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Shemot

8 January 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

When I arrived in the United States in September 1974 on an English Speaking Union scholarship, Richard Nixon had just become the first President to resign from office in order to avoid impeachment and conviction for his part in covering up involvement in the Watergate Scandal. In June 1972, five months before the presidential election, five burglars were discovered in the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters, Nixon’s political rivals.  The men had already stolen top-secret documents and attempted to wire-tap telephones.  The wire-tapping had failed and they returned to finish the job.  Nixon continued to proclaim his innocence, declaring in 1977: ‘When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.’

Insurrections do not happen in a vacuum.  Even in a democracy, even in a constitutional democracy, where citizens put their trust in the civility of society, in fair elections, in holding leaders accountable, in legal processes and human rights.

We have not yet, I hope, lost our capacity to be shocked by the raw and brutal images of a mob, breaching fences, storming buildings and screaming slogans. Not protests, not anti-austerity marches, not pro-democracy demonstrations. None of these are attempts to wrest state power; they are rather a struggle against various forms of injustice and oppression, to give voice to silent masses who live on the precipice of poverty, who live in the constant and frightening flux of insecurity.

What we witnessed on our screens on Wednesday night were scenes that cannot possibly belong in the United States.  A surreal image of people, climbing over barriers, scaling walls, banging at the portals of the Capitol, storming through its halls and chambers, looting, screaming and spitting as though their actions and words could and would hold up the certification of a new president.

It would be easy for those shocked and sickened by this vicious trampling quite literally on the symbol of American democracy to occupy a moral high ground.  To name Trump and his mobsters as Pharaoh and modern-day Egyptians: ‘Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground’ (Exodus 1:10).  The ruthless imposition of slave labour, the bitter hatred the Egyptians felt for the foreigners in their land, the genocidal laws they enacted against the male babies – these acts of aggression and violence are symptomatic of a deeply-rooted fear.  Rashi reads this verse not as referring to the Israelites – what will we do if we lose our slave population when they rise up and leave the land, but rather, as referring to themselves.  ‘Their real fear was that they themselves would be forced to leave their own land.’

To stand on our high ground and blame and shame re-entrenches the polarisation of one position against another.  Right against left, closed-minded against open-minded, dishonest against honest, vicious against virtuous.  What do we gain from our own fierce hatred of others?

It takes one of the very few women scholars in the Talmud to teach the lesson that we should not wish for the demise of those whose conduct is anathema to us.  When her husband, Rabbi Meir, prays for the death of some local hooligans who are causing him a great deal of anguish, she rebukes him with a verse from the Psalms.  Does it say, ‘Let sinners cease?’ she asks him.  No, it says ‘Let sins cease from the land’ (Psalm 104:35).  You cannot pray for the death of the transgressors themselves, you have to pray for an end to their transgressions (Berakhot 10a). 

Americans were shaken by the Watergate scandal, just as they are shaken and destabilised by the events at the Capitol on Wednesday night.

But forty-six years ago, arriving on the east coast of the US, I found something else besides the headlines on inept and corrupt governance. Alongside American history and literature, music and religion, we were out in the field studying the complex interrelationships of the natural world, we were honing our critical thinking, learning about ethical leadership, about collaboration and asking ourselves, how can we have a positive impact on the world around us?

And I found the American people whom I encountered from East to West, warm and open, generous and hospitable and my admiration for their enquiring minds and willingness to engage in discourse, has not diminished over the years.  

Shabbat Shalom – and I pray that you and your dear ones remain safe and well in the coming weeks and months.

Alexandra Wright

Identity

15 January 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

James Marcia is a clinical and developmental psychologist. His area of research is identity crisis and the achievement of adolescents. He is best known for his extensive research and writings on identity development.  According to his theory, there are four stages many people go through in life: foreclosure, identity diffusion, moratorium, and identity achievement.

Marcia writes about the first stage the following: ‘The foreclosure status is when a commitment is made without exploring alternatives. Often these commitments are based on parental ideas and beliefs that are accepted without question.’ The story of the Jewish people began with an unchallenged identity of slaves. There was no one to question it until Moses came and said, ‘Let my people go, you can be free, you can be more than slaves.’

The second stage is identity diffusion. It is described as ‘the mark of those who have neither explored nor made commitments across life-defining areas.’  I think that this week’s Torah portion corresponds exactly to this stage. All we know at this stage is that Jews started the process of questioning their identity. Probably the Plagues story gave some people a sense of empowerment. However, at this stage, the only approach they had was a ‘negative identity’. The process of national change takes a long time. At this moment all they knew was that they were not slaves anymore.

Later in the Jewish story we are going to read about The Ten Commandments, Golden Calf story as a crisis of faith and national identity. It has a strong parallel with the ‘Moratorium’ stage. Marcia notes that this stage is common for individuals who are in the midst of a crisis, whose commitments are either absent or are only vaguely defined. We can find this approach among many Jews today too. For instance, one can hear from a progressive Jew that ‘we are not orthodox’, while an orthodox Jew may define themselves as ‘not a progressive Jew’. It takes time and effort to articulate the set of values, test them in real life and define oneself.

Crises often serves as a catalyst for understanding who you are. Once a crisis has been experienced and processed, Marcia concluded, ‘a likely progression would be from diffusion through moratorium to identity achievement.’ The Torah story of the Exodus from Egypt has many parallels with this theory. The story we read every year is a story of a struggle for freedom, seeking our identity and asking ourselves important questions: Who am I? What do I stand for? What are my values?

In the time of uncertainty and crisis, we hope that lessons of this time will become an inspiration to articulate, distil and express our identity and core values for us and generations after us.

Shabbat shalom,

Igor Zinkov

The Hill We Climb

22 January 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

In a week in which we have seen the moving inauguration of a new president of the United States, it would be tempting to draw an analogy between the ‘outgone’ Trump and the Pharaoh of our Torah portion. True, the new king over Egypt ‘who did not know Joseph’ is fearful of foreigners who might overrun his country; he is ruthless in the slave labour he imposes on the Israelites, cruel in issuing a decree to kill every male infant that is born to a Hebrew woman. He is arrogant and punitive; his language is harsh as he refers to his overseers as ‘Shirkers! Shirkers!’ He lacks compassion, he is hard-hearted and puts his trust in his sages and sorcerers, magician-priests and their spells.

With each of the plagues affecting his own people, leaving them without drinking water, over-run by frogs, lice and insects, their animals afflicted with pestilence, their bodies inflamed with boils, their land ruined by hail and locusts, Pharaoh either pays no regard or tells Moses the Israelites can go, only to renege on his word once each plague has ceased.

It is only when we come to the ninth and tenth plagues, that we understand that the plagues are not ‘acts of God’, but Pharaonic executions. The darkness is not the silent darkness of a winter’s night, frost fastened to each blade of grass, a sliver of moon in the sky, it is rather ‘a darkness that can be touched’ (Exodus 10:21), a darkness in which no one can see each other, in which no one can move about. This darkness is a metaphor for the narcissistic and toxic rule of a man whose rule is driven by crazed self-interest, by fear and fabricated lies.
Even after this ninth plague, when Pharaoh appears to allow the Israelites to leave, there is a callous indifference towards his own people and Israel. ‘Be gone from me! Take care not to see me again, for the moment you look upon my face you shall die’ (10:28).

The Israelites could have left after the ninth plague – Moses and Aaron were never again to confront Pharaoh. Yet one more plague is necessary to test the echo chamber of Pharaoh’s heart – the death of the first born. Surely, with the terrible loss of his own son, he will know what it means to be touched by personal tragedy. And perhaps for a fleeting moment, when roused by a loud cry throughout the land of Egypt, telling the Israelites ‘begone’, he begs Moses and Aaron, ‘May you bring a blessing upon me also!’ (12:32) But the compassion is for himself alone and his surrender lasts but a moment as he orders his chariot and army to pursue the Israelites into the wilderness. Their defeat in the watery depths of the Sea of Reeds ensures the Israelites are free.
With liberation comes a song or a poem – the Song of Moses and Miriam in next week’s parashah – a song of triumph and strength, a song of deliverance, of exhalation and relief.

Who could not fail to be moved by the song of the twenty-two year-old Youth Poet Laureate of the United States, Amanda Gorman, at President Biden’s inauguration this week? Listening to this luminous young woman, confident and graceful, drawing on the twitter memes she had researched during the period of her writing, I was stirred by the biblical and spiritual themes she invoked in her poem – the image of ‘a sea we must wade’, ‘of a skinny Black girl descended from slaves’ who dreams of becoming president, the vision of Isaiah that ‘everyone will sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid?’ Of her invocation of ‘faith’ and ‘just redemption’, of her awareness of the shades of darkness and light, of loss and life, of a nation that isn’t broken, but ‘unfinished’?

In those minutes of Amanda Gorman’s song, we heard, not the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings ‘recollected in tranquillity’, but something measured emerging from the turbulence of the last four years: a rhythmic return to continence and composure, a gaze into the future with a sense of purpose, seeing not what stands between us, but before us.

This poet of hopefulness and faith reached into the darkness and fragmentation of a modern-day Pharaoh’s rule to extract, not dread and terror, but as she expressed it herself in an interview after her recitation of ‘The Hill We Climb’, the need ‘to repurify the power of language’ and to find light and harmony, the need to forge ‘a union with purpose’, ‘a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.’

The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
If only we're brave enough to see it
If only we're brave enough to be it

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

To read Amanda Gorman’s poem ‘The Hill We Climb’ in full and her poem on women written for Elle magazine, click here.


To Be The Light

  • 29 January 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

There are things which make your life rich and meaningful – e.g. spending time in nature, maintaining good health and your position in society, having people who are close to you and care about you. Sometimes we take these things for granted. This week there were two important events - Holocaust Memorial Day and Tu Bi’Sh’vat. I think that both events serve as a reminder that a free, meaningful and rich life is not a given reality, but is a result of hard work and an achievement of our society.

In Judaism, the first time you do something each year, you recite a special blessing:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ, מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v'kiy'manu, v'higiyanu laz'man hazeh.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.

For me, this is a mindfulness exercise, a reminder to be grateful for what we have as individuals and as a community.

Holocaust Memorial Day, held on 27 January, honoured the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, and the millions of other people killed under Nazi persecution. The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2021 is 'be the light in the darkness'.

In his work Open Heart, Elie Wiesel wrote: ‘I know and I speak from experience, that even in darkness it is possible to create light and encourage compassion. That it is possible to feel free inside a prison. That even in exile, friendship exists and can become an anchor.’ In difficult times we can help each other to keep the inner light of freedom and hope alive. The blessing of community, mutual support and friendship is an invaluable source of strength for all of us. Days like these are a reminder that one must never take freedom and the value of mutual support for granted.

The LJS online Tu Bi’Sh’vat Seder took place on 26 January.  Originally Tu Bi’Sh’vat was an equivalent of the tax return deadline for ancient Jewish farmers. In medieval times, Jewish mystics gave Tu Bi’Sh’vat greater spiritual meaning. According to Lurianic Kabbalah (a form of mysticism studied by the students of Isaac Luria), all physical forms hide within them a spark of the Divine Presence. Therefore, we should treat everything – human beings, trees, and fruits alike - with care and respect. Many piyyutim (religious poems) were written on Tu Bi’Sh’vat and expressed the idea of God’s omnipresence. Following and developing this tradition, the LJS community wrote a collective Tu Bi’Sh’vat piyyut. All participants were divided into eight groups and each got a letter which had to begin their line. Here is the result:

Tonight is a time to reflect on what Torah and Talmud teaches us about the terrific festival of trees.
Upon eating fruit we celebrate each year, we celebrate life.
Bless our Earth and those who protect her.
In the beginning we came from the garden.
So how can we sow a forest of trees so our children can breathe fresh air?
Holy and sanctified, the awakening of nature, the very essence of the heart of creation.
Virtues for 2021 consist of cultivating vegetation and making our planet verdant.
Are we, brothers and sisters, going to make a change?
Tonight is a time to reflect on what Torah and Talmud teaches us about the terrific festival of trees.

I hope that weeks like this will inspire each of us to be a light for this world, work hard for a better future and be grateful for what we have.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.

Tu Bi’sh’vat Sameach and Shabbat shalom,

Igor Zinkov

Mon, 20 September 2021 14 Tishrei 5782