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An Open Letter to the Home Secretary 
     

4 November 2022

Dear Home Secretary,

In synagogues this coming Shabbat, congregations will be listening to the story of Abram. In response to a call from God, he moves away from his land, his birthplace and father’s house to a land that he does not know.  With that call to leave all that is familiar and beloved, comes the promise of a blessing – a place to settle and posterity.

Yet as soon as he arrives in the land of Canaan, there is a famine of such severity, that he and his wife Sarai, are forced to move to Egypt for food and survival. The political situation is volatile there and he finds himself threatened as a foreigner, his wife Sarai abducted, and they are forced to resort to deception regarding their status.

Why tell you this biblical tale? Because the story of our people – the Jewish people – is one of migration and flight, exile and fear of what happens when you are marked as ‘other’. Abram in Canaan and then Egypt, Jacob fleeing from his brother to Aram, Joseph, persecuted by his brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt, the Israelites as slaves in Egypt before their escape into the wilderness, there to wander for 40 years.  Exile and return are the themes of the biblical narrative, the Jewish people always strangers in a strange land, whether Babylonia or Egypt, Persia or Greece, Rome or Christendom.

And even when we imagined we had made our homes in the countries of the Middle East, in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Iraq or Iran; even when we considered ourselves part of the very fabric of the society in England, Spain and Portugal, France, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Russia, the story was always the same – persecution, forced conversion, expulsion, exile or death. 

Yet in a perverse kind of way, our nomadism has made us culturally more open, it has helped us remain distinctive in our language of prayer and study, in our observances and beliefs, and especially in our moral compass and compassion for those who, themselves, are nomads.

‘You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt’ (Exodus 23:9).

‘When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Eternal One am your God’ (Leviticus 19:33-34).

‘The Eternal One watches over the stranger; gives courage to the orphan and widow…’ (Psalm 146:9)


These verses, and many more in Tanakh, are responses to this story – to the foundational narrative of our people, the Exodus from Egypt. ‘For I saved the poor man who cried out, the orphan who had none to help him….I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy, and I looked into the case of the stranger. I broke the jaws of the wrongdoer, and I wrested prey from his teeth,’ says Job as he remembers the days of old, before he lost his family and home, his livelihood and wealth. I was an advocate for all who needed help, I fought against cruelty and injustice.

It is inconceivable that individuals who have come here to escape oppression in their own countries, are waiting for their asylum cases to be heard – four, five, nine or ten years after their arrival.  Take one young man, twenty-one years old, who came with his mother and brother as a child, fleeing horrendous domestic violence, attending secondary school in this country, who won a place at university, and graduated with an honours degree a year ago. But because he remains an asylum seeker he still cannot work. An intelligent, articulate graduate, with a strong sense of wanting to contribute to the country where he has now spent more than half his life.

Can you imagine what it must be like for children and families to be imprisoned – because that is what it sounds like – in a grossly overcrowded facility in Kent, behind wire fencing.  What have they done wrong? 

Home Secretary, it is time to change a system that is hostile and obstructive to asylum seekers in this country.  Yes, there are people who come here as members of criminal gangs, there are people who take advantage of what this country may have to offer, and they should not be allowed to disrupt society.  But vulnerable individuals and families, children, women, adolescents, people who genuinely are fleeing danger in their own country – from famine, persecution and discrimination because of their sexuality, or their political views, people who cannot live freely because of corrupt political systems, individuals who have been tortured or are escaping violence – all these individuals should have their asylum applications dealt with quickly, effectively, within months, not years.  And when that has happened, let them work – surely this renewed work force will help to boost much needed growth in this country.

What will it take for you to change your language and your mindset about genuine asylum seekers?  Please mend the broken system; stop putting people away in places where you wouldn’t even house cattle; start treating people humanely, compassionately, kindly. Let this young man who has a degree from a good university and is waiting for a scholarship so that he can do an MA, go to work and contribute to the well-being of this country. How many more young men and women are there like him, who have spent ten years in our education system, working hard, succeeding academically, only to be told – you cannot work?

There are many kind and generous people in this country who are doing compassionate work with families and individuals who feel threatened, scared and abandoned. But it is time that compassion and practical policies become the hallmark of all those who set policies for our country.  I do not doubt the challenges that any government has to face in the current climate, but the advantages of a dedicated workforce, wanting to give back something to the country in which they find sanctuary, have to outweigh the disadvantages.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

 



Torah Portion Vayera 
Bitter Searching of The Heart
     

11 November 2022

From bitter searching of the heart
We rise to play a greater part.
Leonard Cohen

 

Dear Members and Friends,

As some of you already know, I have a degree in electronic engineering. Over the last few years, my experience and knowledge of engineering has complemented my rabbinical training.

In electric circuits, there is a phenomenon called the ‘transient process’. It occurs when you turn electricity on, for example, when we turn the lights on.

Let's say we need a certain level of voltage and shift the switch on. In the first few milliseconds, there will be a significant jump to twice the level we need to achieve. Then the signal will experience a sharp drop to approximately half of the required level. Then there will be a stabilising process, and the level will gradually get to the one we need and will stabilise.

The first jump is the most dangerous part and needs to be taken into account. There are two main strategies for designing electric appliances. The first is to build everything considering this process and make it sustain such a big jump. Another way is to use very expensive materials to soften the jump. In other words, people either need to have a safety net for softening quick changes or invest in expensive systems to avoid them.

It is about our micro world, the world of electricity. I think it can be relevant to the macro world of human society too.  For example, try to google the same phrase from two different computers with two different google accounts logged in. You’re going to get two different lists of search results.

Web search engines and news aggregators today have become increasingly capable of generating personalised results. This means that the content we find online is individually tailored to our preferences. It is based on sophisticated linguistic analysis of our search history, our emails, and lists of our recently visited websites.
Ultimately, instead of encouraging dialogue between different groups, it promotes so-called filter bubbles, in which internet users are more likely to meet people with similar opinions and less likely to be confronted by different views. Therefore, people spend most of their time speaking with like-minded people and get the impression that the majority agrees with them. This change happened so quickly that we could not adjust to it, which led to a significant polarisation in our society. 

There are many examples of polarisations in our world today. With this in mind, we can read this week’s Torah portion Vayera and its central theme – The Binding of Isaac. Why did Abraham agree to sacrifice his son? Why did God tell Abraham to do so in the first place? Such questions arise in anyone’s mind when reading the story of Akeda. 

In the Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides wrote that Abraham’s hearing of God’s original demand was a lower form of prophecy than his response to the angel who stopped his hand. Maimonides noticed the difference between the two appearances of God in the story - the first was a dream vision, while the second was a more direct prophecy. Therefore, one may argue, it wasn’t God who made the original demand to sacrifice Isaac. It was Abraham’s dim and imperfect perception of God, who appeared to him in a dream.

Only a debate, a clash of differences, can lead to a balanced and informed viewpoint. Blind faith can end up being a dim, imperfect perception of God, and can lead to disastrous consequences. Ideologically driven decisions must be counterbalanced with pragmatic science and rationale. One cannot exist without the other. 
As we begin this Shabbat, may we be open to the opinions of others and be ready for respectful debate, however bitter it may be. From bitter searching of the heart, we rise to play a greater part.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Igor

 


Chayyey Sarah
     

18 November 2022


Dear Members and Friends

Sometimes there is a felicitous synchronicity between the weekly Torah portion and the events taking place around us. This week is one such example. In parashat Chayyey Sarah, we encounter Isaac out in the field – the first time he has made an appearance since the trauma of being taken by his father, Abraham, to Mount Moriah to be offered up as a sacrifice. At the very last moment, his life is spared, and a ram is offered instead, but a careful reading of the text shows that he does not return home with his father, nor does he appear at his mother, Sarah’s funeral, in the next chapter.

It isn’t until we are into the second chapter of this week’s parashah that we know he is, at least alive, when Abraham summons the chief steward of his household and instructs him to find a wife for his son, Isaac. The servant takes ten camels and gifts and makes the long journey north to Aram-naharaim, to the city of Nahor.  As he makes the camels kneel down at the water-well at evening time, he prays to God to bring him luck.  May the young woman who offers water to me and to my master’s camels be the one designated for Isaac, he says.

He has scarcely concluded his prayer, when Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel, Abraham’s nephew, comes down to the well with a pitcher on her shoulder. She fills her jar with water from the spring, offers it to the steward and then draws more water for the camels and the man is ushered into her home, there to meet with her brother Laban. In a long and elaborate speech, the steward explains his mission and his encounter with the beautiful young woman and invites her to become Isaac’s bride. While her mother and brother urge her to delay, Rebekah is eager to begin her journey and she sets off with her nurse and Abraham’s servant.

The narrative makes a seamless transition from this scene with Rebekah’s family, to a field in the land of Canaan.  And it is here that we suddenly encounter Isaac once again, no longer the terrified boy bound to the altar, but a young man coming from the Negev where has been living.  It is evening and he has gone out to ‘stroll in the field’ and as he is walking, he looks up and sees camels coming!

The Hebrew of this verse is both ambiguous and pregnant with meaning: Va-yetze Yitzchak la-su-ach ba-sadeh lif’not erev… ‘And Isaac went out la-su-ach in the field…’ Many translations say that Isaac went out to ‘stroll’ in the field, reading the verb not with a chet as its last letter, but with a tet – la-shut – ‘to rove about, to go to and fro.’

I am not very sure why some of the scholars amend the final letter of this word. It may be because the Peshitta, the Syriac translation of the Hebrew Bible, made in the 2nd century CE, translates the word in this way. Isaac was having a little wander in the field.  Other Aramaic translations and the Talmud have Isaac praying in the field, understanding la-su-ach to mean ‘to meditate’ as in the verse from Psalms (119:15): B’fikkudecha asichah – ‘I meditate upon your precepts…’  

However, Rashbam – Rabbi Samuel ben Meir – the grandson of the great biblical commentator, Rashi, gives another meaning to this root.  He understands the word la-su-ach to come from the word si-ach, which means ‘bush, shrub or plant’, from a root meaning ‘to grow’ or ‘shoot up’, particularly of trees. We come across the word as a noun in the second creation story in Genesis 2:5: V’chol si-ach ha-sadeh terem yiheyeh va-aretz - ‘when no shrub of the field was yet on earth…’ and again in Genesis 21 when Hagar casts her son, Ishmael, under achad ha-sichim – ‘one of the bushes.’

So, what was Isaac doing out in the field, asks Rashbam?  But Rashbam places him in the field planting sichim - trees. 

As world leaders bring the COP27 conference to an end this weekend, having considered loss and damage in the context of the climate crisis, tipping points, climate justice and the impact of burning fossil fuels on the planet, among other subjects, Rashbam’s interpretation of one verb in Genesis is an instructive indicator and perhaps even a message to those engaged in detailed discussions and decision making.

When we contemplate the fragile and endangered landscapes of our planet and reflect and meditate on their beauty; when we consider the gross injustices and tragedies that occur because of climate change – poorer nations paying the price for richer nations’ indulgence, when we consider the tiny window of time we have to reverse the damage we have inflicted on our world, we are reminded that we need to live in balance with the natural world, taking care that our footprint is light.  And we need to act on our moral and financial responsibility to those poorer continents whose carbon emissions are a tiny percentage of richer continents.

It is Isaac who discovers the wells stopped up by the Philistines in their dispute with his shepherds, reminding us of the scarcity of and the vital need to access clean water (Genesis 26:15 ff). Isaac, who does not leave the land of Canaan, even in a time of famine, offers us insight into how to live lightly on our planet, planting trees and conserving and sharing water so that future generations can look to the possibility of a peaceful future.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

 


Sigd - Unity in Diversity 
     

25 November 2022

Dear Members and Friends, I wish Chag Sigd Sameach to all of you!

This week, on 22 November, the Jewish world celebrated the festival Sigd. Have you ever heard of it? As far as I know, this festival was never celebrated at the LJS, and almost no communities in the UK mark it in any way. 

Sigd is a unique festival celebrated by Beta Israel, the Ethiopian Jewish community. It was unknown to most Jews until 1904, when Jaques Faitlovitch arrived for his first visit to Ethiopian Jews. He started to develop the relationship between them and the rest of the Jewry. He worked on helping this community with education and improving their living standards. He did everything he could to ensure that this newly discovered community would be recognised as fully Jewish and become eligible for immigration to Israel. After the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935-6, it was forbidden to practice Judaism there. It became increasingly dangerous to be openly Jewish. By the late 20th century, most Beta Israel communities immigrated to Israel. 

The Ethiopian Jewish community existed in isolation and developed some unique practices. They claim to be the descendants of the lost Israelite tribe of Dan. According to their legends and beliefs, they practiced Judaism of Biblical-era priests, sacrificing animals on Passover and observing many other Jewish laws that differ from the rest of the Jewry.

Since the immigration to Israel, Ethiopian Jewish culture started assimilating into Israeli versions of Judaism. Still, Sigd is one of the remaining festivals of this rich culture that Ethiopian Jews keep celebrating today. 

 ‘Sigd’ means ‘prostration’ in Ge’ez, an ancient Ethiopian language. It is related to the Aramaic word sged which has the same meaning. 

Sigd is celebrated 50 days after Yom Kippur when God revealed God’s presence to Moses on Mount Sinai. Avi Wogderas Wassa, a musician of Ethiopian Jewish origin and organiser of Sigd celebrations around the world, explains that on this day, the Ethiopian Jewish community would climb up a high mountain where they could pray in the direction of Jerusalem. They would fast for the first part of the day to emphasise the link of this festival with Yom Kippur. Kessim – the Ethiopian equivalent of Rabbis - would read their version of the Hebrew Bible and bless people. Then the community would come down and eat a seudah (a feast) together. 

For many people today, the festival of Sigd is an example of diverse Jewish culture which should be preserved and celebrated. However, many people see it as a serious problem and social and moral dilemma. In his book ‘From Sinai to Ethiopia,’ Sharon Shalom writes: ‘we face the challenge of defining the boundaries between local and universal culture. Tensions arise between the aspiration to preserve the culture of origin and the desire to integrate into the new one, between assimilation and integration, between nationality and religion.’ 

20 to 40% of the populations of most Western countries were not born in their country of residence. What does this mean for our practices and traditions? What should immigrants do when they settle in a new country? Should they assimilate and forget about their culture? Should they remain loyal to their traditions? How do those born in the country react when they see a different way of life and cultural norms?

Babylonian Talmud reminds us that according to the Torah, all people share the same ancestors – Adam and Eve. Why is it so? So that “a person should not say my ancestor is greater than yours” (Sanhedrin 37a).

The modern world presents most countries with the challenge of diversity. It should not be seen as a threat but rather a way to enrich each other. I hope that one day The LJS will celebrate Sigd and be proud of its international and multicultural Jewish culture. I hope that one day British society will see the value and mutual benefit of welcoming people from all over the world. I hope that one day the world will stop building walls and unite to celebrate its diversity.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Igor

Wed, 17 July 2024 11 Tammuz 5784