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B'shalach - Where Past and Present Meet

3 February 2023

Dear Members and Friends,

Freeman Dyson was an English-American theoretical physicist. Apart from many extraordinary achievements in the scientific world, he published a collection of letters to his family from over four decades. The title of this book is ‘Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters.’ 

In 1947, having lived through World War II, twenty-four-year-old Dyson arrives in America to study. In 1948, Dyson wrote in a letter to his friend, comparing British and American cultures and their attitude to the past:

‘Several of my friends are second-generation Americans, whose parents came over from Germany or Poland or Lithuania or some such place… I have always been amazed to find that the young people know practically nothing, and apparently care little, about such matters. It is very strange when one thinks how much we have absorbed about the history and society to which our family belonged.’

He continues his reflections by saying that living in the present might be very helpful and might make people more friendly to each other. He concludes by noticing the audacious friendliness of some Americans and says: ‘friendliness attributed to the size of the country and people’s loneliness in space, but I think the loneliness in time is more important.’

‘Loneliness in time’ is an excellent way to refer to the lack of curiosity about the past. I note that many people have regrets about not having enough conversations with their grandparents about their lives. Perhaps, it is a part of life and who we are, and the idea of spending too much time thinking of the past isn’t too helpful. However, Judaism has always put much emphasis on the notion of memory and remembrance.

This week’s Torah portion – Beshalach – opens with the story of the Children of Israel escaping Egypt and crossing the Sea of Reeds. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, fulfilling the promise his children gave him before he died. 

Talmudic Rabbis noticed a beautiful fact (BT Sotah 13a): 
…all those years that the Jewish people were in the wilderness, these two arks, one a casket of a dead man, Joseph, and one the Ark of the Divine Presence, i.e., the Ark of the Covenant, were travelling together, and passersby would say: What is the nature of these two arks? They said to them: One is of a dead person, and one is of the Divine Presence.

The Ark with Bones of Joseph represents continuity, the connection with the past. Another Ark is the vision for the future, the Jewish ideal and ethical standard. 

In his commentary on this episode, Rabbi David Kasher wrote: ‘It is worth noting here that the word for “bones” in Hebrew, atzamot, is spelt the same as the word for “essence,” atzmut. And the words are related – getting to the “essence” of something is like getting “down to the bone.” So was it bones Moses took out of Egypt?’ (Kasher, David. ParshaNut: 54 Journeys into the World of Torah Commentary (pp. 149-150). Quid Pro Books.)

In other words, to remember our past is to understand our essence. Without the knowledge of the past, a community is faced with loneliness in time. Without a vision for the future, we are in danger of facing loneliness in space. 

May this Shabbat be a time of reflection, remembering our past and creative vision for our future. 

Shabbat shalom



Prayers and Action for the Victims of This Week's Earthquake 

10 February 2023

Dear Members and Friends,

In the Talmud, Yevamot 121a we find this haunting account of Rabban Gamliel observing his student, Rabbi Akiva, in the midst of trauma:

Rabban Gamliel said: “Once I was travelling on a boat, and from a distance I saw another boat that shattered and sank. And I was grieved over the death of the Talmid Chacham, the learned student, who was on board...It was Rabbi Akiva. But then when I came ashore, and stepped foot onto dry land, I found him there, sitting and teaching Torah! ‘My son!’ I said to him, ‘How did you survive?’ He said to me, ‘A plank from the boat floated past me, I clung to it, and then I greeted each crashing wave that came with a nod’.”

This week have we not all been like Rabban Gamliel- watching shocked and grieving as our brothers and sisters desperately struggle? The death toll in the aftermath of the earthquake in Turkey and neighbouring Syria has now surpassed 21,000, and continues to rise1. With millions more injured. Staggering numbers. There is no sense to be made of this tragedy. I work part-time as a Chaplain at Kingston Hospital as part of an interfaith team. This morning my Muslim colleague shared in mourning ‘an earthquake doesn’t care the religion of the people it destroys’. As a people we know far too well that tragedy does not discriminate.

Amongst the identified victims was Fortuna Cenudioglu- the wife of Saul Cenudioglu, the leader of the Jewish community of Antakya. Rescuers are still searching for Saul. We pray that he is found and well. 

Zichrona livracha - may the memory of Fortuna be for a blessing.

As Rabbi Akiva had to nod at each oncoming wave so too are the survivors of the earthquake having to battle wave after wave. The wave of grief, the wave of hunger, the wave of needing medical care, the wave of bitter cold particularly for those unable to return to their destroyed homes, or to any nearby standing, but structurally damaged, building, for fear of imminent collapse.  These survivors are coping and crying, outside, as these waves and many other continue to crash one on top of the other, with little end, or even transient relief, in sight. And through the suffering caused by these relentless waves remains the emotional trauma suffered by Rabbis Akiva and Gamliel, as well as these survivors; the knowledge  of the many they saw, or know, that died near them, while they were helpless to save them. 

Yet unlike Rabban Gamliel we do not need to watch as observers, fortunately for us, and for the survivors, we can act, and are able to provide urgently needed support. The LJS is encouraging those who are able from our synagogue family to make donations to World Jewish Relief who are coordinating shelter and supplies to the millions impacted by the earthquake and its aftermath. World Jewish Relief has let us know that, through trusted  and capable partners, they are already ‘providing emergency shelter, blankets, heaters, clothes, food packages and first aid kids to the worst affected.’ They very much need financial support, in this critical time, to continue to work to meet these urgent needs.

The appeal can be found here: Turkey-Syria Earthquake Appeal (worldjewishrelief.org)

On this Shabbat may we all fervently hold in our hearts and hopes this prayer issued by Chief Rabbi of Turkey, Rabbi Isak Haleva:

“Grant patience, fortitude and courage to our brothers and sisters who are currently waiting to be rescued under the rubble, and bestow strength and success to the officials who sacrificed to bring them back to their families and society as soon as possible,” 

May it be God’s will. 

Shabbat Shalom 



Shabbat Mishpatim/Shekalim

17 February 2023

Dear Members and Friends,

I came late to ‘Happy Valley’ – BBC’s crime drama, written by Sally Wainwright, its first series aired in 2014, its last episode shown just two weeks ago.  No spoilers please, as I am still only on series 2.  Tommy Lee Royce, rapist and murderer, is in prison in Gravesend, but has somehow managed to groom his pharmacist, Scottish fiancée, who has stolen the identity of her dead sister and turned up as a teaching assistant at a school in West Yorkshire in order to get close to Ryan, the son born to Becky, whom Tommy raped, and who then took her own life weeks after her baby was born.  

In this grim and sad environment, the two stars of the series are Police Sergeant Catherine Cawood, Becky’s mum and Ryan’s grandmother, and her sister, Clare, both caring for Ryan and desperately trying to protect him from the man who is fixated on claiming a role in his so-called son’s life.

There is a hairline boundary between the stories of ‘Happy Valley’ and our own world today – murder, corruption, brutality and violence, women who are trafficked, kidnap, family tragedy, addiction, illness and bereavement. They all occur in West Yorkshire’s Calder Valley, showing the very worst, but also the very best of human behaviour.

The criminality and language are violent, and yet, there is a profound warmth and humanity in Catherine and Clare – both tough in some ways, having endured the unimaginable, but also vulnerable, hurting, traumatised by past events – especially, by the death of eighteen-year-old Becky. This is not about sainthood, or even heroics, although we see enormous strength and courage in some of the characters.  It is about those small acts of kindness, the gentle word, the hug, the struggle to overcome anger.

And one can see in this week’s Torah portion – Mishpatim – the Covenant Collection – the same themes: slavery, murder, abuse of parents and kidnapping, bodily injury, property damage and rape. Although the parashah and its legislation reflect the time in which it was written in terms of the legislation regarding slavery, the status of women as property, as victims of rape and capital punishment, one needs little imagination to see that human beings remain capable of terrible brutality and damage to each other.  We don’t always treat each other well and although Judaism teaches that we are born with a pure soul – Elohay neshamah she-natata bi te’horah hi – ‘The soul which you have given me is pure’ – there are times when I wonder whether that is wholly true. Are we inherently selfish, angry and bad and do we spend our lives attempting to overcome those inclinations, or are we fundamentally good, but with the capacity to stain our record with acts of venality and self-interest? 

If we are in any doubt about our own nature, the Torah is clear in its protection of all those who are vulnerable: ‘You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ (Exodus 22.20).  And there is clarity in its calls for justice and compassion – those who do wrong should be corrected, and those who require our help must receive compassion and love.

It is ibn Ezra in his perceptive commentary to this verse, who notices that the word ‘anah’ – ‘to wrong’ is used not only in this verse: ‘You shall not wrong (lo toneh) a stranger….you shall not wrong (lo te’anun) any widow or orphan,’ but also in the following verse (v. 21): Im te’aneh – ‘If you do wrong them…’  Note, he says, that the second occurrence of the verb is in the plural form (lo te’anun), whereas the third occurrence Im te’aneh is in the singular, because whoever sees a person afflicting a widow or orphan and does not help them, is also considered as one who is guilty of afflicting wrongdoing.

In my slow snatching of scenes from ‘Happy Valley’, I learn, as I learn from the Torah, that it requires courage and determination to overcome our moral frailties and nurture our humanity , our sense of justice and compassion.  But how necessary it is if we are to prevent ourselves from becoming silent and passive bystanders.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright


Making a Difference 

24 February 2023

Dear Members and Friends,

What is a blessing? Traditionally, Jews recite many blessings, and I think it is important to understand why.

A blessing is a way of saying thank you. When we have a nice meal at the end of the day, saying blessing before is a way to acknowledge and recognise that some people do not have as much as you. When you have time and the opportunity to come for a Shabbat service or to spend one day a week without working, saying the blessing is a way to express your gratitude for this privilege.

However, in Judaism, certain things do not have a blessing. In her book ‘Where Justice Dwells’, Rabbi Jill Jacobs noticed that in Jewish tradition, ‘there are no blessings for performing ethical commandments, such as giving tzedakah, freeing hostages, or feeding the hungry.’ There are a few traditional explanations for this absence. 

First, poverty is understood to involve degradation. Since blessings are meant to celebrate the positive, there is a disinclination to recite blessings over degradation. 

In other words, because the world is in such a state that you must give charity to feed the hungry, you do not say a blessing and express your gratitude. 

Second, we generally say blessings over actions we intend to complete immediately. For example, we say a blessing for matzah on Passover and immediately fulfil the commandment of eating matzah. We rarely discharge our obligations with ethical mitzvot. No matter how much tzedakah we give, we will only succeed in fulfilling the responsibility to provide for some. Even if we feed the hungry this week, we still need to solve the problem of hunger.

It is common for many of us to feel that the need is so great that we do not give at all. Sometimes it feels that your help is too little and will make no difference on a larger scale. This is the dilemma of voluntary donations that we all feel from time to time.

The concept of voluntary donations is the main topic for this week’s Torah portion Terumah.

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כׇּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי׃
The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. (Exodus 25:1-2)

It is followed by a long list of resources needed for building the Mishkan – The Tabernacle that Jews would carry with them wherever they went. This section is summarised by God declaring:

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃
And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. (Exodus 25:8)

It is very symbolic that the Tabernacle was built with voluntary donations. Not all people gave, but those who did, gave with sincerity. Not all people could afford to give as much as others, but nevertheless contributed and felt the ownership. Every little helps.

I think that I am not wrong in saying that most people want to engage in charity. Something in human nature inspires us to be compassionate and supportive when we see somebody struggling. Most people have a heart that moves them to give their time or money. 

The medieval Jewish commentary book “Zedah Laderech” has a beautiful commentary on Exodus 25:8 ‘make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them’:

The use of the plural pronoun ‘among them’ instead of the singular "in it" (referring to the sanctuary) is meant to teach us that The Divine presence does not rest in the sanctuary on account of the sanctuary but on account of people, for they constitute the Temple of God.

People should be the focus of any system and society, not the system itself. The buildings and institutions are not the primary receivers of help but the people whom these institutions are meant to serve. It is not ideas and ideology that should drive the law but the well-being and peace among your people.

Shabbat shalom,


Wed, 17 July 2024 11 Tammuz 5784