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Shabbat D'varim/Chazon 

5 August 2022

Dear Members and Friends,


Saturday night ushers in the 9 Av, the saddest and bleakest day in the Jewish calendar. For many Liberal Jews, this day of fasting and lamentation will pass us by as a day that recalls the tragedies that beset our people in ancient and more recent history -  the destruction of the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem, the Crusades, the expulsion of the Jews from England, France and Spain, pogroms that wiped out villages and communities in Poland, Russia and Ukraine and, within our living memory, the murder of six million of our people. 

Grief follows its own rules: shock and numbness, grief and anger, sadness and resignation, and back again to incredulity and grief.  We face our losses in different ways, according to our temper and the triggers that unconsciously give expression to our heartache and sorrow.  Such pain and anguish are unprescribed, unanticipated; they catch us unawares, we lose our foothold. 

These are our private burdens that we carry deep within our heart – the losses of family members or friends, recent or in the more distant past, those who died peacefully in old age, and those who had another song within them.  Their memory is with us daily and in the moments of ritual remembrance at home or in the synagogue – lighting a candle or reciting Kaddish.  Such rituals may help us move from our sorrow to something gentler: enduring love and gratitude and a sense that all life is part of a natural cycle, as the Psalmist says, ‘our days are as grass, we blossom like a flower in the field, the wind passes over it, and it is no more.’ 

But there are, too, the burdens and sorrows we bear as the Jewish people, with days of remembrance, fasting and lamentation embedded into the liturgical calendar.  And the darkest part of the Jewish year comes at the brightest and hottest time of the summer in late July or August. 

Late on the eve of Tisha B’Av, as the sun begins to set, congregations gather in the synagogue to sit on low stools or on the ground, to listen to Eichah (the Book of Lamentations), chanted in a mournful tone, its trope like a woman keening over and over again.  This is the book, says Shaye Cohen, that ‘is the eternal lament for all Jewish catastrophes, past, present and future.’ 

As Liberal Jews we tread the tightrope between the particular and universal – what affects us as Jews and our responsibilities to humanity - our task to repair the world.  In recent liturgies for Tisha B’Av, the August nuclear decimations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are also remembered. And now we must add the scorching of the earth, the displacement of climate refugees from their home, the extinction of earth’s living creatures. Tisha B’Av, perhaps more than any other day in our Jewish calendar, should make us aware of the finite quality of our lives and the existence of our planet.  We cannot continue as we are. 

The author of Eichah understands the darkness, destruction and disease within his own bones to come from God’s anger.  It wears away his flesh and skin, shattering his marrow, deceiving him into believing that his strength and hope have perished before a hidden God.  And yet, God’s wrath, surely, must be finite. At his lowest ebb, the weeping poet recalls the kindness of God, whose ‘mercies are not spent… but are renewed every morning.’   

It is here that the mood of the day begins to turn and lift; an expression of hope lightens the darkness and relieves the pain.  The howling lament recedes; the mourner sits alone and waits patiently for pardon and relief, praying that God will take back His people and renew his people’s days as of old. The late afternoon and evening of Tisha B’Av begin to bring balm and consolation and the hope of redemption.  Healing and anticipation come in the weeks that follow with seven prophetic readings on the seven Sabbaths between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah, all from Second Isaiah, all on the theme of consolation, beginning with Isaiah 40: Nachamu, nachamu ammi amar Eloheychem – ‘Comfort, O Comfort my people, saith your God.’   

We move from darkness to light, from mourning to rejoicing, from the Three Weeks to Av Menachem – the month of comfort, and into the sixth month of the year, Ellul. A period of repentance, reaffirmation of faith and hope await us in the coming days. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

Alexandra Wright 

Please join Rabbis Alexandra Wright and Igor Zinkov to mark Tisha B’Av on Saturday evening 6 August at 8.00 pm online via Zoom only.  Please use the usual Shabbat Zoom link. 



You and I Can Change the World 

12 August 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

This week we read the Torah portion Vaetchanan. In its centre is the most recognisable text in the Western world – the Ten Commandments.

Many of you will know that it is the second time that the Ten Commandments have been written in the Torah. The first appearance is in chapter 20 of the book of Exodus. Some people assume that Chapter 5 of the book of Deuteronomy is a direct repetition of the earlier version, but it is not the case. The Ten Commandments of Deuteronomy are slightly different from those of Exodus.

Because of these differences, the laws of Shabbat are debated among Jewish scholars. The Torah gives us two different reasons for Shabbat. In Exodus 20:11 it is said: ‘For in six days The Eternal One made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore, The Eternal One blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.’

We find a different reason in Deuteronomy 5:14-15:

‘The seventh day is a sabbath to The Eternal One your God. On it, you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that The Eternal One your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, The Eternal One your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.’

In Exodus, the Shabbat exists to remind us of the creation of the world. In Deuteronomy, the Shabbat exists to remind us that we were slaves.

One might think that Shabbat is a natural phenomenon and people observe the day of rest as an organic cycle of the world’s system. However, the book of Deuteronomy connects the idea of Shabbat with freedom and human responsibility to remember it. Jewish scholars combined two ideas and said that they both must be important.

Therefore, Shabbat is a reminder that sometimes people must fight their natural instincts and make a deliberate change in the order of nature. The world's natural order gives essential potential to all, but the work must be done to fulfil it. To achieve freedom, we must be proactive and sometimes go against natural human instincts.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel develops this idea further. He suggests it is natural for a human being to depend on other people and material possessions. This dependency, however, may result in inner slavery, weakness, and idolatry. In his book ‘Shabbat’ he reflects on the notion of inner freedom and the task of liberating ourselves from internal slavery:

‘Nothing is as hard to suppress as the will to be a slave to one’s own pettiness. Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, [people] must fight for inner liberty. Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people. There are many who have acquired a high degree of political and social liberty, but only very few are not enslaved to things. This is our constant problem—how to live with people and remain free, how to live with things and remain independent.

In a moment of eternity, while the taste of redemption was still fresh to the former slaves, the people of Israel were given the Ten Words, the Ten Commandments. In its beginning and end, the Decalogue deals with the liberty of [people]. The first Word—I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage— reminds [us] that [our] outer liberty was given to [us] by God, and the tenth Word—Thou shalt not covet!—reminds [us] that [we ourselves] must achieve [our] inner liberty’ (Heschel, The Sabbathpp. 89-90)

We live in a time of many uncertainties and challenges. As we approach this Shabbat, may it be a reminder that we do not always have to follow the natural order. We have the power, potential and responsibility to make this world better, not simply accept it as it is.

Shabbat Shalom, 

Igor


Parashat Ekev

19 August 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

How many of us, I wonder, recognise ourselves in the description of the Jewish community, given by Liz Truss when she made it part of her leadership campaign to protect Jews from ‘creeping antisemitism and wokeism’ in the civil service?  ‘So many Jewish values are Conservative values and British values too,’ she said, ‘for example seeing the importance of family and always taking steps to protect the family unit; and the value of hard work and self-starting and setting up your own business.’

When we make statements such as these, we need to take care that we provide evidence to substantiate our claims. Is there ‘creeping antisemitism’ in the civil service?  My limited knowledge of people who work in the civil service suggests that diversity and difference are celebrated, that departments value education and go out of their way to ensure that their staff are exposed to cultures and religions that are different from their own.

One senior member of the civil service, a member of the LJS, brought some of his team to the synagogue one afternoon to see our synagogue, to learn about Judaism and to hear what it means to be a Jew in today’s world.
The Woolf Institute in Cambridge has, in the past, opened its doors to members of the civil service, as well as other professions, with whole day seminars on religious diversity, inviting rabbis, imams and priests to come and speak on their religions, creating opportunities to discuss difference and shared values.

And what is meant by that curious term ‘wokeism’?  The word originated in African-American Vernacular English, meaning to be alert to racial prejudice and discrimination, but came to mean, in general usage, ‘to be well-informed’ or ‘aware’ especially in a political or cultural sense. Today it encompasses sexism and other issues to do with identity politics and social justice.

Terms like ‘woke’ or ‘wokeism’, the latter a noun constructed from the past tense of the verb, today carry a pejorative meaning, eclipsing a progressive and sincere awareness of what is required for the well-being of our society.  Being ‘woke’ once meant that you were well-informed, conscious of the deep inequalities in our society, of discrimination and other social justice issues.  Instead, as implied when used in the same breath as the phrase ‘creeping antisemitism’, it is used disparagingly and has become a cause of political polarisation. 

And Jews are surely not the only people to be defined by the value they place on family, nor are they to be pigeon-holed as ‘self-starters’ in business.  Yes, for many of us, family is precious and a priority.  But as my colleague, Rabbi Laura Janner-Klauser said in response to Truss’s statement, ‘My experience as a communal rabbi is of Jews who are committed to family in all its forms, not in the narrow sense of nuclear family.’  Like the general population some of us are part of diverse familial structures; but there are many who have no one whom they can call ‘family.’  I will never forget Lotte, a woman who lived in the flat below me forty years ago.  Born in Berlin, she had escaped Nazi persecution and lived on her own, her whole family murdered in the Shoah. She had no family, no nieces or nephews, no cousins. She was completely alone – the few friends who had arrived as German refugees in London and her neighbours were her family.

It is uncomfortable to comment on this ugly leadership contest while those ‘woke’ issues (in the original sense of the term) that require our attention urgently are abandoned.  If only our leadership would awaken themselves to the critical state of children in poverty and the families who are already struggling to put food on the table and are frightened of worse to come, or to the catastrophic climate emergency; if only they would take time to study the words that our written in our Torah portion this week:

‘Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the Eternal One your God is God supreme…who shows no favour and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing food and clothing. – You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ (Deuteronomy 10:16-19).

This is no double-edged sword of ‘wokeism’ in its pejorative sense, but an urgent awakening call to social justice that should unite everyone – political parties, religions, races and nations. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright 

 


The Greatest Test for Human Morality

26 August 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

Torah stories have many lessons. One of them comes from this verse:

[God] fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your ancestors had never known, in order to test you. (Deuteronomy 8:16)

This verse has puzzled Rabbis and Torah scholars of many generations. What test was implied in the provision of manna? Surely this was a great kindness rather than a test. Rabbi Ovadiah ben Jacob Sforno, a 16th-century Italian rabbi and physician, argued that abundance, satisfaction, and prosperity are greater tests for human morality than poverty and need. In his commentary on the above verse, he wrote that the test was ‘to see if [God] will give you your livelihood without your having to perform back-breaking labour if you perform His will’

A lack of resources forces people to think of fairness. In the time of crisis people naturally talk about equality, and equity. However, it is a time of prosperity when we need to establish social justice and help others. In a challenging period of time, it is often too late to act. Torah establishes a crucial principle for the ideal society – be proactive and prepare for the crisis before it begins.

Some of you might know that over the last 6 months, I have been involved in helping Ukrainian refugees. Thanks to the efforts of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, thousands of people received support, shelter, transport, and humanitarian aid. I am honoured to be a co-chair of the Ukraine Crisis Fund and would like to thank everybody for your ongoing support. I speak with Ukrainian refugees weekly and know how much it means to them to know that they are not alone. This support was only possible because WUPJ started its Ukraine Crisis Fund before the war began.

I would like to share one of the latest initiatives that the LJS community is proud to host – Legal Aid for Ukrainian Refugees. Supported by the World Union for Progressive Judaism and Ukrainian National Bar Association, this project helps Ukrainian refugees with legal advice. If you know someone who hosts refugees or needs advice, please share this with them.

We live in turbulent times, and the news about economic recession, drought, and the rise of inflation worries many people in the UK. However, it is important to remember that there are many others who are in a much worse position. Even in a time of crisis, it is important to remain loyal to important principles of human coexistence – mutual help, kindness, and support to those in need.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Igor


Shabbat Shof'tim 

2 September 2022
 

Dear Members and Friends,

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof - ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and settle in the land that the Eternal One your God is giving you’ (Deuteronomy 16:20).  Why does the verse in this week’s Torah portion say tzedek, tzedek twice? This is the question that is asked by nearly every commentator on this verse from the mystical work Sefer Ha-Bahir, written in the twelfth century, to contemporary writers such as Rabbi Jill Jacobs in her book Where Justice Dwells.

Perhaps more than any other verse in the Torah, it is this call for justice that exemplifies the Jewish commitment to fairness, impartiality and righteousness. In its context, the verse is about the integrity of judges in courts of law and honesty in judgement  – ‘You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.  Justice, justice shall you pursue…’ (Deuteronomy 16:19-20).

But take the verse out of its context and it opens up a broad vision of justice for a society that is underpinned both by a structure that ensures everyone is provided with their basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, warmth and companionship, and by those individual acts of tzedakah, the word we use for ‘charity’ or ‘righteousness.’

Rabbi Jill Jacobs distinguishes between monies that are given towards the relief of poverty, as opposed to money donated philanthropically, such as towards a museum, orchestra or animal rights organisation.  Most authorities, she writes, conclude that tzedakah money must benefit the poor in some way and go towards the alleviation of suffering.

In recent weeks our community care team has been exercised by the rise in food prices and the increase in the cost of heating and electricity that we know will make household bills unmanageable for so many people in the coming months. 

We have been asking how we can support our own members who are worried about how they are going to manage to put a meal on the table and heat their homes this winter?  What can we provide for them?  What can we offer the local non-Jewish community?  Should we open up the building and create some kind of weekday Drop-In so that people have a warm space to sit, socialise, enjoy a cup of tea or mug of soup? Can we, as a synagogue, afford to heat our own building this winter to provide that space?

Justice is not an abstract principle – we see that in the laws that follow this week’s Torah portion relating to marriage, children, neighbours, sexual misconduct, the military, slavery, employment, protection of the stranger, fatherless and widow and honesty in business.  Justice isn’t only devolved to the judges and leaders of society, but to each one of us as individuals and to us as a community.

The real question is how we can integrate tzedakah into our vision of social justice for our society. In less than a month we will celebrate Rosh Hashanah – our community’s opportunity to think about our own interior worlds and how we move forward into the new year.  I hope it can also be a time for us to discuss ways in which we can support our own members who are suffering from this crisis, as well as our local community and wider society.  It is a huge mandate, and we cannot do this alone, but nor can we abandon those who will undoubtedly be hurt in the crisis that lies ahead of us.

The double tzedek tzedek tirdof is an urgent call to beg the new government to help those who need it most and for each of us to do what we can to alleviate poverty and suffering.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

 

Tue, 7 February 2023 16 Sh'vat 5783