Jul 09

Shabbat – 3rd/4th July 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

As many of you know, my parents are here visiting me (or should I say, visiting Toby).  In what has become one of my parent’s rituals, at least once during their almost yearly visits, we meet with my dad’s “aunt” Hilda Cohen in Golders Green (she is actually my dad’s mother’s cousin).  She is an amazing woman of 86 years, originally from Germany.

The story of how she arrived in this country and thrived, is nothing short of a miracle.  Hilda and her sister Trudy barely escaped Germany in 1938, on the Kindertransport.  Their brother was to have joined them, but at the last moment, her parents took him off the train as they could not bear the thought of all their children living alone in the UK.  That sealed his fate as he, together with his parents, perished in the Holocaust.  Hilda and Trudy however made it to England.  Hilda settled in Cardiff where she practiced medicine and was also a city councillor for many years until she retired and moved to Golders Green.

What is most amazing to me, every time we go and visit Hilda, is not the incredible amount of descendants Hilda and her sister Trudy have (well over 100), but the zest for life she still has, picking up Toby, reliving events of her past, discussing details of her medical career, or on this visit, identifying an anonymous family picture from about 90 years ago (it turned out to be my great-great grandparents).

In a world seemingly overrun with hatred and vehemence, it is very easy to lose faith in humanity because of the senseless violence we inflict on one another.  But, every time I meet my “aunt” Hilda, my faith is restored.  It is restored because of men like Sir Nicholas Winton, who was one of the principle organisers of the kindertransport.  In a very real sense, I owe my family’s existence to him. To those that questioned God’s existence during that horrific period of history, I would respond with examples such as Sir Nicholas Winton, truly a Tzadik in our times.  His passing this week is another sad reminder that some of the heroes of that generation are slipping away, their memories to be confined to books and our retelling.

Let us do our part, not just in remembering those heroes, but following in their footsteps and living by their example.

May the soul of Sir Nicholas Winton be bound up in an eternal embrace with the Almighty, and may his memory always be for a blessing and inspiration to us all.

Jul 02

Shabbat – 26th/27th June 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

How important are symbols?

One of the enduring mysteries of this week’s parasha, Hukat, is the punishment Moses and Aaron receive for striking the rock.  The rabbis are puzzled as to what exactly Moses’ sin was and further, why he was punished so severely!

One of the explanations put forward is that by hitting the rock and not speaking to it as instructed, Moses made it seem that he and not God, was bringing forth the water.  The symbolism God wanted to create for the people was necessary, as this was a new generation of Israelites, who had not experienced the awesome wonders and miracles of the previous generation.  Thus, the potency of the symbol was diminished, if not completely dissipated.

We have seen a powerful modern day example of this in the past few weeks.

In Israel, nine families held a joint ceremony to celebrate the B’nei Mitzvah of their children.  Unfortunately, it was not the ceremony they had intended to hold.  There was no Torah service as it was on a Sunday.  The rabbi who they had worked with over the preceding months, Rabbi Mikie Goldstein, was not even invited.  Why?  Because he is not orthodox but Masorti and thus not recognised by the State of Israel to officiate.  Even a deal worked out with the President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, was reneged upon.

What was so special about this particular B’nei Mitzvah celebration you might ask?  It is that these nine children all have Autism.  According to a strict orthodox interpretation, they do not possess the capacity to comprehend the mitzvot and thus are not able to be counted in a minyan or to be called up to the Torah.  The Masorti view differs and that is why over 4000 children in Israel to date have been afforded the opportunity to celebrate their Bnei Mitzvah in an active way by being called up to the Torah.  In the service described above, they were mere spectators.

The symbolism of a B’nei Mitzvah is that of a child taking their first steps as a Jewish adult by announcing to the community that they are choosing to take their place in the community by actively taking part in it, either by reading from the Torah, or being called up to it.  Sitting passively in the service that is celebrating their active engagement with our tradition makes a farce of that symbolism, to say nothing of the complete and total undermining of our movement by the State of Israel.

If you wish to read more about this unfortunate incident, please look here for a collection of articles.

Symbols are tremendously important.  They allow us to express our deeply held values, or to illustrate those values to others.  They can give expression to a feeling or convey the power of tradition.  They can enhance an experience or capture a story.  By altering or ignoring the power of those symbols, we risk severely undermining our identities.

Jun 25

Shabbat – 19th/20th June 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

One of the most powerful lessons I have learned in the Navy is the idea of not complaining about something unless you are prepared to offer a tangible solution. Complaining for the sake of complaining is detrimental to morale and counterproductive. It may make you feel better in the short term, but in the long run will only ruin any positive feelings or incentive to improve.

Much ink has been spilt trying to figure out where Korach went wrong. Many agree that he had good people skills and great charisma, but he was a horrible leader.

How can this be? He instilled the loyalty of 250 people to go against perhaps the greatest leader, Moses. Could he really be so terrible?

Leadership is not simply about having followers. That perhaps is the easiest part of being a leader.

The harder part is developing a vision, a reason for people to follow you. Korach’s vision is simply to not be Moses, or more accurately, to call out Moses for consolidating power, while offering no tangible solution. One cannot articulate a vision by defining what you are not. Looking at the text, Korach’s main complaint is: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves over Adonai’s congregation?” (Num. 16:3). There is no plan, there is no alternative, simply that Moses shouldn’t have all the power. What kind of vision is that?

The failure in his leadership was that he was completely unprepared or unwilling to offer any alternative. His leadership was totally devoid of any vision or inspiration. One wonders then how he was able to inspire 250 people to follow him.

I pray that we find the strength to put forth our thoughts and complaints in a positive light and at the same time be able to offer a possible solution to any problems we perceive. Anyone can offer an objection. A true leader with vision offers a way forward.

Jun 18

Shabbat – 12th/13th June 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

The Shema is one of the most important, if not the most important, prayers we have in our tradition. Yet, so much of our time that we spend reading or studying it focuses mostly on the first paragraph. In this week’s parasha, Shlach, we find the source for the 3rd paragraph that introduces us to the Mitzvah of Tzitzit, the fringes on the corners of the Talit.

In this paragraph all the way at the end of the Parasha, there is a curious line that always draws my attention.

“That shall be your fringe (Tzitzit), look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. (Numbers 15:39)”

Why do we need to specifically be commanded to look at them? Surely wearing them would be enough?

When we say the blessing upon putting on the Talit, we would expect the words of the blessing to be “to wear the Talit.” However, the words are actually, to wrap yourself in the Talit. A very unexpected formulation. Yet, if we look at the words from that verse, it begins to make sense.

In and of themselves, the Tzitzit are simply some strings. Yet what they represent is so much more. We can easily be led astray by the superficial things picked up by our eyes, or carried away by the emotions of the moment in our hearts. These pieces of string are there to remind us of a greater responsibility we have, that our thoughts and emotions translate into action, and we must be extremely careful how we act, or interact in the world. If we are simply guided by our hearts or eyes, we will easily be led astray. If we pause to reflect on the larger picture, our actions will be more considered.

The next time you put on a Talit, or see a tzitzit, remind yourself to take that extra moment, to pause and reflect on your proposed course of action, and really think if it is following something of substance, or something superficial.

I would like to wish Arthur Freedman-Bowden a mazal tov on the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah. Please join me as we come together this Shabbat to celebrate with him and his family.

Jun 11

Shabbat – 5th/6th June 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

Light is frequently the metaphor given to knowledge. Just as light can brighten a dark room, knowledge can help to illuminate the darkness of ignorance, chasing away the shadows and influence of the uninformed. Light or fire can be used to create other sources of fire, kindling other lights, as can knowledge go and inspire other minds and for them in turn to continue that process. Light is a powerful, primal source of wonder and amazement, as is knowledge and the pursuit of it.

In this week’s portion, Behalotekha, the priests are instructed when setting up the Menorah in the inner sanctum of the Tabernacle, that the wicks must point their light forward, even if the menorah itself is placed in the rear of the room. The menorah is grounded firmly in the rear of the structure, yet, how does one incline a wick in any particular direction?

The text here is coming to teach us about the balance we must have in our lives. Our tradition, which is seated in our history, in precedent and in our cumulative memories, is our anchor which secures us to our past, just as the menorah is anchored firmly to the ground and the rear of the structure, the back, that which came before.

However, the knowledge and experiences are not simply an anchor but the light. We must use it to illuminate our future, to see what lies ahead, always shining the light forwards, but using the past as a guide. Our success as a people has been because we were able to stay grounded in who are, but always look to the future, always able to kindle the lights of the next generation. Only because of the continual pursuit of knowledge have we been able to evolve and grow as a people, as a community and as families. This common desire is one element of the glue which holds us together, the anchor at the back of the room that shines the way forward.

I pray that we continue to have the strength to stay grounded, but also the courage to look ahead and to give those two qualities to those who come after us; roots and wings! I challenge you to learn something new this and every weekend.

I also want to wish Lewis Herlitz and Anne Barber a mazel tov on their upcoming marriage as well as Lauren McQuillan on her wedding anniversary. Join us as we celebrate together as a community.


Jun 04

Shabbat – 29th/30th May 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

This week’s Parasha, Naso, deals with a difficult concept, that of someone with a physical deformity through no fault of their own being exiled from the camp so as not to defile it where God dwells.  God instructs Moses to “send them outside the camp so that they will not defile their camp in which I dwell among you” (Num. 5:3).  The midrash (an early Biblical commentary) expands on this verse:

“At the time that Israel left Egypt, many of them were maimed.  Why?  Because they were handling clay and bricks and carrying them up to the top of the building and one who builds by carrying up to the top layer will have a stone fall on him or sever a hand or a beam or clay will get into his eye and he will be blinded.  And when these maimed people came into the wilderness of Sinai, God said, ‘what kind of honour would it be for the Torah if I were to give it to such a maimed generation?  And if I wait until others arise, I will delay the giving of the Torah!’  So what did God do?  God told the ministering angels to go down to Israel and heal them. . . . God said to Moshe, ‘before you built the Mishkan I put up with these matters and there were people with abnormal discharges and tza’arat [the skin disease erroneously translated as leprosy] mixed among you; now that you have made the Mishkan and I will be dwelling among you, separate them out from among yourselves and send them from the camp, all the afflicted in the skin and all those with abnormal discharges and all who are defiled by corpses.’  For what purpose?  ‘So that they shall not defile their camp in which I dwell among you’ (Num. 5:3).”

At some point before the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, all these deformities were healed.  Yet if that is so, why then do we have this command to exile those that exhibit these symptoms?  According to the midrash, “but at the time of the Golden Calf, their maimed states returned and they began to have abnormal discharges and skin diseases….”  The midrash is teaching then that those who are suffering from any of these maladies are doing so because they have sinned.  I find this reading to be very problematic.  Are we not all the creation of God, created in God’s image with the divine spark and thus, no matter what physical form we take, all holy and blessed by our creator?

I think the main thrust to learn from this passage is not the physical deformity or exile from the camp, but the temporary nature of the exile.  At some point, they should all be welcomed back into the camp.  Today, in our communities, there are those who suffer from any number of physical or other abnormalities (blindness, deafness, learning difficulties, poor nutrition, poverty, etc…).  Just as God has made it a priority to heal them to be able to dwell in the camp, we too must strive to make sure they are welcomed and embraced in our midst.  We must strive to maximise the potential of each and every one of the members of our community.  Each one of us, regardless of what abilities we have, is a sacred vessel for God’s presence in this world, refined through our long relationship with God as God’s people.  Standing before God in a wheelchair, or with the help of a sign language interpreter, or with an assistance animal, is still exactly that – standing before God.  It is our presence that matters, not our posture.  As I said last week, we should not simply be counting everyone, but making sure everyone counts.

I would also like to take this opportunity to invite you to share in two special occasions at shul this coming Shabbat.  The first, is we are officially welcoming in our two new Trustees, Niki Freedman and Susan Hamilton as well as our new Treasurer Nick Flitterman and our new Co-Chair Moira Hart.  At the same time we give thanks for the years of service to Simone Freedman, Alan Green and Paul Hoffbrand, as they stand down from their positions of Treasurer, Co-Chair, and Immediate Past-Co-Chair respectively.

Additionally, there will be a delegation from the St Albans Abbey accompanied by my good friend, The Reverend Canon Richard Watson, Sub-Dean of Abbey as they come to experience a Shabbat Service.  Please join me as we give thanks to those who have served our community, those who have stepped forward to serve, all our volunteers, and our good friends from our community of St Albans.

Jun 02

25 Friday Nights for 25 years

By SAMS IT Administrator | Blogs

Over 200 members of St Albans Masorti Synagogue (SAMS) participated in a special this week to celebrate the synagogue’s 25th anniversary.

25 member families each hosted a Friday night meal where chicken soup and chicken (traditional Friday night food) as well as vegetarian and fish meals were the order of the day.

25 Friday Nights CollageFriday night is the eve of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. This is traditionally the time when families and friends gather together to eat, pray and reflect on their week.

“This weekend was the ultimate example of community.” said Simon Samuels, Co-Chair of SAMS. “Across South Hertfordshire, every single member of SAMS either hosted or was invited to dinner in a member’s home. It demonstrated above all the vibrancy of our community spirit and was such a success that I am sure we won’t wait another 25 years to do it again!” he said.

The event is one of a number of events taking place this year to celebrate SAMS’ 25th Anniversary. These have included a Question Time with all five Hertfordshire political candidates which was organised prior to the General Election and a Jazz brunch.  Other events over the year will also include a quiz and a garden party.

May 28

Shabbat – 22nd/23rd May 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

There are a variety of different answers given, ranging from compassion to love.  At varying times, God orders a census.  In this case, the surface reading would seem to indicate that the Israelites are about to leave Mt Sinai, so this count is purely an administrative task, to help organise the march.

However, reading a little deeper reveals a fascinatingly different interpretation. The second verse of the book reads:

“Take a census of the whole Israelite community” – שְׂאוּ אֶת רֹאשׁ כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

S’u et rosh–literally translated means, “Lift up the head”.  According to Ramban (not to be confused with Rambam), the word s’u is only used when the intention is to indicate greatness (that is, holding high one’s head).  The point here is not simply to have the number of every male of military age.  We are not interested in that number.  We are not concerned with counting everyone, but rather, in making everyone count.  The meaning is not in the numerical value, but in what those people represent.

My Rabbinate is not defined by those numbers of events that I had the privilege of participating in, but rather in the context and meaning that I was able to bring to those events, by the joy and simcha, comfort and meaning, inspiration and reflection that was created then and there in those moments.  The Israelites are not defined by the sheer number of their mass, but by the meaning each and every one of them are able to create, by being an active part of their community. By counting each individual, God is helping us to realise our own self-worth.

As we come to this weekend where we on the precipice of renewing our relationship with God and our covenant at Shavuot, let us remember the special place we each have, not just in the number of our accomplishments, but in the deeper meaning that was created by us being a part of it.

May 14

Shabbat – 15th/16th May 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

In our daily interactions with people, there are certain things we say to one another and don’t really expect a sincere answer back.  The most obvious example is a simple greeting, where we ask, how are you?  More often than not, the response is a canned insincere answer as there usually is an understanding that the asker doesn’t really care and is merely being polite and the respondent is echoing that politeness and giving an appropriate answer of fine, or ok, or something along those lines.  Something that conveys the same meaning and sincerity of the question.

Something I like to do, not to put people on the spot, but to actually illustrate my care, is to follow up with a question.  I want that person to know that I am genuinely interested in what they have to say and I am not just asking to fill space or to fulfill some social obligation of making conversation.  For example, if someone says they’re fine, I will ask why?  It is revealing about the human condition that many times the answer to that question is simply, because nothing is bad.

We are conditioned to ignore when things are not going badly and to focus when things go awry.  The order of normality is disregarded because it is normal and expected.  This pattern is seen in this week’s parasha, Behar-Behukotai.  There are a series of blessings and curses, depending on if we follow God’s laws.  The rabbis were puzzled as to why the curses far outnumber the blessings.  Is it simply because we are human beings and we focus on the negative?  We are very specific when detailing things that are not going well, if we are in pain, or suffering a loss.  Indeed, when you stub your toe, you exclaim that your toe hurts.

But, what about when things go well?  How specific are you?  How detailed are you about the joy you experienced?  If you have not stubbed your toe and are not in pain, do you detail the lack of pain in your toe?  Of course not.  That is not the way we communicate.

Indeed, the rabbi’s teach that the Torah is written in the language of the people and therefore, the blessings are written about in a general, yet all-encompassing way and the curses are written in a detailed, yet limited fashion.  So, it would be incorrect to see the curses as outnumbering the blessings, as they are extremely constrained, whereas the blessings could be without limit.  The text needs to detail the potential ill effects of disobeying God in great detail, but just like our modern communications, if things are going well, the text does not need to convey what that would look like in great detail.  In broad generalities, we are given a picture of a society living in harmony with God’s will.

I would like to also thank all our hosts for this coming Shabbat as we continue to celebrate our 25th Anniversary with our 25 Friday night Dinners and also, welcome Rabbi Jeremy Gordon and family for Shabbat. Please join us as Rabbi Jeremy will be sharing some thoughts over the course of Shabbat.

May 07

Shabbat – 1st/2nd May 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

In a week replete with tragedy, I find myself challenged to find something positive.  The world around us has reminded us in a humbling way that we, humans, are not as in control of things as we would like.  Following a massive earthquake, there was catastrophic loss of life in Nepal.  It is too easy sometimes to succumb to the horror, throw up our hands in defeat, turn our heads and walk away.  It takes a strong character to not only stay in the moment, but strive to improve it.

I was immensely proud to see, within a few hours, that Israel had dispatched hundreds of soldiers to Nepal to set up a field hospital and do search and rescue work.  This quick clip shows just a tiny fraction of the work ahead of them as they attempt to make a difference in the utter destruction around them in Nepal.  I am reminded by the words of this week’s parasha, Achrai Mot-Kedoshim: “Then the Lord spoke to Moshe immediately after the death of Aharon’s two sons.” (Leviticus 16:1) literally, after the death (of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu).  Why does the text make it the time of the conversation so specific?  What is the purpose of those seemingly superfluous words?  What does it matter when God spoke to them?

It is because it is immensely important.  Immediately following an act in which we cannot comprehend, God instantly comes to teach us that dialogue and action must continue.  The lesson: despite the suffering of sufferings, the horror of an untimely ghastly death, dialogue continues.

When confronted with such inexplicable suffering we ought to all remember the words of Esther Wachsman, mother of Nachshon (the young Israeli soldier murdered by Arab terrorists a number of years ago).  She said, “When tragedy befalls us we should not ask ‘why?’ but rather, ‘what shall we do now?’”  It is our choice whether to approach our tragedy by only crying ‘woe is me’ or whether to allow it to elevate us, giving our lives new meaning and direction and bringing us closer to God.

I pray for the lives of all those in Nepal and hope rescue and comfort find them soon.  As for the loved ones that were taken away in this tragedy, may their memories always be for a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Rafi