Monthly Archives: May 2017

May 29

D’var Torah: Bemidbar

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Moira Hart

This week’s Torah portion is called Bemidbar and is the first parsha from the Book of Numbers.  Numbers is not a translation of Bemidbar which actually means “in the wilderness”.  It recounts a time in the life of the Children of Israel when they are having to change from being slaves and all that entails to becoming citizens of their own land.  Much of the parshah is to do with the counting and sorting of people into their tribes. It’s all about transition.

Moses was instructed by God to count, by tribe, every male from the age of 20 to 60 – men of draftable age.

Moses counts 603,550 men.

However, this didn’t include the Levites, women or children!

It’s not really clear why a census was needed but it could be that God wanted the census to show his power in redeeming such a large number of people, a whole nation wondering in the wilderness.  To give you an idea of the scale of the number involved, 603,550 is somewhere between the 2016 estimate of the population of Macau in Asia at 597,000 and Montenegro in Europe at 626,000.  (166 and 167 out of 233 nations according to the United Nations.)

The reason for the census may simply have been more pragmatic – perhaps it was to have a list or clear idea of men eligible to fight and this would explain the omission of women and children.

It happens that some years later but also related in the Book of Numbers, God again instructs Moses to take a census of males over the age of 20.  This time it is towards the end of their time of wandering in the desert and the Children of Israel have been through many traumatic and difficult times including being affected by plague and much fighting.  So despite the passing of time the final tally is 601,730.

I have read that it could be viewed that this time God is trying to allay the fears of the children of Israel and refresh their spirit by adding a sense of newness and distinction to their mission. The purpose of this count serves not as a census or military count so much as a reestablishment of their old identity.  Something akin to a shepherd looking after his sheep – keeping them safe.

To return to the census in this parsha, why weren’t the Levites included?  Chapter 1, v 47 says “But the Levites, according to their father’s tribe were not numbered among them.”  I discovered that it relates back to the incident of the golden calf.  When Moses returned from Mount Sinai and found some of the Israelites dancing around the golden calf he asked that “Whoever is with God, come to me”.  The entire tribe of Levi gathered about him and they were charged, sadly perhaps, with murdering everyone guilty of worshipping the Golden Calf.  The Levites then became the tribe charged with carrying and looking after the tabernacle in place of all the firstborn from each tribe who were originally going to be assigned this important task.

The parsha goes on to describe how the camp would be set out going forward. The Levites were to set up camp to immediately surround the tabernacle with the other tribes camped around them in a specific order. And just how many Levites were there?  22,000 males over the age of one month old.  The fact that the children were included probably indicates the importance of the tribe of Levi.

So we can see that there are many different reasons and theories as to why God wanted to count the number of Israelites.   Nick Gendler’s interesting article in Reflections says that Rashi tells us that at important moments in history God counted his people.  And perhaps it is simply a question of taking stock – something we all do at times of emotion, happy or sad.

Nick also goes on to discuss the idea that he recalled that Jews should not be counted individually.  An idea derived from the first lines in this week’s haftarah, “And the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which shall neither be measured nor counted”.  This rang a faint bell in my head and my consequent research led me to the following thoughts which are loosely based on an article from the Orthodox Union.

We will never know exactly why God chose that the Jews should never be counted with a census, but here are some thoughts.  The Talmud teaches that blessing is not found “in something that has been weighed, nor in something that has been measured, nor in something that has been counted, only in something that is hidden from the eyes.”  I think this is a rather beautiful idea.

Rabbi Bachya ben Asher, a Spanish rabbi and scholar born in 1255, explains that we do not count separate individuals, since we do not want to single them out and bring judgment upon them. An individual may not have enough merit to pass that judgment. However, when counting as a community, even if judgment is brought upon us, there are sure to be enough good deeds in the community to ensure that they pass the judgment and are found worthy of God’s mercy.

So what do people do to overcome this problem of wanting to know how many, but not wanting to count individuals.  As ever, there are ways around this problem.  Many censuses were carried out by collecting a coin – perhaps a half shekel, King Saul asked soldiers to bring kid goats, you can count noses or thumbs but not body parts that would are really significant for life.  And just by the way, once you have counted/or not counted it is ok to use the final number as long as it is arrived at in a correct manner.

As a footnote, and perhaps a hint to another reason why we traditionally don’t count individuals, King David counted the Jews in a more conventional way and a great plague struck and many of them died.

Another, rather lovely tradition, is that of how one should check whether there are 10 people present for a minyan.  The most usual way to do this is to use the words in a Scriptural verse (usually Psalm 28:9). This is a very beautiful way, because each word in a sentence is unique and without it the sentence would lose its meaning.  Illustrating what a mitzvah it is to be part of a minyan.  The verse translates as:

Save Your people and bless Your inheritance, and tend them and elevate them forever.

הוֹשִׁיעָה אֶת עַמֶּךָ וּבָרֵךְ אֶת נַחֲלָתֶךָ וּרְעֵם וְנַשְּׂאֵם עַד הָעוֹלָם

Anyway, I got so caught up in all of this that I forgot about the links I might be looking for to make all this meaningful for this week.  However, when I stop to think about it I think the parsha is about working out a good model and a way of life and a plan for living that makes a community function effectively.  I think everyone this week has been pondering on what we need to do to make our local communities, national community and global community to function well. We need to do take a long hard look at the way our global community operates and to see if we can mend something that seems to be very badly fractured at the moment.  I don’t really feel I have the authority or the right to try and speak to you all or help you find some understanding of this week’s events so I have turned to Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg and would like to share some of his recent blog.

He writes.  Our hearts go out to all the families who have been devastated by the evil killings in the Manchester Arena.  The young have every right to hope for security, love, joy, excitement and music.  Our prayers are with the wounded, the bereaved and all who care for them. Our thoughts and appreciation are also with the emergency services, the police and all who strive to keep us safe.

Next week is Shavuot and we shall read the Ten Commandments on Wednesday. Our rabbis emphasise the close correlation between the first and the second five. ‘I am the Lord your God’ is thus parallel with ‘You shall not murder’. It is, or should be, as plain as daylight that we may not hurt or harm, let alone wilfully and wickedly take away, another person’s life. This is the foundation of all morality and all religion; there is no place for relativism – the doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute.

I [Rabbi Wittenberg] spent the last two days engaged in Jewish-Christian dialogue in Berlin, at a huge gathering of the Protestant Church. The motto of this year’s conference is a verse from the story of Hagar, when she says to God ‘You see me’. The issue for us is not just whether God sees us, but whether we see one another: do we see in each other human beings, equally deserving of life? Do we see and respect each other across the differences of faith, history, nationality, gender, age? If we don’t, or won’t, those who pay the price will include, over and again, the most innocent among us.

The Manchester killer did not see others. The doctrine which filled, and killed, his heart and mind, prevented him from seeing them, – young people who merited incomparably better of life. He, and above all those who brain-washed and destroyed him, are eternally responsible for the pain following their terrible deaths.

We can’t bring the murdered back. Maybe the awareness of our solidarity will diminish by some tiny amount the loneliness of those whose lives have suddenly been flooded with inexplicable suffering.

But we can resolve to see one another, as the God of all life, and the Torah of Life, require us to do. And we can aspire to find the courage and compassion to act accordingly.  In response, I encourage us all to mark this bitter and sad time through special generosity and kindness towards children and young people.

Shabbat Shalom.

Moira Hart

May 25

From the Co‐Chair

By Editor | Blogs

Written by Simon Samuels

You can listen to Simon reading this post on the audio version of our latest Newsletter

 

Do you know that feeling when you pop into a shop that
specialises in something that you don’t really know much
about and you quickly realise that there is this whole other
world of dedicated specialists that you didn’t know even
existed? As I write this, my final ‘From the Co‐Chair’
comment as my term in office nears completion, I reflect
that there was a bit of that feeling for me when I became
Co‐Chair of SAMS in May 2014. Of course, I had been
increasingly involved with different aspects of shul life for
several years before then. But it wasn’t until that May that
I truly began to appreciate just how SAMS relies on a
powerful, dedicated yet often invisible army of volunteers
who give so much of their time to helping keeping SAMS
special.

Being a Co‐Chair is, in many ways, one of the simpler roles
to do for a shul. It comes with a profile and, dare I say it, a
status; Moira and I get to stand up at the start or end of an
event and make everyone feel welcome, tell a joke, get to
meet the special guests, get to give the quote to the
newspaper etc.

However, it’s the people who do all the less visible stuff for
the shul who are the real heroes; dealing with the faulty
light in the main hall on a Tuesday morning; setting up
Sunflowers on a Monday morning; standing in the rain
doing security on a Sunday evening; buying the food for a
Shabbat lunch on Friday morning; loading their car with a
piece of a borrowed stage before school opens early on a
Thursday; poring over a spreadsheet or drafting some shul
guidelines at home on a Wednesday evening; or making a
B’nei Mitzvah weekend special for the family. These are the
real champions, and in my three years as Co‐Chair I have
for the first time come to truly appreciate all that is done
by our volunteers. I have discovered that secret world.

Yet being a Co‐Chair isn’t always straightforward. I often
tell my non‐Jewish friends that a community of 300 Jews
generates 600 opinions on everything. And these past three
years have included their challenges, of course. Rabbi Rafi
leaving, whilst clearly under standable for him and his
family, has left us with a hole to fill. Of course we were sad
to see him go, but it has once again provided SAMS with
an opportunity to demonstrate how self sufficient we can
be when needed. And we are really lucky to have Rabbi
Carl spending an extended period of time with us.

I wanted to make two last comments. Firstly, a confession.
Before becoming Co‐Chair I reckon that I came to shul
perhaps once every 6 weeks or so. Part of the role requires
either myself or Moira to go to shul each week. To be
honest, I was a little unsure how I would feel about having
to go to shul that regularly. But a funny thing has
happened; I’ve found that it’s not that bad. Actually – and
keep this to yourself – it’s rather nice. And for those of you
who were like me, perhaps try and go on a regular Shabbat
morning a little more often. I think you may find that you
like it. I do.

And finally, I cannot sign off without paying tribute to the
two Co‐Chairs I shared the role with, Alan Green for the
first year and Moira for the second and third years. In their
different ways they were great partners to work with,
always calm, never flustered and each with great
dedication to SAMS. We are all very lucky to have
members like them.

In my first ‘From the Co‐Chair’ article in 2014 I wrote “I see
my responsibility as being that of a temporary curator of a
precious vase, grateful to the people who came before me
and mindful to make sure that at some point the vase is
safely passed on to those who will follow.” Thanks to the
tireless support of that volunteer army, I strongly believe
that I am passing on a vase that is indeed very much intact
and we can all look forward to helping support our new
leadership as they continue to carefully curate it.

May 14

D’var Torah: Emor

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Beverly Cohen

Holier than Thou?

I love clubs.  I’ve always been a club junkie.  I’m particularly thrilled to join clubs that require special equipment.  Over the years I have treasured my ice skates, my curling stone, my softball glove, my exercise ball, my riding crop, my knitting needles, my squash raquet.

And uniforms, how I love uniforms! I was inordinately proud of my brownie uniform with all its badges.  When I started pottery classes, my potting smock gave me much more nachas than my pots.  Likewise, the tennis skirt I bought to launch my squash career.

Why?  Because I love to belong.  And I love to be seen to belong.  I love the sense of kinship, the common knowledge, common language, common identity.

And the sense of separateness – I love that the clubs I belong to are different, exclusive in some way.  That in belonging to these clubs I must in some way be different, special.

I’m proud to be Jewish.  I belong to a club whose members include Einstein, Freud, Marx, Pasternak, Harry Kroto, Henry Kissinger, Philip Roth – Barry Manilow ….  Am Yisroel Chai.

In the introduction to today’s Parashah, Emor, the Etz Hayim Chumash says: “The previous parashah [Kedoshim] describes the Israelites as being set apart from other nations, called on to attain holiness through their distinctive lifestyle.  Emor sets the Kohanim apart from other Israelites by means of symbolic obligations, restrictions and abstentions in their lives.  As the Israelites are to represent the God-oriented life to the nations of the world, the kohanim are to represent a maximal level of devotion to God for their fellow Israelites.  Every society needs a core of people who live by a more demanding code, to set an example for others of what is possible.”  If this is true, why do we think, generally speaking, that it’s bad to be “Holier than thou”?

This week’s Parsha continues what is known as the ‘Holiness Code’, so-called because of “its repeated use of the word Kadosh (Holy)”.

The root meaning of ‘Kadosh is “something distinctive and set apart”, that is separate.  Last year, in one of his ‘Weekly Words’, Rabbi Rafi wrote that “we seek to imitate the divine to become holy.  In doing so, we seek to recreate the first moments of creation, where God began creation by separating:  light from dark, heavens from earth, water from sky and dry land from the sea”.

There are lots of separations enumerated in the Holiness Code: the pure from the defiled, unblemished from the blemished; the priests from the rest of the Israelites; festivals from ordinary days; praise from blasphemy; the Israelites from the other nations.

There are potential pitfalls in creating simple but unbridgeable dichotomies. I feel uneasy about this. If I’ve understood him correctly, Rabbi Joel Levy also feels uneasy.  In this week’s Masorti ‘Reflections’, he refers to the “Dark Side of the Quest for Sanctity”.  He is talking about the harsh punishment for blasphemy set out at the end of this parsha, but there are other problems that arise when I view my particular nation or tribe as Holier than yours.  Maybe there is a difference between creative acts of separation, which are holy; and the static state of separate-ness, which is not.

Jonathan Sacks wrote, in an article about Kedoshim, that “only one people was ever asked collectively to be holy.”  He goes on to say “That, to me, is what it is to be a Jew”.

I suspect few of us Jews in the modern world are conscious of this call to holiness as we go about our daily lives.  And even fewer feel the need to heed it.

But we are acutely aware of our separateness.  We nurture it.  We are the victims – and the survivors – of the Shoah.  And of countless precursor pogroms and attacks throughout our history.

I feel uncomfortable with the implication that the Jewish people have suffered more than other groups. Or that only the Jewish people have an obligation to be holy.  Does it imply that only Jews – as a whole community – can be holy?  Or that the Jewish people, the Jewish religion – in being separate, is superior to others?

To be “something distinctive and set apart”: this is simultaneously our great strength and our greatest vulnerability. The UK’s response to the threat of extremists has been to assert, and even to enshrine in law, the duty to promote ‘British values’ (e.g. civil partnerships, gay marriage, adoption of children by same-sex partners). Personally, I have no problem with these principles. But Ofsted has rated some Charedi schools inadequate, and last year one was threatened with closure because of its refusal to teach about same-sex relationships and about other faiths and cultures. One Charedi spokesman argued that this is an attack on their way of life. “There are lines we cannot cross”, he said.

I suspect that the brit mila could be next on the hit list. Jewish News reported that recently, at its annual conference, Norway’s ruling Progress Party voted to ban the religious circumscision of boys under the age of 16.  Again, from the perspective of current modern Western values, it’s hard to deny that there is a problem about injuring or disfiguring children when they are too young to give consent.

Next could come shechita, on the grounds that pre-stunning makes animal slaughter more humane. Whilst it was no doubt true that in biblical times shechita was the most compassionate way to dispatch animals, I don’t think we can be sure that’s the case today.

Nevertheless, despite my personal reservations, I feel deeply anxious about the State threatening customs that have bound our communities together; customs that we have shared and valued over so many generations.

As you all know, Rabbi Karl is a zealous advocate of “good questions”, so to end this drash I’ll pose some:

  • To what extent are we prepared to be “distinctive and set apart”?
  • Are such rituals as brit mila and schehita intrinsic and essential to our Jewish identity?
  • Are they worth practicing if they inflict pain (even if only momentary) on babies or animals? If they are proscribed by British law?
  • In the face of evolving British values, to what extent will we be permitted to maintain such practices? And if we’re not, how can we maintain a Jewish identity in the Diaspora today?

May 01

D’var Torah: Tazria-Metzora

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl

Every year it is challenging to speak about these Sedras, either separately or together. Therefore, some context before I extrapolate from them. The Torah includes these portions about disease because the Torah is the story of the evolution of an entire civilization, which must include matters of disease and health. At the same time, however, one should not be critical of a generation for what was characteristic of it. We cannot measure their ways by 21st century standards. What can we learn from Tazria-Metzora is about the consequences of ignorance.

The rabbis who lived after the generation of the Torah nevertheless chose to attribute what they thought was leprosy as a result of moral failure, making Metzora an acronym for the Hebrew words for gossip (“Motzi Shem Ra”). The disease was probably actually a variety of ailments, all of which they thought to be contagious. Miriam, the sister of Moses (Numbers 12:10) is stricken when she speaks ill of Moses. The hand of Moses (Exodus 4:1 and 6) becomes diseased when he doubts God’s and his own ability to be believed by the people. By the way, the last hospital in America for people with Hansen’s disease in the USA was closed in the early 1980’s.

Long before we knew that the disease was not caused by moral failure, but our ignorance and the fear which it generated had already hurt many people in many generations. Here are the ways in which this kind of ignorance is so dangerous and damaging.

Making it all a result of moral failure is a “blame the victim” approach which can cause much pointless suffering and avoiding the real problems. For example, there have been in recent years those on the extreme right of the Jewish community who still say the Holocaust was, like the destruction of the Temple, caused by the failure of the Jewish people to obey God’s will.

Ignorance and fear lead to isolation. We know what it means to be locked in a Ghetto. At one time, leper colonies existed in Hawaii where lepers were forced to live away from the community. Further, even when we already knew how AIDS was a transmitted people shunned those with the disease. Remember what happened to Alan Turing because he was a homosexual. The wrong was only completely righted not that long ago.

Call it labeling or stereotyping, we Jews know about this only too well. I cannot mention some of the names we were called. Think about the ways we have been portrayed in anti-Semitic cartoons. I was painfully reminded that when I was growing up in America, “the land of the free and the brave,” African Americans were segregated in cruel ways as portrayed in two movies I have seen- “The Help” and very recently here in St. Albans “Hidden Figures.” The former is about the way African Americans were treated like the slaves of Egypt when they worked in American homes. The latter is about a number of women who were mathematical and engineering geniuses but were isolated and mistreated in the American space program during the 1960’s.

Only in 1991 with the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, did the US start making accommodations for the physical and mentally disabled a requirement, did we stop calling people “retarded.” Some would call this change and many other changes in the language we use to describe people with “special needs” politically correct, meaning phony. The old saying that goes “sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you” is wrong. More often, the new names we call these conditions are morally correct and long overdue.

The truth is that in so many ways we have not come very far in correcting all of these wrongs caused by fear and ignorance. Had we truly progressed there would not be the kind of pandemic called “bullying” nor would America have the kind of president we have who called Mexicans rapists and publicly mimicked a disabled journalist. Unfortunately the world is also increasingly populated by national leaders like Assad, Putin and Erdogan who are far worse.

These present realities remind us that we have not learned that much from the days of Tazria-Metzora and sadly the moral failure is ours!