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Sukkot

2 October 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

The weather is beautiful for the beginning of October, but Sukkot has not yet begun. I have found the walls of my sukkah, wooden fencing, that still seems to be in once piece. The roof has disappeared. I venture out to the Garden Centre and find a piece of stretchy trellis that I think will do. Next, to our cemetery in Willesden where Bill cuts me plenty of laurel which I pile into my car. I am ready to start building.

This is a small sukkah, not your pop-up tent that you stick in the middle of the garden, but a proper little hut which can fit 2 or 3 people, just like the ones the Israelites would have built out in the fields during the hot days of the harvest – somewhere to rest at night, where they could see the stars through the foliage covering the roof.

The Mishnah teaches us that a sukkah must have at least three walls. I survey my little building project. Yes, one of the walls is the back wall of my house, the other two are made of the wooden fencing, interleaved with branches. Is it large enough to contain a person’s head and most of their body? Definitely. And can I put a table in there, because after all this is supposed to be my dwelling place for the next seven days. A small, upturned flower-pot – does that count as a table? The Mishnah doesn’t answer the question.

Are the walls sturdy enough to withstand an ordinary wind? I don’t know yet, but as I wake the next morning, Erev Sukkot, the wind is up and it’s pouring with rain. The sukkah is still in one piece. I breathe a sigh of relief, no remedial work needed yet. And finally, the Mishnah requires the roof of the sukkah to provide more shade than sun. Sadly, the sun has disappeared, but I’m confident that it is well shaded and that if the sky were clear at night, you would be able to see the stars through its leaves.

The Mishnah adds another interesting statement on the kashrut of the sukkah. Even if your sukkah is me’doov’lelet, it is valid. My translation refers to a ‘disorderly sukkah’ – a strange kind of rendering. I look up the word in the appropriate dictionary and see that the word means something like ‘disorganised’ or ‘miserable looking.’

I grant you, my sukkah is small, but it isn’t disorderly and definitely not ‘miserable looking.’ It’s s’kach (greenery) makes it quite special and I feel very proud of it and hope for some autumn sunshine so that I can have my early morning cup of tea standing inside it.

This is my favourite festival, even when it’s pouring with rain as it is today. I love this time of the year, saying farewell to the summer, contemplating the beauty of the dying year, the transient fragility of all life. And it points the way towards a world in which we are mandated to care for the environment, rather than consume and exploit it and, with its custom of welcoming ushpizim (guests), it reinforces the mitzvah of hospitality, welcoming guests and strangers into our midst, into our sukkah and into our society when they have nowhere else to go.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sukkot Sameach, 

Alexandra Wright

 

Simchat Torah - Turn it over, and turn it
over again

 

9 October 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

An ex-literature professor and author Thomas Foster has made a fruitful career writing instructive books about how we ought to read poetry [1]. His advice includes:

  • Read the words and understand the literal level first.
  • Obey all punctuation, including its absence. Punctuation help us to understand how poets understood it when they wrote it.
  • Read the poem aloud. There are echoes within the poem that you won’t hear reading silently.
  • Read the poem again. It helps readers to understand hidden undercurrents of the poem’s meaning.

This week we celebrate two Jewish festivals - Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Only Shemini Atzeret is mentioned in the Bible, but its exact function is unclear. In Second Temple times, it was a day for the ritual cleansing of the altar in the Temple. With the destruction of the Temple, this function became obsolete. The lack of clear definition may have triggered the creation and development of Simchat Torah, a celebration of the conclusion of one and the beginning of another annual cycle of readings from the Torah.

On Simchat Torah we read the very last verse of the book of Deuteronomy and the first verse of the book of Genesis with no pause in between. It emphasises the continuity of our tradition and ongoing learning process which Judaism prescribes to us. It is never too late or too early to begin this tradition.

In the famous Mishnah, Ben Bag Bag said: ‘Turn it over, and turn it over [again], for all is therein. And look into it; And become grey and old therein; And do not move away from it, for you have no better portion than it.’ [2]

Each year we read the same text over and over again, read it aloud in front of the congregation, try to understand its lessons, pay attention to every detail in the text, its punctuation and every word. This text is the symbol of the Jewish people and the connection to our collective wisdom. This text elevates us beyond time and creates the link with past and future generations.

As we begin the new cycle of the reading of the Torah, I hope that it can bring us the sense of security and stability, connect us to the source of wisdom and hope, and give us peace.

Ken Yehi Ratzon

May this be God’s will.

Igor

[1] Please read the full article here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/20/how-to-read-poetry-like-a-professor-thomas-foster

[2] Mishnah, Pirkei Avot 5:21

Bereshit

16 October 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

‘All this is a preamble to the problem of man.’  This is Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg’s introduction to the verse that describes the creation of the first human being in her profound and far-reaching commentary to Genesis, 'The Beginning of Desire.'  He is already a tricky customer. What comes before his arrival is a magnificent epic poem, conveying the order of creation.  I am struck, as always, by the majesty and beauty of these verses, seeing how creation fulfils its purpose – everything doing what it is supposed to, with God as the supreme artist completing a work of aesthetic and moral perfection: V’hineh tov me’od – ‘And behold it was very good’ (Genesis 1:31). 

But as Zornberg hints at, there is something in this chapter that darkens this vision of perfection and challenges the moral and aesthetic values that are expressed and implied here at the beginning of Genesis.  Something that pricks us like a thorn and may, partly, have determined the catastrophic path that humanity has taken in relation to our planet.   

That ‘something’ comes on the sixth day, the day on which God surveys all that has been created and sees that it isn’t simply tov – good, but tov me’od – very good.  The earth and the waters, created on the third day, are to be filled with living creatures of every kind: mountain goats and hinds, wild creatures that roam the prairies, colourful lizards that creep along the floor of the earth, the ostrich and its feathery wings, the horse’s mane, the sparrowhawk and eagle and all creatures that roam the earth, fill the sky and swarm in the waters.   And alongside all living creatures, God creates human beings in the divine image. All are commanded to be fruitful and multiply and to fill the earth.   

But our role as human beings does not simply stop with reproduction; and here comes the problem text, not once but twice. Here it is in its second iteration: p’ru u’r’vu u’mil’u et ha-aretz v’chivshuha u’r’du bid’gat ha-yam u’v’of ha-shamayim… ‘God said to human kind, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and have dominion over it; hold sway over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky, and over every animal that creeps on the earth’ (verse 28).

There are two verbs here that are addressed by God to human beings and neither of them have particularly positive or gentle implications. The first one is the root resh, dalet, heh – radah, which means ‘to have dominion’ or ‘to rule’ or ‘to dominate.’

The second verb is from the root chaf, bet, shin which has a similar meaning: ‘to subdue’ or ‘to dominate’. It is used twenty-seven times in the Hebrew Bible, in the context of military conquest or subjugation of slave populations. Neither of these verbs ever have God as the subject, but they suggest images of violation, the use of force and power, coercion and subjugation, accompanied by violence.

This language suggests unregulated power, an assault on the earth and everything in it, a message that seems to undercut the ecological and moral ideals of creation. The command appears to give humankind licence to exploit the earth for our own ends and to subvert the aesthetic and moral ideal of creation.

But clearly this reading won’t do for us and so we have to understand these two words differently, avoiding the implications of violent exploitation. For both those verbs see human beings as being, in some way, outside nature, not part of it, superior, dominating and using the earth for our own ends. And we know, tragically and all too well, where that has got us. But read the whole chapter and you will see that that is not what the text says at all. On the contrary, human beings are seen here as being part of nature, that is abundantly clear from the way in which the author of Genesis orders creation. We are part of the great teeming procession of natural life, subject to natural instincts, susceptible to pain and suffering, just like other animals and living creatures.

It is not that we have dominion or dominate the earth, but that we live in a precariously balanced environment – human beings and the natural world. For it is the forces of nature that have the capacity to subdue and flatten all forms of life with overwhelming power. It is our planet’s weather systems, earthquakes, storms, volcanic eruptions and floods that can hold sway over us, not the other way round.

And living with that uncertain balance means that human beings possess, not dominion, but tremendous responsibility for the sake of order and harmony. These verbal intrusions into the perfection of creation suggest that the cosmos is vulnerable to chaos and exploitation.

It is an often quoted midrash, but it points to that responsibility that falls on each one of us: ‘After creating Adam, God took him round all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: ‘See how lovely and excellent My works are; I have created them all of you. Take care not to spoil and destroy My world, for if you spoil it there will be no one to repair it after you’ (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13).’ If we are not to become the ‘problem’ that mars creation, we have to learn how to hold our own appetites for control and subjugation at bay and become part of creation, to be in a relationship with all existence, to care profoundly and take responsibility for all that lives, grows and breathes.

Shabbat Shalom,
Alexandra Wright

Time to Take Sides

23 October 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

As a native Russian-speaker and knowing Hebrew just enough to understand speech and text, I often find myself in between two or three opinions. Most clearly it is reflected in discussions around Israel and Zionism. Some of my friends express strong unconditional support of all Israel’s actions, and others are very critical about the current politics. There is a natural desire to belong and be liked by others which often makes me remain silent and not express my views. My inner voice often tells me 'You should be a good person' so I do everything not to upset others.

This week I had a privilege to be one of 524 delegates of the 38th World Zionist Congress. 199 leaders from Israel, 152 from the United States, and 173 from the rest of the Jewish diaspora gathered online to represent their views and interests. I think you can imagine how heated some of the discussions were.

The Zionist Congress was established in 1897 by Theodor Herzl in Basel, Switzerland. Since that time, it has been one of the very few platforms where Jews of all affiliations and political views can be represented and have an equal opportunity to make their voices heard. The congress’s aim is to set a strategic vision for a significant part of the Jewish world for the next five years. Decisions of the congress influence the work of a number of affiliated institutions - The Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Hayesod and the Jewish National Fund.
This year the Congress was asked to vote on an agreement that would strip non-Orthodox movements and centre-left parties of positions of power.1 It became clear that my natural intention to abstain and avoid conflicts would lead to an unacceptable result for progressive Jews across the world. It was time to take a side and speak out.

In his work ‘The Night Trilogy’, Elie Wiesel - writer, professor, political activist, Nobel Prize laureate, and Holocaust survivor - wrote 'We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere'. 
It was Elie Wiesel’s words that guided me in this complex world of Jewish politics. Being a Progressive Jew often means to be a minority and we often find ourselves in an oppressed and marginalised position. Sometimes we must take sides. Sometimes we need to make our voices loud and clear. Sometimes it is our religious, moral, and human responsibility to speak out.

In this week’s Torah portion, Noah remains silent. When God tells Noah about the plan to bring the Flood and destroy the majority of all living creatures, Noah does not question this decision. What if there were other good people? What if their children were worth fighting for? In the forthcoming chapters, we will read stories of those who choose to speak out and choose to argue with God. For example, Abraham stands for the corrupt people of Sodom and Gomorrah and tries to save as many of them as possible. Therefore, Jewish commentators argue, Noah is called the righteous in his generation only (Gen. 6:9), while Abraham’s covenant is established throughout ‘all generations’ (Gen 9:12). Belief in a better future even when the present is corrupt is what makes our covenant righteous and everlasting.

May these stories help us to understand and be sympathetic to all those who are oppressed today and never be in the position of an oppressor ourselves. May we always find the wisdom to see when to speak out and when to listen, when to vote and when to abstain, when to act and when to step away.

Ken Yehi Ratzon

May this be God’s will

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Igor Zinkov

[1] Read more here: https://forward.com/news/456805/right-wing-ultra-orthodox-parties-accused-of-plotting-takeover-at-world/  

We live in deeds not years

30 October 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

Did they leave at night or during the day – Avram and Sarai – when they made their journey from his father’s house to the land that God would show them? Did they pack their luggage secretly and gather those who would travel with them to steal away before dawn, when the rest of the household were sleeping? Perhaps, like his grandson Jacob, making the same journey two generations later away from his father-in-law Laban, this was a journey made under cover of darkness, in search of a mysterious promise made by a God hitherto unknown.

This is the moment in our collective memory that begins the story of our relationship with God and the promise of greatness and blessing – and land. It is a source of wonder and amazement that what began as the response of one man to a call and a covenant with God, did not remain solely his, but was and is passed from one generation to the next, even to our own.

We do not address God, said Heschel, as ‘the God of truth, goodness and beauty’, but as ‘God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ – and I would add, ‘God of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah.’ These do not signify ‘ideas, principles of abstract values… Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are not principles to be comprehended but lives to be continued’ (God in Search of Man, p. 201).

‘The present is not apart from the past,’ says Heschel. We, who join the covenant of Abraham, continue the life of Abraham; like Abraham we stand before God, ‘Abraham endures for ever. We are Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ (ibid.)

How does Avram respond to the call from God? These first steps are not easy – the world is unsettled. There is famine and he becomes a refugee before he can even settle in this promised land; his wife is seduced in the harem of the king; there is strife between his own cattle herders and those of his nephew Lot. He sees Lot choose territory for himself that is like a ‘divine Garden’, the whole of the Jordan plain and he observes from afar the skeins of wickedness that coil themselves around his nephew’s family in Sodom.

This Avram fights wars, but refuses to take the spoils obtained through military victory; he rescues Lot and restores the women of Lot’s household who have been taken captive by enemy forces.

In the swift, fast-moving narrative of his story, perhaps we miss the underlying risks that Abraham needed to take, simply to live, or the judgement calls to pass off his wife as his sister, placing her in a vulnerable and dangerous situation, in order to save his own life (Genesis 12:10-13).

He responds to God’s call, not by retreating from the world, not through silence and contemplation, but in deeds. He is not a saint, practicing abstinence in order to avoid hurting, destroying or giving insult. He is a man of wealth, whose life is punctuated by dreams and visions and he must navigate the world just as we must confront what is before us in our world.

For it seems as though we must confront as much, if not more danger and risk in our own time: the uncontrollable rise of Covid-19 cases, the spiralling number of deaths; the anxious wait for the outcome of an American election next week; the Equality and Human Rights Commission report into Labour’s antisemitism crisis; the release of frozen methane deposits in the Arctic Ocean, the politicisation of Marcus Rashford’s campaign to feed children during the school holidays and the attention it has drawn to child poverty; the latest tragic deaths of a Kurdish-Iranian family – the parents and young children – whose boat sank as they were crossing the Channel this week; and the violent murder of three worshippers in a church in Nice on Thursday.

It is at these times that we miss coming together as a community, not only in prayer, but working together to alleviate the ills of the world, to articulate a vision and to discover hope in the presence of others. Abraham is not called by God for his own comfort, but so that he can ‘teach his children and those who come after him to keep the ways of the Eternal One, doing what is right and just’ (Genesis 18:19).

He did not steal away in the darkness to fulfil his mission in the world. This Abraham got up early in the morning, as he had done at other times in his life, not knowing where the future would lead, but walking with God, in God’s ways of deeds, not thoughts.

There are just a handful chapters between God’s cry to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden Ayekka – ‘Where are you?’ and Abraham’s response to ‘go forth’ into the world. Into the messy world of famine and hunger, war and strife, politics and family disorder. He does not flinch from living according to conviction, from acting according to his conscience.

Can we find the strength to respond to God’s call, to fulfil the terms of this covenant in deeds and tasks, in mitzvot, and deeds of loving kindness to lessen what is harmful in the world?

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Alexandra Wright

 

Sat, 28 November 2020 12 Kislev 5781