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Letting go of anger and hurt

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

 

Safety and security

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 world's problems.

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. 

Shana tova,

Elana Dellal

Prayer is political

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

Hope

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 celebrated 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 celebrated the completion of the annual cycle of the Torah reading and marked 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 Jewish people.

In his new book ‘Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope’, Johann Hari offers a personal perspective on the 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 are in the way we are living today. Among these causes are disconnection from meaningful work, disconnection from other people, disconnection from meaningful values, disconnection from hopeful and secure future. I don’t think any of this book’s points are new, nevertheless they remain important and worth speaking about.

Perhaps, 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 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 in 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 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

Mon, 3 August 2020 13 Av 5780