Feb 26

Dvar Torah: Mishpatim

By Russell Goldsmith | Blogs

Here is the Dvah Torah that Marylou Grimberg prepared before we knew Rabbi Adam was visiting.  However, we still wanted to publish on our site.  Thank you Marylou for sharing it with us.

Veyavo Moshe ve yesaper l’am et kol divre adonai . . .
Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of the Lord and all the rules, and all the people answered with one voice, saying ‘All the things that the Lord has commanded we will do’. [Exodus 24:3]

Then, at the foot of the mountain, with appropriate sacrificial ceremonial the covenant between God and the children of Israel, our ancestors, is sealed.  After this Moses goes back up the mountain and eats a meal of affirmation in the presence of God.  For this reason this sedra, Mishpatim, is also known as Sefer haBrit, The Book of the Covenant.  The 53 ordinances, although they are but a small percentage of the final 613 commandments, are the foundation of the law.  They are a vital milestone in a long journey, and therefore worth investigating with some care.

Some of the ordinances are disturbing.   For example, the calm acceptance of slavery by a people who have just escaped from slavery themselves is startling.  Then there is the case of the ox that gores and kills someone and must be stoned to death.  This is hard to accept.  I hear the poor beast’s desperate bellowing, see its terrified eyes.  Why such cruelty?

Some of these problems may be alleviated by recognising that the Written Torah is not as straightforward as it initially appears.  It exists side by side with, and must be understood in conjunction with, the Oral Torah, and it turns out that there are layers of meaning.  Ultimately, in many cases, less disturbing explanations and interpretations are arrived at. However, sifting through the layers is a task to which scholars devote a lifetime.

We don’t have a lifetime.  We have about ten minutes, so I have chosen one of the ordinances, the eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth injunction, to demonstrate very briefly what one such reassuring interpretation looks like.  From this perhaps we can tentatively conclude that other troubling passages may well seem less disconcerting, less alien, when revisited in the company of the Oral Torah.

Not only is the eye for an eye ordinance one of the best known and most quoted sayings in the entire Tanakh, it is also possibly one of the most misunderstood.  It is also widely known as Lex Talionis, or The Law of Retaliation.  This is a gross misnomer, because more accurately it is a law intended, as one of its effects, to limit excessive retaliation.  It is about justice, not revenge.

Even more significantly, the Oral Torah teaches us that this ruling should be understood figuratively, not literally. Scholars reach their conclusions by, among other things, following linguistic and textual clues, by paying attention to the actual words used and to other contexts in which the same words and phrases appear.   We don’t have time to follow that route, but must skip to the final interpretation which is that if a man injures another man he must make appropriate financial – not physical – reparation.

This might be seen as a latter day attempt to make Jews and Judaism seem less vindictive, less Shylockian, nicer.   However, Maimonides said:  ‘There never was any Rabbi, from the time of Moses who ruled, based on “an eye for an eye,” that he who blinds another should himself be blinded.’   Before Maimonides Ibn Ezra took a similar position, as did the sages of Babylon (with the possible exception of Rabbi Eliezer).  So this takes us from the 21st Century through the 12th and the 10th to the 6th or even right back to the 1st Century CE.  Or, as Maimonides says, to the days of Moses himself.

So this gentler, financial interpretation is definitely not a 21st century attempt at a whitewash or a rewriting of Jewish attitudes.

Crucially, understanding the wording of this ordinance to be figurative makes good sense. How is a blinded person helped by the assailant also being blinded?  And what if one of the two people involved only had one good eye to begin with?   This way, judges can arrive at decisions case by case.  So the question now is:  Why on earth have a figurative formulation in the Written Torah in the first place?  Why not just cut to the chase and come straight out with what is really intended – financial reparation?

When Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Mandated Palestine, was asked this question he responded with a parable.   Briefly:  A young boy transgresses in some way.  The father, enraged, raises his hand to strike him but the mother, full of compassion, intervenes to protect her child.  The father lowers his hand, they talk it over and an alternative, non-physical punishment is imposed.

The important thing is that as a result of his father’s anger and the threat of violence the boy realises the gravity of his offence and, although due to his mother’s intervention he is spared harsh physical chastisement, the threat of such punishment teaches him a lesson which (with luck) he won’t forget.

Rabbi Kook explains that the Kabbalists compare the father to the Written Torah, whereas the mother is likened to the Oral Torah.  The value of the role of the Written Torah  – the father – is now apparent.  It highlights the gravity of certain transgressions.  In this case, if the Written Torah had taken us straight to the interpretation given by the Oral Torah it might seem that destroying a man’s eyesight is no more serious an offence than any other transgression that attracts a financial penalty – the destruction of property, say.  But it is more serious.  The written language is unequivocal on that point.

If a man deprives another of an eye, or a tooth, or a limb he deserves to lose an eye, a tooth, or a limb also.    The fact that he won’t, because it would be both unhelpful and impractical, is a separate issue.  What becomes apparent is that although the Written Torah is essentially about justice – both social and moral – there is also the issue of deterrence.

A story in the Gemara illustrates this:  Chanan the Bad appears before the Beit Din accused of hitting and injuring another man.  He is found guilty and ordered to pay half a zuz.  However, Chanan only has a battered one zuz coin which no one will change for him because it is in such bad condition although it is, presumably, legal tender.  Stalemate.  Chanan, however, as well as being bad is also resourceful and he obligingly resolves the impasse by hitting the injured man again.   The penalty is doubled, Chanan pays up, and they can all go home.

The point of this story is that Chanan is not in the least deterred by the certainty of the fine being doubled.  Indeed, it is his intention that it should be.  We can conclude from this that of itself a fine may not be much of a deterrent, especially if the offender is a wealthy man. This creates an obvious imbalance, within the law, between rich and poor.   One of the effects of the written Torah is that it redresses this imbalance (or it is hoped that it will), making the bellicose rich man think twice before using his fists, or some other blunt, or possibly sharp, instrument.

Maimonides writes that what the written Torah makes clear is that it is ‘fitting’ that the offender should suffer the same injuries as those he has inflicted. Tellingly, however, he also says that neither financial restitution nor offerings to God – ‘even all the rams of Nevayot’ – are sufficient for the offender to be exonerated.  He must also seek forgiveness from the person he has injured.

Interestingly, according to the Talmud, the injured man must not withhold such forgiveness. If he does he also sins.  However, if he nonetheless refuses to be placated, the original offender must seek forgiveness three times in the presence of witnesses.  If it is still withheld he has done all that is required of him (unless the injured man is his teacher, but that is a separate complication).

This is most satisfying – so much from one little ordinance.  There is no retaliation, no vengefulness, but no easy get-out clause for offenders either.  We can perhaps extrapolate from this that throughout the year and not just at Yom Kippur, we must all seek forgiveness, not only from God, but also from those we have injured in any  way.   What is perhaps more significant is that we ourselves are obliged to forgive.

Finally, in this story the mother and the father each has a distinct and equally valuable, and valued, role to play, which seems to me to be just as it should be.

Feb 13

SAMS singers sing

By Russell Goldsmith | Blogs

By Stephen Gess

I have always noticed that our community was a musical lot and I wondered whether there was a possibility for an informal singing group at SAMS.

The first step was to look for a song leader and in January 2016 we found Judith Silver who ran a pilot of singing workshops which proved to be very successful attracting 20 people. We then decided to move forward and set up further workshops as the year progressed this time with the help of Mich Sampson.

Emerging from this has been a remarkable strength of response, enthusiasm and a common will to make this project work. We have now gathered an eclectic mix of people who enjoy singing together.

Although everybody comes from different musical backgrounds, we have found common ground in the songs that we sing which cover the full width and breadth of Jewish music. I could quote chapter and verse about all the upsides of singing and singing together, but what it comes back to is that singing together is just great fun!

What we have is a tremendous sense of commitment on all sides and a brilliant song leader in Mich.

Mich is a very accomplished musician, has a great sense of humour, and is also someone who is a wonderful motivator. She is entirely on the same page and works with us to create beautiful music and enhance our sense of community.

We have honoured our Mitzvah Day pledge to sing at the Princess Alexandra Jewish Care Home in Bushey. This took place on Sunday February 12th.

We will also be holding a “Soiree” for family, friends and the community to hear and join in with our music. This will take place on Sunday 2nd April at 7pm at SAMS.

We always love to welcome people who want to give “SAMS singers” a try. Please let me or the shul office know if you would like to come along and contribute your own joy of music to our group. The charge for each session is £7

Contact : info@e-sams.org

Feb 12

Dvar Torah: Tu B’Shevat

By Russell Goldsmith | Blogs

This Shabbat’s Dvar Torah was given by Michelle Knight

Tu B’Shevat is a festival  which, by celebrating trees, by extension honours the earth which God gave us.  It falls at the time in Israel when the rainy season has finished and the sap starts to rise in the trees. Tu B’Shevat originated in Biblical times as one of four New Years in the annual cycle, determining which fruit should be donated to the priests and when at what age a new tree could be harvested, the festival fell out of favour when the connection to the land of Israel was lost. It was reformed by the Kabbalists in Safed and they developed the Tu B’Shevat Sedar as a way of expressing their beliefs about how humanity acts and interacts with God. Most of the traditions were dormant until it was revived by the early settlers in Israel as it so symbolically connected the people to the land

The Kabbalistic mystics believed that we live in four worlds simultaneously:

  • Assiyah: the physical world around us.
  • Yetzirah, the world of feelings and emotions.
  • B’riyah, the world of knowing, and the mind.
  • Atzilut the world of spirituality.

And they based their Seder on these concepts, echoing the Pesach seder with four cups of wine, stories and of course, food.

You’ll have to wait till Kiddush to actually eat some fruit but I’d like to take you through an imaginary Tu B’Shevat sedar, so please use your imagination as we start by pouring out a glass of white wine to symbolise the middle of winter with frost on the ground.  We recall that nature has been dormant for many months, awaiting the warmth of spring and its annual renewal of life. To mark Assiyah, the physical world, we eat nuts and fruit with a tough outside and soft inside, to remind us that the earth protects us: we acknowledge that we need protection both physically and emotionally.   So I’m going to hand out an imaginary dish of almonds, pomegranates, oranges and walnuts and coconuts but please eat the pomegranate first because it’s best to taste the fruit grown in Israel before the others.   You can ponder how some people are like fruits that are edible inside and inedible on the outside; they are difficult to get to know, but you are rewarded when you peel away the top layer.

Our second cup is white wine with a splash of red to symbolise the beginning of spring and the reawakening of the earth. To concentrate on Yetzirah, the world of feelings, we eat fruits with a tough inner core. Through this we show that if we have a strong inner energy, we don’t need to be hard on the outside. For our seder we include: dates, olives, cherries and peaches.  Some people we meet are like fruits that are edible on the outside, but have an inedible pit; you seem to make friends with  them quickly, but you will never know them completely.

The third cup is of red wine with a little white added: it represents high summer with long days and warm nights. Fruit and vegetables are abundant and we are reminded of the richness of life. In the world of B’riyah or creation, where God’s protection is close at hand, we eat fruits that are completely edible – no shell, no pip, no skin. We can let go of all barriers and try to experience freedom, so I’m sending round figs, grapes and pears. These are like the people with whom you form quick and lasting friendships.  In the wider world, we are reminded that we have to find a balance between the opposing forces of human needs and the natural world

The fourth cup is purely red wine symbolising the glow of autumn. The crops are ready, and the leaves are full of colour. Plants are preparing seed for the next cycle of nature.  We are inhabiting the world of Atzilut which is a purely spiritual idea, representing God’s loving kindness.    We might think about the year that has passed, about living in balance and harmony and maybe thinking about purity and origins. As we feel this abstractly in our hearts we don’t have real, or imaginary, fruit to eat.

Today much of the focus of Tu B’Shevat is about conservation. Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai once said: “If you have sapling in your hand, ready to plant, and the Messiah comes, plant the tree first and then go to greet him.” We can be very proud of SAMS efforts to plant the Hertswood Forest on Mitzvah Day.  And in the Torah there is a commandment to leave fruit trees standing when a city is attacked in wartime.  Personally while I’ve been reading about Tu B’Shevat, I’ve realised that I’d lost touch with the Plant a Tree in Israel programme and so I’ve donated a tree in honour of SAMS  which is probably most like a pomegranate, bearing in mind our architecture: tough on the outside but deeply rewarding once you get inside.

I’ll finish with a parable:

Two people were fighting over a piece of land, each claimed ownership and as they couldn’t resolve their differences they agreed to put the case before the Rabbi.  The Rabbi listened but couldn’t come to a decision because both seemed to be right.  Finally, he said, “Since I cannot decide who this land belongs to let us ask the land.” He put his ear to the ground and after a moment straightened up. My friends, the land says it belongs to neither of you but that you belong to it.”

 

 

Jan 22

Dvar Torah: Parsha Shemot – שְׁמוֹת

By Russell Goldsmith | Blogs

This Shabbat’s Dvar Torah was given by Debbie Harris

Shemot is the first sedra of the book of Exodus and is basically Moses’ back-story. If the bible was a film this is the bit where they do all the flash backs to show you how the main character got to be where he is today. So we have the Pharaoh ordering the killing of male babies, Yocheved putting her baby in a basket in the Nile, Pharaoh’s daughter saving the baby and Moses growing up in the Egyptian court.  Later Moses sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, kills the Egyptian and has to flee.

Later still God appears to Moses in a burning bush and instructs him to go to Pharaoh to demand let my people go. I think that Moses’ reaction is very interesting:

Who am I,” objects Moses, “that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”

God says all will be fine as God will be with him. But Moses is not satisfied so God gives him three tricks to help persuade everyone that he has God on his side – his staff turns into a snake, his hand becomes covered with leprosy and is then healed and he’ll be able to turn the water of the Nile into blood. But Moses still protests saying that he is not good with words at which point God gets rather angry and says that Aaron can be his spokesman and stop making a fuss – or words to that effect!

In this day and age we don’t seem to have this level of reluctance or humility amongst our leaders. Instead our potential leaders have to constantly put themselves forward on TV, in newspapers, on social media or in election materials trying to explain why they would make a great leader, how wonderful they are and how terrible the other guy is. It seems that matters of extreme complexity and importance like Brexit or how to ensure fair treatment in the NHS have to be covered in brief, inane sound bites or negative campaigning. And this is perhaps part of the reason why so many people distrust our leaders and the establishment and vote instead for populist candidates and policies.

I read an interesting article by Jonathan Sacks on this Sedra. He comments that often in the Torah the people who turn out to be the most worthy are the ones who deny they are worthy at all.

The heroes of the Bible are not, he says, like the supernatural figures from Greek or Roman myths. They are not people determined from an early age to achieve fame. They did not go to Eton or Oxford. They were not born to rule. They were people who doubted their own abilities. There were times when they felt like giving up. Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah and Jonah all reached points of such despair that they prayed to die. They became heroes against their will. There was work to be done – and they did it.

Jonathan Sacks also considers Moses’ question of Who Am I?  as an issue of identity. On the one hand Moses is a prince of Egypt who grew up in the royal palace. But on the other hand he is a Midianite shepherd. He has to leave Egypt, make his home in Midian, spend most of his adult life there and marry Zipporah, a Midianite woman. So as well as feeling unworthy of leadership he perhaps does not feel much connection to the Israelites. He may have been Jewish by birth, but he had not grown up as a Jew. What was happening to the Hebrew slaves wasn’t his experience or his problem.

Rabbi Sacks suggest that the real clue to Moses ultimately taking on the challenge of the leadership of the Jews lies earlier in his life just before he kills the Egyptian when Moses is said to see the ‘hard labour’ of the Hebrews. Moses sees the suffering and identified with the sufferer and could not walk away. In Jonathan Sacks’ words:

‘There are Jews who believe and those who don’t. There are Jews who practise and those who don’t. But there are few Jews indeed who, when their people are suffering, can walk away saying, ‘This has nothing to do with me.’

In my view I would hope that as Jews, and in considering who would make a good leader, this would be broadened to cover all peoples not just our people. We should be conscious of the suffering of others whether they are our people or not and we should do what we can to help. We should try to choose leaders who we believe might be able to make a difference to those who are suffering or who might help those who are unwell, disabled, vulnerable or perhaps just in need of a good education or a reasonable job whether they are our people or not.

In another article by Jonathan Sacks he considers the fact that, as for most leaders, Moses does not get there on his own and points to six other heroes without whom Moses would not be in a position to lead anything. Interestingly these are all women.

This reminded me of a scene in Alan Bennett’s fantastic play The History Boys.

I wasn’t fortunate enough to see it on the stage but have seen the film several times. In case you don’t know it, the play is set in a grammar school in Sheffield in the early 1980s and focuses on a group of sixth formers who are trying to get into Oxbridge to do history. I rather identify with this as I was in sixth form at a grammar school in the early 1980s doing History – though in Essex rather than Sheffield. In the play the boys are having interview practice and the one female history teacher, played brilliantly by Frances de la Tour in the film, raises the possibility that one of the dons interviewing them might actually be female and she comments on the fact that history seems to be told entirely from a male perspective. She says:

‘Can you, for a moment, imagine how depressing it is to teach five centuries of masculine ineptitude? Why do you think there are no women historians on TV? I’ll tell you why; because history is not such a frolic for women as it is for men. Why should it be, they never get around the conference table? In 1919, for instance, they just arranged the flowers, then gracefully retired. History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind. With the bucket.’

The women in Moses’ formative years may not have had a bucket, but most of them didn’t have a glamorous life. First, of course is his mother is Yocheved, who had the courage to have a child despite the risk that he might be killed, then hid him for three months, and then devised a plan to give him a chance of being rescued.

The second woman was Miriam, who kept watch over the basket in the Nile and who approached Pharaoh’s daughter with the suggestion that she find a Jewish nursemaid. Then we have the two midwives, Shifrah and Puah, who frustrated Pharaoh’s first attempt at genocide. They apparently told Pharaoh that although they rushed to assist at births, the Hebrew women were so vigorous that they had given birth before the midwives arrived. There are interpretations that suggest these midwives are in fact Yocheved and Miriam using different names, but in any event this seems to be the first instance of the idea that there are moral limits to power, that there are crimes against humanity that cannot be excused by the claim that “I was only obeying orders.”

The fifth woman is Zipporah, Moses’ wife who, although she is the daughter of a Midianite priest, accompanies Moses on his mission to Pharaoh despite the fact that she had no reason to risk her life on this dangerous venture.

The final woman is Pharaoh’s daughter. She had the courage to rescue an Israelite child and bring it up as her own in the very palace where her father was plotting the destruction of the Israelite people. Rabbi Sacks asks:

‘Could we imagine a daughter of Hitler, or Eichmann, or Stalin, doing the same?’

There are many strong women in the Bible. They aren’t leaders of their people but they do seem to have some of the characteristics that we might associate with good leadership – such as courage, conscience and choosing to do the right thing even when that is dangerous or difficult.

There are lots of qualities that might make someone a great leader – perhaps integrity, intelligence, the ability to inspire others, problem solving skills, thinking big, being pragmatic, the ability to make and implement difficult decisions, being a good listener as well as a good orator and many more. But I think that having some of Moses’ humility and courage and even a touch of self-doubt might be helpful too.

I’d like to finish with what I consider to be an inspirational poem, which lists many attributes of great leadership – If by Rudyard Kipling. Although it is in some ways a poem of its time, reflecting Victorian attitudes towards men and military campaigns, I hope that Kipling will forgive me for taking out one verse and slightly changing the last line to emphasize what I think are qualities which are important to the characters in this week’s Sedra and are vital for great leaders –

and perhaps for all of us.

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

 

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;

If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

 

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,

if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And a great leader – you can become!

Jan 11

Q & A with Rabbi Carl

By Russell Goldsmith | Blogs

What was the highlight of your time at SAMS?

It is difficult to single out one highlight as there were so many. My answer would be that one among many was the five classes I taught.

Each one dealt with difficult questions and what made each gathering so special were the questions that the students posed. They were profound and thoughtful and generated a good deal of participation from those in attendance. I found myself hearing and trying to answer queries I had never heard or thought of on these subjects. Clearly, SAMS is blessed with insightful and highly educated members. I hope they learned as much as I did at each session.

How did you find the experience of leading a much smaller congregation that you were used to in Chicago?

Judy and I loved the intimacy of a smaller community. I believe at some point I said to the congregation that there is something to be said for standing up on the High Holidays in front of 200 people rather than 2,000. Even on Simchat Torah night, there was that same feeling of intimacy. Having been with you for six weeks, we came to feel a personal connection to each person we met at services and other programs. Our congregation in Illinois is also warm and friendly, but SAMS’ intimacy was so delightful, a quality which I hope can be preserved even as you grow larger.

What impressed you most about SAMS?

While I know that for many years you did not have a full-time rabbi and had to rely on yourselves for everything, that fact that you are still, even after many years with a successful rabbi, so empowered is impressive. The members do it all from leading the dahvening, to reading Torah and Haftarah, to announcing everything during the service, to clearing the room to set out the Kiddush, to providing security (which I know is customary in the UK) and so much more. I had to do what I love to do most- teach and deliver sermons.

I was impressed to watch one of you speaking to a relatively new member and encouraging him to polish the skills that he already has in order to become a leader of the dahvening. This means that SAMS continues to empower others for the future by reaching out in a personal way.

How did you enjoy getting involved with the B’nai Mitzvah process with Emma and Benjamin?

The best part of the process was getting to know each family on a personal level by being in their homes and meeting the entire family, including household pets. We were also in each case served delicious dinners. I don’t know if this has always been the custom at SAMS, but keep it going. That interaction creates a relationship and comfort level between the rabbi (and in each case with Judy as well) which made the service much more special and personal. I wish I could have done this at Congregation Beth Shalom.

We also learned that one of the Chairs of the congregation also meets personally with each B’nai Mitzvah family and took pains as well to make sure that he/she and I did not say the same things to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah at the service.

The personal touch is what makes and keeps a community a community.

What was the most unusual thing SAMS does?

I would say with big smiles on both Judy’s and my faces, that the answer is Sunflowers. We attended one of the sessions and were awed by the number of families and the energy with which they filled the room. This was followed by a very special session of song and movement in a separate room for the youngest among them, with a uniquely talented member of the congregation leading. It goes a long way in making the entire community aware of what a special place SAMS is. What is most unusual and wonderful is that it is open to the entire community. It is multi-faith and multi-cultural, etc. which lets the larger community of St. Albans know what a synagogue means and who the Jewish community is!

I know you asked for the most unusual but in this context I would also have to mention the Sunday Morning group sing-a-long we attended on our last Sunday with SAMS. There were some 20 people there with a wonderful professional song leader. Judy and I are still singing the tunes at home but we certainly miss the accompaniment of all the other participants.

What would you say to a rabbi thinking of joining SAMS?

Before I would tell the rabbi why, I would say “Just go. You will be happy you did!” SAMS is a community which embodies the meaning of growth, not just in numbers but also in soul and spirit in all of the ways a synagogue community can provide that growth. Members are anxious to learn and the rabbi will enjoy teaching them. The Cheder is filled with delightful children and the rabbi will kvell from interacting with them. The leadership is truly committed to the future of SAMS. They know how to welcome a new rabbi and make the rabbi feel at home as they did for Judy and me, and certainly did for Rabbi Rafi over many years. St. Albans is a wonderful place to live, to raise children and to be close to Jewish schools and the growing Masorti community. And it goes without saying but I will say it anyway. London is only a short train ride away. At the end of the day it is the people at SAMS who made it for us a “second home.”

What do you miss most about SAMS?

I will have to be a bit redundant in answering this question and I know in this answer I speak for both Judy and me. It is the people we met who befriended us with such warmth and affection that when we left we felt like part of the family and SAMS is truly a family. Your commitment to each other and to the synagogue as a community is impressive. We miss all of you and so look forward to our next visit.

What advice would you give SAMS?

I could answer that question by simply saying that you should just keep doing what you have been doing for the 26 years since you began. Making people and relationships the priority has made you strong and will keep you vital and help you grow. If any prospective member or rabbi expresses any doubt about becoming part of the SAMS community, just give them my e-mail address and phone number. Judy and I will be more than happy to dispel any doubt they might have and remind them that SAMS is truly “a home for Jewish Herts.”

Dec 20

Dvar Torah: Parsha Vayishlach Drosha

By Russell Goldsmith | Dvar Torah

This Shabbat’s Dvar Torah was given by Jonny Freedman

At the start of this week’s pasha Vayishlach, we read about the reconciliation between Jacob and Esau. Jacob faces meeting his brother again with great trepidation. It’s not surprising, as at their last contact, just before Jacob fled, Esau had sworn to kill him for stealing his birthright. Jacob sends out servants to bribe his brother with livestock and riches. The servants return reporting that Esau has 400 men with him. Jacob determines that all is lost and goes so far as to split his camp in to two so one half will survive when Esau inevitably attacks. He then prays to God, claiming unworthiness, but reminding God of God’s promise to make Jacob’s seed immeasurable as the “sand of the sea.” It’s interesting that God doesn’t answer – perhaps he is growing fed up of our patriarch’s Chutzpah – he seems to take, take, take as Beverley so eloquently reminded us in her Drosha last week.

Jacob determines to appease Esau with a succession of extravagant gifts delivered by his servants. After a restless night wrestling with an angel (and probably his own conscience), Jacob finally gets the blessing he had earlier sought from God. Obscurely this is to change his name from Yaacov to Israel, which may have been somewhat of a let down based on what we know of Jacob, but the Torah does not tell us his response.

Adding to our concerns already voiced about Jacob’s character, he ensures the most ‘dispensable’ family members – the handmaids and their children – were in front and his favourites Joseph and Rachel were at the rear.

Astonishingly, in Chapter 33 Vs 4 we read that Esau ran to meet Jacob, embraced him, fell on his neck, kissed him and wept. So reconciliation at last between the two warring brothers….. but was it?

Judaism has quite a lot to say about reconciliation and forgiveness. What we can learn from this is that there is far more to it than kissing and making up. No apology was sought or offered by either brother. We are told that granting forgiveness is a critical part of forgiveness and reconciliation. In his book “The Power of Forgiveness,” Elie Wiesel refers to a Jewish view that in order to be forgiven, one must first admit to wrongful action and apologize. The German government, in response to his request, did indeed issue a formal apology at the Knesset in Israel for its involvement in the Holocaust. As well as the importance of allowing the wrongdoer to atone, we are also commanded to accept someone’s apology in order to facilitate his or her own spiritual development.

Although in our tradition Esau is portrayed as the villain I think that each has a responsibility to seek forgiveness for their actions and/or words.

Another interesting observation is that following this joyous meeting of the two brothers and their clans, we are told that they next meet some years later at their father’s deathbed. So no attempt is made to rebuild their fractured relationship in any ongoing manner. This should be a lesson for all of us as we reflect on the relationships in our own lives that may be in need of repair.

I’m going to leave the final words on Forgiveness and Reconciliation with Nelson Mandela. In his Inaugural speech on becoming President of South Africa in 1994, he sought to heal the wounds of his divided nation. He said – “The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come…. Forgiveness liberates the soul, it removes fear. That’s why it’s such a powerful weapon”

Dec 15

Reflections on SAMS Mitzvah Day 2016

By Russell Goldsmith | Blogs

Here’s a post from Mr Mitzvah Day himself, Nick Grant

SAMS undertook it first Mitzvah Day event back in November 2009, and has been supporting the initiative since then.

This year, we undertook 9 events:

Some of these events were self-initiated, some assigned by St Albans Council, and the Stem-Cell Registration opportunity came from Mitzvah Day HQ.

For me, August, September and October bring on the first round of stress, looking for initiatives that might be suitable for our community, and that would coherently work together.

We try to find a bunch of activities that all age-groups and all competencies can participate in. What was difficult this year was St Albans Council agreeing their tasks that they could handover to us, and that would benefit the local area.

Come the start of November, it’s all about drawing the attention of the SAMS community to all the Mitzvah Day activities. Lots of emails, and lots of face-to face discussions, seem to be required. And then to find a team-leader for each of the activities.

Gaining involvement has got easier over the years; SAMS is learning from one year to the next on what to expect and what is expected from them!

Except for the Stem-Cell Registration, our events were very well supported, with over 25% of the synagogue membership getting involved, so no complaints about participation overall.

As for the Stem-Cell Registration initiative, this was problematic, as we only got a few 16- 30 yr. olds to turn up. The Stem-Cell Registration Desk was manned by Anthony Nolan from 09:30 – 1:30pm.

Understandably, many of the 18-22 yr. olds were away at university. I guess some 16-18yr olds didn’t want to get up or come out, and for some 22 -30 yr. olds their social life took precedence. We have many 16 -30 yr. olds, and it proved an interesting challenge to try to get their interest. Has anyone got a good idea how to spark their interest for next Mitzvah Day?

mitzvahdayjcFrom a publicity viewpoint we did well (thank you, Russell); this year we got a described photo included in both the St Albans Review and the Jewish Chronicle (left).

Nick Grant

Dec 11

Dvar Torah: Vayetze ויצא – Genesis 28:10 to 32:3

By Russell Goldsmith | Dvar Torah

This Shabbat’s Dvar Torah was given by Beverly Cohen

Here’s the Deal …

The drash in this week’s Masorti ‘Reflections’ declares that “Jacob is a symbol of trust and deep reserves of faith.” I confess find this very hard to understand.

You could argue that Jacob is a bit of a schlemiel. He was unlucky enough to be born second, and so not in line for his father’s blessing. He deceived his father and defrauded his brother – but it wasn’t really his fault: his mother made him do it!

Jacob finds himself alone in the wilderness. He didn’t choose to be there – he had to flee to this wasteland to escape the wrath of his brother. But howsoever he arrived, it was there, alone, that he has a wondrous dream – a ladder from the earth to the heavens, with Angels linking the two. And God, standing beside Jacob, makes an unconditional promise: “I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

Jacob was lucky – there were no strings attached to God’s promise. God didn’t ask Jacob for obedience, or for any demonstrations of faith – no tests, no sacrifices as he had asked of Abraham and Isaac.
And how does Jacob respond? He says “If God remains with me; If He protects me on this journey; If He gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear; and If I return safe to my father’s house: [only then] the Lord shall be my God.” What Chutzpah! Who would have the temerity to lay down conditions to God? Jacob appears to be a consummate – or at the very least an audacious – deal-maker. Donald Trump eat your heart out!

However, not all Jacob’s deals are so advantageous: 7 years’ hard labour earns him not Rachel, the love of his life; but Leah with the weak eyes. For most of the 20 years he spends working for his uncle Laban, he seems to be hen-pecked and manipulated – ‘bid and bargained for like beans in a bazaar’: Leah “hires” him from Rachel for the price of a few mandrakes. Laban keeps changing the terms and conditions of Jacob’s service, apparently at whim.

Indeed, this hen-pecking starts well before he stays with Laban. It is at Rebecca’s insistence that Jacob deceives his father and swindles his brother Esau out of his birthright.

So what is Jacob? Arch manipulator or victim of other people’s machinations? Both, I guess.

In a drash on this parsha, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that when Jacob had his dream about the Stairway to Heaven, he was in the middle of a journey from one danger to another. He had left home because Esau had vowed to kill him – and his stay in Laban’s household was to be no bed of roses. According to Sacks, “Jacob is the man who has his deepest spiritual experiences alone, at night in the face of danger and far from home.” He is both the victim and the beneficiary of happenstance: “The Lord is present in this place and I did not know it!”, he says.

In Shakepeare’s Twelfth Night, Malvolio declares “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Admittedly, this pronouncement is laced with pomposity and irony. Nevertheless, you could argue that someone like Solomon was born great; Abraham, Moses and David certainly achieved greatness; but the hapless Jacob had greatness thrust upon him.

Jacob is not so much a hero as one able to make the best of bad situations – even if those difficult situations are of his own making: he is a Survivor.

I started out in my youth believing that the Tanach is a chronicle of heroes and saints and sages, demonstrating the ideals of virtue, faith and wisdom. I was embarrassingly naïve: it has taken me more than 60 years to come to terms with the fact that heroism is found not just in heroes, holiness not just in saints. The Torah celebrates and respects humanity, warts and all. Our patriarchs were not two-dimensional paragons of perfection. Jacob was a flawed, a cracked human being. But, in the words of Leonard Cohen’s achingly poignant song ‘Anthem’: “There’s a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in — that’s how the light gets in.”

Nov 30

Mitzvah Day Report from Heartwood Forest

By Russell Goldsmith | Blogs

Guest post by Darren Marks

tree6On Mitzvah Day 2016 eleven SAMS member of all ages took part in the Woodland Trust tree planting event in Heartwood Forest, an event we as a community have been participating in for several years. We were part of a team of 679 volunteers from every walk of life who planted over 6000 trees in the space of just a few hours!

The speed at which the young trees were placed into their new homes was a sight to behold as people of all colours, creeds and faiths literally swept across the fields leaving in their wake thousands of newly planted trees and shrubs.

At 858 acres Heartwood Forest is rapidly becoming England’s largest new native forest. The site contains four small remnants (44 acres) of precious ancient woodland, our equivalent of the rainforest, which now sadly makes up only two per cent of UK landcover.

Ancient Woodlands are more than just places of timeless beauty and tranquillity, they offer stable and natural conditions for wildlife. In fact they are home to more threatened species than any other habitat in the UK which makes them a very valuable resource in need of protection.

tree3Amazingly, it takes just 12 years to turn empty fields into flourishing native woodland, complete with a diverse range of wildlife and tall trees. The first trees planted seven years ago in Heartwood Forest are now more than four metres high.

On our way back from the planting site we struck up a conversation with a group of volunteers from a local Jain Spiritual Group, we talked about the meaning of the word Mitzvah and they explained the Jain approach to caring for all living things.

We all agreed how wonderful it will be to return to Heartwood in years to come with our children and grandchildren to proudly show them the forest we helped to plant. At a time when uncertainty and division seems to be the order of the day every time we look at the news, how refreshing it is to take part in an event that brings people from all UK communities together with  a shared sense of responsibility and love for the environment in which we live.

And I’m looking forward to returning to Heartwood Forest with SAMS next year for more tree planting!