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.

Aug 07

Shabbat – 17th/18th July 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

We read about the land that Israelites are about to conquer in Canaan and how it will be apportioned.  At the end of the description two tribes, Reuben and Gad, propose to Moses that they be allowed to remain behind.  What is interesting about their request is the language they use.  “We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children.  And we will hasten as shock-troops in the van of the Israelites until we have established them in their home, while our children stay in the fortified towns because of the inhabitants of the Land.  We will not return to our homes until every one of the Israelites is in possession of his portion.  But we will not have a share with them in the territory beyond the Jordan, for we have received our share on the east side of the Jordan.”

What is so striking is the highlighted language.  That in spite of all the exhorting of Moses to create a unified people, on the eve of the settling of the land, two tribes have separated themselves from the whole.  We learn, at this period of history that we are commemorating, the reason for the calamity that befell us was because of the hatred within ourselves, the fracturing of our nation into individual units only concerned with their personal or selfish needs.

When we lose our cohesion, we lose our connection with one another; when we lose our purpose, we are nothing more than a pack of individuals that will destroy ourselves.  Sometimes, we can be our own worst enemy.  Moses comes to remind us in response to the tribes, not once but twice, that we are not twelve tribes or six hundred thousand individuals, but one nation, united in purpose and vision.  When we lose sight of that, disaster always follows.

Jul 16

Shabbat – 10th/11th July 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

Certainty is a powerful force.  People naturally gravitate to a clear and concise idea.  Yet in life, very few times is an idea so clear cut as to equally divide into black and white pro and con sides.  Contentious issues are divisive because they seem on the surface to be easily qualified as right or wrong, but delve a little deeper and the nuances of the topic become clear.  By seeking a quick or simple fix, it may pay dividends in the short term, but in the long term may be extremely destructive and harmful to society.

When we examine a foundational text such as the Bible, it is very easy to read it literally and not challenge ourselves to delve into the deeper meaning of the text, but rather to remain on the superficial level.

An extremist or close-minded person says, “If that is what it says, then that is what it means.”  An open and critical minded person says (or should say), “If that is what it says, then what does it mean?”

In this week’s Parasha, Pinchas, we read about Pinchas, a priest, and the ramifications of his actions from last week when he murdered two people in their tent as they were engaged in an inappropriate sexual relationship in the eyes of the congregation of Israel.  He is given a Brit Shalom, a Covenant of Peace, and elevated to inherit the office of the High Priest after his father passes away.  So the question is: is Pinchas being rewarded for his actions?

On the surface it would seem that he is.  The punishment for engaging in sexual relationships with Midianites is clearly stated as death.  Pinchas simply carried out the punishment that was called for and then is given the office of the high priest and a blessing from God.  In the here and now, the extremist vigilante actions of Pinchas are rewarded.  The tradition teaches that this reward is not so clear-cut and it is very uncomfortable with this reward.  How is it that Pinchas is given this gift when the priesthood is supposed to embody closeness with God, the leadership of the people and the rule of Law?  Acting on his own accord and subverting the rule of Law is not the way to build a just and righteous community.  In the long term, this kind of behaviour is destructive to the very society it was trying to protect.

Imagine the consequences if these actions were taken as the norm.  Pinchas is technically right for acting in the way that he does, but wrong in the way he carries out his actions.  By succumbing to the immediate certainty of his actions, he neglects the longer term consequences.  By insisting on only one course of action, on the rightness of only one way, we as a community are diminished.

Jul 09

25th Anniversary Quiz update

By SAMS IT Administrator | Blogs

We are delighted to let the community and friends know that our quiz held last week was a great success. The funds raised for the community amounted to just over £1,200 which, when put together with a most enjoyable evening made the quiz the success it was.

Our thanks go to all those that made this happen, and especially to those who attended and for bringing your friends and families with you.

Lauren McQuillan and Debbie Harris


Jul 09

Shabbat – 3rd/4th July 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jul 02

Shabbat – 26th/27th June 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

How important are symbols?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jun 25

Shabbat – 19th/20th June 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jun 18

Shabbat – 12th/13th June 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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