Oct 28

Shabbat – 16th/17th October 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

Too often, when calamities befall us, we look to assign blame on any number of random factors. When those reasons run out, the term “fate” is substituted. It was the will of God, or it was meant to be, or some other similar reason is given. How many of us have used just such an expression to try and explain away a difficult or tragic moment? I know I have, while searching for meaning or context in a particularly challenging situation, used this reliable verbal get-out-of-jail-free card. As the author of the book of Ecclesiastes strives to explain, why is there an imbalance in the way the world should work? The righteous should be rewarded and the evil punished, yet we all know from experience this is not always the case.

Harold Kushner devotes an entire book to this premise, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”.  We, not only as Jews but as people in general, have spent a great deal of time and effort trying to explain this illogic and the best answer seems to be that we have no control. Some throw up their hands in surrender to “fate” – whatever will be will be.

I refuse to accept such an explanation. To use such an explanation repudiates any semblance of responsibility we as human beings have for our own actions. In the bridging portion between last week’s reading of Parashat Bereishit and this week’s Parasha of Noah, the text goes to great lengths to justify God’s actions. It is not simply that God decided to destroy humanity, saving Noah and his family, but that wickedness and evil pervade society and that, not God, led to its downfall. The evils that befall a society are not caused by God, but what we inflict on one another. It may be what God promised would occur, but it is the perfect recipe for what happens when a society breaks down, when respect for one another is no longer present, when individualism and not communal responsibility is the norm. The flood is simply the means, not the cause, for what happened.

It is through our own actions, not fate, not some undefined force, that we can determine our future.

I pray that we are ever mindful of our actions, that we take full responsibility for them and diminish the impact of our activities by the consequences and impact we have on the world around us.

Oct 15

Shabbat – 9th/10th October 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

Once again we have arrived at the beginning. This coming Shabbat, we begin the cycle of the Torah anew when we read Parashat Bereshit. The question has been asked, why does the Torah begin with the letter bet, the second letter of the Hebrew Alphabet? Surely, it would make much more sense for the text to have started with the letter Aleph, the first letter! There have been several reasons brought forth by the rabbinic commentators throughout the ages; for example, that aleph, which has the numerical value of one, represents God. One of the more compelling ones I’ve come across gives a fresh take on what the letter Aleph represents. In the vast majority of cases, the letter Aleph is synonymous with the number one and thus God. But, what if the letter Aleph was not representing God, but ourselves? The letter which we must master is ourselves. We are the aleph.

What does this mean? As we have just come out of the High Holyday Season, we have spent the better part of a month looking inward, reflecting and coming to terms with ourselves and all that we have done in the past year. It is a marathon session of internal struggle that, hopefully leads to a clearer picture of who you want to be in the coming year. It is precisely at that moment, when the holidays finish, that we immediately set to work. To assist us in that work, the Torah, our great instruction manual, is restarted. Because we have done the preliminary work, the aleph, then and only then, can we move on to bet. We are reminded to not let the hard work of the past month go to waste. There is a step by step progression, like the letters of the aleph bet, that will lead us on the right path. All we must do is continue putting one foot forward in front of the other and continue the work we started over a month ago.

Oct 08

Shabbat – 2nd/3rd October 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

Succot is a holiday which, according to our tradition, is meant to teach about joy and celebration.  It comes at a time when we have just survived a gruelling section of the calendar when we have fasted and put our souls through an extended cleansing ritual. Finally, there is a time to step back and rejoice. It was a time when the farmers would be at their wealthiest, as they would have just concluded the harvest.

However, the tradition wants to ensure that we do not undo all the positive steps we have taken in the preceding few weeks. Succot is not about celebrating with wild abandon through excess, but rejoicing in what we have and being satisfied with that. This value is espoused in the way we celebrate. We are commanded to build a Succah, a minimalist structure that we are required to dwell in for the duration of the holiday. We are taught that while we may be awash in material blessings, the true blessings come from the way in which we live our lives, not in the way accumulate things. We can grow accustomed to enjoying the excess, but at the moment of their greatest wealth, the Israelites were commanded to remember where the material blessings had come from and how they are still required to live a life that is in keeping with their value, no matter how full or empty their wallets are.

We are living in a time when some of our material blessings are fleeting, but just as when they are plenty, let us strive to remember that our fulfilment comes not from the things we don’t have but the people we love and cherish. Succot comes to teach us that even this frail hut filled with guests and our loved ones is a greater source of happiness than our luxurious and comfortable homes.

Oct 01

Shabbat – 4th/5th September 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

Unfolding before us, there is a crisis of untold human cost as refugees are struggling to escape their so-called lives in various parts of the world, whether that be North Africa, Syria, Iraq, or immediately on our shores at Calais. It is difficult to see images such as this and this and remain unaffected.

I am reminded of a verse in this week’s parasha: “Cursed be he who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow…” (Deut. 27:19).

Many of us recall the struggles our immediate ancestors faced as they fled the horrors of Europe a generation ago while many turned their backs on us. We are commanded to ensure the fair treatment of all, regardless of faith or background, not only because we have experienced the same over our long history, but simply because it is the right thing to do. By failing to act to protect those who cannot protect themselves, we are dooming ourselves as a society, as a community and as individuals to be cursed by failure to learn from our history. Let us seek to break that cycle of callous disregard for human lives.

You may be asking, “What can I do to help in this crisis?” Here are just a few practical steps from an article in the Independent. I myself have just signed this petition to urge Parliament to offer greater access to asylum seekers and made a donation for much-needed supplies. It literally took me 2 minutes. This is not a question of politics or religion or fear, but simply about human life and human dignity.

I urge, take 2 minutes out of your busy lives, remember the stories of our ancestors, and do something, to improve the life of even one person.

I want to also take this opportunity to wish Jonah Levy a Mazal Tov on the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah. Join us as we come together to celebrate this simcha as a community this Shabbat.

Sep 23

Rabbi Rafi’s Blog

By SAMS IT Administrator | Dvar Torah

In a new tradition for SAMS, the Cheder and Tots joined together to take part in the tradition of Tashlich, or casting away our sins (played by some bread) into the River Ver.

What made this event special, besides it being a first, was that each child was joined by at least one parent and rather than simply throwing some bread, both generations stopped to contemplate the significance of what this time of year means. It is not simply stopping a harmful act, but acknowledging its existence, and most importantly, doing something about it.

Tashlich, taken out of context, is not a sufficient in and of itself to fulfill the challenge of repentance and atonement. However, if we look at it as a starting point, a call to action, then it becomes a powerful symbol of the change we would like to achieve.

In the family pairings, all decided on something, some trait, habit, or characteristic, that they would like to change. Ideas ranged from doing homework without complaining to controlling the temper better. The act of throwing the bed then became the starting point for that change. In a few months, we will check in again and see what progress we have made.

My question to you is, what do you plan on changing of yourself this year? What will you give up and what will you replace in its stead?


Sep 09

Rabbi Rafi published on the front page of Reflections

By SAMS IT Administrator | Blogs

Sometime around the founding of Google, a discussion took place on whether to have a motto for the company. After much debate, the wording “Don’t be evil” was decided upon. The idea, as explained in a letter to shareholders, was this: “We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served — as shareholders and in all other ways — by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short-term gains.”

As of today, however, that motto has changed into a less than watered-down version that does not even resemble an imperative. On the web page that describes Google’s philosophy, “Don’t be evil” has been replaced by “You can make money without doing evil”, a major departure from the original intent. The original conception has been reduced from a moral principle which involves constant struggle to a way of judging individual actions in pursuit of quite different goals.

This week’s sedra, Ki Tetzei, is one of the most expansive in terms of laws. There are a total of 74, quite a hefty portion of the total in the Bible. The organising principle of this collection is centred on individuals, their families, their neighbours, and the relationships between them. Following several of the laws given, an interesting phrase is appended: ubi’arta hara mikirbecha – thus you will sweep away evil from your midst.

Many laws in the Bible have no reason associated with them, such as not mixing crops of different kinds or combining linen and wool. But in this case, a very clear message is being sent. The purpose is not to prevent a specific action, but to prevent the mind-set that allows evil to occur.

Our collections of laws are given, not simply to prevent or encourage individual actions, but to craft a holy and just society. The lofty goal of eliminating evil entirely from our community is laudable, but the conditions need to be right for that to occur.

Laws that provide for the just (at the time) treatment of women or the poor take centre stage. In order for a society to eradicate evil, the lowliest among us, the most vulnerable, need to be made to feel secure. The impulse – or at the very least, the opportunity – to do evil must be purged.

But what exactly is this thing we are seeking to expunge? Today, we generally see evil as the polar opposite to good. But in Judaism, evil is not at all seen that way. Evil is that which defies or challenges good. We may never acquire a final sense of goodness or completeness, but we are in a constant struggle to improve or elevate ourselves. That ultimately is the concept of kedusha, holiness. I am not commanded to pray, or give charity, or keep kosher once. These laws are given to establish the conditions where evil becomes difficult to commit.

When the Malakh changed Jacob’s name to Israel (“struggle on behalf of God”), it was to signify that Jacob’s struggle is our struggle. Ultimately, whatever we do as moral human beings and as Jews is because we have agreed to live in that special relationship.

Evil is not a relative construct open to interpretation but rather an absolute, something against God’s will. God’s presence and evil are incompatible. They cannot coexist. Eradicating evil from our midst therefore invites God’s presence to dwell among us, elevating ourselves to holiness. That is the constant struggle which defines us.

Sep 09

Long standing member, Jonny Freedman is published in Reflections

By SAMS IT Administrator | Blogs

As we approach the Yomim Noraim (Days of Awe) I’d like to offer some lifestyle prescriptions for good health and happiness:

  • Never overeat. Stop eating when your stomach is two-thirds full.
  • One should not eat immediately after exercise.
  • Older people need less food, and if they eat as they did in their youth they will become fat and destroy their lives.
  • Preserve peace of mind in all circumstances.
  • One should pay attention to the body’s signals.
  • People should sleep eight hours each night.
  • Spending time regretting the past or worrying about the future has no benefit.
  • Sick people should be surrounded by good smells and music, joyful stories and laughter.

Hands up, not my ‘prescription’ but just a few of the sayings of Moses Maimonides (Rambam), written between 1165 and 1174 CE whilst court physician to the Sultan (Saladin) in Cairo. Centuries before antibiotics, X-rays and MRI scans and even the thermometer, Rambam was a brilliant doctor who treated the patient rather than the illness and espoused moderation and disease prevention. Such was his renown as a physician that he was invited to return to England with Richard I (‘the Lionheart’) to become his Court physician but he declined out of loyalty to the Sultan.

My interest in Rambam was aroused by the discovery of a small treatise inherited from my Grandfather, part of the ‘Jewish Worthies’ series, and published in 1903. I vaguely knew that Rambam was a physician as well as a great Rabbi and Scholar but I had no concept as to how relevant his ideas could be today. He wrote ten impressive works in Arabic including volumes on asthma, poisons and their antidotes, haemorrhoids and digestion, as well as promoting health promotion and publishing a glossary of drug names in a multitude of languages. This task alone took more than 10 years and was a formidable and impressive undertaking and the first of its kind.

In order to properly assess his patients he insisted on examining them in their home environment. Modern day general practice has witnessed the demise of home visiting. Whilst undoubtedly there are efficiencies in patients attending the surgery, I can concur with Rambam that seeing patients in their own home grants a unique insight into their lives and many factors that influence their health and wellbeing.

Rambam only took up medicine at the age of 37 to support himself and his family. While he based many of his beliefs on the works of Hippocrates and Galen he was not afraid to challenge assumptions or change his views. He never claimed certainty, and constantly strode to scientifically validate his treatments. This also resonates today, with many supposedly ‘modern’ medical beliefs not standing up to scientific scrutiny, yet still routinely offered as ‘fact’.

Whilst I hope there is rarely any intention these days for doctors to deliberately deceive their patients, we should nevertheless take note of Rambam’s words here: “Do not consider it proof just because it is written in books, for a liar who will deceive with his tongue will not hesitate to do the same with his pen”. It makes me reflect that ‘medical certainty’ is as rare and unlikely as ‘religious certainty’.  So it seems that I am a Masorti doctor as well as a Masorti Jew. Perhaps we could say the same about Rambam?

It’s impossible to view him purely as a physician, or a scholar. Both were intrinsic and intertwined aspects of his personality and outlook. This is evident from his teachings and the manner in which he links the attainment of physical and spiritual health. In Chapter 12 of Rambam’s Guide to the Perplexed (c1190), he writes: “In so far as the soul is a force residing in the body; it has therefore been said that the properties of the soul depend of the condition of the body”.

Having begun with some of Rambam’s ‘prescriptions’ for physical and mental wellbeing, his commentary on this week’s parasha, overflowing as it is with blessings and curses, allows Rambam to impart a spiritual message that I believe has the power to carry us through the Days of Awe ahead. He reminds us in his Mishnah Torah (Helichot 3:4) of the awesome power of individuals to make a difference not only personally but to the entire world: “Throughout the entire year, a person should always look at himself as equally balanced between merit and sin and the world as equally balanced between merit and sin. If he performs one sin, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and brings destruction upon himself. On the other hand, if he performs one mitzvah, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of merit and brings deliverance and salvation to himself and others.”

Sep 03

Shabbat – 28th/29th August 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

The true test of someone’s character is not when things are going smoothly, as fundamentally, those situations do not test our character. It is when times are challenging that our moral integrity truly presents itself. How that person reacts to adversity is really the litmus test. In this week’s parsha, Ki Tetze, we have a host of laws that delineate the expectations for how the Israelites are expected to act in relationships among themselves, towards other nations and all of God’s creatures. They are the foundational guide to how we are to build a healthy holy society.

Having these laws is an extremely powerful guide, yet what I find most telling are the laws that pertain to times of war. War is a time that can potentially lead to the unshackling of our human restraints. Where violence is involved, our base instincts are in danger of taking over and extreme acts of brutality are possible. These laws are reminding us that, even in those circumstances, we are not to allow ourselves to lose control. We are taught to know that “All is fair in love and war” is simply not true. Specifically, in this week’s parsha, we are reminded not to take advantage of the weak or the captured. This is embodied in the law about allowing a captive woman to mourn for her parents a full 30 days. Only once that period has concluded, according to the rabbis, may the soldier marry her, and then only if she consents. It has been the way of war for a vast portion of human history, that the conquered were enslaved or even forcibly married. Our tradition forces us to restrain ourselves in a time when that would be exceedingly difficult and in the process doing away with a barbaric tradition, compelling us to have compassion on the weak. If we can achieve that in a moment of war, then how much more so in peace, it should be no challenge.

This is further reinforced by the injunction at the end of the parsha: to destroy the nation of Amalek. The reason given is that Amalek attacked the weakest members of Israel. By abusing the weak, their true character was revealed. The test of our morality is how we treat the weak or the most vulnerable in our society. Those who abuse and take advantage of the weak are the lowest of the low.

I pray this week that we always keep in mind those who may be less fortunate than ourselves and in challenging moments, we always remain true to our tradition and keep our hands open to assist those who are in need. Further, I pray that while we may be facing many threats, we always remember who we are and govern ourselves accordingly.

Sep 01

Shabbat – 14th/15th August 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

Throughout the book of Devarim, Moses deliberately goes through many points to make sure the People are aware of importance of each and every point and mitzvah that we are to follow.

Yet, in the week’s portion, there is a grammatical curiosity at the beginning of the portion. The parasha, taking its name from the first word, Re’eh, ראה, ‘See’, seems to be written in the wrong tense. If Moses is speaking to the entire People, why is it written in the singular? Surely, if it is an address to the entire nation, it should be Re’u, ראו?

One answer is provided by the Biblical Commentator, Ibn Ezra (Spain 11th-12th centuries). He teaches that the word being in the singular comes to teach us that all of the Israelites were being addressed as individuals. The teachings that Moses brought were intended to lay the foundation for a just and holy society, but they need to be accepted and implemented on a personal level. Furthermore, the relationship with the Almighty is a personal one. Each individual has a stake in the creation of our society.

In our communal lives it is very easy to assume that someone else will take on the responsibility of something. But this one simple word comes to teach us that each and every one of us has the responsibility to ensure that we are active in our collective. The failure to engage on an individual basis leads to a fragmentation of our society.   How then can you hear the call to engage in your lives; to ensure you are an active contributing member of the community?

Aug 13

Shabbat – 7th/8th August 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

A man is driving in the city, looking for a parking spot. For several minutes, he is unsuccessful. He is running late for his meeting and getting more frustrated by the minute. Finally, he prays to God: “God, if you provide me with parking spot, I promise I will dedicate more time to study, I will go to shul more often, I will donate even more money to charity and I will start keeping kosher.” A few moments later, a parking spot appears. Elated the man says, “Never mind God, I found a spot.”

While amusing, I think this story highlights a fundamental truth, that we humans will blame God when things do not go so well, but usually not thank God when things go well. Parashat Eikev, this week’s parasha has Moses exhorting the people to try and combat this natural tendency; “…beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of slavery” (Deut. 8:14). How many times in the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert do we see them quickly forget the power and awesome might of God? Immediately after the miracle of the Red Sea, they are complaining about the lack of water and wishing to return to Egypt, or directly following the revelation at Mount Sinai, they complain about a lack of meat. One would think that God has earned a little benefit of the doubt, but the Israelites do not grant it.

Our faith is not a static thing and it must be tested and questioned, but Moses is begging the people to remember to at least make it a fair test, a balanced trial, as should we. Let us not only recall the tragedies and misfortunes that befall us when questioning our faith, but the joys and blessings as well.