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The New Temple

2 July 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

Jews are currently in a semi-mourning period called “The Three Weeks.” It begins with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz and leads to Tisha B’Av. It is a time of grieving for the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. 

Jewish tradition attributes many disasters to that period. They include the year 135 CE, when Romans crushed the revolt under Shimon Bar-Kokhba at the city of Betar, the year 1290, when King Edward I signed an edict to have all Jews expelled from England and both First and Second World Wars. Some people believe that this period has a supernatural power that attracts misfortunes on Jews. Others think it is a deliberate choice to mourn all misfortunes and it is easier to have only one period of mourning to mark all catastrophises at once.  

Reflecting on this period, Talmudic Rabbis tried to explain why it happened and concluded:  

Why was the first Temple destroyed? Because of three [evil] things which prevailed there: idolatry, immorality, bloodshed. But why was the second Temple destroyed, seeing that in its time they were occupying themselves with Torah, [observance of] precepts, and the practice of charity? Because therein prevailed hatred without cause. (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9b) 

Hatred without cause – in Hebrew שנאת חינם Sinat Chinam – is considered the main reason why one of the most devastating catastrophes happened to the Jewish people. It is not a new phenomenon that Jews fight with each other instead of working towards a common goal, trying to prove that one side is more righteous and virtuous than the other. In the past, such causeless battles happened in books, articles and public debates. Today there is an additional arena – the online world.  

Over the last 16 months, Jewish communities have been building online presence. Many synagogues moved their services and classes online and many congregants discovered advantages to having the community in the comfort of their homes. One may say that we have been building an online temple of Jewish wisdom, tradition and spirituality. I hope that the lessons of the past will not be repeated today and that this time we will build a respectful, inclusive, and welcoming space.  

The Talmud says, “When the month of Av enters, one should decrease in joy” (Taanit 29a). Chasidic Rabbi, Chaim Elazar Spira (1861-1937), said that though the Talmud says to “decrease in joy”, it should be read, “decrease…in joy.” In other words, though it is proper to mourn, even in that mourning, we should do so joyously, knowing that better times are ahead. It is our responsibility to ensure that this vision will come true.

Shabbat Shalom,

Igor Zinkov

Shabbat Mattot-Mas'eit

9 July 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

It is the last rehearsal for the Bar Mitzvah who has been studying his parashah and the prayers for the Erev Shabbat service for nearly a year.  He is beautifully prepared and calm and it is a pleasure to hear him read the story of the Reubenites and Gadites at the end of the Book of Numbers with such consequence.

The Israelites are coming to the end of their sojourn in the wilderness and have reached the eastern bank of the River Jordan.  After forty years in the wilderness, the tribal clans look about and see an area that is rich in pasture, grassy, with streams running through the valleys – a place for their cattle to graze and for sheep and goats to roam.

The tribes request to stay where they are.  This is suitable for our cattle, they tell Moses, it would be a favour to us to give this land as a holding, please do not move us across the Jordan.

But the request is premature.   The journey is not over, and Moses points out to the two tribes why they cannot simply stop where they are and leave the rest of the people to cross into the Promised Land.  ‘Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?’ he asks them.  He accuses them of undermining Israel’s unity of purpose; you are like the scouts who went into the land to survey its terrain and inhabitants; they turned the minds of the Israelites from going into the land that God had given them.

The tribes and Moses agree a compromise: the Reubenites and Gadites will settle their families and animals in the territory they have chosen, and they will go up armed and help establish the rest of the Israelites in their land.

Three days before his Bar Mitzvah, the boy’s mother telephones to say that her son must self-isolate as someone in his class at school has Covid.  The best laid plans of mice and men.  The Bar Mitzvah will appear on Zoom in our Sanctuary and to all those participating via Zoom, Facebook and our You  Tube Channel.

I think many of us are longing to be released from the restrictions that have bound our lives for the last sixteen months, but at the same time, the current figures of those with Covid and the fear that the NHS will become overwhelmed again, holds us back from satisfying our own whims and wishes.

The account of the Reubenites and Gadites, their initial self-absorbed request to settle themselves in the lands of Jazer and Gilead, offers a clear directive to think about communal responsibility.  What Moses offers them in his response is this: think about the impact your early settlement will have on the tribes as a whole. What message does it send to the people?  Think about the context of your decision, about its consequences.

Moses is encouraging, but clear. He does not stop them from building towns for their children and sheepfolds for their flocks, but he requires them to shoulder responsibility for the rest of the people.

As we move forward in anticipation of the government’s announcements in the coming week, perhaps we can reflect on the responsibility we need to take upon ourselves, not only to look after our own interests, but to guard safely those who are particularly vulnerable to Covid.  How the world emerges from the pandemic and its effects on us is dependent not really on our politicians, nor even on the scientists, but on each one of us and the obligations we take on ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Unlearned Lessons

16 July 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

It It has been an important week for British society. I am not only talking about the Euro finals, but also about the announcement of the lifting of many COVID restrictions. As is the case with all changes, it brings mixed feelings. On the one hand there is a sense of hope for a better future without the virus. On the other hand, we need to be cautious and not to overpromise, not to give a false hope to ourselves and to others.

The new stage for our society surprisingly corresponds to the new stage in the Torah reading cycle. This week we are beginning to read the last book of the Torah – The Book of Deuteronomy. The first verse of Deuteronomy says:

“These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan—in the wilderness, on the plain opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahav.” (Deuteronomy 1:1) 

The last word, Di-zahav, is surprising. What and where is this place? It has not been mentioned before, nor is it mentioned again anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible. This name is intriguing, and many Torah scholars have been trying to understand its meaning and symbolism.

According to the medieval collection of Rabbinic teachings, Avot of Rabbi Natan, Di-zahav alludes to Aaron, who said to the people who built the Golden Calf: "Enough (דַּי, dai) of this golden (זָהָב, zahav) sin that you have committed with the Calf!" Therefore, it was a reminder to people to remember their past. But Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya'akov disagreed and said that it means "Enough! (דַּי, dai) This is the sin that Israel was punished for. Will it last forever?" It seems that Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya'akov wants to move on and forget about the shameful past.

There seems to be a debate happening in between the lines of the Torah text. One Rabbi urges us to remember the past and learn from its lessons, and the other Rabbi wants to forget about it and move on. It seems so relevant to us today.

Just a year ago Black Lives Matter protests around the world demanded to end racism and systematic hatred towards black people and all minorities. This week, immediately after the Euro final game, the three black players of the England team who missed the penalties in the shootout with Italy were targeted in racist comments online.

Some of us would like to forget about the last year and move on to the hopeful future. I hope that most of us would take the position of Rabbi Natan. Today we know that all unlearned lessons of the past are likely to repeat themselves in the future. If we do not reflect and learn from our past, we will never move on.

Shabbat Shalom,

Igor Zinkov

Parashat Va-etchanan/Nachamu 5781

23 July 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

At the very beginning of parashat Va-etchanan, Moses recalls his plea to God to enter the Promised Land: ‘I pleaded with the Eternal One at that time, saying, ‘Adonai Elohim…let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan…’ (Deuteronomy 3:23-25).

No less than fourteen times in the previous chapter, Moses reminds the Israelites of how God has commanded them to pass through the various territories of Transjordan, crossing the wadis that mark the boundaries between regions in preparation for traversing the River Jordan. And four times, God urges Moses to go in and take possession of the land.

Despite the earlier episode in Numbers where Moses strikes the rock and is told he will not enter the land, it is hardly surprising that he begins to feel that he might be part of a project on the other side of the Jordan.  What could he lose by expressing his great longing to see the land of Israel?

E’bra-na v’ereh et ha-aretz ha-tovah – ‘Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan,’ (3:25), he says to God. But God’s response to Moses seems cruelly ironic: Va-yit-abber Adonai bi – ‘But the Eternal One was cross with me on your account and would not listen to me…’(3:26). The text uses exactly the same root avar to mean both ‘to cross the river’ and ‘to be furious, to be cross.’ The pun works well in English as well as in Hebrew, as though God says, you want to cross over the Jordan, your request transgresses my patience, it has made me cross!

God’s anger with Moses is harsh, almost ruthless in the way it disregards the leader’s sense of dignity, the long years of patience and hardship he has suffered with the people.  If Moses is an example of a man of profound faith and righteousness, why then does God punish him and withhold his dearest wish? He has trusted in God; he has believed in God’s promises to the people and become Israel’s intercessor at moments of divine wrath.

God’s response to Moses is profoundly disturbing, not because it tells us about the nature of God.  Creating theology out of this response would, I think, be a dangerous exercise. It is disturbing because we do not know what the morrow will bring. How can we understand and make sense of the uncertainties and arbitrariness of the lives we live? 

What Moses experiences is the reality of a major disappointment in life, about which absolutely nothing can be done.  It says nothing about God who remains, in a sense, beyond and unchanged by what happens to human beings.

Our longed-for faith in a compassionate and beneficent God often comes into sharp conflict with the harsh reality of our world. There is a dissonance between the ideals we attribute to God, and the horror and darkness of the real world.

In our parashah, Moses does not attempt to pursue a change of mind in God – “to tax an archaic god with the requirements of modern ethics” as Jung puts it (Answer to Job, page 9). Instead, he turns to the Israelites and tells them to pay attention to the laws and rules which will create a just and lawful society. The easing of disappointment and the rectification of human moral failure come through solid and hard work: the groundwork which is laid by the creation of a just legal system, by love and loyalty to a Presence that is both beyond and deep within ourselves, to each other and by the requirement to teach future generations, so that our children and children’s children will know how to live modestly and peacefully on this earth.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Shabbat Ekev

30 July 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

The fox is sitting in the garden, as he does every morning promptly at 7.15 am, waiting for my neighbour to share last night’s leftovers. Sometimes I think that the neighbour cooks especially for the fox, as breakfast is usually a few chicken legs, bagels and some other goodies. I try to explain to the fox that it’s my neighbour’s day off and he won’t be getting up at his usual time, but the fox remains where he is, looks enquiringly towards the back door and waits patiently for some movement.

Later on, it is Golders Green Central as the little birds assemble on the feeders and branches. The feeders are full of seeds and other manna, attached to the smaller branches. A bright green parakeet with a red beak fastens itself to one of the feeders and attempts to turn itself upside down to extract something to eat. An arm emerges from the doorway of my neighbour’s flat, enticing the bird towards it with a titbit. But the parakeet flies off and comes to rest high up in the branches of a tree, whistling and chattering to itself.

I have been reading Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow’s book ‘Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology.’ It is a weaving of autobiography and theology, their journey as feminist theologians. Christ’s background is Christian, Plaskow is Jewish.  Christ’s spiritual journey has taken her away from the institutions of the Church and a belief in a transcendent God to an acknowledgement of ‘Goddess’.  While they differ in their names for God – Plaskow referring to ‘God’ in her chapters of the book – both use the term ‘panentheism’ to define their views of the Divine Presence in the world.  ‘We both affirm that the world is the body of Goddess or God.’  While they have both rejected the God ‘out there’ of traditional theologies, a transcendent God, they have both found divine power ‘in the body, in relationships, in community, in ethical decisions and activism, and in nature.’  Judith Plaskow speaks of divinity as ‘a power of creativity that underlies all life on the planet and in the universe.’  Carol Christ writes of ‘the powers of life, death, and the transformation of birth, death, and regeneration that underlie all creative processes in the universe.’

And I wonder how my faith in God is connected to the natural life that exists outside my window.  It is not that God is in the bird or the fox, but if the world is some kind of embodiment in the here and now, something we cannot see, hear or touch, then perhaps my relationship to this world – my desire to gain knowledge, to understand, to hear the voice of the birds and enter into the consciousness of the fox - is, in some way, an expression of the desire to form a relationship with something unseen and unspoken.

Our faith has its roots in nature, says Rav Kook, Palestine’s first Chief Rabbi, ‘with the natural vitality and fruitfulness it embodies.’  But it cannot stop there; its seeds must be planted in the field blessed by God, ‘in the foundations of the Torah, where it is refined and rises to greater heights.’

Is this what the Torah means when it promises the blessings of produce from the soil, new grain, wine and oil, the calves from the herd and lambs from the flock?  The rewards of the land, its fruitfulness and beauty – the embodiment of the Divine in the natural world - are bound closely with the requirement to build a moral life.

There is an indissoluble link between these blessings and how we choose to live our lives. The Torah speaks of a God who ‘upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing food and clothing’ (Deuteronomy 10:18) – a very present God in the world in all its imperfection and injustice.  And if we are to be present in the world, then – as the Torah says – we ‘too much befriend the stranger, for [we] were strangers in the land of Egypt’ (10.19).

Carol Christ died earlier on this month of cancer. ‘I rejected the idea that ethics stems from a transcendent principle of justice delivered on high by God or intuited as a universal principle by rational minds,’ she wrote.  ‘Instead I argued that ethics stems from eros, feelings of connection with other human beings and with nature.’

Perhaps we need to be acutely attentive to the natural world to understand what are our ethical obligations towards each other and our planet.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Wed, 17 July 2024 11 Tammuz 5784