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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

Who deserves to be loved

20 November 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

Two brothers, utterly different in character, two twins who were destined to struggle with each other since birth, are the focus of this week’s Torah portion Toldot. Jacob and Esau are portrayed very differently by the Torah text. Even before they were born, Rebecca receives a prophesy that ‘the older shall serve the younger.’ (Genesis 25:23) The seed of the conflict is planted in our minds from the very beginning of this week’s parashah. 

When the twins grow up, Jacob is described as a man, living in tents, while Esau is the one who understands hunting and farming. Which one of these descriptions represents a positive trait? The brothers are different in appearance, their occupation and approach to life. But does this difference have either positive or negative meaning? No. Yet many readers understand the text through their preconceptions and their knowledge of the upcoming events. For example, Bereshit Rabbah, Tanchuma, Rashi, Abarbanel, and R. Hirsch assert that the words אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד, 'the one who understands hunting', refer to one who is deceitful and traps (צד) people with his words. The neutral fact about Esau’s occupation becomes a weapon in the commentator’s hands to alienate Esau and make him a villain in the story.

On the other hand, there are those who portray Esau neutrally. According to L. Feldman, in the minds of Torah commentators Jacob represents the Jewish people, while Esau becomes a collective metaphor for all Israel’s enemies, such as Rome, Babylon, Edom etc. In his book 'Interpretation of the Bible’ (Los Angeles, 1999, pp. 314-324), Feldman notes that, historian Josephus who lived in Rome, was faced with a great dilemma in deciding how to portray the character of Esau. In this era, according to Feldman, Esau was already associated with Rome and Josephus could not antagonise his Roman audience by denigrating his character. Therefore, he attempted neither to praise nor belittle Esau in his description. In Josephus' retelling the prophecy received by Rivka ,he chooses to write that 'the younger will excel the older' rather than 'the older shall serve the younger' so not to imply that Rome will inevitably be weaker than Judea.

The time we live in provides an unavoidable context, through which we read and interpret any text. Nowadays, in the world of multi-vocal diversity and strong opinions, Torah portion Toldot has an important message. Esau were destined to be the second and to serve his younger brother. Nevertheless, he received love and blessing from his parents. Although Jacob received the first blessing, Esau too was given respect, love and blessing. Everyone deserves to be loved and respected, even those whose views or way of life is destined to fail.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Igor

Vayetze

27 November 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

Over the past few months, I have tried to moderate what I have to say in sermons, Divrei Torah and in this weekly message.  I am acutely aware that for many, these past eight months have been a trial of patience, an abrupt interruption of all usual activities – whether work, studying, socialising, hobbies, exercise or interests.  As we creep into the winter months, with days that barely brighten before they grow dark in mid-afternoon, and the inevitable rise of cases with Covid once this lockdown is lifted next week, I imagine many of us are filled with a sense of foreboding and apprehension about what might lie ahead.

I have wanted my words to acknowledge the reality of what has happened this year and the continuing confusion, loneliness and frustration that many of us feel. But I have also wanted us to feel comforted and sometimes uplifted in some way by the weekly gatherings of prayer and music and the events the LJS has been able to offer during this time.  It is true, as well, that we have experienced a different pace of life; we have had more time for reflection, more time for introspection and that has wrought mixed blessings. 

None of us really knows what lies ahead.  We look for chinks of light and glimpses of hope in the news – a new direction for the American people who celebrated Thanksgiving on Thursday; the possibility of a vaccine; the friendship, generosity and selflessness we have encountered these past months.  The stories of young people like Greta Thunberg and Marcus Rashford and the twelve-year old Italian students who are sitting outside their school protesting for it to re-open, while following their lessons online, are providing leadership and thoughtful inspiration.

Then there are the signs in the natural world.  The burnished colours of autumn are all but gone, the two apple trees at the end of the garden are bare of their leaves, which lie scattered on the grass.  These two trees are quite different: one is elderly and well-established, yielding cooking apples from time to time, when the right conditions allow; the other is much smaller, planted in the last fifteen years or so, about seven or eight feet to its right. It is hard to fathom the relationship between these two trees.  The branches on one side of the taller, older tree seem to be reaching out to the smaller tree and I cannot tell if it is a gesture of protection and friendship or an expression of territorial threat to its younger companion.  For the little tree is bending away from the large tree, but still holds its own, producing a handful of apples in the late summer and sometimes I wonder – when the yield on the older tree is poor - whether it is allowing the younger to yield its produce, its own handful of apples.   I imagine an arborist would counsel some judicious pruning of the older tree, whispering to it, ‘Take a step back, allow your younger companion some space to grow and flourish on its own.’

These themes of symbiosis and independence are also part of the story of Jacob, a ‘homespun man, living in tents’ and in this week’s sedra taking the first steps away from the protective influence of his mother Rebekah, who favours her younger son over the older twin.   It is only when he has moved away, that Jacob flourishes and becomes the man he is destined to become – a man of deep fears and vivid dreams, the patriarch who bargains with God, the lover, husband and father, a man who is destined to make the same mistakes as his parents but who, at the same time, is to become Israel, whose name is the name of the Jewish people – Yisrael - the people who struggle with God and yet prevail.

In a midrash on his dream of the stairway to heaven, we learn that Jacob sees the course of the world’s history unfolded before him – what came before and what is destined to come after  – the revelation at Sinai, the four empires of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome that would arise and fall in time to come.

God shows Jacob the trials and suffering, destruction and oppression that lie ahead.  Nothing will be easy, says God, but ‘As the earth survives all things, so your children will survive all the nations of the earth.’ 

We are not prophets, nor the children of prophets, and we live only in the moment of the present, but it is in our power to step back, to glance behind us – at the ups and downs of life in the past – and with that knowledge and experience to imbue the future with hope.  It is our human gift to each other, to be patient, to wait for the Eternal One, and to affirm our hope in what lies ahead.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Alex

Thu, 4 March 2021 20 Adar 5781