Thursday, 16 December 2010

Green Shoots

Our sons are sent home from school, every once in a while, with a packet of seeds, some instruction and the request that we bring any plants back to the school on a specified date to get a certificate attesting to our (or our sons’) horticultural prowess. Invariably we find ourselves with a droopy stalk and no foliage and little or no prowess worthy of certification. But this time we’re doing well. The bulbs arrived in October and, planted in pots on the kitchen windowsill, the green shoots are poking though the soil, even as the temperature dips and the snow threatens.


It’s a dark week, not only in terms of the calendar and the seasons, but also in terms of our Torah cycle. Parashat Vayehi is the story of death – of Jacob and then Joseph; it marks the end of the Genesis narrative. It’s easy to see it as the end, but it is not. Of course it isn’t, already the seeds for the future are germinating. The seventy descendants of Jacob are in Egypt, ready for the opening of the Exodus narrative, poised for the future. We are ready for the journey from darkness into light.


It’s been a dark week for a number of our members also; we wish a long life to Stephen Lewis on the passing of his mother and Ian Thomas on the death of his father. I’m also writing this having returned from the stonesetting of our member Raymond Westbrook and we wish his family comfort and a long life also. But the seeds for the future are planted, and under the frozen soil there is germination and life renewed.


I’m taking a couple of weeks of leave from after Shabbat. It’s been a glorious four months for the Shul, there have been highlights all around the community, from services, to education, to providing much more focussed pastoral support and our involvement in the holy task of healing the world. I look forward to coming back, ready to nurture the blooms that mark our future – at New London and on the kitchen windowsill.


Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Jeremy

Friday, 10 December 2010

Vayigash - counting 70 names which count


I always get a thrill from the list of names of the Children of Israel who go down to Egypt – a list at the heart of this week’s parasha

The list contains the first mention in the Bible of Carmi – the name Josephine and I gave our firstborn son.

But I realise that for most it’s a dull passage.

But there is always plenty to teach.


Two observations about the counting of names.


Last week we had extra Torah readings from Parashat Naso – the list of the different sacrifices brought by the specific people on each of the days of the original dedication of the Tabernacle.

Symbolically read when we celebrate the rededication of the Temple under the Maccabees.

Every day, the entire sacrificial offering is repeated, word for word, with only a name changed.

Why the need to repeat.

Because recognise individuality.

In context of theological – don’t repeat unless have to.

In context of having to handwrite everything – temptation to use a shorthand.

Commitment to preserve the recognition of individual achievement.

That counts.


Classic opening Midrash in Sefer Bmidbar – Sefer HaPikudim – censuses, Book of Numbers

Rich people like to sit and count their money.

So God likes to sit and count the Jews.

We run through the names to show we care.


No better way of showing you care about someone than using their name.

And conversely – and as a congregational Rabbi I hate that this is true, but true it is – you get someone’s name wrong, or can’t remember their name you give a clear signal that you just don’t care enough.

Harold Kushner suggests we always remember the name of those we consider more important than ourselves and always forget the name of those we consider less important than we are.



First observation

Using names count.

We should make every effort to know them.

And the excuse that ‘I’m bad at names,’ usually laughed off, just isn’t good enough.


A second observation – in the details.

And as is well known – God is in the details.


The list comes in four parts.

First the children of Leah,

Then Leah’s concubine, Zilpa

Then Rachel.

Then Rachel’s concubine Bilha.


Bilha has 7 children.

And Rachel has fourteen – precisely double.


Zilpa has sixteen and Leah has –you might be expecting double sixteen – well you would be sort of right. If you count up the list of names there are 32 children called. But having run through the 32 names the Bible tells us that the sons that Leah bore to Jacob were 33

Someone is missing.

There is a list of thirty-two sons. And the Bible tells us there are 33 in the group.


The Midrash[1] asks,

Who is missing number.

"Some say: Yaakov completed the number.

R. Yitzchak said: This may be compared to two legions of the king: Decumani and Augustiani (the two most important legions in the Roman army). When the king is counted together with one legion, its number is complete. And when he is counted together with the other legion, its number is complete."


The two legions in Yacov’s army are the children of Leah and the children of Rachel.

And this time he is lining up with the children of Leah.

I think the message is this.

You have to count yourself.


It’s a story told of the wise men of Chelm, the fictional pantomime fools of the Chasidic imagination.

Once waiting for a minyan they asked their wisest of their number to check there was indeed a Minyan present.

The man counted one – to nine, and sadly acknowledged there wasn;t a minyan.

It was only when a stranger from a faraway city entered the room that began to pray.

Why hadn’t you started, the stranger asked.

Because we weren’t quorate, the Chelniks replied.

But there are eleven of us here, the stranger replied.

It turns out the wise man had forgot to count himself.


Reminded also of a fabulous vox pop quote I heard before some election while I was in America. Some man was complaining about taxes being too high.

I don’t want to have to pay for health insurance, he said, I want the government to pay for health insurance.

Too often in our lives we look for someone to do something and we forget to count ourselves.

Too often we bemoan the absence of something, someone, volunteering – and we forget to count ourselves.

Just as the counting of the children of Jacob is only complete when Jacob is counted among them.

So too we are a community, and indeed as a people, only complete when we remember to count ourselves.


So names count.

And we must remember to count ourselves.


Shabbat shalom

[1] Bereishit Rabba 94:9

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Vegetarians need not read this - Queasy Meat Eaters Should

Vegetarians need not read this.

Queasy meat eaters absolutely should.


Rabbinic tradition dictates that until God tells Noah, ‘Every moving thing that lives, shall be food for you' (Gen 9:4) humanity was vegetarian.


The truth is that eating meat requires animals die. As neat and tidy as some butchers make chicken escalope appear, they once came from a live, feathered chicken. Judaism, I believe, wants us to encounter this truth, not hide from it.


And now there is an amendment before the European Parliament which, if passed, would mean that meat originally intended for Kosher consumption, but subsequently found to be not Kosher, but nonetheless suitable for human consumption, would be ladled ‘meat from slaughter without stunning.’ The suggestion, of such a label, is that Shechitah is cruel in a noteworthy way. The suggestion is that animals stunned before slaughter die in a sweet and cuddly way, while animals Shechted suffer terribly. The fear is that if this legislation is passed non-Jewish butchers and abattoirs will stop taking the healthy non-kosher meat because they won’t be able to sell this meat on the open the market. The fear is real, but the suggestions are fallacious.


Shechted animals become unconscious in a matter of seconds. They are stunned at the point of slaughter. Meat stunned before slaughter is usually rendered immediately unconscious, but sometimes isn’t. Sometimes the captive bolt driven into the brain of sheep or cow misses, or fails to function perfectly. Sometimes the electrical charge used to stun poultry is set too low, or the chicken dodges being dipped into the fluid used to stun it. Sometimes the animals regain consciousness after stunning. In all these, disturbing, cases the animal continues on its journey towards slaughter and there is no suggestion that meat from such a carcass should be ladled ‘ineffectively stunned.’ More importantly, for those of us who care about animal welfare, is the environment around the point of slaughter. In well designed, well run abattoirs, sheep will indeed ‘go like lambs to the slaughter.’ In poorly designed, poorly run abattoirs or in the hands of poorly trained slaughterers, animals will become distressed and there are no plans to label meat in a way that will allow a concerned consumer to know if an animal suffered distress in this way. Animals don’t die for our consumption sweetly, whether stunned or not.


I don’t claim the proposed EU regulation is driven by anti-Semitism, I suspect anti-Islamism is a more likely source of this invidious deceitful attempt to associate Shechitah with suffering. But regardless of intent this proposal is a threat to the economic sustainability of Shechitah in this country. Something Shechitah opponents understand all too well.


I encourage, urge, all members who are concerned about the continued possibility of Shechitah in this country (and across Europe) to take this opportunity to communicate with the MEPs who will decide if this proposal will be tabled before the Parliament. Their names, a suggested form of words and a great deal more information is available at I am delighted that Henry Grunwald of Shechitah UK will be our guest at New London later in the year, but I, again, urge members to write immediately as important decisions will be being taken at a European level before Henry will be joining us.


Shabbat shalom



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