Apr 10

D’var Torah: Tzav/HaGadol

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

In a small town named Whitwell, Tennessee, in the southern United States in 1988, a middle school principal named Linda Hooper had an idea. She wanted her students to learn about tolerance. To that end her students, mostly white and Christian, began a unit of study on the Holocaust. As they learned about the death of the 6,000,000 they struggled to grasp the enormity of that number. To help them she decided to have them collect 6,000,000 paper clips. She chose this seemingly insignificant item because Norwegians wore paperclips as a silent protest during WWII.

The project became a worldwide phenomenon. People sent in paperclips from all corners of the globe to the extent that in 2001 the students of Whitwell dedicated a Holocaust memorial, in the form of an actual German rail car filled with a portion of the 30,000,000 paperclips collected. In 2004 a documentary film about the project was released.

Sometime during this period, we had Linda Hooper as a guest speaker at our synagogue in Northbrook, Illinois. There was not an empty seat to be found. After her presentation, I had a moment or two to thank her privately. She came to my office and I expressed our gratitude in glowing terms to which she responded ever so modestly. “It was not about me,” she said. “It was all about the power of one.”

I have never forgotten those three simple words, especially as the global situation increasingly deteriorates into violence, famine and poverty. It is sometimes so overwhelming that as an individual I feel powerless and helpless; what I do won’t change a thing. When I am feeling this way, I think about Linda Hooper, one person in a small town in Tennessee, whose actions made a difference. Each of us can do something to repair the world. When we send a donation to feed people starving in Africa, when we write a letter to a government leader to protest an injustice,  or participate in a march to cure a disease, the power of one plus one plus….makes a difference.

One of the most significant illustrations of the power of one is related to Passover which begins next week. In the 1960’s a movement began to secure the release of our fellow Jews in the then Soviet Union where they were oppressed in ways not unlike our ancestors in Egypt. It took decades and the efforts of both numerous Jewish organizations along with a multitude of individuals who sent donations, marched, and even went secretly into the USSR to contact Soviet Jewish Refuseniks and bring them Jewish religious objects at risk to their own freedom. The Free Soviet Jewry Movement was a success because of the power of one.

One of the buzz words of our age is “empowered.” It means an awareness that willingness and commitment to a cause will empower us to act on behalf of that cause. We can each empower ourselves and thereby realize the power of one.

Chag Kasher V’Sameach,

Apr 02

D’var Torah: VaYikra

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

At the beginning of the Torah Reading this past Shabbat, I asked the congregation to think of one word and one word only to summarize the third book of the Torah, Leviticus, which we began reading. Here are some of the responses I received: Holiness, Ritual, Sacrifice, Cruelty (in killing animals), Guilt, etc. I said that they were all right but that I would give my one word later.

I divide the Sedra into two major themes. The first I call “Korban” because it is the word for sacrifice and that is one of the major themes of Leviticus. It is a word which means “bringing close” and the five different types of sacrifice mentioned in the portion and throughout the book are all meant to bring people closer to God. They offer something earth-bound to lift them up spiritually, something they have raised or grown and might otherwise have eaten (not that God needs to eat). Maimonides says this form of worship was education leading our people from the familiar form of worship of their early days ultimately to prayer in our day.

The other theme is embodied in three words later in the portion- “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” It is otherwise known at the “Golden Rule” and appears in a Talmudic story in another form. When a prospective convert comes to Shammai and asks to learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Shammai angrily sends the questioner packing. When he comes to Hillel, he is welcomed in and told “What is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor, the rest is commentary, come and learn.” The questioner who was actually not asking for the Torah literally on one foot but based on one principle is told that the principle which brings us closer to God is also quite earth-bound in how we relate to our fellow human beings.

In the context of these two core themes in Leviticus, what is the one word which I believe summarizes the entire Sedra? The word is “mysticism.” No, I am not talking about Kabbala as practiced by Madonna in California, or the complex and obscure mysticism taught by the traditional Kabbalists of the Talmud and the Middle Ages. I am also not describing the monk on the mountain top who retreats from the community to live a contemplative life, meditating or reciting mantras to climb a spiritual ladder to God.

I am, instead, talking about Judaism’s mainstream mysticism assigned the name “Normal Mysticism” by one of my professors at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Max Kadushin, z”l. His philosophy of all of Judaism and certainly the Book of Leviticus is summed by my Masorti colleague and previous SAMS Rabbi Jeremy Gordon who said, “We find meaning and salvation, not through hocus pocus, but everyday action, not through miracle but through elevation of the humdrum, not on a mountain top away from the world but by blessing bread, loving thy neighbor, giving Tzedaka.” These are the acts or mitzvot performed with our feet firmly planted on the earth while our souls soar upward. It was the all-natural rush I felt this past week when I made a donation to World Jewish Relief to help those suffering in East Africa. It was as powerful and heady a feeling as the feeling I get when I practice mindfulness meditation.

There are many ways to uplift ourselves but Judaism offers us a normal mysticism which we can practice everyday. True, it all began on the heights of a mountain called Sinai from which Moses brought those commandments down to us so that we could reach the heights, become closer to God, without ever leaving home.

Mar 21

D’var Torah: Ki Thissa

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

The portion of Ki Thissa which we read this morning starts with the first census taken in Jewish history which was to find out how many men of 20 years old and above there were should a war be necessary. What is unusual is that the men were not assigned numbers. Instead each gave a half shekel by means of which the numbers were tallied.

Therefore, from our earliest days, we did not number people. Each human being was sacred and could not be reduced to a number, to something inanimate and impersonal. Each of us is sacred because we were created in the image of God. That is why, for example when you count the number of people needed for a minyan, the quorum for a complete prayer service,  you use a verse with ten words. You don’t count the people from 1-10.

At the same time we know that numbers are important to maintain any civil society. Numbers matter. In Judaism, we need two witnesses to solemnized a marriage. We need a Jewish court of three to convert someone to Judaism. One becomes a Bar Mitzvah at the age of 13.  In the complex world today, people are of necessity assigned a multitude of numbers. The first number I can remember that identified me in the US was my Social Security number. More than 50 years ago, I needed it  to register for university courses. And in the last half century I have accumulated a long list of numbers as pass codes, credit card numbers, so on and so forth, far too many to remember.

More than ever there is the danger of being reduced to a series of numerals which I think ultimately objectifies us and dehumanizes us. No better example exists for the Jewish people than the number tattooed on the arm of a Holocaust survivor. How then do we retain our identities as human beings created in the image of God who are to be treated with respect and sensitivity because we are sacred?

Ki Thissa offers us another example of the uniqueness and sanctity of each human soul, each life. The rabbis of old make every effort to view the fact that Aaron who helped the Israelites create the Golden Calf had a reason to do so besides saving his own skin. The context is the fact that according to the Talmud a man named Hur is mentioned as helping Moses at the Red Sea and then no longer heard about. The Talmud tells us that he was murdered by the people because he refused to help them build the calf. Well then, if Aaron did help was he not doing so to save his own skin? No. The perspective of the Talmud is that he was saving the people from committing a worse sin than the calf. He was preventing them from committing yet another murder, his own. Had they not heard the story of Cain killing his own brother Abel and the consequences of history’s first homicide?

When we connect the incident of Aaron and the Golden Calf with the reluctance to transform a person into a number during the first census, we must conclude that there is really only one number which counts. I am reminded of a scene in the movie “City Slickers.”

A group of men go to a dude ranch for a male bonding experience. There they are told by their cowboy teacher by holding up his index finger that we must all find the one thing in life which matters to us. From Judaism’s point of view, that one thing is not a thing at all. It is each one of us, uniquely created in the image of the one God.

After all the Talmud says, “He who saves one life, it is as if he saved the entire world.” That’s what the first census was trying to tell us. That’s what Aaron was trying to do. That is what we must do as we navigate our way through a myriad of numbers daily. We must never allow a single person, starting with ourselves to be dehumanized, made less than sacred,  by being turned into a number!

Mar 13

D’var Torah: Shabbat Zachor

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

Shabbat Zachor is the second of four special Shabbatot before Passover. It is strategically placed just before Purim so that we remember what Israel’s archenemy Amalek did to us on our way from Egypt. They attacked us by surprise, “when we were famished and weary, and cut down all of the stragglers in the rear” (Maftir portion, Deuteronomy 25:18). According to tradition, Haman is descended from the tribe of Amalek.

Why single out this attack when it was only one of many on the fledgling people of Israel, fresh from slavery? The reason is the unique cruelty of the assault. It was carried out when we were most vulnerable by concentrating on the very young, the very old and the sick who could not keep up.

The other unique aspect of Amalek’s attack, besides the toll in the number of lives taken is the toll the onslaught took on Israel’s spirit. The Midrash as presented in the Etz Haim Humash by Rabbi Harold Kushner plays on the Hebrew word “Korcha” which relates to the word “cold” at the beginning of 25:18. Says Kushner, “The Israelites, leaving Egypt on the way to Sinai had been confident and enthusiastic. The real sin of Amalek was that he robbed them of their idealism and energy, teaching them that the world could be an unreliable and dangerous place (p. 1136).”

We today know that the world is both filled with danger and unpredictable. For us in the US in particular it is the continuous onslaught of anti-semitism with bomb threats to JCC’s and vandalism of cemeteries. Here in the UK it is a record 1309 anti-Semitic incidents in the last year. While the Amalekites robbed us of our self-confidence in a single event, we are experiencing a continuous battering which wears us down daily. We can fall prey to a loss of self-confidence or worse the constant exposure to bad news can actually numb us (make us “cold”) so that we don’t feel anything or do anything to combat all of the threats.

This slow burn makes the challenge to our spirits more daunting, the vigilance more critical, the resilience more necessary, and the action more urgent. On this Shabbat of Remembrance- Shabbat Zachor- we must remember that those who came before us survived the worst and so can we- so must we!

Feb 26

Dvar Torah: Mishpatim

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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

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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

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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

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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 Editor | 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 Editor | 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”