Nov 12

Shabbat – 6th/7th November 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

It’s the time of year, when in our yearly cycle, we arrive at the story of Jacob, my favourite character. It is in this portion that Jacob, through the help of his mother Rebecca, deceives his father Isaac through an elaborate ruse and steals his brother’s, Esau, blessing. Jacob wears the clothing of Esau so that he will smell like him; he cooks a meal just like Esau; he puts a woollen cloth on his arm so that he will feel like the hairy Esau; and finally, Isaac is blind and cannot see who it is really who is serving him a meal. However, the sound of Jacob’s voice cannot be masked, and Isaac does in fact realize, or think, that the voice is the voice of Jacob, but the rest of his senses tell him otherwise. Was Isaac really being blind or simply choosing not to see?

How many times in our lives do we have the information we need, but we choose not to hear? How many of us have seen a sign that says ‘Wet Paint’ and the first thing we do is touch it – and end up with wet paint on our hands? We saw the sign, we perhaps even smelled the wet paint, yet we did not believe what we saw, or hear what we had heard. So many times the answers we seek, the information we need, is right in front of us and we only need the faith to trust what we see and hear.

The tactile physical sense is sometimes too dominant. It can lead us astray if we ignore the gifts of discernment and judgment. By taking in the big picture, incorporating the entire scene our senses are reporting, can we truly make an informed decision without jumping to conclusions?

Nov 05

Shabbat – 30th/31st October 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

Of all the episodes in Abraham’s story, this week’s Parasha, Vayera, tells us perhaps of his finest hour.  God has informed him that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah will be destroyed because of the evil and immoral people who make up its population.  Abraham has the audacity to stand there and argue with God and, more importantly, makes his point heard and causes God to reconsider.  Because of the merit of the potential few righteous people that could still be there, the city should be spared, says Abraham.  The entire society should not be cursed and fated for destruction because of the evils of the majority; it should be saved because of the goodness of the few.  This powerful conversation firmly establishes Abraham as the forefather of our tradition, not only because he argued, but because he stood up and tried to make his voice heard for good, even though ultimately, the cities are still destroyed.

Unfortunately, sometimes, our efforts are not always enough, but that should never stop us from making the attempt, even to the highest authority.

I pray that we will always have the courage to make a stand, in spite of seemingly overwhelming odds, to make certain that our voices are always heard.

Oct 31

Shabbat – 23rd/24th October 2015

By SAMS IT Administrator | Weekly Words Archive

This week, Jews all across the UK will be taking part in Shabbat UK. One of the ideas behind this initiative is to try and increase Shabbat Observance among the Jewish Community. I have enjoyed the benefits of Shabbat Observance throughout my life and highly recommend it.

Shabbat is that pause, the parenthesis, that we need each week to remind ourselves of our essential truth of our existence. We are, at our most basic, human beings, and once a week, we need to simply be, not do. That is Shabbat at its most fundamental. The laws of Shabbat are designed around that concept. If one then approaches Shabbat based on what you are not allowed to do, rather than what you can discover about yourself, then you are missing the point. I urge you, do not think about the things you will be missing, but focus instead on what you can add. Don’t concentrate on not being able to use your phone, drive, or check your email. Look at the beauty of being able to spend time together as a family as you walk to shul, play a board game, or do some study.

Just as we are incapable of defining ourselves by a negative, I implore you, do not characterise your Shabbat by what it is not. Shabbat is a break, a pause, an opportunity. You only need to seize it.

We encourage everyone to add something new to their Shabbat observance this week. If you usually drive to shul but live close enough to walk – then walk. If you rarely light candles – light them. If you normally spend Shabbat afternoon watching TV, try a book instead.

I look forward to seeing you this coming Shabbat.

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.