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Shabbat Va-era

3 November 2023
 

Dear Members and Friends,

This week will mark thirty days since the massacre of 1400 children, teenagers and adults in southern Israel on the day known now as Black Sabbath. In our mourning traditions that follow burial (or cremation, permitted by progressive Judaism) of someone who has died, a period of shiva (seven days) is followed by a further twenty-three days, comprising a period known as sh’loshim (thirty).

The period before a funeral and the shiva afterwards are an intense time for mourners.  After the funeral, mourners return to their homes; some choose to be seated on low stools throughout the week of shiva and are visited by friends and family.  Daily prayers take place in the home, and it is a time when mourners generally do not venture out of their house but allow others to care for them at a time of profound grief and sorrow. 

After the shiva, mourning enters a different phase. The chairs and prayer books are returned to the synagogue. The number visiting diminishes. Mourners move into the the sh’loshim which is a time of transition, of resuming routines, returning to work, assuming domestic responsibilities.

As a rabbi, I often feel in awe of the wisdom of these traditions and the way they provide a structure of prayer and ritual for our own emotions, and a way of protecting ourselves from going out into the world too soon after the shattering loss of someone we love.

But now, as we approach the sh’loshim of all those who were murdered; as I contemplate the trauma of families who have lost multiple members of their families, I am asking myself, how can our traditional support of prayer, ritual and ceremony sustain those who are left?

How do you return to your work when so many in one family and in the close-knit communities of the kibbutzim have gone?  A whole nation is in mourning for those killed on October 7th.  And a whole nation waits with anguish and uncertainty for those who have been taken hostage. A whole nation of civilians watches while their country goes to war against Hamas, holding the knowledge that Hamas must be uprooted if there is to be peace between Israel and Palestinians, while at the same time witnessing the death and displacement of thousands of innocent Palestinians.  

We are mourners, and yet we are not technically mourners. Our sadness and confusion over these past few weeks have been palpable and I know many are struggling with what they see and hear on the news, witness on the streets in our own country, and encounter on social media – which seems to me to be, in many cases, a dangerous place of fantasy and often hatred.

Last night, I received an email from an organisation called TalkMatters: Jews and Arabs together, founded by Jenny Nemko, a former Chair of Oasis of Peace. TalkMatters aims to provide information that often goes unheard in the media, inspiring stories of grassroots projects that encourage Jewish and Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, as well as Palestinians resident in the Palestinian Territories to meet and talk together. 

Here is what she wrote in the latest update about one of TalkMatters’ associate organisations, ‘Road to Recovery’, a group of 1300 volunteers who donate time and the use of their own vehicles on a regular basis to transport Palestinian patients and their family guardians between the Gazan and West Bank checkpoints and hospitals all over Israel:


‘What is truly amazing is that Road to Recovery are still up and running.  In our telephone conversation, Yael [the Chief Executive] told me that every day, since the first day of the war, a group of 130 volunteers drive Palestinians from the West Bank to Sheba Hospital in Tel Aviv and the Rambam in Haifa and back again.  One volunteer who is in mourning and not able to drive said to Yael ‘Please don’t stop the drivers.’ I asked Yael what their Palestinian passengers say about the war.  Her answer has a message for us all. ‘The thing that I’m most angry about is their silence. But I feel I must carry on to save my own humanity.’
 

As Jews living in the diaspora, bearing witness to the suffering of Israelis and Palestinians, sometimes fearful for our own safety, struggling to articulate how we feel, exhausted by the daily feed of dark and violent news, let us try to take our lead from those who are trying to save their own humanity; who refuse to hate, who want to try to bridge the divide, live together and realise the peaceful objectives of most Israelis and Palestinians.

Mourning does not end suddenly: the peace that comes with acceptance of death comes slowly over months and years.  Sometimes it never comes, the pain is too profound, the tragedy too great to contemplate. But there are those, living even in the shadow of the valley of death, who are able to lift their eyes beyond their own sadness and help make life more bearable for others.

There are people on both sides who yearn for peace, healing and life. May their voices be lifted up and heard at the end of this war.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

The following statement of principles ‘Our Jewish Values’ has been composed, among others, by the Chief Executives of Liberal Judaism and Reform Judaism, Rabbis Charley Baginsky and Josh Levy, as well as the leaders of other synagogue movements and organisations.  Please do sign your name.
Please do read and sign if you would like to.

And please listen to Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights, Avi Dabush, speak about his escape from Kibbutz Nirim near the Gaza border on October 7th.
https://open.spotify.com/episode/3uRmkadZYBbHZRmG7Woq09?si=3KoIY8tQR1uviwolqLZPog&fbclid=IwAR2pGfYHNSgJh_ZQoxWNw5MGcBrY5xOLKNnoif7GA-lKnxozP3ZbsajfgI8&nd=1

 

 

The Most Important Teachings of Judaism   

10 November 2023

Dear Members and Friends,

Last week I was invited to give an address at Westminster School Assembly. The current chaplain of the school Father Dan Warnke has made a transformational impact on the school’s culture and made it much more open to other faiths. The fact of me being there and speaking to the school students and staff at Westminster Abbey was not only a significant interfaith dialogue milestone but also an important message of coexistence in the current heated political climate. The war between Israel and Hamas has raised many fears, questions and moral dilemmas. At some point, people get tired of constant pressure and continuous news stream. This is when the still small voice of grief and sadness must come and calm us down. Here is what I said to the school: 

Recently, I was asked to articulate the most important teachings of Judaism that help me in everyday life.  For me, the most essential teaching of Judaism is the idea that there can be more than one truth. It is beautifully illustrated by a scene in the classic film ‘Fiddler on The Roof.’  Two people had an argument. The main character, Tevye, said about each, ‘he is right.’  Then someone said to Tevye, 'he's right, and he's right? They can't both be right.'  Tevye responds, 'You know, you are also right.'

Sometimes, people can be focused only on their version of the story and ignore others.  It is very important to understand that people can disagree, and both tell the truth.  

The key prayer in Judaism is Shema.  It comes from Deuteronomy 6: 

Hear, O Israel: The Eternal One is our God; the Eternal God is one. 

This is a proclamation of the key Jewish belief – God is one, there are no other gods.  If this were the only idea, then this verse would have said ‘God is one.’  Why is there the first half of the verse, ‘The Eternal One is our God’?  To understand this, you need to look at the Hebrew language of the verse.

In the Hebrew Bible, God is addressed by many names, and all reflect an attribute of God. For example, there is a name ‘Adonai’ that I translate as ‘The Eternal One’ and many scholars translate it as ‘The Lord.’ This name – Adonai - is used to reflect God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy.  Imagine the world with this attribute only. Any transgression would have been forgiven because God would always be merciful. 

Sometimes we need justice in life.  This is why the second name used in this verse is Elohim, translated simply as God.  This name reflects God’s attributes of justice, revenge, and punishment.  If you only care about justice, you never forgive, that is not the world I would want to live in.  Therefore, when Jewish people say Shema, they combine these two attributes to say this: 

          Hear, O people of Israel. The God of Mercy, love and forgiveness is the same God as the God of                         Justice, punishment, and revenge. God is one. 

Jewish belief, therefore, is to live with the uncertainty and dissonance of the paradox, where love and hate, mercy and justice, and good and evil are created by the same God and co-exist in this world.  Therefore, the Jewish way of life is the ability to accept the complexity of creation.

Let’s take the example of today’s conflict between Israel and Hamas.  People may pressure you to take sides, painting one side as good and the other as evil.  But in the Jewish tradition we’re taught to remember that your enemy and you were equally created by the same God.

In the current conflict, you can see both sides and believe both stories, even if they seem to contradict each other. You don’t have to take sides to feel the sadness and mourn the losses of so many lives. There is no competition in grief and suffering – both Israelis and Palestinians are victims in this war, and both deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

People have the unique ability to listen and hold multiple narratives, to believe that people can contradict each other and, at the same time, both be right.  As a Rabbi, as a human being, I search for peace, coexistence, and harmony.  And however you choose to define yourself, I hope in some way that the pursuit of harmony is an identity that we can all share.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Igor

 

 

Shabbat Tol'dot

17 November 2023

Dear Members and Friends,

It was a moving moment this week to be joined online at our Conference of Liberal Rabbis and Cantors by Rabbi Chen ben-Or Tsfoni, an Israeli colleague, who is spiritual leader of Kehillat Ra’anan in Ra’anana, Israel. She described her own family situation, her husband and three children, her in-laws who live in the southern part of Israel, the brokenness and sadness that all Israelis are living with in these times.

Six weeks after the horrific massacre on October 7th, she is bringing people together in her synagogue for services, for classes, deriving a little comfort from seeing children play and encounter each other. Children have not been able to go to school since before Yom Kippur.  Many people have not returned to work; families have been separated as fathers, brothers and sons have been sent to other parts of the country as part of their army duty. The more ‘fortunate’ are working in intelligence or in administrative duties in offices in Tel Aviv away from the combat zone of the Gaza and Lebanon borders.

On Saturday nights, Rabbi Chen brings her congregation outside to create what she calls a ‘street synagogue,’ and there her own members are joined by scores of other Israelis, unaffiliated to any synagogue – whether progressive or orthodox – and they celebrate Havdalah, lighting up the darkness with a candle, singing and, as she said, ‘bringing holiness into this situation – broken and sad as we are.’

‘My role is to bring hope,’ she said to us.  ‘I have to create hope first for myself and then to deliver it.’

It is in these prayers and rituals, in singing together gently and in community action, that hope can be found. Thousands are coming together to volunteer, to support those who have been displaced from their burnt-out, ruined homes in the south, bringing food to bereaved families and sitting with the wounded. And there is something creative and active in this hope, focused as it is on bringing healing and comfort to a country that is bereaved, wounded and traumatised.  For wherever we are in the world – whether in Israel or in the furthest reaches of the diaspora – we are one people, am Yisrael, one family, bound together by our history, by our faith and observances, by a moral code that has evolved over millennia.

However, for those of us living in the diaspora, witnessing daily the scenes of suffering and death in Gaza, we are also duty-bound to see hope in a wider context – however difficult that may seem in the current situation. How does an army root out an organisation that wants only to destroy the State of Israel, without bringing harm and casualties to thousands of innocent civilians, especially children? How do you create hope and peace when bloodshed and war are all but extinguishing the faint and fragile encounters between Arabs and Jews across Israel and Palestine’s borders?

At the Rossing Center for Dialogue and Education, an interreligious organisation based in Jerusalem, and which works with different religious, ethnic and national groups in Israel, their director, John Munayar wrote this week that many of the staff have lost family and friends, and all are living with fear and trauma. Many of their regular activities have been suspended but they have developed new ways of supporting different needs on both sides.

One of those ways is to support the alumni of their dialogue programmes as well as teachers from their wide network of schools. The centre is also offering to support schools which serve a mixed population, or with both Jewish and Arab teaching staff. These schools, he said, are finding it particularly difficult to cope in the current ‘polarised climate.’  They will work on healing and recovery, and with municipal leaders to de-escalate violence in Jerusalem and within Israel, ‘to support freedom of speech of both Palestinians and Israelis to express empathy for the other and opposition to the war.’

Can we hope for the future – for the release of the captives, those who remain alive?  Can we hope for concessions in negotiations?  Can we hope that this conflict does not become a greater, regional war?  Can we hope that this will be the last in the round of confrontations, and that the long road of recovery and healing can begin? And can we put our faith and hope not in enmity and war, but in justice and peace, the sustaining values of our Jewish faith?

Shabbat Shalom,
Alexandra Wright

 

 

 

Shabbat Vayetze

24 November 2023

Dear Members and Friends,

I’m certain I’m not alone these days in the act of constantly refreshing my news feed. Waiting to see images of reunited families, praying for their safety and their health and fervently hoping that the remaining hostages will be returned. Unharmed. The faces of the youngest hostages come into my mind throughout the day and in the hours of the night when I awake with thoughts of them.  The horror and anguish that their loved ones have been facing without knowing of their whereabouts is unimaginable. Please God may the next few hours, few days bring us more information and bring the return of the most vulnerable hostages. And may the remaining hostages be returned safely soon after.  

The mitzvah to free a captive is Pidyon Shvuyim, it is identified as a ‘mitzvah rabbah’ a great mitzvah.

Maimonides has argued that redeeming a captive follows the imperatives that we are given in our sacred texts, he uses as his proof texts:
Deuteronomy 15:7 ‘You shall not harden your heart.’
Leviticus 19:16 ‘You shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother.’
Leviticus 19:18 ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

The conversations within the Mishnah and the Talmud are reflections of the ethical and practical questions that the rabbinic sages of their time were confronting and those they believed would be confronted in the future. How tragic that our sages needed to write then about returning captives, and that in our day we lean on their writing for wisdom. The discussion around the redemption of captives is furthered by painful texts around the value of redeeming a captive. There are texts around the value of different captives depending on their age and even their Torah knowledge and texts around how much should be given in order to ensure their safe return. The texts are a painful read and even more painful to know that over a thousand years later, whilst discussions around hostages and prisoner exchanges are being discussed, these texts are still relevant.

 It is a Jewish custom to include a nechemta - a piece of comfort - in any painful discourse. I’m particularly lucky that one of my roles in the synagogue is to support our young children and their families. Weekly at Rimon I see that nechemta in our young children who learn to love and embrace their Jewish identities and who continue to learn about these imperatives to keep an open heart, to not stand idly by and to love their neighbour. There is hope and there is still beauty. It is so important to hold onto hope and to find your nechemta- whatever it might be.  The real comfort, of course, will come when all the hostages are returned and when a lasting peace is found in Israel and Palestine.

Like many within our community I grew up in America, my family is gathering this week to celebrate Thanksgiving. My father sent a Thanksgiving email to his children marking the many emotions of this week- the despair for the continued war, the hope for the return of the hostages, the pensive contemplation on the 60th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the gratitude for what remains sacred and beautiful within our lives even in the midst of such turmoil. With his permission I share with you  some of his words for a brighter future. ‘We have so much to be grateful/thankful for. Even so, we appreciate there is much room for Tikkun Olam! We remain hopeful that we as a country, and as a species, can be doing so much more to be looking out for the future, in our hopeful view forward about what life could/should be like for our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, and theirs and so on…, and for the entire biosphere, moving forward.’

This time next week may the children hostages be preparing to share a Shabbat dinner table with their families.

Shabbat Shalom,
Elana

Fri, 24 May 2024 16 Iyar 5784