Monthly Archives: September 2015

Sep 23

Rabbi Rafi’s Blog

By SAMS IT Administrator | Dvar Torah

In a new tradition for SAMS, the Cheder and Tots joined together to take part in the tradition of Tashlich, or casting away our sins (played by some bread) into the River Ver.

What made this event special, besides it being a first, was that each child was joined by at least one parent and rather than simply throwing some bread, both generations stopped to contemplate the significance of what this time of year means. It is not simply stopping a harmful act, but acknowledging its existence, and most importantly, doing something about it.

Tashlich, taken out of context, is not a sufficient in and of itself to fulfill the challenge of repentance and atonement. However, if we look at it as a starting point, a call to action, then it becomes a powerful symbol of the change we would like to achieve.

In the family pairings, all decided on something, some trait, habit, or characteristic, that they would like to change. Ideas ranged from doing homework without complaining to controlling the temper better. The act of throwing the bed then became the starting point for that change. In a few months, we will check in again and see what progress we have made.

My question to you is, what do you plan on changing of yourself this year? What will you give up and what will you replace in its stead?


Sep 09

Rabbi Rafi published on the front page of Reflections

By SAMS IT Administrator | Blogs

Sometime around the founding of Google, a discussion took place on whether to have a motto for the company. After much debate, the wording “Don’t be evil” was decided upon. The idea, as explained in a letter to shareholders, was this: “We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served — as shareholders and in all other ways — by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short-term gains.”

As of today, however, that motto has changed into a less than watered-down version that does not even resemble an imperative. On the web page that describes Google’s philosophy, “Don’t be evil” has been replaced by “You can make money without doing evil”, a major departure from the original intent. The original conception has been reduced from a moral principle which involves constant struggle to a way of judging individual actions in pursuit of quite different goals.

This week’s sedra, Ki Tetzei, is one of the most expansive in terms of laws. There are a total of 74, quite a hefty portion of the total in the Bible. The organising principle of this collection is centred on individuals, their families, their neighbours, and the relationships between them. Following several of the laws given, an interesting phrase is appended: ubi’arta hara mikirbecha – thus you will sweep away evil from your midst.

Many laws in the Bible have no reason associated with them, such as not mixing crops of different kinds or combining linen and wool. But in this case, a very clear message is being sent. The purpose is not to prevent a specific action, but to prevent the mind-set that allows evil to occur.

Our collections of laws are given, not simply to prevent or encourage individual actions, but to craft a holy and just society. The lofty goal of eliminating evil entirely from our community is laudable, but the conditions need to be right for that to occur.

Laws that provide for the just (at the time) treatment of women or the poor take centre stage. In order for a society to eradicate evil, the lowliest among us, the most vulnerable, need to be made to feel secure. The impulse – or at the very least, the opportunity – to do evil must be purged.

But what exactly is this thing we are seeking to expunge? Today, we generally see evil as the polar opposite to good. But in Judaism, evil is not at all seen that way. Evil is that which defies or challenges good. We may never acquire a final sense of goodness or completeness, but we are in a constant struggle to improve or elevate ourselves. That ultimately is the concept of kedusha, holiness. I am not commanded to pray, or give charity, or keep kosher once. These laws are given to establish the conditions where evil becomes difficult to commit.

When the Malakh changed Jacob’s name to Israel (“struggle on behalf of God”), it was to signify that Jacob’s struggle is our struggle. Ultimately, whatever we do as moral human beings and as Jews is because we have agreed to live in that special relationship.

Evil is not a relative construct open to interpretation but rather an absolute, something against God’s will. God’s presence and evil are incompatible. They cannot coexist. Eradicating evil from our midst therefore invites God’s presence to dwell among us, elevating ourselves to holiness. That is the constant struggle which defines us.

Sep 09

Long standing member, Jonny Freedman is published in Reflections

By SAMS IT Administrator | Blogs

As we approach the Yomim Noraim (Days of Awe) I’d like to offer some lifestyle prescriptions for good health and happiness:

  • Never overeat. Stop eating when your stomach is two-thirds full.
  • One should not eat immediately after exercise.
  • Older people need less food, and if they eat as they did in their youth they will become fat and destroy their lives.
  • Preserve peace of mind in all circumstances.
  • One should pay attention to the body’s signals.
  • People should sleep eight hours each night.
  • Spending time regretting the past or worrying about the future has no benefit.
  • Sick people should be surrounded by good smells and music, joyful stories and laughter.

Hands up, not my ‘prescription’ but just a few of the sayings of Moses Maimonides (Rambam), written between 1165 and 1174 CE whilst court physician to the Sultan (Saladin) in Cairo. Centuries before antibiotics, X-rays and MRI scans and even the thermometer, Rambam was a brilliant doctor who treated the patient rather than the illness and espoused moderation and disease prevention. Such was his renown as a physician that he was invited to return to England with Richard I (‘the Lionheart’) to become his Court physician but he declined out of loyalty to the Sultan.

My interest in Rambam was aroused by the discovery of a small treatise inherited from my Grandfather, part of the ‘Jewish Worthies’ series, and published in 1903. I vaguely knew that Rambam was a physician as well as a great Rabbi and Scholar but I had no concept as to how relevant his ideas could be today. He wrote ten impressive works in Arabic including volumes on asthma, poisons and their antidotes, haemorrhoids and digestion, as well as promoting health promotion and publishing a glossary of drug names in a multitude of languages. This task alone took more than 10 years and was a formidable and impressive undertaking and the first of its kind.

In order to properly assess his patients he insisted on examining them in their home environment. Modern day general practice has witnessed the demise of home visiting. Whilst undoubtedly there are efficiencies in patients attending the surgery, I can concur with Rambam that seeing patients in their own home grants a unique insight into their lives and many factors that influence their health and wellbeing.

Rambam only took up medicine at the age of 37 to support himself and his family. While he based many of his beliefs on the works of Hippocrates and Galen he was not afraid to challenge assumptions or change his views. He never claimed certainty, and constantly strode to scientifically validate his treatments. This also resonates today, with many supposedly ‘modern’ medical beliefs not standing up to scientific scrutiny, yet still routinely offered as ‘fact’.

Whilst I hope there is rarely any intention these days for doctors to deliberately deceive their patients, we should nevertheless take note of Rambam’s words here: “Do not consider it proof just because it is written in books, for a liar who will deceive with his tongue will not hesitate to do the same with his pen”. It makes me reflect that ‘medical certainty’ is as rare and unlikely as ‘religious certainty’.  So it seems that I am a Masorti doctor as well as a Masorti Jew. Perhaps we could say the same about Rambam?

It’s impossible to view him purely as a physician, or a scholar. Both were intrinsic and intertwined aspects of his personality and outlook. This is evident from his teachings and the manner in which he links the attainment of physical and spiritual health. In Chapter 12 of Rambam’s Guide to the Perplexed (c1190), he writes: “In so far as the soul is a force residing in the body; it has therefore been said that the properties of the soul depend of the condition of the body”.

Having begun with some of Rambam’s ‘prescriptions’ for physical and mental wellbeing, his commentary on this week’s parasha, overflowing as it is with blessings and curses, allows Rambam to impart a spiritual message that I believe has the power to carry us through the Days of Awe ahead. He reminds us in his Mishnah Torah (Helichot 3:4) of the awesome power of individuals to make a difference not only personally but to the entire world: “Throughout the entire year, a person should always look at himself as equally balanced between merit and sin and the world as equally balanced between merit and sin. If he performs one sin, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and brings destruction upon himself. On the other hand, if he performs one mitzvah, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of merit and brings deliverance and salvation to himself and others.”

Sep 03

Shabbat – 28th/29th August 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

The true test of someone’s character is not when things are going smoothly, as fundamentally, those situations do not test our character. It is when times are challenging that our moral integrity truly presents itself. How that person reacts to adversity is really the litmus test. In this week’s parsha, Ki Tetze, we have a host of laws that delineate the expectations for how the Israelites are expected to act in relationships among themselves, towards other nations and all of God’s creatures. They are the foundational guide to how we are to build a healthy holy society.

Having these laws is an extremely powerful guide, yet what I find most telling are the laws that pertain to times of war. War is a time that can potentially lead to the unshackling of our human restraints. Where violence is involved, our base instincts are in danger of taking over and extreme acts of brutality are possible. These laws are reminding us that, even in those circumstances, we are not to allow ourselves to lose control. We are taught to know that “All is fair in love and war” is simply not true. Specifically, in this week’s parsha, we are reminded not to take advantage of the weak or the captured. This is embodied in the law about allowing a captive woman to mourn for her parents a full 30 days. Only once that period has concluded, according to the rabbis, may the soldier marry her, and then only if she consents. It has been the way of war for a vast portion of human history, that the conquered were enslaved or even forcibly married. Our tradition forces us to restrain ourselves in a time when that would be exceedingly difficult and in the process doing away with a barbaric tradition, compelling us to have compassion on the weak. If we can achieve that in a moment of war, then how much more so in peace, it should be no challenge.

This is further reinforced by the injunction at the end of the parsha: to destroy the nation of Amalek. The reason given is that Amalek attacked the weakest members of Israel. By abusing the weak, their true character was revealed. The test of our morality is how we treat the weak or the most vulnerable in our society. Those who abuse and take advantage of the weak are the lowest of the low.

I pray this week that we always keep in mind those who may be less fortunate than ourselves and in challenging moments, we always remain true to our tradition and keep our hands open to assist those who are in need. Further, I pray that while we may be facing many threats, we always remember who we are and govern ourselves accordingly.

Sep 01

Shabbat – 14th/15th August 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

Throughout the book of Devarim, Moses deliberately goes through many points to make sure the People are aware of importance of each and every point and mitzvah that we are to follow.

Yet, in the week’s portion, there is a grammatical curiosity at the beginning of the portion. The parasha, taking its name from the first word, Re’eh, ראה, ‘See’, seems to be written in the wrong tense. If Moses is speaking to the entire People, why is it written in the singular? Surely, if it is an address to the entire nation, it should be Re’u, ראו?

One answer is provided by the Biblical Commentator, Ibn Ezra (Spain 11th-12th centuries). He teaches that the word being in the singular comes to teach us that all of the Israelites were being addressed as individuals. The teachings that Moses brought were intended to lay the foundation for a just and holy society, but they need to be accepted and implemented on a personal level. Furthermore, the relationship with the Almighty is a personal one. Each individual has a stake in the creation of our society.

In our communal lives it is very easy to assume that someone else will take on the responsibility of something. But this one simple word comes to teach us that each and every one of us has the responsibility to ensure that we are active in our collective. The failure to engage on an individual basis leads to a fragmentation of our society.   How then can you hear the call to engage in your lives; to ensure you are an active contributing member of the community?