Monthly Archives: June 2019

Jun 28

27 June 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

I have the privilege of being in Florence this Shabbat to celebrate the Shabbat Chatan, and wedding on Sunday, of a lovely couple who I’m marrying here. However, I’m very sorry to miss our other celebration of love and want to wish Adam Grant and his fiancé Georgine Waller a huge mazal tov on their upcoming wedding, next week.

Perhaps a bit off-topic, but for this week’s ATfTh, I wanted to share with you a small project I did at the request of one of our members, Simon Rickman– who is a career coach and counselor. He uses Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Successful People often, and asked if they had any correlation in Jewish sources- below is my approach to it:

  1. Be proactive – take responsibility for everything that happens to you, so that you can respond to it as positively as possible                                                                                הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.
[Tarfon] used to say: It’s not on you to finish the work– but you also aren’t free to ignore it. (Mishnah Avot 2:16)

The critical thing to this first point to me is the idea of knowing what you are responsible for, and what you aren’t. Tarfon phrases it globally– ‘the work’ to be done is partially yours to do, but you can’t do everything. By realising that you must find a middle ground between ignoring the task all together and trying to do it alone, you begin to identify the ways in which you can be responsible, accountable, and proactive about your life.

  1. Begin with the end in mind – know where you are going, so that you can plan accordingly                                                                                                                                                   סוֹף מַעֲשֶׂה בְּמַחֲשָׁבָה תְּחִלָּה:

The end result– is considered first in thought.

This line from the poem, Lekha Dodi, which serves as the centre of the Friday night prayer service, expresses a key notion in Jewish mysticism. For Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), the relationship between the end and the beginning is more complex than it seems. Famously, mystics describe the end result of something and the first thought of it as being ‘like a flame bound to a coal’. That is, one cannot be without the other. This isn’t deterministic per se, but rather an acknowledgement that our thoughts can structure outcomes which themselves are hard to conceive of.

  1. Put first things first – prioritise your time, so that you focus on what is important and not urgent in your life, like building strong relationships   הַיּוֹם קָצָר וְהַמְּלָאכָה מְרֻבָּה

The day is short but the task is great. (Mishnah Avot 2:15)

This quote, also from Rabbi Tarfon, is an apt reminder of the necessity of identifying priorities. As there isn’t enough time to do everything, we have to be thoughtful and careful to focus our energies on the things that matter.

  1. Think win-win – go in to every interaction with someone as a collaborative experience, so that you don’t have to win at any cost                                                                      רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר אוֹמֵר, אַל תְּרַצֶּה אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ בִשְׁעַת כַּעֲסוֹ, וְאַל תְּנַחֲמֶנּוּ בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁמֵּתוֹ מֻטָּל לְפָנָיו, וְאַל תִּשְׁאַל לוֹ בִשְׁעַת נִדְרוֹ, וְאַל תִּשְׁתַּדֵּל לִרְאוֹתוֹ בִשְׁעַת קַלְקָלָתוֹ:

Rabbi Shim’on ben Elazar said: Do not try to appease your friend during his hour of anger; Nor comfort him at the hour while his dead still lies before him; Nor question him at the hour of his vow; Nor strive to see him in the hour of his disgrace. (Mishnah Avot 4:18)

This teaching from R’ Shimon ben Elazar helps to remind us of the idea of friendship and fellowship, as it should be. All of the situations described are those when one is vulnerable (anger, mourning, vowing, disgrace), and all are those in which the cynical friend could curry favour and swoop in to take advantage. That kind of friendship is transactional and not collaborative, and in some way, what R’ Shimon is saying is that we shouldn’t gain any benefit for ourselves at the expense of others, especially not those we consider friends.

  1. Seek first to understand then to be understood – listen to others with empathy, so that you can see things from their perspective first                                                           וְאַל תָּדִין אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ עַד שֶׁתַּגִּיעַ לִמְקוֹמוֹ

Do not judge your fellow until you have come to stand in their place. (Mishnah Avot 2:4) 

This teaching from Hillel is one of many incarnations of the popular aphorism not to ‘judge someone until you’ve walked in their shoes.’ The interesting distinction here is that for Hillel, he is not discussing walking in someone’s shoes (ie. taking the same journey they did) but rather standing where someone else has stood. That is a matter of perspective- to judge someone you have to be able to see what they see from the place that they stand.

  1. Synergise – positively appreciate the differences in others, so that you can enrich your own experiences                                                                                                                     בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם מְשַׁנֵּה הַבְּרִיּוֹת

Blessed are You, God, Ruler of the Universe, who diversifies all Creation.

This is one of the many blessings (berakhot) ordained by our Sages to be recited at particular times. In this case, the blessing above is meant to be said whenever one sees someone who looks different– whether because of an abnormality, an unfamiliar feature, or a previously unseen skin tone. The fact that our tradition suggests that in those moments of shock and sometimes fear, we need to take a moment to stop and bless the diversity of creation, demonstrates the importance of recognising and appreciating difference.

  1. Sharpen the saw – continuously learn and develop, so that you can exercise your body, mind and soul

בֶּן בַּג בַּג אוֹמֵר, הֲפֹךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפֹךְ בָּהּ, דְּכֹלָּא בָהּ.

Ben Bag-Bag says: Turn it around and around, for all is within it. (Mishnah Avot 5:22) 

This enigmatic quote from the curiously-named Ben Bag-Bag is about the Torah of course. Turn it round and round, see it from a new point of view, add new things to your learning– and eventually you’ll find everything in it. This encouragement and acceptance of the importance of re-learning and revisiting is critical to the development of individuals and communities, lest they get stuck in seeing or doing things a certain way, ‘because that’s how we’ve always done it’.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jun 21

20 June 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

Last Shabbat, as typically happens a few times a year, we didn’t yet have a minyan at the time when we were meant to begin the Torah service. Without a minyan, we skip the Torah service and go right to the Haftarah. From the point of view of halakhah this is a loss– though I’m not sure everyone felt the same when shul was wrapped up by 11am! 🙂

A few days later, I had the pleasure to visit the Amaravati Monastery nearby, outside Hemel Hempstead. For those who haven’t been– Amaravati is a surprisingly large compound which serves as a full-time residential Buddhist monastery, a retreat centre, and a community space. It’s in a beautiful, typically-Hertfordshire, location and like many Buddhist centres, all are welcome to visit. Anyone can go and join the monks and nuns in meditation, but the time of day when there are the most visitors is just a bit before Midday, when the community make a meal offering to the monks and nuns.

Unsurprisingly, it is a heavily ritualised affair. The visitors and laypeople will come in to a prayer hall, many will spend hours cooking an elaborate lunch, others will simply linger about. Eventually, the monks and nuns of the monastery enter from the other side of the room and say some prayers to themselves. Then the Abbott makes a few announcements and special volunteers serve the monks. This ritual is an updated version of a practice which goes back to the first Buddhist communities– monks, who do not have material possessions, would go from door to door begging for food. For the laypeople, it was an honour to provide for those who were committing their life to the Buddhist path of seeking Nibbana (Pali, in Sanskrit: Nirvana).

As I watched the monks parade past the volunteers serving food and graciously accept those gifts which sustain them– it was hard to ignore the glaring differences between such a religious system and our own.

Sure, the ancient Temple included similar provisions. The Kohanim, who did not own much of their own, and spent their days performing the rituals of sacrifice on behalf of others, were mostly fed by gifts provided by the lay-people and portions of the sacrifices which they performed. Yet, with the absence of the Temple and the reinvention of Judaism around rabbis and not priests, all of that changed.

One of the biggest innovations of the Sages was a sort of egalitarianism. Whereas priestly blood and sacrificial competency was the key to religious fulfilment in the Temple, for the rabbis, it was learning and study. Notably, this transformation allows for something which was quite unusual at the time: anyone can be a part of the ‘inner circle’ of religious elite. No longer was it defined by family, or by wealth, or even by training. Anyone who had a quick mind and who committed themselves to learning and teaching the Torah could be considered one of the rabbis– famously, the earliest Sages were from all different social, economic, and even ethnic backgrounds.

To me, that egalitarian spirit is a welcome one, and much more preferable than the vicarious monasticism of Buddhism– where laypeople are often expected not to seek religious knowledge themselves, but to care for and serve the monks, who will be ‘religious’ on their behalf. However, the flip-side of our inclusive spirit and meritocratic leadership is the structuring of a community around a minyan. The need for us all to come together in prayer and service and study is certainly different from our Buddhist sisters and brothers– Judaism doesn’t happen unless we make it so.

Perhaps it would be nice, sometimes, to rely on a group of dedicated ‘professionals’ who would seek out enlightenment and share it with the rest of us. However, our tradition has embraced a different path– one where we have to rely on each other whilst we walk the road to Nirvana. It’s a gift– which allows any one of us to become a leader and teacher– and in return it asks each of us to share the responsibility of seeking a religious life together.

Shabbat Shalom,


Jun 13

13 June 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

This week, in Parashat Naso, we read:

“… [the Nazir] shall abstain from wine and any other intoxicant; they shall not drink vinegar of wine or of any other intoxicant, neither shall they drink anything in which grapes have been steeped, nor eat grapes fresh or dried.” (Numbers 6.3)

Naso introduces several aspects of Ancient Israelite religion that may seem strange to us– stock characters who have long since exited stage left in our own cultural drama. Chief among them are the Sotah (wife accused of infidelity) and the Nazir (person who takes on an ascetic vow).

There is a lot to say about the Sotah– the way in which the trial described has informed patriarchal understandings of women in Judaism, and the ways in which it undermines them as well. However, what’s perhaps even less understood than the Sotah, is the Nazir.

The character of the Nazir has always captured my attention and interest– for one simple reason: repeatedly and routinely I (and I’m sure many others) have mistakenly been told that Judaism doesn’t practice asceticism. (Asceticism are all those practices of religion and faith which involve denying oneself pleasures and/or purposefully inflicting pain). Not only does the detailed description of the biblical Nazir disprove this notion, but the entire history of Judaism since includes ascetic practices that, while us moderns may not like it, are irrevocably part of our traditions.

One doesn’t have to look too far– the fasting of Yom Kippur, the mourning rituals of the Omer period, and the passion of the Prophets for hair-shirts and sackcloth all testify to a tradition of asceticism. Moreover, since then, schools of Jewish thought have only expanded the range of options for religiously-sanctioned self-harm and self-restriction.

In the medieval period, many would take on voluntary fasts regularly– some once a week, some every other day. Others would practise purposeful sleep deprivation, placing a bowl of ice-water between them and the book they studied so if they drifted off they’d be awoken by a face full of freezing water. Speaking of freezing, there were the mystics who rolled naked in the snow of Central Europe, as well as those who flagellated themselves with whips, many of whom also would reenact the rabbinic death penalties to remind themselves of their mortality. Being woken up, blindfolded, and having someone hold a sword to your throat is certainly a practise that seems far from contemporary Jewish life for most of us (I hope!).

The truth is: after three millennia, there’s not too many things that Judaism doesn’t include. Whenever we are presented with a simple, reductive approach to Judaism, we should immediately be suspicious. Judaism is always more complex, more inclusive, and more diverse than it seems. Our tradition does tend less to the ascetic life than others (particularly in contrast to monastic Christianity). However, that doesn’t erase the long history of asceticism from Judaism– starting from Parashat Naso’s figure of the Nazir, and continuing all the way up until today.

Shabbat Shalom,

*the comments above were also published in the JC’s Sedra column this week- check it out!*

Jun 06

6 June 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

This is the Petrified Forest National Park in Northern Arizona:

It’s a magical place– though not for any obvious reason. Really, all it is is a 230 square mile park which is almost entirely empty, except for the petrified trees which lived there during the Triassic period, 225 million years ago. As a kid, I used to visit the park, and I remember distinctly the complete and utter eeriness of getting out of the car and hearing nothing; Not a sound– not even the wind on most days. The absolute unadulterated quiet of the Petrified Forest is remarkable, partially because it is such a rarity. One doesn’t even realise that life is quite so noisy until finding themselves in a place that is really, truly, quiet.

This Shabbat we begin reading the Book of Numbers, known in Hebrew by its first significant word: baMidbar, literally, ‘In the Desert.’ The desert features so prominently in the Torah, the wilderness which the Israelites escape to and in which they receive the Torah and the revelation from God which we are still grappling with today. Every time that we talk about that wilderness, it is referred to by the word Midbar– so naturally, we need to better understand such a common and significant feature of the Torah.

Those who have taken my Hebrew classes (sign ups for next September will be out soon!) will know that nearly all Hebrew nouns are based upon verbs, as verbs provide the backbone to the language. The astute observer will even be able to pick out the three-letter root in the word Midbar. That root, D.V.R, is a common one, and it means ‘to speak’. The construction here is a typical way of making a noun out of a root, and it follows a certain pattern. For instance: Mishmar (‘a prison’, SH.M.R means ‘to guard’), Mikhtav (‘a letter’, K.T.V means ‘to write’), and Mafte’ach (‘a key’, P.T.CH means ‘to open’). So a mishmar is a place where guarding happens, a mikhtav is a place where writing happens, and a mafte’ach is a place/thing through which opening happens.

If that’s all true, then we can deduce what a midbar might be: a place where speaking happens. For the Torah, for Judaism, the desert is ‘The Speaking Place’. It is in the absolute quiet, the perfect solitude, the utter tranquility of a desert where no noise is heard that one is able to hear the voice of God.

As we move this weekend from Parashat BaMidbar to the celebration of Shavu’ot on Sunday and Monday (with our Tikkun Saturday night), we should think about how we can find a place where we can hear. We must seek out our own midbar, our own ‘speaking place’ if we hope to hear the voice of God and the sound of revelation, which alone can pierce through the silence.

Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Samea’ch,