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Seventh Day Pesach

2 April 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

Chol Ha-Mo’ed Pesach – the intermediate days of Passover – hang suspended between the first and last days of the festival.  We have left Egypt – just – slavery, oppression, the plagues, but have not yet crossed the Sea of Reeds.  That is still to come.  God leads us round about, ‘in case of a change of heart.’

We are armed – chamushim, says the Hebrew.   But how can a group of refugees be armed?  Who provided them with weapons?  My lexicon explains that the word means ‘in battle array’ and I take this to mean that perhaps they are divided into bands of fifty (chamishim?) as they make their way through the desert, although in Joshua (1.14), it is very clear that the word means ‘armed’ and ready for battle.

Rashi seems to think the word means exactly that - ‘armed’ - ready for war. Of course, they were armed, he says; where would they have found the weapons to go to war against Amalek, Sihon and Og and Midian in the desert?  But he also offers an alternative interpretation based on a midrash: ‘Another explanation: only one out of five (chamishah) went forth from Egypt, and four parts of the people died during the three days of darkness.’  So it wasn’t only the Egyptians who suffered and died in the plagues; the Israelites too – or some of them – also died during the ninth plague?  They died in the darkness?   This is an extraordinary midrash.  Didn’t we all come out of Egypt to be free, to cross the Sea, to go into the desert and receive the Torah at Mount Sinai? Ibn Ezra thinks this midrash is absurd.  If only one out of five came out of Egypt, how could we have numbered 600,000, not counting women and children, he asks?

But perhaps we can read this word chamushim in another way.  The Israelites were enslaved for more than 400 years in Egypt before Pharaoh let them go.  Coming out of their lockdown, if we can call it that, was not easy.  There is a sense of disorientation in the narrative; they set out from one place, they encamp in another, they turn back and find themselves by the sea.  And then, suddenly, Pharaoh changes his mind, and the Egyptian army gives chase and the Israelites are overtaken by all the chariot horses of Pharaoh, his riders and warriors.  As they hear the horses and chariots thundering after them, they cry out, ‘Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt?... It is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness!’  Their feet have left Egypt, but chamushim – 50% of themselves - their inner selves remain in slavery.

How will we leave our own captivity over this past year?  How will we emerge to be with our family and friends together?  To stand close to each other, share a meal or a drink with each other?  When the bonds of isolation are loosened, how will we find our freedom?  Not simply our physical independence to go where we wish, but that interior freedom from worry, from the burdens of anxiety and fear?

This afternoon, I conduct a Zoom lesson with one of our Bar Mitzvah students and he reads the verse in his parashah: V’kidd’ash’tem et sh’nat ha-chamishim shanah, u’k’ratem d’ror ba-aretz – ‘You shall sanctify the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim freedom – liberty – throughout the land for all its inhabitants’ (Leviticus 25.10). And I think about the fiftieth of ourselves that sometimes holds us back, and the little steps we are taking towards the end of this lockdown, which has seemed interminable and difficult for so many.  Does it take fifty years to free ourselves from our inner slaveries, to become what we are destined to be?  Like Shoah survivors unable to speak about their experiences and losses for decades, if at all?

Trauma and loss are devastating and disorientating.  Time is not always the great healer, but it can soften and loosen the bonds of suffering and oppressiveness.

As my Bar Mitzvah student reads his portion, I can hear the rhythmic sound of crickets singing in the background – the next few meals for his pet bearded dragon.  His mother brings the lizard to the screen to show me, then lays the little creature on her son’s chest where it sits peacefully for a few moments, before we return to Leviticus and the verse about freedom – d’ror – the same word means ‘swallow.’

And I think of the 10th century piyyut (liturgical poem) by Dunash ben Labrat (Baghdad and Spain) which we sing on Erev Shabbat based on this very verse:

‘D’ror yikra’ - Proclaim freedom for daughter and son,
And keep us God, as the apple of Your eye.
Beautiful make our name and never to cease,
As we come to rest on the Sabbath day.

Is this the meaning of freedom? That although we may feel ourselves to be bound by the uncertainties of the present, our hope for ourselves and our children is to know the freedom to become the people they are destined to be and to accept the responsibility that comes with our name – Israel.  

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach

Alexandra Wright

The Good Place

9 April 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

The TV show ‘The Good Place’ is a fictional story where four individuals are trying to understand what it means to be good. In it, all people on earth are unknowingly scored according to their deeds, every single act arranged according to their moral score, for example:

To hold a door for a person behind you: +8800 points
Hosted refugee family: +300 000 points
End slavery: +800 000 points

One of the characters is called Chidi, a moral philosophy professor. His role in the show is to teach others how to become better individuals. In one of the episodes, he suggests that our principles are what makes us good people. He says: ‘Principles aren’t principles when you pick and choose when you’re gonna follow them.’ (Season 2, Episode 11.)

It made me ask myself a question – Do we have principles that make us good people? What is the essence of Judaism which does not change whatever happens to us and helps us to navigate in life? What is the core value of our heritage? Our Torah portion this week makes us think about these questions.

This week’s Torah portion Shemini describes the completion of the building of the Tabernacle. What was supposed to be the celebration day of the first service in the Tabernacle turns into tragedy. Two sons of Aaron die because they brought a “strange fire” as a sacrifice to God.

What principle does this story represent? This story has many unanswered questions. There is not much written in the Torah text about it, so we have to think and interpret it.

What was their mistake? Did they do anything wrong? Some Torah commentators suggest that they were drunk, and therefore, so to say, they broke the code of conduct for priests. Others say that they were so pious that they took an initiative to bring an extra offering that has not been commanded. They had a good intention but not obedient for the order of the Temple service. Whatever the reason is, this story seems unjust, not fair, and tragic.

Perhaps, the story of Nadav and Abihu is not about fairness and justice. Sometimes we must live with the consequences of our or other people’s decisions. These decisions can be unjust, unfair, and sometimes tragic.

Aaron was silent when it happened. As a leader on duty, he was not allowed to mourn. At that time, people got together to support him. The entire community mourned the death of Aaron’s sons when he was not able to. Perhaps this is the key message of this story. Perhaps, the main principle of this story is ethical behaviour of the community and mutual support that we give one another.

Liberal Judaism is an ethical monotheism. At the time when Judaism of commandments and obedience fails to guide us and support us, we turn to our core principles and values. Community is one of the highest values for Jewish people. Community is what gives us power, support, strength. The core value of Judaism is connection, interdependence, building bridges, not fences.

May this Shabbat be a time when we come together and be present for one another.

Shabbat shalom.

Igor Zinkov

Sharing Sorrow, Bringing Hope

16 April 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

This week Israel and the Jewish world commemorated two important days in the Jewish calendar: Yom Ha-Zikkaron and Yom Ha-Atzma’ut. Yom Ha-Zikkaron is Israel’s Remembrance Day – a day of recalling the memory of those who lost their lives in the struggle to establish the State of Israel and those who were killed wars or other conflicts over the past seventy years. Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day is observed with joy and celebration the following day, usually on the 5 Iyyar, but this year on Thursday 3 Iyyar so that it would not fall on Shabbat.

On Tuesday evening, I watched a joint Yom Ha-Zikkaron commemoration online. Sponsored by Combatants for Peace and the Bereaved Families Forum, it offered an alternative ceremony in which Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Muslims and Christians were invited to take part.

Both Combatants for Peace and the Bereaved Families Forum are grass roots joint Israeli and Palestinian organisations. Combatants for Peace is made up of members of the armed forces or those who have been activists against the Occupation, but who now see themselves as part of the non-violent struggle to end the Occupation and find a way for Israelis and Palestinians to live peacefully next to each other. The Bereaved Families Forum are a group of 650 Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost a close relative in Israel and Palestine’s wars, intifadas and conflicts.

What made this ceremony so different were the testimonies from five women and men – Israeli and Palestinian – who spoke movingly of the unbearable losses they have experienced in their lives.

Tamar, a Jerusalem born artist, never met her father who was killed by a Jordanian soldier during the Six Day War. Her mother was left to raise four children, the eldest a beloved and fearless boy of thirteen. He was killed on the second day of the Yom Kippur War.

Layla, from a village near Bethlehem, lost her six-month-old son after tear gas was fired into her yard one night. She described the harrowing journey to reach a hospital, blocked by checkpoints, a jeep in the road and other obstructions as she watched the breath and life-blood of her son ebb away.

Gili’s brother, Giora, was missing in action after the Yom Kippur War and Gili found the only way to remain faithful to the memory of his brother and to ‘treat’ the pain, a red-hot stone burning in his stomach, was through revenge and violent activism.

Muna’s 22-year-old son, Khaled was killed by a settler, who dragged him along behind his vehicle after Khaled’s arm got caught in a hook protruding from the back of his truck. After his death, which was witnessed by his sister, Rim, the lives of Khaled’s family were turned upside down and Muna struggled to deal with her children’s pain. It wasn’t until she met members of the Bereaved Families Forum that she decided to take part in their Narrative Project. She felt she could be part of a message of peace and reconciliation.

Each one spoke of the terrible suffering and grief of the loss of a parent, a sibling, a child who had been killed, and the fear, burning hatred and desire for revenge in the aftermath. And each one spoke of their encounter with Combatants for Peace or the Bereaved Families Forum and how they had learned to understand that the other is not ‘other’, that there is no difference between the pain of an Arab or an Israeli mother or father, or brother or sister; that suffering and grief can be shared across barriers and that the only way out of the cycle of violence and conflict is by listening and observing, and by being open to a path of peace and reconciliation.

The fear of betraying Giora’s memory, said Gili, held him back from seeking what is best for his country. ‘Let’s put an end to hate and welcome dialogue and hope. Through personal loss and bereavement, I try and show a different way is necessary and possible.’

Each witness, shaken and scarred deeply by their life experiences, offered their testimonies with eloquence and humility and with hope, and a single message of reconciliation and peace.

‘Let us live in peace, stop bloodshed and build a new future,’ said Muna in her closing words.

This dual narrative of suffering and loss and the desire for reconciliation is what allows us to accept each other as members of one human race, to heal the painful divisions between us and to hold on faithfully to the hope that the bitterness of hatred and revenge will eventually be extinguished by the voices of those who seek a future for their people to live in friendship and peace.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Please remember that our joint service this evening with Kingston Liberal and Finchley Progressive Synagogues to celebrate Yom Ha-Atzma’ut with Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, begins at the earlier time of 6.30 pm. 

Creating a Welcoming and Sacred Space for all

23 April 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

Religion serves many functions. One of them is marking and dividing time into small periods:

To live a Jewish life is to mark your time from Birth to Bar/Bat Mitzvah, from Bat/Bar Mitzvah to Kabbalat Torah, from Pesach to Shavuot, from one Yom Kippur to another, from Shabbat to Shabbat. What fascinates me the most is that almost all religious rites, festivals and practises today exist mostly in our imagination. Jewish festivals used to be connected to the agricultural year and it was natural for people to celebrate the beginning or the end of a harvest. How many of us today know when the time for barley harvest is?

Stories we tell, food we eat, questions we reflect on are based on themes which our tradition provides us with. Jewish people live according to the calendar when some days are declared special, different from others. We distinguish these days only because we decide to do so. Such days include festivals, days of mourning and remembrance, or Shabbat – a weekly day which we deliberately make different from other days. 

In Hebrew we call all such days ‘Kadosh’, often translated as holy, or sacred. What do we mean when we say holy and sacred? In my view, these terms are too abstract, very difficult to understand and explain.

Let us look at the meaning of the Hebrew word ‘Kadosh’. It is coming from the root קדש. The same root is used for some other words in our tradition. For example:

• Kiddush – a set of blessings separating the normal meal from a special Shabbat dinner
• Kiddushin – the name of the Jewish marriage ceremony
• When Torah uses the term Mukdash, it refers to a part of the produce, separated for the purpose of charity or the part which should be brought to the Temple later on
• And of course – Kaddish – the text which is now mostly associated with memorial prayer, but which is also used to separate one part of the service to another. By reciting the Kaddish we acknowledge that one part is over and hope that another will begin soon. 

Therefore, the work ‘Kadosh’ can simply be translated as ‘different, distinguished, special’ Making Shabbat Holy – Kadosh – is our choice, not something which happens by itself. Each time our tradition speaks about holiness, there is a moment of active choice of making something special. 

This week The Board of Deputies has published the report of its Commission on Racial Inclusivity in the Jewish Community, the result of a 10-month investigation unparalleled in UK Jewish history. As society as a whole sought to examine racial diversity, Jewish community too made a choice to take it seriously and understand how we can make our communities a welcoming place to all. I hope that the UK Jewish community will choose to continue the work and make a welcoming, safe and sacred space for all. Let us use this energy to make our community stronger, more diverse, and more meaningful to people of all backgrounds. [1] Let the Holiness Code be extended to all people as a message for peace, communal values and meaningful relationship with Judaism.

Ken Yehi Ratzon
May this be God’s will.

Shabbat Shalom

Igor Zinkov

[1] Please read about The LJS Heritage Trail and submit your stories HERE


Lag B'Omer - A tragedy on Mount Meron

30 April 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

Today, the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer, should have been a day of rejoicing, the lifting of mourning customs that are traditionally observed during the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot.

Instead, today Israel is in mourning. One of the worst peacetime disasters in Israel has left at least 44 dead, including children, and 150 injured – all crushed at the site of the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, whose Yahrzeit is believed to fall on this day.

Lag B’Omer - the name comes from the numerical values for the Hebrew letters lamed (30) and gimel (3) - is a minor festival in the Jewish calendar, celebrated with outings, picnics and bonfires, a kind of Jewish May Day. In Israel, ultra-orthodox Jews make an annual pilgrimage to the tomb of the 2nd century CE Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the northern Israeli village of Meron.

Although some medieval authorities, such as Maimonides, seem unaware of it, the seven weeks of the Omer period, or part of it, are mandated as a time of mourning. Traditionally, marriages do not take place, Orthodox Jews do not have their hair cut or attend musical events.

The reasons for mourning seem obscure. The Talmud gives the most frequent explanation. The second-century scholar, Rabbi Akiva, had twenty-four thousand disciples, all of whom died during the period between Pesach and Shavuot – she’lo nahagu k’vod zeh el zeh – ‘because they were not accustomed to show respect each to the other’ (bKetubbot 62b). The Talmud goes on to say that they all died of askarah – identified today as diptheria, a particularly cruel death. But on Lag B’Omer, the plague came to an end – hence the reason for the hillulah – the celebration.

There are other reasons given for the origin of the mourning period – folk customs that required suspension of celebratory occasions at a critical time in the agricultural year when farmers were anxious about the outcome of their crops. Some connect this period of abstinence with Lent and its pagan precursors, with a lifting of that anxiety around the beginning of May.

The celebration that should have taken place at Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s tomb is a time of festivity and joy. Pious Jews visit the grave because they believe their prayers are more likely to be answered. Parents bring their three-year-old sons for their first haircut; there is singing and dancing and great merriment.

Israel has come out of its lockdowns; its restaurants and shops are open, social and cultural events have resumed and the hillulah was probably the largest gathering that had taken place for a long time.

Rabbinic authorities have not always given their approval to this celebration. In the past, some thought it was an inappropriate way to honour the memory of Bar Yochai, others have attacked it because some of the participants have the custom of throwing expensive clothes into bonfires, violating the principle of bal tashchit – do not destroy or waste.

Whatever we feel about Lag B’Omer and its festivities, a tragedy has occurred. Some families will be returning to their homes without a loved one; others will be traumatised by the crush that occurred in the dark on the eve of the festival. In their lives, the day will always be associated with the tragedy of death and injury.

The commander of the Israel Police Northern District accepted full responsibility: ‘I'll put things on the table, I, Shimon Lavie, the commander of the Israel Police Northern District, bear full responsibility, for better and worse,’ he is reported to have said.

Such painful honesty in the face of this deadly tragedy should command our approbation. No leader should be afraid of accepting responsibility. It takes courage and integrity, and many leaders could learn from a man who must be examining his conscience in the light of what happened yesterday. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Alexandra Wright

Thu, 13 June 2024 7 Sivan 5784