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Additions to your Seder plate

1 April 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

This Shabbat is Shabbat Chodesh, the first Shabbat of the Hebrew month of Nissan, during which Passover is celebrated. Jews all over the world begin to prepare for this festival and plan their Seders.

Over the years, Seder Pesach has become the time to raise awareness about contemporary issues. Apart from traditional food, many people add alternative symbols on the plate to open the conversation and discuss what we can do to make a difference.

Perhaps the most common and well-known alternative symbol is an orange. Jewish Studies Professor Susannah Heschel once asked everyone at her family seder to take an orange slice, make a blessing over the fruit, and eat it to show solidarity with lesbians, gay men, and all Jewish community members that are marginalised. Because an orange consists of many segments joined together, we eat the orange with the hope that everyone will find a place, comfort and peace within our community.

Many people add olives. On many occasions, olive trees were damaged to force Palestinians to leave their homeland. At the same time, the olive branch is famous for symbolising peace. We add to the Seder plates a symbol of hope for future peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

As we tell the Pesach story and consider our current liberation struggles, we also think of signs of the climate catastrophe and find inspiration to take action. Therefore some people place a red chilli pepper on the seder plate to remind us of the burning Earth.

One of the less well-known traditions is to add a banana to the Seder plate. Aylan Kurdi and his brother, Galip, were victims of the Syrian refugee crisis. We place a banana on the Seder table to honour a tradition in which the boys’ father would bring them a banana to share every day. This is a reminder of an ongoing refugee crisis. By putting a banana, we hope that all who seek refuge be guarded and protected along their journey to safety, shielded by their parents’ love, watched over the God full of mercy and compassion.

Today, amid the war in Ukraine, the refugee crisis is more relevant than ever. Over 4 million Ukrainians have fled their country and are seeking refuge abroad. Thanks to Rabbi Alex and her class earlier this week, there is a brilliant idea for the seder this year. The sunflower is a Ukrainian national symbol. One of Rabbi Alex's students suggested putting sunflower seeds on the seder plate as both a symbol of solidarity with Ukraine and a symbol of hope. I think it is a brilliant idea and I would like to share it with you. Warning - it is considered kitniyot (legumes), and not all Jews consider it kosher for Pesach. Perhaps, if you do not feel comfortable with including sunflower seeds, the idea becomes even more beautiful this way - sunflower seeds do not belong to the seder plate in the same way as war does not belong to the modern world.

Alternatively, Ukraine’s famous national food is borscht. Its main ingredient is beetroot. Hebrew for beetroot is selek. This word resembles the word for retreat, yistalku. Before eating, you may say: May it be Your will, Eternal God, that all the enemies who might beat us will retreat (yistalku), and we will beat a path to freedom.  

Shabbat Shalom,
Igor Zinkov
 



Shabbat M'tzora/Ha-Gadol

8 April 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

This week I came across the story of a young Afghani man, seeking asylum in this country. Nineteen-year-old Khalil’s parents died when he was quite young, and he was living with an uncle. But after an argument, his uncle threw him out of the house and Khalil found himself with nowhere to live. He had no money to buy food and nowhere to sleep. The park was too dangerous as there were drug dealers there at night. On the first night, he climbed on to the roof of a library and spent the night there.


Two weeks later, volunteers from Sufra, the food bank and kitchen, found Khalil, homeless, hungry and cold, eating leftovers from customers’ trays at the local McDonald’s. Sufra arranged emergency hotel accommodation for him and then transferred him to a shelter. They provided a small stipend to pay for his travel costs and mobile phone top-ups, as well as small grants from charity partners for clothing and other essentials. ‘I just want to continue my education,’ says Khalil. ‘I don’t want to be homeless.’

This true story reminded me of the story in the Talmud of Hillel the Elder who would go out to work each day and earn half a dinar for his day’s work (half the average payment for unskilled labour at the time). With half of his earnings, he would pay the guard at the study hall, and with the other half he would pay for his own sustenance and the sustenance of his family. On one occasion, he couldn’t find work and the security guard wouldn’t let him enter the academy, so he climbed up on to the roof and sat at the edge of the skylight in order to listen to the words of the great teachers, Shemayah and Avtalyon. It was Erev Shabbat in winter and very cold. Snow fell on Hillel and covered him. When morning came the two scholars noticed that the classroom was dark, the sunlight blocked from entering the room. Looking up, they saw the shape of a man covered in snow, three cubits high. They brought him inside, shocked by Hillel’s poverty and impressed by his great desire to continue his learning (bYoma 35b).

Khalil at 19 was barely out of his adolescence and should have been at home with caring adults, continuing his education. Hillel the Elder had a family – a wife, children perhaps. Where did they live? How did they heat their home and find enough to eat? How were his children’s health and learning affected by the poverty of their family? Perhaps they suffered the indignity of not even having the right clothes to go to school.

For those of us in warm houses without the struggle to meet our monthly bills or pay the grocery bill each week, it is hard to imagine what it must be like for Khalil or the children of modern-day Hillels whose parents’ wages don’t keep up with the cost of living. The number of children living in poverty in the UK is higher than comparable wealthy countries and the numbers are increasing. They will continue to increase unless resources are poured into high quality and fully funded childcare, after-school children’s centres, and the income of those families on the margins is raised to restore dignity and remove the painful and difficult daily struggles that people have to endure to get by.

It is not inevitable that the shocking gap between rich and poor grows bigger by the day. It is not inevitable that the poor will become poorer, the rich richer, that children will suffer at home and at school because they are cold or because they don’t have enough to eat, or because their parents are under intolerable pressure. This is not about bad choices, writes Professor Michael Marmot, it is poverty. Child development, adequate food and nutrition, and decent housing lead to a healthy life.

Sufra’s support for Khalil is incalculable. He has left the shelter and is being housed by a local Afghan family and the charity has helped him secure a pro-bono solicitor who is currently working on his case. Homelessness rendered him depressed and close to wanting to die. Poverty took away this young man’s dignity and the right to make the kinds of choices that should belong to all of us.

Addressing poverty is central to the teachings of the Torah – even in this week’s parashah, M’tzora, which deals with the laws of nega tzara’at – a skin disease, the purification rituals required were modified depending on means – Leviticus 14:21-22. This is not simply a matter of generosity and compassion, although it is that, but justice – tz’dakah – doing that which is right and utterly fair for everyone in society.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

 



Passover and the importance of secondary characters

15 April 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

Even people not familiar with Torah would probably know the story of the parting of the sea and the Exodus from Egypt. When the Egyptian army was approaching Jews standing at the shore of the Red sea, the water split, and Israelites walked on dry ground. This is the story as we know it from Disney movies and art. We also read about it at the Passover Haggadah – the book we read to each other at Seder tables.

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This is how the story is told in the Torah (Exodus 14:15-16):

The Eternal One said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it so that the Israelites may march into the sea on dry ground.

However, if you read Rabbinic interpretations of the story of the parting of the sea, you will be surprised. This story is retold from a very different perspective. In the rabbinic version from Babylonian Talmud, the Israelites gathered at the seashore, Moses lifted his hands, and nothing happened. The sea remained still. Trapped between the sea and the approaching Egyptian army, people were reluctant to jump into the water. Then, Nahshon ben Aminadav, the head of the tribe of Judah, jumped into the sea first and started to walk into the sea. (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 37a).

Talmud continues by saying that Moses was saying his prayer at that time. God said to him: My beloved people are drowning in the sea, and you tell your prayer to me? Moses answered: Master of the Universe, but what can I do? God said to him (in the words of the Torah): ‘Speak to the children of Israel that they go forward. And you, lift up your rod and stretch out your hand’ (Exodus 14:15–16).
 

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