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The place where we are right

06 November 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

A person on one side of a river shouts to a person standing on the other side, 'Hey, how do I get to the other side of the river?' The other person responds, 'You are on the other side of the river.'

This joke seems to be a good metaphor for the world. People on both sides have a point, but it does not help either of them to understand one another.

In his poem ‘The Place Where We Are Right’ Yehuda Amichai writes: 

 

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

It is rare to see a positive and constructive result if we only think about our own righteousness. Doubt and care for others, on the other hand, is a foundation for happiness and hope in a better future.

As we begin the new lockdown, many of us share a feeling of sadness. We need to learn again how to express our affection at a distance. Today many of us need help in expressing our emotions and in feeling that we are doing something right in life.

I am sure that many of us understand the importance and necessity of all restrictions, yet it would be wrong to ignore their negative side. Current circumstances may become an amplifier for our fears and insecurities. The only way to ensure good relationships and to be at peace with yourself and others is to assume good will from others. Sometimes we need to approach life with the benefit of the doubt, accepting people as honest and deserving of our trust.

This week’s Torah portion has one of my favourite stories. Abraham argues with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Located on the fertile and prosperous Jordan River plain in ancient Canaan, two ancient cities were successful and rich. However, according to Genesis, the residents were wicked, and God decided to destroy them. God revealed the plan of destruction to Abraham. Instead of accepting fate, Abraham asked if God would destroy the good people in the city along with the wicked. The attempt was successful, and God agreed that if an adequate number of innocent people were found, the cities would not be destroyed.

How many righteous people do you need to save the place? Would 50 be enough to save the city? 45? 30? 20? 10? An impossible dilemma to solve. How can you measure one human life over the other? Sometimes it feels that our leaders find themselves in a similar position today. How do you decide what number is sufficient to call a lockdown? Any answer you give will be wrong and in any case you will be faced with severe critique. It is not a surprise, that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah has become a metaphor for discussions of evil and destruction. It is a natural state of the human mind to focus on the negative side and see wickedness first.

However, it is important to remember that every challenge always has a room for kindness and love.
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is not only the story about wickedness and destruction. It is also a story about what it means to be righteous. It is also a story about the ability to see good among the evil. If God wanted to destroy a place, surely nobody and nothing would be able to stop it. Therefore, Abraham was right to intervene and point out that even in the darkest places there is a room for righteousness and kindness. All of us have the power to make a difference. Sometimes one simple act of kindness is worth more than a thousand words.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Igor

Human Fractions and Divine Oneness

13 November 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

This week’s parashah ends with the line of Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn son, born to him by Hagar the Egyptian slave. Ishmael’s sons are listed in their birth order and the 137 years of his life and his death are recorded. Apart from references to his descendants, there is only one further occurrence that relates to Ishmael – his marriage to the daughter of Esau (Genesis 28:9). The end of Ishmael’s story and the story of Isaac, which commences properly in the following sedra, creates a rupture between the two sons of Abraham. The covenantal tradition will continue with Isaac and not with Ishmael.

This division and the continual conflict between brothers – Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers – are painful and significant elements of these biblical stories. Families become divided, tribal territories hostile towards each other, nations irreconcilable and as history marches on, so the blood ties that bound brothers and sisters together are erased from human identity. The ancient bonds of brotherhood are broken.

In the months and weeks leading up to the American election, the incumbent president claimed that his rival, Joe Biden, would try to ‘take away God.’ ‘They want to take away your guns, your oil and your God. That’s what they want,’ Mr Trump said. 'That’s what they want.' (Independent, 20 October, 2020)

Joe Biden’s campaign defended the presidential candidate’s faith, saying: ‘Joe Biden’s faith is at the core of who he is; he’s lived it with dignity his entire life, and it’s been a source of strength and comfort in times of extreme hardship,’ referring to the loss of his wife and baby daughter in a car crash in 1972 and the death of his eldest son, Beau Hunter, from a brain tumour in 2015.

The results of the American election have revealed a deep and dangerous fissure in US politics – two nations within one, that are divided and hostile. One faction, however delighted by the result, having to bear the shame and shamelessness of the last four years, the other bearing the humiliation of its leader’s failure to be re-elected.

Our differences are endemic. They reach back far into our past. They are part of who we are, our divided selves. When a parent favours one child above another, leaves their legacy to one and not the other, how can the cycle of rejection and favouritism not repeat itself from one generation to another? How can it not divide siblings, denying equality, enhancing entitlement, fomenting jealousy and hatred?

We struggle with our biblical narratives, because there is a hair’s breadth between the family feuds and estrangements of Genesis and our own stories, in our own time. And if families are estranged because of inequality, then it is but a small leap to the discord and alienation that exists within societies.

The Torah recognised that social justice – that is the equalisation of human beings before God – could only be achieved structurally, through radical and practical legislation. Genesis presents us with the human condition; Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy with statutes and regulations that begin with our loyalty to One God: ‘I am the Eternal One your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt. You shall have no other gods besides Me’ (Exodus 20:1).

Why did Judaism reject polytheism so forcefully? Because its architects, surely, perceived that many gods would divide our loyalty, would tribalise us, limit us to a god or gods created in our own image. One God is for one humanity, one set of values, so fundamental that a child can learn their teaching in one verse, in one word – ‘love’ – ‘love your neighbour as yourself, I am the Eternal One’ (Leviticus 19:18).

The Jewish people gave the world the concept of One God, monotheism – a God who, out of his love for human beings, creates us in the divine image. But to be beloved by God demands something more from us than to be the objects of divine affection or idealism: it is to have ramifications and influence in our own lives. To be loved, means to love reciprocally and to be all encompassing in our love, beyond self-love, beyond love of those who are immediately close to us; a love that extends to others. Love – deep, complex and multi-layered – is all we have to help human beings see the pointlessness and danger of exacerbating fatal cracks in the world. It is all we have to draw us near to one another, to heal rifts, to understand difference and to acknowledge, as the Rabbis said, that all humanity descends from one human being, so that we cannot claim that our ancestor is greater than anyone else's. 

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Alex

Sat, 28 November 2020 12 Kislev 5781