Monthly Archives: September 2019

Sep 27

26 September 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

Every year, Professor Danny Matt, a scholar at Berkeley and the translator of the Zohar into English, does all self-respecting nerdy Jews a big favour: he combs through the Tanakh to find verses which add up to the number of the new Hebrew year. Since any word can also be read as a number, there’s endless maths games to be played with Hebrew, and it is an old tradition to use a word, phrase, or verse which has the same value as the year as a shorthand for it.

One of the phrases which adds up to 780 (usually its calculated without the thousands figure as such) is from Kohelet (Ecclesiastes): יש עת – literally, ‘There is a moment.’ Fans of the 60s band The Byrds and their song Turn! Turn! Turn! will certainly be familiar with it, and I hope you are too. (If not, come to shul on Sukkot when we read Kohelet). Chapter 3 begins as “Everything has its time, and a there is a moment for every purpose under Heaven.” It continues to list all the things there is a moment for: life, death, dancing, mourning, etc. The Byrds used the King James translation of ‘season’ for עת, although I think the point is more that it is a discrete moment in time (rather than a span of time, or time abstractly).

Yet the exact phrase that Prof. Matt found which adds up to 780 isn’t in that poetic section of Chapter 3, it comes from much later in the book, Chapter 8:6:

“For to every matter there is a moment, and a judgement– for the evil of a mortal is great upon them.” 

It is challenging to know exactly how to translate the laconic prose of Kohelet, but you can certainly see the timely nature of the message. Everything has its moment in time, everything will eventually be measured and accounted for– all the good, all the bad. Translation, of course, is always interpretation– and I’m always curious to see it in action.

As it is, I’ve spent most of this week in Bologna, Italy. To my pleasure I managed to find an Italian translation of Kohelet (which, after all, is my favourite book of the Tanakh). The translator, Erri De Luca, renders that same verse (8:6) as:

Perché per ogni intento c’è un punto e un giudizio. Perché il male di Adam è molto su a lui.

You don’t need to know Italian to see that there’s something that’s been added. If you pop the above into Google Translate you get:

Because for every intent there is a point and a judgment. Because the evil of Adam is very much up to him.

Although this is a far from literal translation, I really think it captures the spirit of Kohelet well. Everything will have its due– secrets will come out, memories repressed will be returned, offenses will be accounted for. There will be a point in time at which each and everything is eventually addressed.

That certainly is a message which we can relate to well as we approach Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur. This year, in the year of “There is a moment/season/point in time,” we should consider what the purpose of this point in time is. Each of us may have a different experience of what this moment’s purpose is, but I hope we each find that the encounter with the Yamim Nora’im (Awesome Days) serves to be one of those purposeful moments along the wheel of time, which turns, turns, turns.

Shabbat Shalom, and Shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Adam

 

Sep 19

19 September 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

When you spend any extended time living in Israel, one of the first Hebrew phrases you pick up is the oft-used and little-understood, Selichah! Usually used in a series of staccato repetitions (“Selichah, selichah, selichah!”), this word is ubiquitous on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv alike.

The word (סליחה) literally means forgiveness, and of course, it’s the Hebrew equivalent to ‘Pardon me?’ (UK) or ‘Get outta my way!’ (US), and to be honest: it’s a little bit of both. Sometimes it’s an aggressive-sounding ‘Move!’ and others a more passive, ‘Please, if you wouldn’t mind, if it isn’t a bother, sorry…’

If you’re a Hebrew-speaker it is a more than regular part of the vocabulary, but at this time of year, it takes on a special meaning separate from its day to day usage. Traditionally, every day during this month of Elul we recite Selichot before morning prayers– this Selichot being a collection of prayers which sometimes ask for forgiveness and sometimes shout it.

Just like in its more mundane usage, the Selichot we recite during this month prior to Rosh haShanah are sometimes aggressive petitions and sometimes passive pleas. Our tone can be both mournful and joyful; for, there is more than one way to ask forgiveness.

Often, these particular prayers and piyyutim (liturgical poems) are put to music in a type of ‘concert’ the week before Rosh haShanah. I’m happy to say that SAMS has helped make that a reality this year, with a choir composed of members from Hatch End Masorti, Elstree and Borehamwood Masorti, Edgware Masorti, Kol Nefesh and SAMS. They will join together to sing these prayers of Selichot to beautiful melodies.  If you would like more information about the Selichot service, please email us at info@e-sams.org.

Some of them will be yelling ‘Excuse me!’ and others whispering ‘Pardon me,’ but all of them should make for a moving introduction to the High Holy Days. Please join us, to support our SAMS choir members, and to come together to say  ‘Selichah!’, in whatever way suits you.

Shabbat Shalom,

R’ Adam

Sep 19

12 September 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

It’s not every day you get uplifting political news– especially these days. Yet, yesterday something happened which, to me at least, signals that things aren’t all that bad. A few weeks ago, thanks to the braggadocio of Italy’s Foreign Minister Matteo Salvini, the Italian parliament looked as though it would be the first one in Europe to become explicitly far-right in orientation. Salvini, after engineering a stunt which saw the dissolution of his coalition with the technocratic 5 Star Movement (M5S), was poised to join with the Brothers of Italy (an explicitly neo-fascist party) and claim control of the government. Were that to happen– it would be particularly bad not just for Italy, but for all of Europe.

One of my Summer reading projects these past weeks was John Foot’s brilliant new history of post-1945 Italy called The Archipelago. In it, he manages to demonstrate that Italy has long been the political incubator and testing ground of Europe. The first mass socialist movements took hold in Italy, the first Anarchist violence happened there, the first experiments with Fascism were, of course, Italian, and the trend continued after the war as well. Italy was one of the first to have a Communist Party which distanced itself from Stalin’s USSR, and one of the first to integrate the far-left into political life. More timely for us, Italy experimented with an authoritarian strongman who came from ‘outside politics’ and sold himself as someone who could cut ‘good deals’ via his media empire long before America suffered the same fate.

Now, in the post-Berlusconi era, Italy has reminded us that those authoritarian tendencies don’t last forever. In the years since, Italy has experimented with regional autonomy (Lega Nord predates the Catalonia crisis for instance) as well as internet-based technodemocracy (the 5 Star Movement makes all party decisions using an internet voting forum called Rousseau). Whatever will happen to the rest of Europe in ten years time is happening to Italy now.

That’s the good news– because what’s happened after Salvini’s dramatic exit is that the two other major parties (PD and M5S), who are historic rivals, both agreed to team up in an unprecedented move of unity to push back Salvini’s far-right agenda. In a crisis that threatened to bring elements of Italian law back to Mussolini era statues, reasonable heads prevailed– and most people (including voters polled) lost respect for Salvini and the League on the basis of what they saw as a self-interested power gambit.

The new government, confirmed yesterday, has many uphill battles to face– but it is of some reassurance that rather than embrace a new and extreme right-wing ideology, most people decided the sensible thing was to put their party or personal interests second and unite first. As we face considerable division in British society and as we watch in horror as Israeli society is being torn apart by social rifts (so much so that a show about a Charedi-Secular civil war is a new hit in Israel), Italy’s past few weeks may be some comfort– especially as history has shown that Italy is an incubator and beta-tester of European political life.

As Israel goes to the polls this week, as we enter a season of personal and societal reflection, and as we hope that Britain can itself overcome its rifts– maybe there’s some good news after all. A chi vuole, non mancano modi. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Sep 05

5 September 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

It’s astounding to me how quick the seasons seem to change when the school term begins again. It could be mid-June or late-November but I’d swear the official switch to Autumn-feeling™️ happens the week that school returns. Though the weather is still lovely, I can’t help but crave a pumpkin spice latte and start planning my Halloween costume. In many ways, it’s a wonderful time of year!

Part of that joy, of course, comes from the resumption of learning. Yet, it is not just the little minds among us who should relish the opportunity to dedicate themselves to learning something new. Learning, after all, is a life-long pursuit – or at least it should be.

Judaism is somewhat unrivaled in the attention it gives to learning as a concept. Talmud Torah (Torah study) is a value in and of itself. Our Sages prioritise learning above all else; they say that one who is learned is better than a priest, and even better than a king (Pirké Avot 6:6). They say that you must always have an occupation, but that it should be secondary in priority to the task of learning (Avot 1:15). Learning, studying, analysing, contemplating– ours is a fairly cerebral religion, and that focus doesn’t end with adulthood.

Rather, Judaism has always advocated that learning is an aim for every age. Our Sages called this learning lishmah (for its own sake). That means that we’re not learning for an exam or a job or for the prestige it brings– we’re learning just to learn, especially as adults. That is why synagogues and rabbis – ours included – spend time crafting and teaching adult education as a primary part of the job of building a community. Indeed, just like the school term, a new year of learning is kicking off at SAMS– and I’d love for you to join me in learning.

All and every class, discussion, and study is open to everyone. There are no prerequisites, there are no stupid questions. If something is of interest to you, come along and join us– and you’ll find that the spirit of non-judgmental community building informs our learning lishmah as it does other aspects of our community.

There is something for everyone: Hebrew language, text study (A Taste of Talmud), spiritual enlightenment (Magical Mystery Book Group), casual community discussions (Havdallah @ Home), coffee-morning discussion groups (Touring the Ten Commandments), and a course (re)covering the basics of Judaism (Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Judaism (But Were Afraid to Ask)).

The flier with all the details for our new Lishmah 5780 programme is available from the Synagogue. I hope you seize the opportunity of the season changing to do a bit of learning lishmah– for its own sake.