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Simchat Torah


6 October 2023

Dear Members and Friends,

On Monday, Rabbi Igor, members of the LJS and I were welcomed into the London Zoo by Matthew Gould, former British Ambassador to Israel (2010-2015) and now the Zoo’s Chief Executive. A small walk away from the tiger’s lair and the penguin pool, a Sukkah had been erected and an incredible breakfast laid on for guests who had come from local Jewish communities and who mingled with the Zoo’s keepers and those creatures who were awake at that time of the morning. It was the first time the Zoo had erected a ‘Zooccah’!

After Matthew Gould’s opening words, we were transported to the coasts and waters of the UK to learn about seagrass, the world’s only flowering underwater plant, which has been lost extensively across the UK’s waters over the last 100 years. At least 44% of the UK’s seagrass has disappeared since 1936, 39% of it during the last 30 years. Seagrass, we were told, creates a habitat for fish and other aquatic wildlife; it can store carbon and nitrogen and improve water quality. Together with other organisations, the Zoo is helping councils, environmental and community groups to establish lost seagrass beds, and so helping to mitigate climate change and flood risks, and providing homes for hundreds of different marine species.

We were then regaled with the story of Kiburi, the gorilla from Tenerife, by Dan Simmonds, Zoological Operations Manager, who described the challenge of transporting him to London, enticing him out of his luxurious cabin and introducing him to some of the female gorillas in the zoo. The hope is to produce smaller versions of Kiburi, whose species is critically endangered.

Silverback gorilla Kiburi makes debut at London Zoo | London Zoo

Sukkot ends today, and tonight and tomorrow, will see all the Torah scrolls removed from the Ark and processed joyfully around the synagogue. When we have danced our way seven times around the Sanctuary, we will hear, as we do every year, the closing chapter of Deuteronomy and the opening verses of Genesis. One deals with the end of a life, the other with its creation. Moses, his eyes undimmed and his strength unabated, dies on Mount Nebo, his burial place unknown to this day. And with him, in one sense, dies a vision of the future, with its structure for a society that protects the widow, the orphan and the stranger, and the principles of holiness, righteousness and the pursuit of justice. Of course, he leaves the legacy of the Torah, its commandments and teaching, but gone is the humility and single-mindedness of the man who led the Israelites out of Egypt, who lived with their impatience and grumblings, their lack of faith and ingratitude, a man who converses with God, whose patience with God, whose faith, never diminished throughout his life. 

Our reading of this ending brings us to the precipice of an uncertain future: the risks to our planet, to the environment, the earth, air and water, to the well-being of all creatures, insects and marine life, and to human life, as well. The weeping and wailing for Moses speak of our own helplessness and grief for what we and the world have lost through out own despoiling of the earth’s resources.

And yet, tonight and tomorrow, as we finish reading from Deuteronomy and sing the words chazak, chazak v’nitchazeik: ‘Be strong! Be strong! And let us strengthen each other,’ the cycle will begin again with the poetry of Bereshit: ‘Let the earth grow vegetation, seed-bearing plants, fruit trees on the earth that bear fruit’ (1:11) and ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let the birds fly over the earth, across the face of the expanse of the sky…and living creatures of every type…’ (1:20-24).

The re-creation of our world is in our hands; it is in the hands of places like the London Zoo, environmental groups, councils and community groups, in the hands of governments and lobbyists combating pollution and destruction of the earth’s habitats. 

After these last three weeks of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, Simchat Torah, with its celebration of the created world – of light and darkness, sea and dry land, trees and vegetation and all living creatures, from the microscopic fairyfly, to Kiburi the 193 kg silverback gorilla – will take us back into the harsh conditions of the living world and the risks posed to its survival. It will remind us that we live between the sense of an ending, and the possibility of rebirth and life.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach

Alexandra Wright

 


Am I My Brother's Keeper? Thoughts about Israel and Palestine


13 October 2023

Dear Members and Friends,

The story of Cain and Abel is found in this week’s Torah portion (Genesis 4:1-9). Cain killed his brother Abel. When God asked Cain where Abel was, Cain responded, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’. This story has so many parallels with the modern world. 

The word ‘keeper’ in Hebrew is shomer, which also means ‘guard,’ the one who is looking after the safety and security of others. Cain failed to see himself as the keeper or guardian of his brother and used his trust to kill him. He did not believe he was responsible for protecting or caring for him.

The Mishnah says, "Adam was created as a single person to teach that if one murders another person, the Torah holds him responsible for the death of a whole world. And, if a person saves the life of one person, the Torah considers him as if he saved the whole world.” (Sanhedrin 4:5)

In recent days, so many lives and so many worlds have been destroyed. I have struggled to articulate my thoughts about Israel and Gaza in the last week. On the one hand, Hamas terrorists killed over a thousand innocent Israelis, thousands of people were wounded, and over a hundred were taken hostage. Women, children, and the elderly were not spared from brutal atrocities. The last days have been the darkest days in many decades of the modern history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Jewish people worldwide stand in shock, grief, and solidarity. Many world leaders expressed condolences and support for Israel. 

On the other hand, I also find it hard to see people's suffering in Gaza. They have women, children, and the elderly too. They, too, have innocent civilians who did not choose the path of Hamas terrorism and violence. How can you balance solidarity and grief for your own people and not be blind to the suffering of others? There must be a way to protect yourself, but at the same time, don’t ask the cruel question, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ about Palestinian suffering. 

Torah scholars and commentators were sensitive to the ethics of war and suffering. A Rabbinic legend comments on the story of crossing the Sea of Reeds. On seeing the drowning Egyptians, the angels were about to break into song when God silenced them and said, ‘How dare you sing for joy when My creatures are dying?’ (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b). In this wise Midrash, God did not rejoice in the death of Egyptian soldiers, even though they intended to kill Israelites. I don’t expect high moral standards from terrorists, but I do expect it from Jewish people, who have been through many wars, know what suffering is and should learn from the past. When fighting with unethical terrorists, you should not become one.

Chasidic Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk (1788–1859) once warned his students: ‘Be sure to take care of your own soul and of another person’s body, not of your own body and of another person’s soul.’ (Source: Fields, Harvey J.. Torah Commentary for Our Times: Volume One: Genesis.)

After this war is over and people are safe, there must be a serious conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian future. Violence will only lead to more violence and deeper conflict. After this war, we must remain human and be able to mourn the death of all people, regardless of which side of the border they happened to be born. 

This war started on Simchat Torah, the festival when Jewish people were meant to rejoice and dance with the Torah. The horrible, criminal and cruel terrorist attack by Hamas diminished the joy. Although the joy was reduced, we must compensate for it by increasing the Torah values and morality, however hard it will be.

May the memory of all innocent victims be a blessing to us, humanity, and future generations. May this war be the last and inspire both Palestinians and Israelis to remember that we are brothers and sisters and must try to be each other’s keepers.

Shabbat shalom. May this Shabbat bring us peace.

Rabbi Igor Zinkov

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Shabbat Noach


20 October 2023

Dear Members and Friends,

I am carrying an image in my head - a dream-like vision of a young man holding a Sefer Torah, his arms wrapped around its mantle-covered torso, his shoulders enveloped in a white tallit. And he is dancing in front of the bimah of our synagogue. In that perfect moment of rejoicing with the Torah, his face is luminous, his eyes radiating a gentle kind of rapture; he sways slowly from one side to another, and around him are the children of Rimon, small groups holding hands and dancing, others processing with their own miniature scrolls held to their chests. And in the dream, there is no sound, just the vision of a surging throng, moving as one, as if in slow motion, the young man embodying the joy of the festival of Simchat Torah.

And yet even as we celebrated the festival just two weeks ago – what seems like an eternity, even as we slipped from our singing and dancing to the solemn prayers of Yizkor, we knew with a terrible foreboding that what we had heard as fragments of news in the early hours of that morning, could no longer be suppressed. The dream became a nightmare of terror – the indiscriminate, brutal and merciless murder of innocent children, babies, women and men, the cruel abduction of hostages – elderly and disabled people, children and parents. A nightmare that continues.

There are moments of white rage that this pogrom has been perpetrated against our people in villages and kibbutzim, in army training camps for recruits, at a music festival for young people. How is it possible, we ask ourselves, that in an age of impregnable security and intelligence, of superior arms and military resource, in a place of Jewish sovereignty, we have been taken back to the slaughter of Jews in places of oppression and persecution – to ‘the spattered blood and dried brains of the dead’ on tree, stone and fence? To shattered and burnt-out homes, to the so-called ‘safe rooms’ in modest kibbutz homes, where a mother covered her youngest son’s body with hers to save his life, where families with young children concealed themselves and cowered behind unlocked doors. ‘… [N]o mending/Shall ever mend, nor healing ever heal,’ wrote the celebrated Hebrew poet, Chayyim Nachman Bialik in his poem ‘In the City of Slaughter’ on the Kishinev pogrom in 1903.

Countless messages from Israel, gatherings with organisations that have worked for decades on creating dialogue with Palestinians, testimonies from individuals, whose families have been taken captive, whose friends have been murdered, who have spent these last weeks burying their dead, one family member after another, one friend after another. I am conscious of the exhaustion that sears their faces and their bodies, the trauma that leaves them numb and in shock. These things are incomprehensible, unfathomable.

How do you speak about peace when there is war? How do you speak of restoration, when so much, so many have been lost? How do you speak about justice when you want revenge? How do you speak about life when life has been extinguished?

How do you begin to restore the threads that bind us together as human beings – Jewish and Muslim, Israeli and Arab, Russian and Ukrainian? And how do you find in the depths of the human soul compassion and love – not only for our own Jewish people, but for all those who are suffering, who have lost loved ones and homes, who have lost certainty and faith in their future?

And yet, that dream of a young man swaying gently with his arms enveloping the Torah and all that it represents for us, is not wholly eradicated by this or any other war. For I have encountered women and men in these last two weeks, who in their exhaustion and deep, deep sadness, have mined the depths of their soul for love and compassion, whose prayers for peace, for life, for pity and hope, are not diminished in the darkness. And like Noah, emerging from the ark after the catastrophe of the flood in our parashah this week, they want to plant a tree, a vine. They want to restore life in broken hearts.

‘If not us who will love,
if not us, who
will say peace
now.’*

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright


*Words sung at an interfaith prayer vigil on Thursday evening arranged by Rabbis for Human Rights with individuals from other movements and organisations working for peace – Jewish and Muslim.

                                                                            

     Imam and Rabbi in Conversation

27 October 2023

Dear Members and Friends,

In light of the war between Israel and Hamas, it is all too easy to lose sight of the vital importance of local interfaith relationships. One's own shock, loss and suffering can make us irresponsive to the grief and pain of others. Many people feel lonely and unheard. Imam Sabah Ahmedi and I decided to engage in dialogue and model humanity and coexistence to each other and our communities. 

Sabah Ahmedi is a London-based Muslim faith leader from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. Recognised on broadcast TV and social media as ‘The Young Imam’, Sabah uses his knowledge and experience of faith to help younger generations understand and tackle current affairs problems, including mental health, financial planning, relationships, and diversity and inclusion in personal and professional capacities. Sabah is now also campaigning for better representation on TV and film of minority narratives, voices and faces.

Here is the piece we’ve written together. Please share with your family and friends.

In the face of the ongoing Middle East war, Imam Sabah Ahmedi and Rabbi Igor Zinkov believe in promoting mutual respect and understanding rather than hatred. To demonstrate that people of different religions can coexist and learn from each other, we have decided to ask each other questions about our respective beliefs. We pray for the peace of the world and for the relief and protection of all those who are oppressed.

Rabbi Igor Zinkov: How does it feel when people express extreme voices in the name of your tradition and turn something you love into a weapon of hatred? Some people get anxious when they hear the word ‘Jihad.’ Many assume that this is a Muslim principle that justifies violence. What is Jihad?
 
Imam Sabah Ahmedi: There are a handful of extremists who tarnish the name of Islam for the over 1.8 billion peace-loving Muslims across the world. As a Muslim who strives to follow the teachings of Islam, anyone who uses my faith as a weapon to kill innocent people, regardless of their justification, is in total contradiction of what Islam teaches, and thus it hurts me to see when this happens in the name of my faith.  
 
Jihad is a topic addressed in various sections of the Holy Quran, and as Muslims who follow the Holy Book, it is clear to us that it has very noble meanings of striving for goodness. It does not in any way justify the killing of innocent people. Rather, the Holy Quran is clear that killing one innocent person is equivalent to killing the entire of mankind. Hence, our strong rejection and opposition are aimed at any interpretation that justifies the shedding of blood, the promotion of chaos and disloyalty, and the disruption of civil harmony in the name of Islam.

Rabbi Igor Zinkov: Is there an idea of a Messiah and Messianic age in Islam? What is the view of the ideal future from a Muslim perspective, and what is the way of achieving it? In a perfect world, would you like everybody to become Muslim?
 

Imam Sabah Ahmedi: The Islamic Messianic concept is that the Messiah will come to achieve peace, not through war or bloodshed, but rather through peaceful means and prayers to spread the true teachings of Islam. The real weapon we have are of prayers.
 
As the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, we believe that the awaited Messiah has indeed come, in the person of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who established the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. His mission was to guide people towards the peaceful teachings of Islam and thus create peace by helping mankind come towards fulfilling the rights of God and His creation.
 
It is our desire that people would accept the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as a mercy for mankind and that we all live under one umbrella, respecting everyone for their own beliefs and way of life. At the same time, freedom of belief is and always will remain a fundamental tenet of Islam. 

Rabbi Igor Zinkov: What is the most important thing you want people of other faiths to understand about Islam? What is your most treasured Islamic teaching?
 
Imam Sabah Ahmedi: Islam is a religion of peace and true justice. The Holy Quran states that ‘let not a people’s enmity incite you to act otherwise than with justice. Be always just, that is nearer to righteousness’.

This verse in chapter 5 clearly demonstrates a fundamental teaching for not only Muslims, but for the world to see and follow. If there was genuine fairness at every level of society, the world would be a much better and peaceful place.  

Imam Sabah Ahmedi: How does it feel when people express extreme voices in the name of your tradition and turn something you love into a weapon of hatred? 

Rabbi Igor ZinkovIt fills my heart with extreme sadness when people use Jewish teachings to express xenophobia and hatred towards others. Jewish tradition teaches us to care for the most vulnerable, to welcome and support refugees, and to do everything we can to improve the world around us. 

Judaism holds human life as one of the highest values. Mishnah, a very important Rabbinic text from 3 century CE, says that if one murders another person, he is responsible for the death of a whole world. And, if a person saves the life of one person, he saved the whole world. (Sanhedrin 4:5) Therefore, according to Judaism, your life has the same value as the life of anyone else - no better and no worse. Human life is the most precious gift we have to treasure.

The most difficult moral and religious dilemma appears when people have to use violence to protect their family, their country, and their people. Torah scholars and commentators were sensitive to the ethics of war and suffering. A Rabbinic legend comments on the Biblical story about the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. According to the Biblical story, when Jewish people were liberated from slavery, the Pharaoh ordered his army to chase after them. This was the moment when the sea parted, and Jewish people safely crossed it on the dry land. However, when the enemy soldiers followed them, the sea closed, and all the soldiers died. The Rabbinic Legend has an important addition to this story. On seeing the drowning Egyptians, the angels were about to break into song when God silenced them and said, ‘How dare you sing for joy when My creatures are dying?’ (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b). In this wise legend, God did not rejoice in the death of Egyptian soldiers, even though they intended to kill Israelites. When fighting with unethical terrorists, you should not become one. Judaism teaches to save and protect as many innocent lives as possible. 

Imam Sabah Ahmedi: Is there an idea of a Messiah and Messianic age in Judaism? What is the view of the ideal future from a Jewish perspective, and what is the way of achieving it? In a perfect world, would you like everybody to become Jewish? 

Rabbi Igor Zinkov: Judaism is not a missionary religion. There is no aim for all people to become Jewish. In other words, you do not have to be Jewish to live a long, happy and good life. Conversion to Judaism is possible, but it takes at least a year to learn and experience Jewish life before one can appear before three Rabbis for the final conversion exam.

The word for Messiah in Hebrew is ‘Moshiach’, which literally means ‘anointed one.’ This word is used to refer to a Sovereign or High Priest in ancient Israel. Therefore, the pure Jewish meaning of Messiah is ‘a leader’ who does not have to have supernatural abilities or be associated with miraculous events. However, throughout history, whenever there was a period of war or antisemitic persecution, messianic fervour and speculation would peak. Therefore, there are different ways to understand the concept of Messiah and the way of achieving the Messianic age. For example, according to 13th-century thinker Moses Nachmanides, during the Messianic Age, the world would undergo a radical transformation, where everything would become perfect, food would grow by itself, and sickness, old age, and death would be eliminated.

I am personally inclined to agree with another scholar - Moses Maimonides - a great medieval 12th-century thinker who insists that the Messianic era will arise through natural human progress. As a Liberal Rabbi, my understanding of Messiah is more about the universalistic hope for a ‘Messianic Age’ brought about gradually through the acceptance of God’s will by all humanity. Why do we need God? To remind people that they are not.

Imam Sabah Ahmedi: What is the most important thing you want people of other faiths to understand about Judaism? What is your most treasured Jewish teaching?

Rabbi Igor Zinkov: For me, the most important teaching of Judaism is the idea that there can be more than one truth. It is beautifully illustrated by a joke in the famous classic film ‘Fiddler on The Roof.’ Two people had a heated argument. The main character, Tevye, said to 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.'.

This story has a lot of wisdom. Sometimes, people can be fixated and focused only on their version of the story and ignore others. It is very important to understand that people can disagree and both be right. In Judaism, this principle is called ‘disagreement for the sake of heaven.’ This concept is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition and ethics and is considered a noble and constructive form of disagreement. It is a disagreement or argument that occurs with the primary intention of seeking truth, understanding, and the betterment of society or your community rather than personal gain or ego.

Shabbat Shalom,
Igor                                             

Tue, 28 November 2023 15 Kislev 5784