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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

 

A Tribute to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

9 September 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

I write to you this Shabbat a long way from home, but close to your hearts and the heart of this nation, grieving the loss of Queen Elizabeth II, who died on Thursday in Balmoral.  This is a sorrow that touches us all personally, communally and nationally.

Just a few months ago, I interviewed a handful of our members for an article in the LJS Newsletter to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. Some of them were born in the same year or around the same year as the Queen.  She was their contemporary; they marked each threshold of her life as they marked their own – childhood, growing up and living through the Second World War, marriage, children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. Like some of them, the young Princess Elizabeth, as she was then, had volunteered for wartime service in the Auxiliary Territorial Service; she witnessed the terrible destruction caused by violence, and knew what it meant to live through those six long years of war.

But in so many other ways, her life departed from other young women of her age.  When her father died in 1952, she was just 25 years old.  It was then that she declared before the whole country the words that remained with her throughout her long life and from which she never, for one moment, wavered:

‘I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.’

During the seventy years of her reign, she devoted herself to public service with integrity, cheerfulness, dignity, restraint and discipline.  She exemplified qualities that often seem rare in our own era – the desire to serve others with unselfish motive, without ambition, with modesty.

I remember meeting her once at St James’s Palace, a diminutive figure, always on her feet, walking among those who had come for the occasion – stopping to talk to some of the several hundred people who must have been there, always smiling, always with a word of encouragement and genuine interest.  Where did she find her energy, the resources and depth of engagement?

One of the things I most admired about the Queen was her personal faith.  It infused her Christmas speeches and her commitment to regular worship.  Perhaps it was this deep belief in the message of her Christianity that sustained her and gave her a profound sense of the moral values shared by Judaism and Christianity  - values that really matter in our encounter with all humanity.  

When she visited Aberfan, following the collapse of slurry which slid down a mountain and engulfed the Welsh town in 1966, killing 116 children and 28 adults, we saw her compassion and desire to be with people at the worst time of their lives.

She encouraged us all during the lockdown with her Christmas message of 2020 and, in spite of her own more personal trials and losses, she never withdrew from her duties, but carried on with strength, dignity and grace. And we saw her sitting alone, a forlorn figure in black, wearing a black mask at the funeral of her beloved husband, the Duke of Edinburgh.  She was no different from her subjects, and yet, she was unique and special, a shining example to leaders and ordinary men and women alike.

United in sorrow for the loss of our Queen, we are also conscious that this Elizabethan era of post-war prosperity and well-being has been fading for some time.

The new King Charles III ascends the throne in deeply troubling times – a war in Europe, the cost of living crisis that is going to hit so many of his subjects deeply, plunging them further into poverty, and a climate catastrophe worldwide.

He cares deeply for the environment and has spoken on many occasions about things that touch him and for which he feels passionately.  He has visited our own synagogue on at least two occasions and I have heard him speak with sensitivity and compassion on the experience of the Jewish community and other minority groups.

As we express our sorrow and gratitude for the life of  Queen Elizabeth, let us pray that our new King will help to bring stability and well-being to our nation and aspire to exemplify the values that were cherished by his mother and the qualities which she exemplified - service, stability, dignity and restraint.

As we entrust her spirit to God, we invite you to our services this Shabbat – on Friday evening and Saturday morning when special prayers will be recited and there will be an opportunity to be with our community to share our sadness, our thoughts and memories.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright


Weight of History 

16 September 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

Over the last three years, the phrase ‘we live in a historic and unprecedented moment’ has been used too many times. It was true on each occasion, but the weight of history can feel too heavy for many of us to bear. A worldwide pandemic, the cost of living crisis, a change of the people in power, the death of the monarch, the largest war in Europe in decades, abnormally high temperatures and severe floods – these are just a few reasons why the time we are living in can be called ‘historical’ or ‘interesting.’

In her book ‘The Life of the Mind’, Hannah Arendt reflects on the complex notion of time and how people fill it with meaning:

‘In this gap between past and future, we find our place in time when we think, that is, when we are sufficiently removed from past and future to be relied on to find out their meaning, to assume the position of “umpire,” of arbiter and judge over the manifold, never-ending affairs of human existence in the world, never arriving at a final solution to their riddles but ready with ever-new answers to the question of what it may be all about.’

People have the unique power to provide a moment in history with meaning. In other words, we can choose how to interpret the news and what changes to make for ourselves and the people around us. We can choose to see that every end is an opportunity for a new beginning, and every catastrophe is a lesson on how to make this world safer for others in the future.

In Judaism, small stones are placed by people who visit graves. It takes thousands and millions of years to form a stone. Therefore, stones symbolise eternity, long life and remembrance, respect for the deceased, and a way to let others know that the grave has been visited.
Stones are solid, strong, and long-lasting in their natural form, and most importantly, their shape is imperfect. Hence, some Rabbis say that memorial graveyard stones symbolise the world's imperfection, of which human death is a constant reminder.

Last week, all of us heard the sad news about the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the UK's longest-serving monarch. There are many things that divide us and very few that bring us together. We can take different views of the Elizabethan era or have reservations about the monarchy. Still, most of us would agree that the Queen was a uniting figure for British society with whom nobody could be compared. Her death brought many feelings and thoughts to the British nation and each individual.

Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 153a) records Rabbi Eliezer's teaching: Repent (and make yourself a better person) one day before your death. Rabbi Eliezer’s students asked him: But does a person know the day he will die? He said to them: All the more so this is a good piece of advice, and one should do it today.

We do not know what historical moments the world will bring us in the future, but we know that the world will always be imperfect, and there will be many opportunities for us to improve it.

Though not many of us come from Royal lineage and have every eye of the world directed at us. It does not mean that we should not behave like we are. May all good deeds of all people who lived their lives serving others be an inspiration, a continual blessing, and an influence for good to all of us and generations after us.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Igor Zinkov

 


Shabbat Nitzavim/Rosh Hashanah 

23 September 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

What are your wishes and prayers for the New Year?  In just two days, we will come together to celebrate Rosh Hashanah 5783. Some of us will gather with families or friends to light candles and recite Kiddush in our homes to usher in the New Year.  I hope many of you will join us for the services in the Sanctuary, or for our variety of Family Services adapted for children of all ages.  No doubt, there will be some of you, too far away to join us at the LJS, who will tune in via Zoom, You Tube or Facebook.

One of my wishes is for people to return to the synagogue if they can.  To help us form a tzibbur – a congregation, a community, that comes together to offer our prayers for a good year, a year of blessings, health, happiness, goodness – a year, if I can quote from John Donne out of context, of ‘one equal light…one equal music.’  In these words, Donne envisions life beyond this earth, but how we long for that light and music to bless us all equally.  How can we recalibrate our world to ensure that human beings stand arrayed before God, not as rich or poor, privileged or disadvantaged, but with equal opportunity and free in the choices they can make in life?

The Sages counselled individuals to come together to recite the unique prayers for Rosh Hashanah – especially the verses that focus on our festival as a Day of Judgement.  No one should pray these prayers of Malchuyyot, Zichronot and Shofarot individually, says the Talmud, no one should separate themselves from the community.

The Austrian Jewish novelist, Stefan Zweig, writes this about the power of prayer in his novel The Buried Candelabrum:

‘On this disturbed planet, prayer alone offered refuge, rest and comfort. Prayer had a marvellous power: it deadened fear by recalling great promises; it put to slumber the soul’s terror by means of its singing litany; on its murmuring pinions it lifted up to God the heaviness of heart. Prayer in need was good. Common prayer was better still, for all burdens were lighter if borne in common and the good was better in God’s sight if done in unison.’

The need to stand as a community in prayer seems to me to be stronger than ever.  Listening to the music and liturgy of the Queen’s State Funeral on Monday, and then the more intimate farewell in St George’s Chapel, Windsor later on in the day, I was struck by the unifying element of religious traditions and rituals.  Yes, it was a Christian funeral for a Christian soul, but it brought us together as one humanity to mourn, to remember and to express our gratitude for her long years of service.

Rosh Hashanah and its monumental liturgy, with its themes of sovereignty, remembrance, judgement, repentance and redemption, will bring us together as a Jewish community over the next few days, acknowledging that God is Sovereign in the present, judges our past deeds, and calls us to look forward to a redemptive future. Past, present and future are fused in the stillness and holiness of the day - our regret for past misdeeds, the promises that we make to ourselves, and our hope for the future.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur draw us near to God’s presence – not only the God of judgement and remembrance, but a compassionate and forgiving God, a loving God, who longs for humanity to put right the wrongs that we see constantly before us, and to mend the fractures in our world.  We must find the strength from coming together as a community to accept our moral responsibility for what has gone wrong this past year and find our voices to make this year a better year for all people. In the words we pray at the end of our Rosh Hashanah service: 

We pray with all our hearts: let violence cease; let the day come soon when evil shall give way to goodness, when war shall be forgotten, hunger be no more, and all at last shall live in freedom.

Shabbat Shalom and L’Shanah Tovah Tikkateivu – Rabbi Igor and I join together to wish you and all your dear ones a peaceful Shabbat and a New Year of health, happiness and peace.

Alexandra Wright

 

 

Embracing Uncertainty 

30 September 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

There is an interesting detail in the Hebrew Calendar. Two Jewish holidays – Yom Kippur and Purim – have sound-alike names. These days cannot be more distinct and different from one another. Purim has a noisy and celebratory mood, while Yom Kippur is the day of quiet reflection, prayer, and serenity. Yet early Jewish mystics made a connection between the two. Yom HaKippurim, they said - using the festival’s biblical name - can be read as a day ‘k’Purim,’ like Purim.  

This linguistical connection inspired early Rabbis to find similarities between Yom Kippur and Purim. What do these days have in common? Yom Kippur is about our relationship with God, although God remains a mystery to us. On Yom Kippur, we examine our mistakes and transgressions between people and God. Unlike Moses, we don’t see God, we don’t hear from God, yet we treat God as equal and establish relationship with God through prayer, contemplation, and meditation. God is hidden from our lives, yet many feel and believe in God’s presence.  

The Scroll of Esther, the main text for Purim, is one of two books in the Hebrew Bible that does not mention God’s name. Jewish commentators attributed God’s presence in Megilat Esther to the sequence of events that led to the ultimate redemption of Jews from oppressive rule. The coincidence of many unlikely factors is God’s tool, they say. It is this hidden presence of God that unites Purim and Yom Kippur. 

It may sound inappropriate, but this year’s Yom Kippur seems to be Purim-like. Purim's narrative reminds us that sometimes you can get an unexpected result, and everything you planned can go in the opposite direction. Yet, both festivals also teach us to trust the world and believe that everything is happening for a reason. Whatever we see as ultimate evil today might lead to salvation tomorrow. Whatever we perceive as positive might be bad in the future. We live in a world of many uncertainties. This is our nature, and this is our natural state of being.  

Reflecting on this, German poet and novelist Hermann Hesse wrote in his 1919  “Letter to a Young German” the following: 

‘You write me that you are in despair and do not know what to believe, what to hope. You do not know whether or not there is a God. You do not know whether or not life has any meaning, whether or not love of country has a meaning, whether, in the wretched condition of the world, it is better to strive for spiritual goods or merely to fill your belly… I believe your state of mind and soul to be the right one. Not to know whether there is a God, not to know whether there is good and evil, is far better than to know for sure.’ 

During this High Holy Days season, as we reflect on our mistakes and transgressions, let us embrace and accept uncertainty, hope for a better future, and do our best to achieve it. 

Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatima Tova! 

Rabbi Igor

Tue, 7 February 2023 16 Sh'vat 5783