Coming back from some days away in sunnier climes, I returned to several deaths in our congregation and families mourning their loved ones.
How do we offer comfort to those who are mourning and suffering? As the Bible asks, how do we speak to someone’s heart?
As a student, I learned from Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg that rather than, or as well as, wishing a mourner a long life, he wishes them a strong heart. I have been moved by these words and how they are received in the houses of mourning. Knowing what to say or what to do is something that our tradition helps us with; it navigates a path of speech and action in the most sensitive of circumstances.
I will always remember when I was at Westminster Synagogue, members there were dear friends of the Camerons (Prime Minister David and Samantha). When their young disabled son Ivan Cameron died, this couple was unsure, even as close friends, what to do and whether their Jewish tradition to visit and care for the mourners was appropriate.
We are taught how to comfort, which is something that is so useful and so important in how we negotiate death, grief and others’ pain.
Last Shabbat was called Shabbat Nachamu (Shabbat of Consolation) after the first line of the prophet Isaiah’s reading; Nachamu, nachamu ami, Comfort, comfort my people…” Isaiah 40:1. The next six weeks will have a haftarah of consolation drawn from the book of Isaiah that delivers a message of comfort in the seven weeks following Tisha B’Av and leading us to the period of Rosh Hashanah. Words intended to comfort do so often bring just that and understanding our role in inviting others to talk of their loved ones, not to be ashamed or embarrassed about recalling moments and memories.
I welcome this period of consolation and the different ways that we are encouraged to expand upon it. God is near to the broken hearted, says the Psalmist in Psalm 34. And that is our role too.
As we are in this period of comfort and consolation, here is Elana Arian’s “Nachamu”.
Wishing you Shabbat Shalom and a reminder that Beverley and I are always looking for sensitive folk to join our team of visitors and those who want to offer comfort and share consolation. Let us know if it is you.
I’m away this week for some rest and relaxation, swimming and reading and eating of course.
The portion this week V’etchanan contains the Shema, which is a reminder to stop, to listen, to feel the connection of everything and to feel the blessing inherent within it.
Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. Listen Israel our Eternal is our God. Our God is One.
A reminder to take a moment this summer to watch, observe and feel the pleasure of slowness. As I am taking a few days away here’s something I love for you; a poem by Marge Piercy.
See you on Shabbat morning.
But the discipline of blessings is to taste
each moment, the bitter, the sour, the sweet
and the salty, and be glad for what does not
hurt. The art is in compressing attention
to each little and big blossom of the tree
of life, to let the tongue sing each fruit,
its savor, its aroma and its use.
Attention is love, what we must give
children, mothers, fathers, pets,
our friends, the news, the woes of others.
What we want to change we curse and then
pick up a tool. Bless whatever you can
with eyes and hands and tongue. If you
can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.
We have just started the month of Av and in a few days, it will be the 9th Av. Rabbi Alan Lew, z’l, taught that there is a way to wrestle contemporary meaning and poignancy from this mourning day by understanding it as the beginning of the High Holy Days’ journey. Be ready, recognise vulnerabilities and the capacity for growth and be ready from here.
‘Tisha B’Av’s hot tip is take the suffering, take the reflection and open yourself to the process of preparing for HHD,’ wrote Rabbi Alan Lew, z’l. So next week is the moment of reflection and opening. Although I am away, I commend to you marking this evening with the LJS and pulling out contemporary meaning from this mourning day. Wednesday evening 8pm; see the link below.
I look forward to seeing you next Shabbat.
Last weekend, I saw a long-time friend, Ellen, from Philadelphia. It’s been six years since we last met but as so often happens, we fell into catching up as intimately as before. She’s a lawyer working on A.I. law for Federal Government but her other passion is Israel and as so often happens for engaged Jews, we talked about what’s happening there. Earlier that day, last Shabbat, Rabbi Oshrat Morag visited. She’s rabbi of the Leo Baeck Centre school in Haifa, she spent time lovingly describing the community she is building and sustaining of children and their families; both Jewish Israelis and Israeli Arabs.
‘I’m under attack,’ she explained. ‘A new normal has become entrenched, where I, as a female Rabbi leading a Progressive school, am under attack. ‘
It is a new normal there and I am so pleased that Leo Baeck Centre will be our new Israel charity and I’m delighted that we continue this talking. Meanwhile, later that night, I learned from Ellen that her son has just completed the new podcast series celebrating Israel’s 75th Birthday called Signed, Sealed, Delivered, about the original Declaration of Independence and its 37 signatories. We quote from that extraordinary document frequently from our siddur. All were Jews from different perspectives and backgrounds. This podcast tracked down their descendants and all whom they found are interviewed for their opinion on the State of Israel now, 75 years on. I commend it to you. It’s a looking back and forward and the perfect way to enter the Summer. LJY Netzer’s Israel Tour leaves next Monday and I plan to listen whilst they are there.
Much is written about the five sisters in this week’s parashah (Torah portion). The daughters of Zelophehad pleaded their case before Moses (and God) to inherit their father’s name and holding as there were no brothers. This had significant impact on inheritance and legacy rulings and Moses and God changed rules because of these daughters. What commentators particularly draw out is the fact they are named, all of them.
…The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Elazar the priest, the chieftains and the whole assembly…(Numbers 27:1)
They were counted. They were named and they stood up and out to present their case. They boldly demanded an inheritance of the promised land and their names are repeated twice. Babylonian Talmud, in Bava Batra 119b praises them in three ways: as intelligent women knowing when was the right time to speak; as being knowledgeable in Israelite (Jewish) law, knowing the legal ramifications of their situation; and lastly, because they were unmarried and stood up for themselves, whatever their ages.
Doubtless they were astute pioneers. But for us as a congregation, I am particularly drawn this year, on re-reading the text, to the naming of the sisters. This week marked our 70th AGM and in all our remembering and praising what we have achieved, I am struck by the names of individuals whose lives have been touched by FPS and in turn leave their mark. We are nothing if not a congregation of individual named people who have shaped the customs, expectations and achievements of this our synagogue. All who step forward to take office carry the responsibility, however briefly, of the health and welfare of our community and the values we hold. I am so grateful this week for our Council and Executive and the passing the baton from our brilliant Chair Tamara Joseph to our next thoughtful and skilled Chair in Beverly Kafka.
And for me, it’s Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah who remind me of that.
Wishing you Shabbat Shalom,
This Shabbat, our teenagers graduating from our Kabbalat Torah group will lead FPS in commemorating Pride Shabbat, and we get great nachas watching these five FPS teens grow up and move into adulthood. Their portion, Balak, contains the blessing we know from Mah Tovu the words we offer every Shabbat morning at the beginning of our prayers:
Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishk’notecha Yisrael
How lovely are your tents [people of] Jacob; your sanctuaries [people of] Israel.
They feel the blessing of their synagogue and we should be proud of them and us for sustaining their connections.
I am very looking forward to this Shabbat.
We are, as a family, celebrating my father’s 80th birthday this coming weekend. I have been prepared for this moment by watching so many of your rites of passage and moments of joy throughout lives. As we have been exercised in planning our gathering, I have been struck by what it is we want to celebrate and make his legacy to us all: stories he wrote for us as children and the sensibility of literature and football, often at the same time.
Obviously I am thinking about our legacy as a congregation as we mark our 70th. What are we capturing that is important for the next 25 years and beyond? One thing that’s clear is that our building is tired and needs repair and renewal. Our spirit is strong but the ‘body’ that houses it is tired and whilst we ‘the family’ love it, we want newcomers and prospective members to be attracted to our home as well. At our AGM on 4th July, we will be able to share the plans we are now working towards. I wanted to remind you that whilst we have not come out and asked you all yet, we have already received extraordinary gifts and pledges and I wanted to get the rest of us thinking.
We knew we needed a few large, meaningful gifts and we have now received one for £50,000 and a pledge for the same. We have successfully been awarded a grant for £78,000 from Barnet Council. We have received several gifts of £5,000 and a couple of £10,000 donations. One courageous member has pledged £4,000 for every one of the next five years and some have given £100, £200, £500. All has been hugely appreciated. We are applying for many, many grants. We have now reached £488,000 but we need much more to be in the position to replace our roof, uplift our synagogue sanctuary, improve our welcoming spaces and upgrade us to an environmentally sustainable building.
I wanted to give you an update because this matters. We want to ensure the future and longevity of the joy we have in our synagogue and all it means for us – and that is what birthday celebrations are: identifying what we love best and ensuring we look after it.
In this week’s portion the Israelites are without water after Miriam’s death:
There was no water …[Numbers 20:2]
They are desperate and Moses must access some for the people. I take this as a challenge. We will and should access what we need.
A quick word from New York. I’ve been here to witness conversations about the challenges facing Progressive Judaism (indeed all paths outside Haredim).
Numbers are apparently down, even here in the relative Mecca of Jewish life. The fight for souls is intense here, the competition with other commitments is fierce, be it soccer, dance or the relatively new pickleball*! Gym membership is infinitely cheaper here than temples’ (the charming name for your local synagogue). NYC congregational membership for a family can be $4000 and apparently, that’s not outlandish. Please enjoy the relatively modest dues to FPS in comparison!
I’m thinking a lot about how, at our best, Judaism can and should speak poetically to what matters to us. I visited Ground Zero and my visit was made more moving by a beautiful D’var Torah I’d heard the night before by Central Synagogue’s Rabbi Angela Buchdahl.
Ayn Mukdam Ume’uchar.
There is no early or late in Torah.
As the deep compression / hole of those memorial pools filled with the water that flowed in and backed up, it made sense. The water flows, time passes, grief continues and new life emerges and none of it is necessarily linear. We take beginnings and endings together.
This Shabbat we’ll be commemorating our Czech scrolls, all three so precious to us at FPS, bringing their past and stories of lost communities of Austerlitz with them, even as our children renew them time and again when they read from them.
I’m looking forward to this and being reminded of this Talmudic verse and its layered meaning for all of us.
Rabbi Rebecca Birk.
*Pickleball is a fun sport that combines elements of badminton, tennis, and table tennis and is played outdoors on a badminton-sized court and with a slightly modified tennis net. Two or four players use solid paddles made of wood or composite materials to hit a perforated polymer ball, over a net.
Americans, I (re)discovered, are very good at celebrating themselves. I found it impressive and not just a little life affirming.
So this Shabbat I am delighted we are honouring our 70th birthday with a summer bbq lunch and musical moment in the sunshine. We will offer appreciation of our outgoing Council members and Chair in the Shabbat service, conveniently the portion is KORACH which has a thing or two to say about leadership and its challenges. Korach and his band of followers criticise Moses and Aaron for leading the people.
“You have gone too far! For all the community are holy. . .Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)
… is what they shout at the brothers, who have frankly carried the people tirelessly for years, not just months.
I like that we will read these words and they’ll help us appreciate how much those who lead us do – and as far as I am aware there are no complaints about our Council, who carry us all in a supremely democratic, conscientious and thoughtful way, managing the day-to-day life of our congregation and the visionary parts as well.
This Shabbat will be an opportunity to laud our lay leaders who work so extraordinarily hard for our synagogue and who deserve and need that blessing we say over Torah books endings;
Chazak, Chazak, V’Nitchazek. Strength, Strength, Let Us Be Strengthened.
They have strengthened FPS and the next cohort will continue to do so.
Shabbat Shalom and see you then.
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
(To Be of Use, by Marge Piercy)
In turn I love this poem. It captures how I see the world and, well, being of use. But the role of rabbi is more than that. Rabbi Professor Larry Hoffman tells the story of a new rabbi trying to block time for thinking and studying and eventually giving up those spots in his diary for the inevitable and essential meetings of synagogue life. Meetings are indeed critical for the growth and well being of communities but so is thinking! I have the opportunity to attend two rabbinic conferences dedicated to study (and thinking) and I intend to dive right in with the same enthusiasm I take to work. I’m off to New York today for two days on Recharging Reform Judaism followed by a Shabbat visiting Manhattan congregations to taste services. And then on to Boston for the Women Rabbis’ Network annual convention. Rabbi Deborah Kahn-Harris and I will representing us British rabbis. I’ll report back and bring much with me on my return, especially just my thoughts.
Shabbat Shalom and more from me next week.
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