February 29, 2024

1/2 March 2024, 22 Adar 5784

Rabbi Rebecca shared this poem with us as words that speak to this Shabbat and this moment of time:

Not the peace of a cease-fire,
not even the vision of the wolf and the lamb,
but rather
as in the heart when the excitement is over
and you can talk only about a great weariness.
I know that I know how to kill,
that makes me an adult.
And my son plays with a toy gun that knows
how to open and close its eyes and say Mama.
A peace
without the big noise of beating swords into ploughshares,
without words, without
the thud of the heavy rubber stamp: let it be
light, floating, like lazy white foam.
A little rest for the wounds—
who speaks of healing?
(And the howl of the orphans is passed from one generation
to the next, as in a relay race:
the baton never falls.)

Let it come
like wildflowers,
suddenly, because the field
must have it: wildpeace.

Yehuda Amichai, Wildpeace” from Selected Poetry. Copyright © 1996 by Yehuda Amichai. Reprinted by permission of University of California Press.

February 24, 2024

23/24 February 2024, 15th Adar 5784

Rabbi Rebecca shared this poem with us as words that speak to this Shabbat and this moment of time:

Parashat Tetzaveh describes the priestly garb worn by Aaron and his sons in their roles for the community, from their uniforms to the explicit direction for all they did in that Tent of Meeting. This poem by Nikita Gill captures ancestors and the passage of time, change and pride.

Your ancestors did not survive everything
That nearly ended them
For you to shrink yourself
To make someone else comfortable.
This sacrifice is your war cry,
be loud,
be everything
and make them proud.

Nikita Gill

February 24, 2024

16/17 February 2024, 8th Adar 5784

Rabbi Rebecca shared this poem with us as words that speak to this Shabbat and this moment of time:

The Peace of Wild Things

By Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my childrens lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

February 8, 2024

9/10 February 2024, 1 Adar 5784

Mishpatim this week talks of shared laws and commandments that create community. Marge Piercy has a beautiful take on the strength and power of relationships – rather like what FPS has built.

Rabbi Rebecca shared this poem with us as words that speak to this Shabbat and this moment of time:

The Low Road by Marge Piercy

What can they do
to you? Whatever they want….

Alone, you can fight,
you can refuse, you can
take what revenge you can
but they roll over you.

But two people fighting
back to back can cut through
a mob, a snake-dancing file
can break a cordon, an army
can meet an army.

Two people can keep each other
sane, can give support, conviction,
love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge. With four
you can play bridge and start
an organization. With six
you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
seconds, and hold a fund raising party.
A dozen make a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.

It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again and they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know who you mean,
and each day you mean one more.

February 2, 2024

2/3 February 2024, 24 Sh’vat 5784

This week is HIAS/JCORE’S Refugee Shabbat. It is an opportunity for us to share the work of our congregation, in alliance with Citizens UK and our local Barnet institutions, in offering support, guidance and friendship to those who have fled unsafe homes before arriving here. For us, the empathy at the heart of Jewish life comes from our early identity in Torah; take, for instance, the ten commandments;

And God spoke all these words: “I am the Eternal your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”

We’ve been taught that the experience of being there in ‘Egypt,’ suffering as strangers, informs all Jewish identity henceforth. I think a great deal about what this means and the fact the fifth commandment states clearly that Shabbat must be observed by everyone in your household, from your child to the stranger that lives within the community.

“Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Eternal your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.”

I welcome these foundational texts that speak to how we negotiate our place in the world. And that feels right for us at FPS. I hope you might come along this Shabbat, where we have invited friends to join us.

Talking of Shabbat rests, during the rest of February, I will be taking a mini sabbatical from allotted time, a moment to pause. Services and learning are covered and of course, if you need any pastoral time, please do reach out to Caroline or Beverley, who will direct you smoothly. I will be back at the start of March and look forward to seeing you then, if I don’t see you over this weekend.

Shabbat Shalom

January 26, 2024

26/27 January 2024, 17 Sh’vat 5784

This week is Tu B’Shevat. This really just means the 15th Shevat – the date in the Hebrew calendar for the New Year for trees. We have other kinds of New Years: Nisan is the first month; Rosh Hashanah is the Head of the year; there was one for Kings and Queens too. But on this day we connect with trees. For all of us who don’t cultivate orchards,  it feels anachronistic in a way. Most of us just tend our gardens or appreciate the trees in Kenwood, Trent Park or even Dollis Brook. After Storm Isha there has been significant damage to and by trees. Trees are among us. There are so many Jewish teachings about trees. This festival calls on us to be awake and alive to our environment.

“Take care not to spoil or destroy My world,” says another midrash, “for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.” (Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah)

We often lose touch with nature and the importance  of our trees. Last Sunday, Anthony and I walked the entirety of Regent’s Canal, all 10 miles of it, passing trees growing through unlikely patches of cement by the water. We did a little picking up litter ahead of Tu B’Shevat. My friend Rabbi Janet Burden apparently spotted her first snowdrop near the canal in Paddington.

Our plans for FPS are built upon a concern to be more environmentally friendly, more responsible, more caring. To secure our building’s future, we will be leaning in to that and, of course, planting trees.

Keep looking at our plans – and that auspicious tree at our new entrance, using our up-cycled door. (Click here for link to plans)

I hope we will manage a congregational walk like this one, or a swim, or a communal planting – all to help us ensure we can do this renewal and repair. Don’t forget all donations will be matched for another 8 days.

Shabbat Shalom,

January 19, 2024

19/20 January 2024, 10 Sh’vat 5784

Depression – the thick black paste of it, the muck of bleakness — .… Daphne Merkin

Darkness was the ninth plague inflicted upon the Egyptians

“So Moses stretched forth his hand toward the heavens, and there was thick darkness over the entire land of Egypt for three days. They did not see each other, and no one rose from his place for three days….”(Exodus 10:22-23)

Rashi explains and amplifies this image.  If a person was sitting, they were unable to stand, and if standing, they were unable to sit.

Darkness has long been associated with depression and mental torment. This verse invites us to imagine it. We know very well that mental suffering can be as pernicious and cruel as physical illness. Anxiety and fear can paralyse and worse. Such a thick darkness as Torah describes is palpably real and it doesn’t take much empathy to imagine the paralysis. Many of us know people for whom this struggle in contemporary times is quite literally too much to bear.

This Shabbat reminds us not to look away from such suffering, which is why several years ago, the Jewish Association for Mental Illness chose this Shabbat for Mental Health awareness. It gives us a moment to reflect on the torture of such darkness as well as on the heaviness of inertia that sometimes prevents those who suffer from mental illness from seeking help. JAMI taught us in the community that mental health is a spectrum and we can all find ourselves somewhere on it – and that changes at moments in our lives. The plague of darkness leaps from Torah to our own understanding of mental anguish of all kinds. I am grateful not just for JAMI but for all agencies and individuals who understand the fragility of the soul.

Shabbat Shalom

January 11, 2024

12/13 January 2024, 3 Sh’vat 5784

When I was at Leo Baeck College training to be a rabbi, my chevruta (study) partner was James, now Rabbi James Baaden. He and I had a particular interest in difficult verses of Torah that both repelled and shocked. The first and tamest we discovered was here in this portion of Va’era, describing Moses’s ancestry: he was born to Amram who married his aunt Yocheved.(6:20). Marriage with an aunt is prohibited in Leviticus as a form of incest. But the rules can’t have been known then.  Rabbi Joseph Hertz went further in his commentary, explaining proudly that the fact Torah did not attempt to hide this embarrassing  fact, about Moses of all people, is ‘eloquent testimony to the unsparing veracity of Scripture.’  Torah does not need to protect the reader from difficult verses. Moses’s family history does nothing to detract from or add to the man who is described at the end of the Torah:

And there has not risen a prophet since in Israel like Moses who God knew face to face… .

I have always found that the commentary and commentators of Torah are just as interesting and revealing of their eras as the words of Torah. Rabbi Joseph Hertz was late Chief Rabbi of the British Empire from 1913 to 1946, which encompassed both wars and the Holocaust. His commentary to the Torah is used in most Orthodox synagogues still and in many Progressive ones; we have several at FPS. He was revered for his scholarship and conservatism (although respectful to Progressive Judaism) and controversial in his opposition to the saving of Jewish children through kinder transport if it meant they would be raised in non Jewish homes.

People are rarely straight forward, whether in Biblical text or since and we can cope with the unsparing veracity of it all. I like being reminded of it.

Shabbat Shalom,

January 6, 2024

5/6 January 2024, 25 Tevet 5784

The start of the new book of Exodus begins for us this Shabbat, the first of the Gregorian year. Visiting the Marina Abramovic exhibition at the Royal Academy before it closed last week I loved her description of living; Every day we move without thinking through a series of thresholds, each ushering us between different experiences and states of being….

We have no idea of how things will emerge this year, what cessation of suffering and conflict might come, what redemption there may be. We do know that we are beginning this new secular year with hope and intention. One way of living and moving through those thresholds is to pay attention. This new book of Torah begins that way as well. Leaving the success and ease of Joseph and his brothers’ life in Egypt and beginning a new threshold, a new era of hardship which brings its own focus.

(6) Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation.
(7) But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.
(8) A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph….(2:11) Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinfolk and saw their burdens.

In other words Moses noticed.

Dr Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg wrote The Particulars of Rapture (2001), a sequel to her award-winning study of the Book of Genesis (1995), its title is from a line by the American poet Wallace Stevens about the “origin of change”. She wanted to find “within the particulars of rapture” how things change.

And this is where it all is.

This story of struggle and waking up to it is the Jewish leitmotif and informs us in everything. It is the the birth of the Jewish people (known as Hebrews in Torah). How we pray, how we celebrate Shabbat and festivals and most notably how we encounter others. It’s at the core of everything, this noticing. And as we pass through the threshold of another year of living here in our homes, our synagogue and our country. We have the opportunity to look as well. Not just what’s happening in Israel and Gaza, though we must, but here too, to be part of things and act accordingly.

This Saturday-Shabbat 6th January we will welcome the charismatic Rabbi Professor Larry Hoffman (see his bio here), who will teach and encourage a conversation around this story and the possibility of redemption in it and for ourselves. We may never have needed it so much.

December 21, 2023

22/23, 29/30 December 2023, 11,18 Tevet 5784

Tevet, the Hebrew month that housed just the second half of Chanukah this year, is otherwise empty of festivals and events. It is generally a time for renewal before Shevat brings up Tu B’Shevat and the imaginings of growth and Spring. This year, it is hard to imagine resting and renewing with such grief and concern around us – the suffering, grief and continued torturous wait of families in Israel and the loss and devastation for Palestinians. We rabbis are planning a trip to Israel to be with our colleagues and friends. And there probably needs to be, albeit tempered, a period of quiet before we gear up again.

So I turn to Katherine May’s Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times

Plants and animals don’t fight the winter. They don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives they lived in the summer. They prepare, they adapt, they perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Wintering is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximising scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight, but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the lifecycle but its crucible.

It’s a time for reflections and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order. Doing these deeply unfashionable things, slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting, is a radical act now, but it is essential. This is a crossroads we all know, a moment when you need to shed a skin. If you do, you will expose all those painful nerve endings and feel so raw that you’ll need to take care of yourself for a while. If you don’t, then that skin will harden around you. It’s one of the most important choices you’ll ever make. 

Wishing you some quiet calm and peacefulness.

Shabbat Shalom Rebecca