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Shabbat Shof'tim


18 August 2023


Dear Members and Friends,

In ancient times, Rosh Chodesh, the first day of a new month, was a festival, proclaimed with the blowing of trumpets over additional burnt offerings and sacrifices of well-being (Numbers 10:10). Today, we barely acknowledge the beginning of a new Hebrew month although our Siddur Lev Chadash includes the third century Babylonian Amora, Rav’s beautiful prayer, to be recited on the Shabbat preceding the new moon. I quote it here because I am writing on the first day of the month of Elul and although not distinguished by any specific festival or special day, it is the month that marks the countdown to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. 


Eternal One, our God and God of our ancestors, may the new month be for us a time of renewal.
Grant to each one of us a long life of peace, welfare and blessing; a life of prosperity and health; a life guided by conscience, unmarred by self-reproach or shame; a life exalted by love of Torah and reverence for the divine; a life in which the longings of our hearts may be fulfilled for good.


In some ways, the first day of Elul marks the end of the summer as we anticipate the potency of the High Holy Days ahead.  It is the month in which we are required to ‘look into our soul and search our deeds and begin to make confession.’

And yet, surely, this self-examination and introspection of the self isn’t simply a once-a-year affair.  Are we not required to guard against careless talk, thought or deed every day? Do not our daily prayers include a blessing in which we ask God to help us to ‘return to [God’s] teaching, to draw us near to [God’s] service; and to bring us back into [God’s] presence in perfect repentance’ (Siddur Lev Chadash, p.21)?

In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides acknowledges that ‘repentance and calling out to God are desirable at all times’, but the time when they are even more desirable and will be ‘accepted immediately’ is the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Ten Days of Repentance (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:6).

Why specifically should this time be even more auspicious for us to repent before God?  Because, says Maimonides, this is when we come together as a community, when we recite our prayers as one, wholeheartedly, and not as individuals in private.

In these weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the discipline of prayer does not always come easily. We are busy, we are preoccupied, working, travelling, looking after children, supporting sick relatives, and engaged in and responding to a host of other duties and demands.

A very dear friend wrote to me recently: ‘I found myself thinking how nice it is to be slow… how there’s a softness that comes with it…that in being a human being rather than a human doing you are given something different… and it’s not about doing something with it. But I imagine it does enable one to give something softer and gentler back…’

Two and a half years ago in 2020 she was diagnosed with cancer which had spread.  Although surgery and ongoing chemotherapy has sadly meant that she has given up the extraordinary work she did for the NHS, her faith is not undimmed, her spirit is immensely strong, her sensitivity astute. She is a beautiful person – kind, funny, so loving, so encouraging and giving towards others.

Her words draw us close to the spiritual journey of which Maimonides speaks more than 800 years ago.  The month of Ellul is our preparation for these days of confession, repentance and atonement, but they also call upon us to slow down to be a ‘human being’ rather than a ‘human doing’.  In our acceptance of others’ kindness to us, may we return that kindness and tenderness to them.

Shabbat Shalom and belated Chodesh Tov (a good month),

Alexandra Wright

 



In a place where there are no people, strive to be human


25 August 2023


Dear Members and Friends,

One of the best parts of being a Liberal Jew is experiencing a broad spectrum of Jewish observance. Some of our members walk to the synagogue on Shabbat, others drive, some keep the dietary laws of Kashrut, others have full English breakfasts, some pray daily, and others ‘pray with their feet’ by volunteering. As a Liberal Jew, I take a law from Torah, distil an ethical principle from it, and apply it to the modern world. A literal application of the Torah text to contemporary life would almost never work and, I would argue, was never intended. Here is one of the examples of the Torah law from this week’s Torah portion:


לֹֽא־תִרְאֶה֩ אֶת־שׁ֨וֹר אָחִ֜יךָ א֤וֹ אֶת־שֵׂיוֹ֙ נִדָּחִ֔ים וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ֖ מֵהֶ֑ם הָשֵׁ֥ב תְּשִׁיבֵ֖ם לְאָחִֽיךָ׃ 
If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it but be sure to take it back to its owner. (Deuteronomy 22:1)


Torah scholars made it clear that this verse should be understood as a principle and not only applied to an ox or sheep. One must look at the general rule and learn from the historical and sociological context of the text. 

Nachmanides (1194–1270), commonly known in the Jewish world as the Ramban, explains that we should return all lost objects even if it is hard for us. We should do this good deed for anyone, whether we like them or not. This also applies to the property of an enemy. Nachmanides puts it this way: “Assist others. Remember the bond of humanity between you and forget the hatred.” (Nachmanides on Deuteronomy 22:1–2).

Therefore, the meaning of this Torah verse goes beyond returning lost objects or helping strangers. It is a commandment to behave with humanity in every situation. Torah instructs us to look after the people around us. It doesn’t tell us to check their views or country of origin first. If someone needs help and support, and you can provide it – do not ignore it, do not disappear, and do not pretend that you can’t see it.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Igor

Wed, 17 July 2024 11 Tammuz 5784