time? In the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple, the Jewish people found themselves living in unprecedented times, grieving for the loss of their cultic centre, exiled from their land and trying to make sense of a new and altered reality. They saw themselves as responsible for the catastrophe of Roman destruction and occupation. Suffering and death required repentance and atonement; they were in danger of reverting to an indelicate ancient theology that saw both as a punishment for wrongdoing.

In discussing this parashah with Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah of Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, I wondered – as we began this week a series of restrictive measures to reduce the number of those dying and suffering from the coronavirus – what it is we are being asked to sacrifice. For we are losing our freedom, the freedom to go to work, to earn a living, to move around as we wish, to enjoy seeing friends and family and instead, are being confined in our homes, except for the most necessary errands.

This is the price we are paying, the sacrifices we are making, to save human lives and to ensure that the NHS does not become overwhelmed by thousands of sick patients over the next weeks and months.

But Rabbi Elli suggests that we are sacrificing something else. As she put it to me: maybe one of the things we are being asked to sacrifice is our certainty. ‘We are being challenged to give up all our certainties and, instead, to give/devote the best of ourselves.’

We cannot know what lies ahead; how long we will have to endure this exile from our daily lives. We must learn to live in the ‘now’ of uncertainty and unpredictability. And at the same time, fulfil the words of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai to a grieving Rabbi Joshua, that although we have lost the certitudes and patterns of our daily life, study and work, it is acts of lovingkindness that demand the very best of ourselves.

When we gather again as communities, filled with people, may it be with greater compassion for each other, increased respect for our planet, with a quietness of spirit and humility before the Divine Presence.

We send you our love and good wishes for a refu’ah sh’leimah if you are unwell and hope you will have a swift and complete recovery.

To those who have lost loved ones over this past week, we extend our deepest sympathy to you and your family and say Ha-Makom y’nacheim et’chem b’toch sh’ar ha-aveilim – May God comfort you and all who mourn.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Mon, 3 August 2020 13 Av 5780