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Parashat Emor
 

6 May 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

Ko tavo-u el-ha-aretz asher ani notein la-chem – ‘When you enter the land that I am giving you…’ 

In 1979, I made my first visit to Israel. In those days – and it seems such a long time ago now in my own life – Israel was still a young state. It had just celebrated its 31st birthday.  I write on Israel’s 74th birthday – Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day.

The first few days of my stay in Israel, before I started a course in Hebrew, an Ulpan, at the Hebrew University, were spent in an Arab hotel just inside the Old City in Jerusalem, at the recommendation of Rabbi John Rayner (zichrono livrachah), at that time, the Senior Rabbi of the LJS.

Communication with my family was by letter and I would pick up all my correspondence from the main post office in Jaffa Street.  A vivid memory of those early days in Israel was clambering on to a bus with my very limited Hebrew, most of it classical that wasn’t much of help when you wanted to buy a bus ticket, and suddenly realising that the bus driver was Jewish. I was in the Jewish State and yes, in my teens at Religion School, we idealised the State of Israel.  It had been a refuge for Jews from pogroms and antisemitism in the late 19th and 20th centuries, a homeland for Jews after the Shoah; its citizens had made the desert bloom, just as the prophet Isaiah had prophesied:


    The arid desert shall be glad,
    The wilderness shall rejoice
    And shall blossom abundantly… (Isaiah 35:1)

And already, in Israel’s short life, it had fought and defended itself in several wars. In the bumpy bus journey from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the evidence lay strewn along the sides of the road.  And yet, turn in another direction and everywhere, there was evidence – as there still is – of our history.  In the Hebrew language, in the names of towns and villages, the names of roads, in the Old City, at the Kotel or deep underneath in the tunnels excavated in more recent decades – Zedekiah’s Cave, the Siloam Tunnel, Gihon’s Spring.

Amos Oz once famously said that had Israel had an identity card, its middle name would be ‘Great Expectations.’ The great dream of Zionism – that Jews would return to our ancient homeland, that the Hebrew language would reawaken as a spoken language, that its citizens would be a light to the nations, a moral nation – was realised with the establishment of the State and its early years of euphoria and danger.

But the memory of a dream is too often ephemeral. The stuff of dreams fades in time and dreams are not predictions of the future. They represent our dearest longings and visions are exactly that – something seen in the imagination, something that often transcends reality.  There is nothing wrong with visions – we must hold on to them because they are what drive us forward to create dialogue, equity, peace – all the things that we long for in Israel and also in our own world.

The young state realised its dreams of sovereignty, of a public Hebraic-Jewish culture, a home for all Jews wherever they lived in the world, technological and economic success.  And in so many other ways, there is so much to make us proud of the achievements of the State of Israel.

But the citizens of any State cannot live in a vacuum.  They must live with those who are not like themselves; the people who live among them.  They must live peaceably with their neighbours, near and far; they have to manage sovereignty and power in ways that are not destructive to the dignity and existence of others.

How many more years or decades will it take for there to be a Palestinian State on the West Bank of the Jordan?  How many more years until both hands of partnership can reach out to each other – if not friendship and love – in a relationship that is based on equal standing and justice?  Two nations, two peoples – descended from one father, living side by side in peace.  Let us pray for that day and let us earnestly work for it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright



You may say I'm a dreamer but I'm not the only one

13 May 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation UK poverty report for 2020/21, before the pandemic, more than one in five people in the UK lived in poverty. Probably, this figure is even worse today. Defining and measuring poverty is not a simple task, but the current rise in living costs in the UK and many other countries is impossible to ignore.  

This week’s Torah portion gives us a meaningful parallel with the current economic reality in the UK and the world. Chapter 25 of the Book of Leviticus provides a long list of laws of economic justice. They include: 

  • No person can be a lifelong slave.  
  • Family plots of land cannot be sold out forever but returned to the original owner and their descendants every 50 years. 
  • One may not cheat others in business matters, nor earn a profit at the expense of one in need. 
  • Every Seventh and Fiftieth year, when no agricultural work is to be done (In Hebrew, these the principles are called ‘Shemitah’ and ‘Yovel’). 

Rising electricity and petrol prices, tax increases and other economic challenges make it hard to believe that such a society prescribed by Torah is possible to achieve. Can you imagine a world where occasionally some production stops for a year and all workers get a paid leave? Can you imagine a world where loans are given to the poor without interest? Can you imagine a world where every sold property is returned to its original family? 

Nechama Leibiwitz, quoting Rabbi Kook, interpreted the utopian vision of the Torah in the following way: 

‘A year of solemn rest is essential for both the nation and the land, a year of peace and quiet without oppressor and tyrant—you shall not oppress your neighbour and your fellow, for a Shemitah (Seventh year) has been proclaimed to the Eternal One. It is a year of equality and rest, in which the soul reaches out towards divine justice, towards God who sustains the living creatures with loving kindness… A person shall return to the pristine nature before they required drugs to combat disease, which is largely the result of upsetting the equilibrium of life and is symptomatic of their divorcement from nature in its spiritual and material aspects.’ 

In other words, according to Rabbi Kook, the main idea behind all these principles is the raising of the spiritual level of the nation. People should strive to achieve the highest level of comfort and social justice for society so that any farmer could dedicate every seventh year to education, self-care, volunteering, and rest. 

The Torah portion Behar seems utopian and impossible to achieve. Perhaps, this is true for today. Does this make it an impossible and naïve dream? Probably, but it does not mean we should stop trying to get as close to it as we possibly can. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Igor



Shabbat B'Chukkotay

20 May 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

One morning, a few weeks ago, I discovered a large nest resting on the branches of the holly bush, whose branches reach out over the drive I share with my neighbour. Little attempt had been made to conceal it and I wondered at its vulnerability and the ease with which predators might steal its contents.  Over a few days, I stood underneath the bush, watching the still head of a bird sitting on her eggs.  On one day, I discovered two birds fussing over the nest, a few feathers flying.  But recently, everything has gone quiet. The nest remains, but no evidence of any birds, let alone eggs or hatchlings.  I don’t know whether a squirrel or magpie or another predator has made off with the eggs before they had a chance to hatch.  Or whether the chicks emerged and just didn’t make it and the parents have gone off to make a new start?  The empty nest remains abandoned and whatever promise of new life there might have been, is no more.

Nature can be predatory.  The Egyptian geese in the park hatched five goslings a few weeks ago, now there are just three, almost as big as their parents.  We mourn their loss, but I wonder about the geese themselves; do they weep over their offspring?  Are there bird rituals that acknowledge their loss and help them to care for their surviving chicks?

Perhaps we project our own sense of loss on to the creatures around us.  We see a world in mourning when, in fact, our creaturely neighbours simply get on with life.  Driven out of their home, the birds of the holly bush have, no doubt, found another place to lay their eggs – I hope – a safer, hidden, non-accessible spot, away from the prying eyes and antennae of their predators. 

This week’s parashah, B’chukkotay, forms the conclusion to the Book of Leviticus and includes the list of ‘blessings and curses’ – the blessings with which Israel will be rewarded if obedient to God, the curses for disobedience.  Each one of the blessings is related to the land: rains in their season, abundant produce and trees yielding fruit, enough food that threshing will overtake the vintage and vintage overtake sowing. And peace - God will grant peace in the land and the earth will find respite from vicious beasts; God’s presence will rest on the land and in the midst of the people. 

And the curses will wreak misery – disease, drought, famine, wild beasts, warfare and desolation of cities and the land around them.

Rashi (1040-1104), drawing on an ancient midrashic commentary, notices the order of blessings at the beginning of this parashah.  You might think, he says, that abundant rains providing water and food is enough for human beings to live well.  But if there is no peace, all this is nothing. That is why the Torah states after these promises, ‘I will grant peace in the land’ (Leviticus 26.6).  From this we learn that peace counter-balances everything.

Our global food system is battered by the war in Ukraine, as well as Covid-19, the climate catastrophe and what the Economist calls an ‘energy shock.’ What we have felt in the west from the cost-of-living crisis is just the edge of what those in the global south will experience unless Russia’s war in Ukraine does not cease soon - countries on the brink of famine, children who will die of starvation and political unrest which will destabilise those states already vulnerable to conflict and turmoil.

The Torah’s mandate for human beings to ‘follow [God’s] laws and faithfully observe [God’s] commandments’ is a directive to the world to work together to ensure the poorest receive grain and food and receive debt relief.
But ultimately, it is only peace that can help to avoid such a world-shattering crisis. Here, we can only pray for nation to cease lifting up sword against nation, so that cities can be rebuilt, food circulate freely and fairly, and families and communities, mourning over their losses, can rebuild their broken lives.


Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright 

 


Truth Behind Numbers

27 May 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

In this week’s Torah portion Bamidbar we read about many numbers. In the beginning, God commands Moses to count all the Israelite men over the age of twenty. Each tribe conducts the census, and the precise number is given for each tribe and for the whole people. At the first glance, this Torah portion does not contain a valuable life lesson or deep wisdom. Instead, it provides you with details, names, and numbers. However, it is important to remember that behind each number there is a human life. 

Today, we live in the world of many statistical numbers. For example, the anticipation of the rise in energy prices is a warning sign for many people in the UK and around the world. The typical household energy bill is expected to rise by about £800 a year in October. If it happens, it will put many people in an impossible position. Ofgem warns that 12 million households can be placed into fuel poverty, having to choose between food and heating.  

‘And God spoke to Moses in the Sinai Wilderness’ (Numbers 1:1). Midrash uses this verse in the Torah to ask important questions - Why was Torah given and the people’s identity was formed in the Sinai Wilderness? Why not in a city or some other place more suitable for comfortable human life? Midrash continues with an important conclusion: ‘From here the sages taught that the Torah was given through three things: fire, water, and wilderness.’ (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7) 

The fire was present on Mount Sinai when Moses received Revelation. Water was in the narrative throughout the journey – baby Moses was left in the water at the beginning of his life, the Sea of Reeds parted during the Exodus story, etc. Wilderness is where most of the Torah narrative takes place, and it is where the Torah was given.  

The Midrash continues: ‘And why was the Torah given through these three things? Just as fire, water, and wilderness are free to all the inhabitants of the world, so too are the words of the Torah free to them’ 

Behind the numbers, this week’s Torah portion gives us an important lesson. Some things should be available to all people and should not be conditional on our income, position, and status. If Torah is one of such things, surely the most basic needs of heating and energy should be available to all too.  

Talmud Sages remind us: ‘At a time when the community is suffering, no one should say, ‘I will go home, eat, drink, and be at peace with myself.” (Taanit 11a) 

As we approach Shabbat, let us hope that the world and society we live in will be wise, kind, and compassionate, supporting people in need and helping each other to remain the best example of human society. Let us hope that in the time of need we will remain together and united as a community and support each other.  

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Igor

 

Sun, 27 November 2022 3 Kislev 5783