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Shabbat Mikkeitz/Chanukkah 5782

3 Dec 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

I am writing this message following a moving gathering of members of the LJS and guests for our annual multi-faith Chanukkah celebration. Coming together in-person this evening, I was reminded that last year we were all online and it was so difficult to evoke the kind of atmosphere that we encountered this evening – the warmth of old friends and new, meeting each other once again or for the first time.

Zara Mohammed, the first woman and youngest ever Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain spoke about the challenges of being a woman in her role and the difficulties the pandemic has created. But she also reminded us that it was faith organisations and the individuals who are part of them who stepped up to help others in altruistic and generous ways.  It was Zara’s first engagement in a synagogue. Bharti Tailor, who was the first female Secretary General of the Hindu Forum of Britain and President of the Hindu Forum of Europe spoke about the universal symbol of light. Bharti appears in the familiar photograph of a similar Chanukkah celebration at the LJS about 10 years ago in a yellow silk sari.

Rabbi Jeff Berger, who received his ordination from the Judith Lady Montefiore College gave a brilliant exposition of the prophetic text which formed the theme for this year’s celebration: ‘Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit, says the Eternal One of Hosts.’  ‘Might’, he said, represents collective force, the might of armies; while power represents the wielding of tyranny by individuals.  God’s spirit offers something different – something that allows us to see God’s presence in our midst.

Harriet Crabtree, the Executive Director at the Interfaith Network for the UK brought together the words of all the speakers and addressed herself to dialogue, encounter and understanding.

Rabbi Igor led the lighting of the candles with distinguished guests Sarah Reynolds from Salusbury World, Imam Mehmed Stublla from the British Albanian Muslim Community, Deputy Lord Mayor and chair of Westminster Faith Exchange, Councillor Ruth Bush, Karen Buck MP and Mehri Niknam, lighting a candle each. The shammash was lit by Eli and Rosa Wolchover from the LJS.

And it was moving to know that individuals joined us from India, Pakistan, Ghana, Israel and around the UK. Steve Derby, our consultant, who helped the LJS to master-mind the event, received this text from Farhan in Lahore, Pakistan, where it was 1.30 am:

                     ‘Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity virtually to join the event. It was my first                           time joining a Jewish event…  God bless you.’

When a group of men spit at a bus full of Jewish teenagers on Monday night in Oxford Street, where the group were celebrating the first night of Chanukkah, we need to ensure that we have an open door to all those who know little about Judaism and the Jewish people and offer a model of dialogue and openness that can spread like light throughout our communities.

May the light shine upon you and your dear ones and bring you tranquillity and peace.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukkah Sameach from,

Alexandra Wright

On  Punishment and Forgiveness

10 Dec 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

In her book The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt wrote that punishment is not an opposite, but an alternative to forgiveness: 

"The alternative to forgiveness, but by no means its opposite, is punishment, and both have in common that they attempt to put an end to something that without interference could go on endlessly. It is therefore quite significant, a structural element in the realm of human affairs, that people are unable to forgive what they cannot punish and that they are unable to punish what has turned out to be unforgivable." 

All actions, Arendt argues, are always unpredictable and irreversible. We cannot know what will happen as a result of our actions, nor can we undo them. These two uncomfortable facts about action might stop us from doing anything, but thankfully we have the ability to act with uncertainty. Uncertainty is a necessary condition for forgiveness, a compassionate alternative to punishment. Without forgiveness in particular, we would be forever "confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer's apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell." We do not have a magic formula to undo our acts, but we have forgiveness and repentance as a means to achieve reconciliation. 

Arendt’s argument is based on the fact that people do not know all of the consequences of their deeds. What if a person knew that one’s action was bad? Torah portion Vayigash presents us with such a case. Last week’s portion sets a dramatic context and a moral dilemma for Joseph’s brothers. There is a famine in the Land of Israel, and Jacob sends all his sons, except Benjamin, to Egypt to buy food. By then, Joseph has become the second-most powerful person in Egypt after the pharaoh. The brothers do not recognize Joseph when they meet him, and Joseph tests them by accusing them of being spies. Joseph demands the brothers bring Benjamin to Egypt to prove they are not spies. When Benjamin arrives, Joseph puts a goblet in Benjamin’s bag and accuses him of stealing it. In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph’s brothers have a choice – to risk their lives and protect Benjamin or to leave him behind, like they did to Joseph when they sold him into slavery.  

This week’s portion begins with a long monologue by Judah. In the past, it was Judah who stopped the brothers from killing Joseph. Judah and his brothers knew that Joseph would suffer, but they sold him into slavery anyway. Now, when faced with danger to another brother, Judah speaks out and goes even further to protect Benjamin. He offers to take Benjamin’s place as a slave—'therefore please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy’ (Gen.44:33). The speech he delivers (Gen. 44:18–34) is sixteen verses long - the longest monologue in the Torah. Judah has demonstrated a true sense of regret and repentance. According to our tradition, this act made him the greatest of Jacob’s children and the one whose name all of us bear until now – Yehudim, Judeans, Jews. 

People can forgive others even in the case of intentional harm. However, it requires a true sense of repentance. The process of repentance, as laid out by Maimonides, includes three stages: confession, regret, and a vow not to repeat the misdeed. The true penitent, Maimonides says, is the one who finds himself with the opportunity to commit the same sin again yet declines to do so. 

I hope that the leaders of this country and all of us are brave enough to admit past mistakes and make sure that they are not repeated. I hope that people can be wise enough to accept that people’s actions are always unpredictable and irreversible, and therefore, there should be a chance for all to repent and to be forgiven. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Igor

Shabbat Va-y'chi

17 Dec 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

Jacob’s health is fading.  Joseph, the son he thought had been savaged by a wild animal and was dead, visits him with his two young sons.  The old man rallies and sits up in his bed.  He recalls his encounters with El Shaddai – God Almighty – in the land of Canaan and the blessings bestowed on him, blessings of children and land.  And like another grandparent in Tanakh, Naomi in the Book of Ruth, he claims his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh as his own: ‘Now, then, your two sons born to you in the land of Egypt before my arrival in Egypt – they are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh will be to me like Reuben and Simeon’ (Genesis 48:5).

Why does he place these boys in his own genealogy, rather than that of Joseph?  The Women’s Commentary links this action with his remembrance of Rachel whom he mentions in the following verse: ‘And I – as I was coming from Paddan, Rachel died in the land of Canaan, on the road, only a stretch of ground before reaching Ephrat…’ (vs. 7).

‘This is a strong statement of family continuity – from Jacob to Joseph to Joseph’s sons, a male genealogy inspired by a woman.  In later biblical tradition Rachel is the mother of the northern tribes, symbolized by the “Joseph” tribes’ (The Women’s Commentary, p. 284).  

But there is another reason as well.  As Joseph brings his sons to Jacob to be blessed, Jacob places his right hand on the head of the younger boy, Ephraim, and his left hand on Manasseh, the older boy.  ‘No, that’s not right, father,’ says Joseph, ‘Manasseh is the oldest boy, he should receive the blessing for the older son.’

But his father refuses to uncross his hands and replies, ‘I know, my son, I know!’  He is repeating the pattern of the generations from Abraham onwards – Isaac before Ishmael, Jacob before Esau, Joseph before his brothers, Rachel before her older sister Leah.

What is it that Jacob knows?  Does he know that in time to come, the tribe of Ephraim, the younger of the brothers will become the largest and most influential of the northern kingdom?  Or is there some deeper, more spiritual knowledge – an intuition about how things will work out?

Jacob is the most fully explored character of Genesis – grasping, ambitious, deceitful, passionate and loving, yet often without clear judgement.  But he is also the individual whose encounters with God are the most detailed – the dream of the stairway to heaven, wrestling with a divine being, his own conversations with God that are personal and direct.  He is deeply conscious of the God of his father and grandfather, but also of his own relationship with God.

It is from this profound faith in a God who has been steadfastly with him throughout his life, that he pours his own blessings on to his son and grandchildren.

I hope that as we enter another period of uncertainty and restrictions in our own lives, we can live by our faith in God – whether the God of our ancestors, or the God whom we have encountered ourselves in our own lives, and express our gratitude for the blessings with which each of us are blessed of family, friends and community, and of love, companionship and affection.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Who is wise? 

24 Dec 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

‘Who is wise? The one who learns from everybody… Who is mighty? The one who can subdue evil inclination … Who is rich? The one who rejoices in what they have … Who is he that is honoured? The one who honours fellow human beings’. 

This quote is from Pirkei Avot 4:1, attributed to one of Rabbi Akiva's greatest students of 2 century CE, Shimon ben Zoma. It is frequently quoted and often used as an example of Jewish wisdom.  

What is wisdom? How do we know if we are wise or not? 

The Hebrew root for wisdom is chet-kaf-mem, and the word for ‘wise’ is חָכָם (chacham). However, this week’s Torah portion has an unusual example of the usage of this root. At the beginning of the book of Exodus, we read that when a new pharaoh arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph, he said: 

הִנֵּ֗ה עַ֚ם בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל רַ֥ב וְעָצ֖וּם מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃ הָ֥בָה נִֽתְחַכְּמָ֖ה ל֑וֹ פֶּן־יִרְבֶּ֗ה וְהָיָ֞ה כִּֽי־תִקְרֶ֤אנָה מִלְחָמָה֙ וְנוֹסַ֤ף גַּם־הוּא֙ עַל־שֹׂ֣נְאֵ֔ינוּ וְנִלְחַם־בָּ֖נוּ וְעָלָ֥ה מִן־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

“Look, the people of Israelites is much more numerous than us. Come, let us deceive him; otherwise, in the event of war, they may join our enemies in fighting against us and so rise from the ground". (Exodus 1:9-10) 

The Hebrew word for “deceive” used in pharaoh’s speech is נִֽתְחַכְּמָ֖ה (Nit’chak’mah). This word comes from the same root as the word for wisdom - chet-kaf-mem – but in this case, it is used in a reflexive form. An alternative translation of this word is ‘make oneself wise’. In other words, Pharaoh declared himself wise and made that judgement about the Jewish people. Perhaps, this detail in the text teaches us that when wisdom is self-declared, it becomes deception, the opposite of wisdom. 

Another important detail in this speech is that Pharaoh addressed all the people in a singular form – he said, ‘let us deceive him’ and not ‘them’. Not only had Pharaoh declared himself wise, but he also made a generalisation about Jewish people, thinking of them as a single and united voice. 

To be wise is to listen to as many people around you, learn from them, and treat people as individuals deserving attention and a chance to speak. Who is wise? The one who learns from everybody and does not think of themselves as wise. 

I hope that this Shabbat will be a time to reflect on our lives, spend some time with ourselves, families and friends, and listen and learn from each other.  

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Igor 

Wed, 17 July 2024 11 Tammuz 5784