The city council has published an article on its web site about our recent civic service.
The city council has published an article on its web site about our recent civic service.
This week, Jews all across the UK will be taking part in Shabbat UK. One of the ideas behind this initiative is to try and increase Shabbat Observance among the Jewish Community. I have enjoyed the benefits of Shabbat Observance throughout my life and highly recommend it.
Shabbat is that pause, the parenthesis, that we need each week to remind ourselves of our essential truth of our existence. We are, at our most basic, human beings, and once a week, we need to simply be, not do. That is Shabbat at its most fundamental. The laws of Shabbat are designed around that concept. If one then approaches Shabbat based on what you are not allowed to do, rather than what you can discover about yourself, then you are missing the point. I urge you, do not think about the things you will be missing, but focus instead on what you can add. Don’t concentrate on not being able to use your phone, drive, or check your email. Look at the beauty of being able to spend time together as a family as you walk to shul, play a board game, or do some study.
Just as we are incapable of defining ourselves by a negative, I implore you, do not characterise your Shabbat by what it is not. Shabbat is a break, a pause, an opportunity. You only need to seize it.
We encourage everyone to add something new to their Shabbat observance this week. If you usually drive to shul but live close enough to walk – then walk. If you rarely light candles – light them. If you normally spend Shabbat afternoon watching TV, try a book instead.
I look forward to seeing you this coming Shabbat.
Too often, when calamities befall us, we look to assign blame on any number of random factors. When those reasons run out, the term “fate” is substituted. It was the will of God, or it was meant to be, or some other similar reason is given. How many of us have used just such an expression to try and explain away a difficult or tragic moment? I know I have, while searching for meaning or context in a particularly challenging situation, used this reliable verbal get-out-of-jail-free card. As the author of the book of Ecclesiastes strives to explain, why is there an imbalance in the way the world should work? The righteous should be rewarded and the evil punished, yet we all know from experience this is not always the case.
Harold Kushner devotes an entire book to this premise, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”. We, not only as Jews but as people in general, have spent a great deal of time and effort trying to explain this illogic and the best answer seems to be that we have no control. Some throw up their hands in surrender to “fate” – whatever will be will be.
I refuse to accept such an explanation. To use such an explanation repudiates any semblance of responsibility we as human beings have for our own actions. In the bridging portion between last week’s reading of Parashat Bereishit and this week’s Parasha of Noah, the text goes to great lengths to justify God’s actions. It is not simply that God decided to destroy humanity, saving Noah and his family, but that wickedness and evil pervade society and that, not God, led to its downfall. The evils that befall a society are not caused by God, but what we inflict on one another. It may be what God promised would occur, but it is the perfect recipe for what happens when a society breaks down, when respect for one another is no longer present, when individualism and not communal responsibility is the norm. The flood is simply the means, not the cause, for what happened.
It is through our own actions, not fate, not some undefined force, that we can determine our future.
I pray that we are ever mindful of our actions, that we take full responsibility for them and diminish the impact of our activities by the consequences and impact we have on the world around us.
Once again we have arrived at the beginning. This coming Shabbat, we begin the cycle of the Torah anew when we read Parashat Bereshit. The question has been asked, why does the Torah begin with the letter bet, the second letter of the Hebrew Alphabet? Surely, it would make much more sense for the text to have started with the letter Aleph, the first letter! There have been several reasons brought forth by the rabbinic commentators throughout the ages; for example, that aleph, which has the numerical value of one, represents God. One of the more compelling ones I’ve come across gives a fresh take on what the letter Aleph represents. In the vast majority of cases, the letter Aleph is synonymous with the number one and thus God. But, what if the letter Aleph was not representing God, but ourselves? The letter which we must master is ourselves. We are the aleph.
What does this mean? As we have just come out of the High Holyday Season, we have spent the better part of a month looking inward, reflecting and coming to terms with ourselves and all that we have done in the past year. It is a marathon session of internal struggle that, hopefully leads to a clearer picture of who you want to be in the coming year. It is precisely at that moment, when the holidays finish, that we immediately set to work. To assist us in that work, the Torah, our great instruction manual, is restarted. Because we have done the preliminary work, the aleph, then and only then, can we move on to bet. We are reminded to not let the hard work of the past month go to waste. There is a step by step progression, like the letters of the aleph bet, that will lead us on the right path. All we must do is continue putting one foot forward in front of the other and continue the work we started over a month ago.
Succot is a holiday which, according to our tradition, is meant to teach about joy and celebration. It comes at a time when we have just survived a gruelling section of the calendar when we have fasted and put our souls through an extended cleansing ritual. Finally, there is a time to step back and rejoice. It was a time when the farmers would be at their wealthiest, as they would have just concluded the harvest.
However, the tradition wants to ensure that we do not undo all the positive steps we have taken in the preceding few weeks. Succot is not about celebrating with wild abandon through excess, but rejoicing in what we have and being satisfied with that. This value is espoused in the way we celebrate. We are commanded to build a Succah, a minimalist structure that we are required to dwell in for the duration of the holiday. We are taught that while we may be awash in material blessings, the true blessings come from the way in which we live our lives, not in the way accumulate things. We can grow accustomed to enjoying the excess, but at the moment of their greatest wealth, the Israelites were commanded to remember where the material blessings had come from and how they are still required to live a life that is in keeping with their value, no matter how full or empty their wallets are.
We are living in a time when some of our material blessings are fleeting, but just as when they are plenty, let us strive to remember that our fulfilment comes not from the things we don’t have but the people we love and cherish. Succot comes to teach us that even this frail hut filled with guests and our loved ones is a greater source of happiness than our luxurious and comfortable homes.
Unfolding before us, there is a crisis of untold human cost as refugees are struggling to escape their so-called lives in various parts of the world, whether that be North Africa, Syria, Iraq, or immediately on our shores at Calais. It is difficult to see images such as this and this and remain unaffected.
I am reminded of a verse in this week’s parasha: “Cursed be he who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow…” (Deut. 27:19).
Many of us recall the struggles our immediate ancestors faced as they fled the horrors of Europe a generation ago while many turned their backs on us. We are commanded to ensure the fair treatment of all, regardless of faith or background, not only because we have experienced the same over our long history, but simply because it is the right thing to do. By failing to act to protect those who cannot protect themselves, we are dooming ourselves as a society, as a community and as individuals to be cursed by failure to learn from our history. Let us seek to break that cycle of callous disregard for human lives.
You may be asking, “What can I do to help in this crisis?” Here are just a few practical steps from an article in the Independent. I myself have just signed this petition to urge Parliament to offer greater access to asylum seekers and made a donation for much-needed supplies. It literally took me 2 minutes. This is not a question of politics or religion or fear, but simply about human life and human dignity.
I urge, take 2 minutes out of your busy lives, remember the stories of our ancestors, and do something, to improve the life of even one person.
I want to also take this opportunity to wish Jonah Levy a Mazal Tov on the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah. Join us as we come together to celebrate this simcha as a community this Shabbat.