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.
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;
2 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
And just like that, our 70th year of celebration came to an end last Sunday. We had the most magnificent but warm and inclusive inter-generational quiz hosted by Paul and Sharon Silver-Myer. It was a delight and the good will in the room from our members and guests was palpable.
It needn’t have fallen on Chanukah but it did and by doing so, it reminded me of the teaching by the 12th century Maimonides (Hilchot Chanukah 4:1) who said about this minor festival that it is incumbent on all Jewish households to light one Chanukiah. He then continues to say that for those who want to fulfil this commandment more intensely, more enthusiastically, hamhader et hamitzvah, then every member of the home should light their own Chanukiah. We Progressive Jews always have the choice to consider this instruction to intensify our mitzvot but last Sunday we lit many, many lights here at FPS. It was, both literally and symbolically, a powerful reminder that all 90 of us representing our congregation cared deeply about it and happily [re]dedicated ourselves, as the word Chanukah means, to our community and our Jewish way of being. It was a wonderful moment, as were these past days of Chanukah – that light in the darkness for us all. What a wonderful way to end the year. How far we have come, in what we mean to each other and how more folk are now choosing to dedicate themselves to our house, our home, our synagogue. And how well we have done in raising funds for the [re]dedication of the building.
Wishing you a continuation of this pride and dedication that Chanukah encourages. We Jews are still here, and this minor festival that comes from the Book of Maccabees, not even in the Tanakh but the hidden Apocrypha, has come to mean much to us. A complicated story with the miracle of oil added only by the rabbis of the Talmud 500 years later. We are reminded of human agency, this year of all years: to stand up for ourselves and for others always; to be empowered and emboldened and dedicated.
I will destroy my enemies by making them my friends
I was surprised to hear Archbishop Justin Welby quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. We were standing in the pouring rain at the vigil last Sunday. Together. It was incredibly moving; people who have sustained such loss, such violence, begging us to collaborate, to stand together, to reach out to those around us, to make things safer, not more polarized, for our children. It wasn’t an easy ask, yet Robbie Damelin from Bereaved Families Forum warned the crowd, ‘Don’t take sides. It helps no-one.’ These weren’t easy words to hear: many of us had read the articles in the paper that morning revealing yet more sexually violent atrocities perpetrated on that heinous day of the 7th October. Yet what alternative is there other than to reach for hope and for partners in this hell, both here in our home of the U.K and in Israel and beyond?
Everyone was given a candle and I lit a lantern alongside several other religious leaders who wanted to be there. United synagogue, Liberal, Reform and Masorti standing together with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians.
It was the perfect diving board into Chanukah, when we will [re]dedicate ourselves to our Judaism and to our people, as the first Chanukah modelled. I can’t think of a year in my lifetime when Chanukah felt so welcome, so needed and so challenging all at on
ce. We associate the story with tribalism at its most raw, with extremism and military might.
But I want to take a different look. The Hasmoneans, whilst passionate and committed, surprisingly also understood nuance. From their
Greek language, rhetoric and culture, they knew it was integral to their way of life. And the subsequent celebrations of Chanukah understood that innovation and freshness was key. Chanukah is often referred to as a time of התחדשות, of renewal, of not letting our spiritual vitality become stale and uninspired.
This year I hope we let ourselves rededicate to our congregation our Jewish life and our families and do so in a way that the flames of the Chanukiah fill our hearts with hope and light. There is surely no other way.
Please check out each night of lighting planned @FPS:
And Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until dawn.
In Torah this week, Parashat Vayishlach, Jacob becomes Israel: a new name, the One who wrestles with God. And that is our name too as Jews. This scene of the struggle is profoundly comforting to me every time I read it. As we know from our own lives, growing into one’s full identity is complicated.
It was never meant to be one dimensional. It is so interesting to observe that despite being given the new name of Israel, he is referred to as Jacob again and again in the book of Genesis and later throughout Tanakh. He carries it all with him. And so do we – the Jew who is brave and open and the one who retreats at times; the one who reaches for community and the one who holds back; the times one finds meaning and the periods one doesn’t; the times our mezuzah feels a welcome symbol on our doors and the times it evokes fear and questions. I imagine we are all of that and Jacob’s physical wrestling match is echoed in our life choices. Especially now.
Sitting at home with covid, it was powerful to watch last Sunday’s march through photos and clips sent by friends and many of you. We were told over 100,000 gathered – more than at Cable Street. But even some of those who attended enthusiastically described the experience as complex for them: the streets were quiet, no-one else was witnessing, the palpable and understandable support for Israel at times complicating the desire for clear and unwavering Jewish presence here in the UK. It called on so many feelings of solidarity, pride, fear and desire to be seen and, like Jacob, it carried the hope of being blessed in our lives and of finding blessing in all of this for us and our children.
The portion ends with the much-anticipated reunion between Jacob and Esau, each now definitively suspicious of the other. Esau embraces and kisses Jacob and they both weep. In a demonstration of gracious and generous love, Jacob responds. It is a beautiful moment in Torah and one that challenges us, as we read it, to find contemporary meaning for ourselves.
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