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Shabbat Bereshit

1 Oct 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

Our Indian summer is over. This morning, despite a blue sky and the early morning autumn sun casting its bright light through the window, there is a distinct chill in the air and condensation on the windows as I lift the blinds.  I am always caught by surprise at the first signs of this season.  The maple tree that stands in front of my neighbour’s house, a tall and elegant specimen that anticipates this ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,’ has begun its slow and colourful transformation at the top of the tree and round its edges.  Soon, each of its five-fingered leaves will alchemize over the next few weeks from green to gold, and then to a deep rosy-hue, delicately lined with golden veins that reach out to its tiny-toothed margins. And when the tree is aflame, it will lose its leaves, swept away by gusts of wind and rain.

In a few weeks, too, the UK, together with its partner, Italy, will host the 26th annual global climate summit – COP 26 (Conference of Parties).  More than 190 world leaders are expected to arrive in Glasgow to tackle the greatest risk our world is facing – the climate emergency.  The pandemic has delayed this conference by a year – precious time that has been lost in evaluating how countries are reducing their emissions and realising the goal of producing net zero emissions by the middle of this century.

Greta Thunberg, then a 16-year-old schoolgirl, addressed the UN climate action summit in New York in 2019 with these words:
‘This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.’

Her blunt words were applauded by world leaders, but equally attracted the climate deniers, those who are thwarting the battle – and it is a massive fight – to avert a catastrophe that is already deepening day by day.

As I contemplate the fallen leaf from the maple tree, I see a tiny glimpse of Eden – the newly-created world that is evoked in the magnificent epic poem of creation at the beginning of Bereshit that we will read this week in our synagogues.  I see in its symmetry a perfection, each lamina divided by a delicately carved midrib of gold, the veins reaching out to the edges and the pale gold on one side of the leaf, suffused with a darker rosiness on the other.  But already the leaf is curling at the edges, it is a little grubby and before long, its softness will dry out and harden, just like the cracked earth of unwatered fields.

How do we hold on to hope and optimism for future generations while conveying the urgency of our climate catastrophe? Yes, we can all do our bit in how we heat our homes, what kinds of transport we choose to use, the ways in which we can save water, cut down on eating meat, and many other ways.  Let us not underestimate our own contributions. But at the same time, citizens need to do what Greta Thunberg has done - hold governments to account and speak truth to power.

The target of reduction of emissions by 2030 is ambitious. Preserving eco-systems to mitigate against climate change requires urgent infra-structure for countries particularly affected by flooding and fire and the human cost that this causes.

In our polarised world, can COP 26 facilitate the partnerships, collaboration and the investment in climate finance we need to effect these changes globally and together?

It was Rabbi Tarfon who said: ‘It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it’ (mAvot 2:21).  In all our actions, in our words, in our pursuit of justice for each other and the earth, may we never lose our vision of a world healed and the best of COP 26’s ambitions realised, soon and in our days.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Hesitation to reemerge

8 Oct 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

The world continues to reemerge from its sleep. As the pandemic restrictions ease, many people begin to return to their pre-pandemic lives. After the rapid change and a long period of uncertainty that started 19 months ago, it is natural to feel hesitant and anxious to come back to your routine. The lack of strict rules makes this transition harder and leaves the responsibility for each other’s safety in the hands of every individual and organisation. 

This week’s Torah portion resembles today’s hesitation. Torah scholars noticed that after the Flood was over, Noah seemed anxious to leave the Ark. Two midrashic legends offer different explanations for his hesitation. 

According to Bereishit Rabbah, Noah waited until God promised to him not to bring another flood upon the world. (Bereishit Rabbah 34:6) In other words, only definite reassurance of future safety can help people to reemerge from temporary refuge. 

Another interpretation appears in the book known as Buber’s Tanhuma, published in 1885 by Martin Buber’s grandfather, Shlomo, from ancient manuscripts. The midrashist noticed that it takes a long time from ‘in the tenth month on the first day of the month the tops of the mountains became visible’ (Gen. 8:5:), to God’s command to Noah to ‘go forth from the ark.’  (Gen. 8:16) Why did Noah wait for God’s command to leave the Ark? The Midrash writes: 

He did not go out from there. Instead, he waited in the ark for Him (i.e., for the Holy One) to give him permission. The Holy One said to him: Are you seeking permission? Go forth from the ark! (Midrash Tanchuma Buber, Noach 14:3) 

When it comes to rebuilding the world, you do not wait for permission. God gives you permission. God expects you to go out. 

In an ideal world, both interpretations will be true – there will be a promise of safety and permission to go out. In the real world, each of us is left with the impossible choice of whether to wait for reassurance or to go out and rebuild the world now. Perhaps, the answer is in between and in the balance between the two extremes. 

As we pause our lives for one day, may this Shabbat bring all of us the gift of rest, peace and harmony.  

Shabbat shalom, 

Igor Zinkov

Life’s Trials – Commentary on Parashat Lech L'cha

15 Oct 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

Do you believe in coincidence?  

Number ten seems to be a symbolic number in the book of Genesis and seems to appear many times in the narrative. 

With the ten utterances the world was created, there were ten generations from Adam to Noah and Rabbis count 10 tests that Abraham had to overcome. One possible count of Abraham’s trials is as follows: twice when ordered to move (Gen. 12:1, 12:10), twice in connection with his two sons (21:10, 22:1), twice in connection with his two wives (12:11, 21:10), once on the occasion of his war with the kings (14:13), once at the covenant between the pieces (14:13), once at the covenant of circumcision and once in Ur of the Chaldees, when he was thrown into a fire furnace by Nimrod. The last trial is not written in the Torah but appears in midrashic legends.   

Some commentators point out the connection between Abraham’s trials and the ten utterances with which the world was created. Abraham was tested with ten trials and overcame them all, proving that he was worthy of sustaining the world which was created by ten utterances.  

One may also find a connection to the Ten Commandments. Ten commandments are the image of an ordered and just society and the moral foundation of our world. Those who take the words of the Torah seriously, cannot ignore the symbolic connection between the number of Abraham’s tests and other places when the number ten appears in the text.  

Perhaps, it signifies that only clear vision and understanding of your values can help you to overcome any challenges in life. This idea is strengthened by the following commentary by Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel c.1512 - 1609):  

“A potter does not strike defective jugs, because he cannot give them a single blow without breaking them. Rather, he strikes strong jugs, for he will not break them even with many blows. When a flax worker [knows that his flax is good], each time he beats it, it improves. Similarly, the Holy One, Blessed, be He, only tests the righteous. When a man possesses two cows, one strong and the other weak, on which one does he put the yoke? Surely on the strong one. Similarly, the Holy One, Blessed, be He - He only tests the righteous." 

I don’t think that we should understand it as a universal rule in life. If you go through a difficult moment, it does not necessarily mean that you are being tested. However, the burden of life’s trials might become lighter if you have a sense of purpose and vision, a sense of ideals, clear values, and trust in God and humanity. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Rabbi Igor

Parashat Vayera

22 Oct 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

‘Va’tabeit ishto me-acharav, va’t’hi n’tziv melach.’
‘And his [Lot’s] wife looked behind him and became a pillar of salt’ (Genesis 19:26).

Who is Lot’s wife? We know next to nothing about her. She is, like many of the women in the Torah, nameless. In an earlier chapter, Lot, the women, and servants of his household are abducted by the king of Sodom. When the news reaches Lot’s uncle, Abraham, he musters his retainers and sets off in the dead of night to rescue the hostages. Nothing else is heard about Lot and his household until the disturbing story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah on account of their iniquitous crimes.

When divine messengers arrive in the city of Sodom, Lot greets them and offers them hospitality, pressing them to enter his house.

The townspeople, hostile to the guests, arrive at Lot’s door. He begs them not to do evil, but offers them his daughters instead, saying, ‘Look – I have two daughters who have never been intimate with a man; let me bring them out for you, and do to them as you please’ (Genesis 19:8). Protection of his male guests is more important than what will happen to his daughters.

There is little rabbinic censure of Lot for the way he treats his daughters, apart from Nachmanides, who quoting a midrash, says: ‘Ordinarily a man would give up his own life to save his daughters and his wife – kill or be killed. But this one turned his daughters over to be abused’ (Tanhuma, Va-yera 12).

Although not mentioned in the Bible, Lot’s wife – who is given the name Idit in rabbinic literature – is blamed for her lack of hospitality to the guests. If you want to receive these guests, she tells her husband, do so in your part of the house. When Lot asks for salt to flavour the food he offers to the men, she initially refuses, but then goes to her neighbours to borrow the salt and stir up hostility amongst the townspeople against the guests, thus causing them to storm their house.

She, her husband and daughters are saved from the sulphurous brimstone and fire that rains upon Sodom and Gomorrah. ‘Flee for your life,’ says one of the emissaries. ‘Do not look behind you and do not stand anywhere on the plain…’

But she does look back and her fate, say the rabbis, is that having sinned through salt and looking back to salvage her past, she turns into a pillar of salt.

My name dictionary explains that Idit is a diminutive form of Yehudit (Judith), from the verb ‘to praise’ or ‘give thanks’. But I wonder, perhaps, whether her name is closer to the Hebrew word for ‘witness’ (eid) or even the word ‘perpetuity’ (ad) – and instead of heaping salt, blame and guilt on her head, this nameless and silent woman is a perpetual witness to the abuse and murders of the Sarah Everard’s and Sabina Nessa’s of the world, and countless other women who suffer at the hands of known or unknown violent men?

These cases have reached the headlines, but what of other women and girls who are abused and violated and whose lives end in such devastating ways? In the UK a woman is killed by a man every three days. We should be outraged at this figure; it is a shattering and shameful manifestation of how women are regarded in our society.

Please do not forget our Yom Kippur Appeal which is still open. It includes Jewish Women’s Aid, the charity that supports the one in four women who are the victims of domestic abuse in the Jewish community, and their children. Let our rage and indignation at such atrocities be turned to something positive and active – help for those who are victims, but also a fundamental change in the way that women are seen, heard and understood.

Shabbat shalom, 

Alexandra Wright

Shabbat Chayyey Sarah

29 Oct 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

In our curiosity about human relationships in the Torah, we often overlook the role that nature and animals play in its stories and poetry. The writers of the Torah lived in close proximity with the natural world and saw in its beauty and magnificence, in the terror and awe it inspired, the hand of God who had created it all. For the poets and storytellers, the earth and sky, the seas and rivers, the mountains and valleys were evidence of God’s power and creative force. And if human beings benefited from the earth and were sated by its fruit and sustained by its bread, it was not because our own hands had dug the earth and kneaded the dough, but because God had given it to us. Everything on earth belongs to God, says the Psalmist – the tall cedars of Lebanon, where birds make their nests, the moon and stars, darkness and light, all living things small and great. It is God’s breath, says the poet, that brings creation to life, renewing the face of the earth. And when God hides His face, creation is terrified: ‘take away their breath they perish and turn again to dust’ (Psalm 104:29).

This weekend, thousands of representatives are gathering in Glasgow for the climate change conference, known as COP26. They include scientists and environmental activists, politicians and royalty, journalists and tens of thousands of others from all over the world. It is an easy thing to make promises: to cut our use of fossil fuels, to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees, to halve global emissions and eventually to reach ‘net zero’, to protect wildlife and natural habitats. The real question is whether we have the will to deliver.

There is a single law that defines the Jewish obligation to protect our planet: Bal Taschchit means ‘Do not destroy.’ Deuteronomy teaches that we are forbidden to cut down the trees of a besieged city in wartime, by wielding an axe against them – ‘for is the tree of the field a person that it should be besieged by you?’ (20:19, 20)

What began as a prohibition against acts of vandalism in the Bible was expanded to include any other kind of wanton waste – the breaking of vessels, tearing of clothing, wrecking of buildings, stopping up water fountains and waste of food, even diverting an irrigation ditch watering a fruit tree.

In the moments before Isaac is to meet his bride, Rebekah, in this week’s Torah portion (Chayyey Sarah), he is found towards evening, strolling in the field. Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir) asks what Isaac was doing out in the field and suggests that in addition to checking on the workers, he was planting trees.

‘Trees represent continuity and sustainability,’ write Rabbis Yonatan Neril and Leo Dee in their ecological commentary on Genesis (Eco Bible, Vol. 1, p. 44). And the planting of trees, among other things that we can do, will benefit future generations, who will eat their fruit, breathe their oxygen and find shade under their leaves.

There are many ways in which we can plant trees in our own city here in London, in the country and as far afield as Ghana, Ethiopia, Madagascar and Brazil – wherever trees have been cut down and deforestation programmes have denuded the earth.

We are not powerless to change the world. This is our last chance to reforest, to protect our planet, to arrest global warming and to change how we see and treat the world. To quote from Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’:

‘To see the world in a grain of sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of [our] hand
And Eternity in an hour.’

In our regard for even the tiniest things in the natural world, says Blake, lies our moral commitment to avoid hurting any creature or destroying the beauty that is around us.

Shabbat shalom, 

Alexandra Wright

Thu, 13 June 2024 7 Sivan 5784