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Shabbat Ha'azinu/Sukkot       

7 October 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

Following on the heels of Yom Kippur and our beautiful and solemn services that begin with Kol Nidre and conclude with the triumphant sounding of a Tekiah Gedolah, comes the festival of Sukkot. The building of a Sukkah outside, with a roof just open enough to see the stars, covered with s’kach (branches and leaves), and the taking of four species – lulav (palm), hadas (myrtle), aravot (willow) and the etrog, encourage us into the fresh Autumn air and a celebration of the earth’s harvest.

The Torah tells us that the reason we must live in sukkot (booths) for the seven days of the festival is to teach future generations to know that God made the Israelite people live in sukkot when God brought them out of the land of Egypt (Leviticus 23.43).

A midrashic discussion between two distinguished sages, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva, disagree over the nature of the sukkot.  What were they?  Rabbi Eliezer says that they were actual sukkot – booths. Perhaps he envisaged the Israelites in the wilderness, resting in these temporary huts as they stopped on the various stages of their journey.  We might argue with him that the exercise of building a sukkah every time they came to a stopping point would have been somewhat challenging and cumbersome. Where would they have found the foliage in the desert? The Torah tells us in many other places, that the Israelites pitched their tents every time they came to rest, not their sukkot. But Rabbi Eliezer wants to understand the Torah verse from Leviticus literally.

Rabbi Akiva has a different understanding of these sukkot. These were not physical structures, he says. They were the ‘clouds of glory’ that symbolised God’s presence with the Israelites throughout the forty years of their journey through the desert: the cloud that led them by day, that came down and covered Mount Sinai as the Torah was given, the cloud that covered the Tent of Meeting, that filled the Sanctuary in Solomon’s time.  These, too, says Akiva, are a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt (Sifra, Emor, 17:11).

Some of us may be able to build a sukkah for the festival in our gardens or on our balconies and, weather permitting, perhaps we can eat in our temporary dwelling for this week.  For others, if the building of a Sukkah isn’t possible, Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation is a moving reminder of God’s presence among us – wherever we are.

And there is another message to be drawn from this midrash. The Talmud speaks of our permanent (keva) dwellings and the Sukkah as a place that is temporary (arai). Last week, while we were celebrating Rosh Hashanah, Haringey and Islington councils and Streets Kitchen, a grassroots group which provides food and clothing for the homeless community were host to the UK’s only festival for people experiencing homelessness – ‘making the invisible visible.’ Open-sided tents were dotted around the park, handing out food and clothing, there was music and stalls with art and advice.  People were able to get a diabetes check and a van was offering Covid vaccines.

‘Streets Fest’ is a joyful celebration of the culture of support and solidarity among the homeless community, but it is also an acknowledgement of the appalling difficulties of sleeping rough – whether in the streets, or sofa surfing, or living in dangerous and transient accommodation.

During the pandemic, we saw how it was possible for homeless people to be housed in safe accommodation.  Yet there are more than 278,000 households in England who have faced homelessness over the past two years, of which one quarter were in full-time or part-time employment.

‘It’s about making the invisible visible.’  These are the words of the ‘joy coordinator’ of Streets Fest. Our sukkah at the LJS will visibly remind us of the Israelite slaves who left Egypt long ago, it will give us a glimpse of God’s sheltering presence among us, and it will draw our attention visibly to those who are homeless.  Akiva’s sukkot – ‘clouds of glory’ - are reminders that the homeless community are not invisible members of our society, from whom we turn away. It is our task to make the invisible members of our world visible and heard and their lives more easily bearable throughout the winter.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Alexandra Wright

  • YOM KIPPUR APPEAL 2022
    The Yom Kippur Appeal 2022 leaflet will be with you shortly. If you would like to donate online, please click 
    here.  Please ensure that you indicate your donation as YK Appeal 2022 and how you would like it split between the charities, if applicable.  A short video from each charity is available here.
  • The LJS supports Sufra, a food bank and kitchen.  The large yellow ‘dustbin’ in the foyer on the ground floor is for donations of non-perishable food, e.g. rice, pasta, noodles, tinned soup, tinned fish, teabags, cooking sauces, oil, sugar, long-life milk etc.  For more details click here

 


Simchat Torah - The Festival of Joy and Peace      
14 October 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) was a professor of philosophy at the University of Marburg and a founder of the Society for the Advancement of Jewish Studies in Berlin. In one of his books, he made an unusual connection between joy and a sense of peace: 

‘Joy is the very purpose and goal of a festival: not the joy around Dionysus or Bacchus, but one defined by its being shared with strangers... Such joy is to raise man above social affliction; though this affliction cannot be ignored, it is, on the day of festival, at least to be overcome. The holidays would indeed lose all meaning and value if they were unable to implant for a short time joy in the hearts of celebrating people. Therefore, joy in the festival—which joy is its very meaning and foundation—is also a symbol of peace. If it is true that holidays make joy a reality among people, the road to peace becomes a road to life.’ 

Cohen’s idea is simple – Festivals, moments of joy, help people to be close to each other. At the short moment of celebration, it does not matter who we are – rich or poor, Jewish or non-Jewish, young or old. The framework of festivals helps people to become closer and celebrate the occasion with each other. At such a moment, humanity becomes one and people – united. This sense of equality, unity and the shared purpose to celebrate makes people feel at peace. 

Cohen continues: ‘Peace in the joy of the festival is a characteristic of Jewish life. It is a miracle that, in spite of all the sufferings which have marked his history, the Jew has been able to preserve such equanimity, even humour, without which he could not have managed to rise out of the deepest humiliation to such proud heights. This miracle is due to the festivals!’ (H. Cohen, “Joy in the Holy Days”, December 1956, pp 560-61.) 

Festivals do not make all challenges disappear, but they make them more bearable. Celebrations do not make us the same, but they make us more likely to talk to each other. Festival does not make us equal, but they help us to understand one another.  

We celebrate the last of the High Holidays this week – Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. This Festival concludes the marathon of Festivals in the month of Tishri. We started this chain with Selichot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – the days of deep reflection and repentance. We are about to end the Festival of Sukkot and celebrate Simchat Torah – the most joyful and experiential festival in Judaism. We spend much time outside, having meals in fragile and temporary tents. We dance with Torah scrolls and enjoy spending time together. 

May this season bring us peace, unity, and joy. May the Festival of Simchat Torah bring us closer to each other, help us listen to others, and make us equal. 

Moadim Le-simcha - may seasons like this be happy and joyful! 

Rabbi Igor 


Shabbat Bereshit
     

21 October 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

I returned to the LJS one day this week, having accompanied a friend to hospital following recent surgery, to find a message from two sisters who had visited the synagogue earlier on in the day. They seemed very frightened, said our caretaker who had spoken to them and taken their telephone number.

I rang them later on that evening to listen to their story. A close friend, with whom they had grown up, had become intimate with a young woman of similar age. In recent conversations, he had described her appearance in unusual terms – her face changes, her eyes are like flames of fire. Although the young man found this otherworldly experience empowering and calming, the sisters had become unsettled and deeply troubled by the relationship.  

As I listened to them describe the young woman, whom they had never met, I thought about the faces of people I had met and how each one was capable of change, transformation even; how we can never definitively come to a conclusion about the appearance of an individual. Joy and happiness can transform a face in one way, grief in another, so that a person you think you know well, becomes occasionally and surprisingly unrecognisable.

But the sisters saw something demonic and dangerous; they felt frightened and vulnerable to forces they didn’t understand or couldn’t grasp. What was it that had triggered their upset and fear? 

I learnt that they had lost their father seven years earlier when they were just thirteen and wondered, as they reached young adulthood, whether the depth of their loss was only just beginning to be processed, leaving them feeling vulnerable and, as they described it, helpless.

They seemed quite isolated, without an anchor, without family support and I wondered who was there for them and what was their story? This was not the story of hysteria or excited paranoia – the distress was palpable. Their belief in the existence of demonic beings around them was real. How could they reclaim a feeling of safety and security?

There comes a time in our lives – usually when we are far from home, away from family, as we work out our relationships, our studies and work – when we become suddenly aware and often pained by a sense, even an intuition, that something is not right – an unsettling, troubling feeling, as though our moorings have become untied. 

‘You can’t untie a boat that was never moored, nor hear a shadow in its furs, nor move through thick life without fear,’ wrote Osip Mandelstam, the Russian-Jewish poet.  Sooner or later, the bubble bursts as it does at the beginning of the Book of Genesis and life gets under way.

The bruising reality of life is not the work outside the Garden of Eden from which Adam and Eve are banished, it is the jealousy of Cain and Abel that results in the latter’s death at the hands of his brother, it is the making of weapons of destruction, the wounds inflicted by one man on another and the violence of men towards women. That is when God regrets that He has made human beings on earth, va-yitatzeiv el-libbo – ‘and His [God’s] heart [is] saddened’ (Genesis 6:6).

The Hebrew word va-yitatzeiv is a reflexive verb, and the phrase, in its plain meaning, means something like ‘his heart was grieved.’ But the grief comes not from the bizarre and anti-social behaviour of God’s creation, but from somewhere deep within God’s heart – the sadness of His own failure at perfection, of loneliness and isolation, of people’s indifference to having been created ‘in the image of God’.

I can no more blot out the belief in the so-called ‘evil spirits’ in which the two sisters were convinced were threatening their security, than God could blot out from the earth the people whom He had created – threats to divine well-being and health.

Healing – as I learnt from my friend whom I accompanied to hospital – is in the hands of skilled, knowledgeable, compassionate physicians, nurses, health-care workers and the thousands of employees who encounter patients in hospitals and surgeries up and down the country. But it is also in the hands of ourselves: in our spirits which are lifted by those connections, by prayer, music, human touch and conversation, and the care and warmth with which we reach out to each other every day.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

 


Shabbat Noach
     

28 October 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

I’m writing this piece sitting by a wood burning stove in the midst of a week spent in Wicklow, an hour south of Dublin, Ireland. My family and I have spent the last week breathing the sea air and taking in the green landscape, the sound of rushing water and the friendly faces in Ireland.
Yesterday we visited the National Leprechaun Museum in Dublin, an immersive experience that shares some of the numerous mythologies that originate here. Many of the myths that were shared somehow incorporate animals. The myth of the Selkie was particularly compelling- a half seal half person who transforms through wearing a sacred dress and who has healing songs. We had the gift of seeing some seals on the coast while on an isolated walk. Looking at them swimming so gracefully and even playfully through the crashing waves, it’s not hard to imagine how one could create myths around their wisdom and grandeur.


In this week’s parashah Noach we read the narrative of Noah protecting his family and the animal creatures of our world. Following God’s command, Noah builds an ark to bring onto the ark partners of animals to protect them and to protect their future offspring and the diversity of our animal world. Throughout our ancient texts we have numerous examples of animals with some sort of supernatural powers- we have the snake in the Garden of Eden, the donkey who blesses the Israelites when he’s been instructed to curse them, the snake that magically becomes a staff, etc. Yet this parasha- which is the one most looked to as a model for our protection of the beasts of this world- has no mythical component to the animals. Protecting the animals is compelling enough without any further supernatural powers. The parashah includes the model of animal protection through the building of the ark and also appreciating the skills of animals with the dove sent to search for the olive branch. Through the dove story line, we see an example of appreciating the wisdom that we can glean from animals and being in relation with them.

Our tradition teaches us to be guardians and protectors of animals but also that we must learn from those put into our charge. Proverbs 6:6 encourages us to learn about work ethic from an ant, “Go to the ant, you sluggard. Consider her ways and be wise.” In Job we are given this description of God, "God teaches us from the animals of the land, and from the birds of the heavens God makes us wise" (Job 35:11). The Talmud, in Eruvin 100b, gives us this advice, “Rabbi Yochanan observed: If the Torah had not been given, we could have learned modesty from the cat, honesty from the ant, chastity from the dove, and good manners from the
rooster.”

These last few years have been trying for us all. Throughout this time of great change and fragility in our world I often find myself observing animals in relation to one another, how beautiful it is that they are seemingly unaware of the tragedy that their human partners are facing- that they seem to have the ability to move forward and do what needs to be done. Throughout all the changes that we will live through in our lifetimes, a constant will be that we can look to animals for a reminder on how to be mindful, how to gently and thoughtfully use our resources, how to live in community with others. The beauty, complexity and innocence of
animals can be a peace to us in times of struggle. Perhaps it was for pastoral reasons that God instructed Noah to bring the animals onto the ark, he may have needed their comfort and the wisdom of their example.

As we know, it is our responsibility to be looking out for the stability and protection of earth and its resources, to look out for the future of the entire biosphere, including all plants and animals. Decisions that humanity makes over the next generation or two or three will have a huge impact on the way our earth can sustain both plant and animal life. With wisdom and cooperation we can have a future for thousands and thousands of years. With the wrong decisions, there could be catastrophic calamity in the not too distant future. This is up to us. In
Rimon we aim to imbue our young people with a sense of responsibility and the tools that they need to engage deeply in the work of being a human at this tenuous time. I also think about the world that they are inheriting and the fragile climate problems they didn’t create but they will need to face head on. The many things that we and our progeny are now learning, and will learn in the future, from interacting with animals depends on our taking seriously our responsibility for sustaining our earth to enable it to sustain animals and their ways of life.

May we reflect on our relationships with the non-human creatures in our world, for whom we care and from whom we learn. May we be good students of the lessons they teach. As we learn from Proverbs 12:10, “A righteous individual is one who knows the soul of their animal.”

Rabbi Elana Dellal

Thu, 13 June 2024 7 Sivan 5784