Monthly Archives: June 2018

Jun 22

21 June 2018

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

It’s Summer Solstice. It just sounds good to say! The longest day of the year, the Summer Solstice officially represents the point at which the Earth’s axis tilts the closest to the Sun (the peak point was actually 11:07 BST.) In an added benefit, the weather also cooperated to ensure our maximally-sunny day was properly sunny today!

In many religious traditions however, the Summer Solstice (AKA Midsummer) is not a time of celebration per se. Typically, the solstice falls around the beginning of the month of Tammuz (this year, Rosh Chodesh Tammuz was June 13 and 14 for example)– and this is no coincidence. The month of Tammuz, like almost all the months in the Hebrew calendar, was named for a Babylonian deity.

Tammuz was a Babylonian demi-god who attracted the attention of the primary goddess of the Babylonian pantheon, Ishtar. She fell in love with him – her, the Queen of Heaven, an immortal with limitless power – fell in love with a shepherd. Because she loved him, and because the Gods loved to fight with each other, Tammuz became a weakness. Eventually he was killed, presumably by her enemies, in an effort to hurt her. Ishtar, not being one to shy away from a fight, literally descended to hell, smashed down the gates of the underworld, and dragged Tammuz back to the realm of the living, aiming to make him an immortal as well.

However, as these stories tend to go – one can’t simply descend to the underworld and take someone out. There has to be some compensation – something that preserves the balance of life and death. The myths tell us that Tammuz’s sister volunteered to take his place for half the year, leaving him with only six months out of each year that he would have to return and live in the land of the dead.

This cycle, of the newly-promoted Tammuz – now a God himself, of agriculture and fertility – living half the year in the underworld and half the earth on Earth, came to explain the cycle of the seasons. From the Spring through the Summer and into the Fall, Tammuz descended to the underworld, damned in the land of the dead. Resurrected every winter, he then spent six months above with his beloved Ishtar, granting fertility to the Earth.

We named the month after this once-mortal fertility God, and more than just the name, we started to assimilate our own history to this ancient cycle. Tammuz and Av, the Summer months, are the times that we commemorate the destruction of the Temple. On the 17th of this month we have a fast, commemorating the days the walls of the Temple were breached by the Romans. Three weeks later we commemorate the day the Temple was destroyed on Tisha beAv (9th of Av / 22 July this year).

For our people, who were never quite as agricultural, but loved their ritual, these events are, in their own way, a record of the death of Tammuz. Death and destruction reigns in the Jewish calendar every Summer. In Sivan, Tammuz and Av we read the parts of the Torah where the Israelites are in the wasteland, dying from hunger and thirst, rebelling against their leaders, complaining endlessly. In our cycle of holidays– after Shavu’ot, until Sukkot, we experience a wasteland of celebration– few happy occasions occur. For the most part the Summer is the time we mourn, we commemorate the death of our history, of our land, and of our connection to God.

All this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate the Summer Solstice and it’s extraordinary weather. It only means that we should perhaps recall the ancient, mythological darkness that stalked the day of the Sun’s ascendency, taking it as a sign that, like Tammuz’s imprisonment in the underworld, this too will swing around once again in the cycle of the seasons and the cycles of life.
Shabbat Shalom (and Happy Midsummer!)
Jun 15

14 June 2018

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

It seems that summer is the season of weddings. We have four new SAMS couples celebrating their upcoming nuptials over the next few months. Four different stories of laughter, learning, loss, and, of course, love. Often the most difficult part of my job is trying to answer those pressing questions facing the newly engaged: how to ensure a happy marriage, how to keep love alive, how to change together without forcing change on each other.

It’s not easy! (Duh!) Anyone who says otherwise is probably lying. After all, our tradition claims that matching up couples is harder for God to do than splitting the sea. Yet it also teaches that when a soul enters the world, it is rent in half and each half is then placed within one human. God has to engineer the reconstruction of that broken vessel- bringing two people together again who, unbeknownst to them, perhaps share two halves of that pre-mortal soul. This task, then, is far more complicated than simply splitting the sea; tearing something apart is always easier than putting something sundered back together.
Perhaps this metaphor can help us all better understand the reality of marriage, even if we’re not sold on the concept of soulmates. If marriage is a new construction, we’d expect it to be flawless. But it isn’t that. It is something that has existed before- as two pieces of a single torn soul or even as a relationship that is now shifting and changing to accommodate the new realities of being together.
If we pretend that change and brokenness are not a part of every marriage, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. We have to be realistic that a marriage is the joining of two separate bodies, minds, and histories in union, not in unity. No matter the strength of our feeling, we can never truly know another person’s mind and pretending as if we can will only lead to disaster. What then, do we do?
Perhaps we can embrace the beauty of reality- the beauty of broken things and the way we try to fit them back together. In the Japanese discipline of kintsugi, in which broken ceramics are knit back together with gold-lacquer; the point is not to hide the cracks, but rather, to highlight them.
Marriage is a constantly shifting thing that demands careful inspection and repair along every possible faultline, with the hope of making ourselves better by examining our failings and being willing to put ourselves and our partners back together, piece by piece, when we’re broken. Even if we accept the Jewish image of God restoring rent soul-halves, we can’t eliminate the important individualities of those halves, even as we celebrate the beauty of their reconstruction.
To my four couples getting married over the next months and to all of us wondering how best to be a partner to another human being, I wish I had the answers. I don’t. No one does. But perhaps the premise of kintsugi pottery- that something is all the more beautiful for having fallen apart and been painstakingly repaired- can help us all on our paths towards a life of love and happiness. 
Jun 08

7 June 2018

By Editor | Blogs

I’ve always been a big fan of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. From a young age, I can remember the characteristic swell of strings in the background of memories. I always enjoyed the story the music told, taking the listener through the course of the year– beautifully realising the patterns of nature into the harmonics of music.

The thing about the Four Seasons, is that everyone has a favourite movement (You may not realise you do, but you do, I promise.) Each season incorporates musical motifs of nature- thunder in Summer, birds singing in Spring, snow and rain in Winter. For me, I’ve always come back to the Summer movement– yet never has the theme been more appropriate than living in England! The transition between the soft sound of the breeze playing on leaves to the sudden furious energy of a thunderstorm is one I’ve now beheld several times in our own Summer.
What many don’t realise is that when Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was published, a set of sonnets were written to coincide with the music. We don’t know today whether Vivaldi himself wrote them or a contemporary, but I want to share with you the one which corresponds to my favourite movement (Summer I– If you are handy with baroque Italian, you can find the original here):
Under a hard Season, fired up by the Sun
Languishes man, languishes the flock and burns the pine
We hear the cuckoo’s voice;
then sweet songs of the turtledove and finch are heard.
Soft breezes stir the air, but threatening
the North Wind sweeps them suddenly aside.
The shepherd trembles,
fearing violent storms and his fate.
This incredible piece of music, and the beautiful poetry which accompanies it have both been on my mind the last few weeks for two reasons: 1) due to the absolute insistence on the part of our weather patterns to mimic that which Vivaldi describes, and 2) because we as a community have been thinking a great deal about how we can relate better to our environment.
Our relationship with nature is extremely important– that is why there is beautiful music and beautiful poetry abounding in every culture which pays tribute to our organic environment. Judaism is no different, and perhaps affirms a positive view of the environment even more than other cultures because, to us, taking care of the Earth is an obligation, not just a good thing to do.
I can’t help but see in those lines of Summer’s sonnet the warning that we have often failed to heed– soft breezes quickly turn to a powerful wind, we are left trembling, fearing our fate. The difference perhaps is that our fate is self-engineered. Whether the environment faces catastrophe or continued flourishing is in our hands.
Shabbat Shalom,
PS. If you’re a Vivaldi fan, check out the re-arranged Four Seasons done by modern British composer, Max Richter. (It’s pretty cool).
Jun 01

31 May 2018

By Editor | Blogs

Much has been made of the sibling challenge to Moses in this week’s parashah: “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Kushite woman he had married: ‘He married a Kushite woman!’” (Num. 12:1) Various commentators have proposed to explain this strange verse, saying that either 1) Miriam was jealous of Tsipporah’s beauty, or 2) Miriam and Aharon objected to Moses not power-sharing, or 3) Miriam was rebuking Moses for remaining celibate and depriving Tsipporah of sex. In all three of these cases, our Sages ignore the basic meaning of the text, which is obviously emphasising the fact that the objection lay in the fact of the woman in question being from Kush! All three of the above approaches explain away the reference to Kush and affirm that the woman in question is Tsipporah, Moses’ Midianite wife who we met in Exodus, despite the fact that the verse names Kush, twice.

Our Sages were often pretty poor at geography, but it doesn’t take a great deal of research to identify that Kush and Midian were two very different places. Kush was a kingdom of ancient Nubia, existing in the land that is now Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia. Midian was a kingdom stretching across the desert from southern Jordan to northern Saudi Arabia. So if we can’t explain away the topographical anomaly of Moses’s wife being from Kush, then we have to assume that the woman in question is not, in fact, Tsipporah. So– who is she?

Amazingly, there’s another version of Moses’s life which, while perhaps an inconvenient truth for the rabbinic narrative, has several surprising attestations in the space between legend and history. According to this version (Yalkut Shimoni 1:168 & Josephus, Antiquities 2:10:2) Moses spent much longer outside of Egypt than we normally assume. Many of us probably imagine it like The Prince of Egypt: teenage Moses flees Egypt, wanders the desert, discovers Tsipporah at a well, is adopted by Jethro, and spends the next 5-10 years with Jethro in Midian before the encounter with the burning bush. This other version of Moses holds that he fled Egypt as a teenager, and then had a series of bizarre and magical adventures. In these legends, a young Moses finds himself in Kush, where he marries the princess and helps stage a rebellion against a wicked king. In time (and with some sorcery thrown in for good measure) Moses helps the people defeat the king and they then crown him king, where he rules for years!

After reigning as king of Kush, Moses travels around to other kingdoms and other lands, only eventually making his way back to Midian when he was 70, now a seasoned and professional revolutionary, where he meets Tsipporah and is met at the burning bush. What passes in the space between two sentences, ‘Moses fled before Pharaoh,’ and ‘he stayed in the land of Midian and sat by a well’ (Ex. 2:15) becomes an entire lifetime through this Midrash. In the middle of a single verse, an entire adventurous, magical, fantastic life takes place– all of which is omitted by the Torah.

If we’re to take this legend seriously, then the Kushite woman is no mystery at all. She is the remnant of Moses’ earlier life, the life where he ruled the kingdom of Kush and fought for foreign people’s freedom. She is part of Moses’ story before he encounters God and takes on the impossible task of leading the people from Egypt. If the woman in question is in fact this other woman, then perhaps we can understand Miriam and Aharon’s challenge in a whole new light. Perhaps the objection they voiced was not jealousy at the Kushite woman’s beauty, or petty drives for power– it was a fear, and a misunderstanding of Moses’ earlier life and the importance of it.

Many of us live many lives over the course of our almost-century on Earth. We can learn from the rebuke of Miriam and Aharon that ignoring those many lives is not an option. We must integrate our personal histories and stories in every incarnation of ourselves.

*an abridged version of this week’s column also appears in Reflections