Thursday, 20 January 2011

Tu B'shvat has arrived




The Jewish New Year for Trees began its life as a marker for taxation. In Kabbalistic thought the date became a moment for reflecting on the relationship between the emanation of fruit, and the creation of a soul. In early Zionist times Tu B’shvat became a celebration of the return to working the land – the Jew as agriculturist. And I wonder if we need to celebrate and encourage a new facet of this quasi-festival marking our role as environmental steward.


There are, in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis two creation narratives. The first is the famous one, day one – light, and it was good and so on. The second is less well known. In this second beginning there is an earth, but nothing grows on it, for there is no rain, and no person to work the ground. In the second creation narrative the first human is created before the trees and the fruit emerge. Perhaps the most important difference between the two narratives is that in the first the first humans are told they have dominion over the earth and everything in it. Actually the English term ‘dominion’ isn’t strong enough, the Hebrew term is ‘kivshuha’ – conquer, dominate. The image is of a triumphant gladiator, boot poised over the throat of a prostrate victim.


In the second creation narrative the relationship between the human and the earth is one of responsibility. We are placed on earth ‘to serve and protect it. The image is of a fragile eco-system dependent on us, who in turn, of course are dependent on it. My friend Rabbi Natan Levy makes the suggestion that the first creation narrative depicts the world of a hunter-gatherer, living in a jungle, surrounded by fruit that simply emerges from the trees, and the wild beasts from whom the human needs to be protected. Meanwhile the second creation narrative depicts the world of the settled farmer, tilling and planting ‘by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread.’ We’ve placed too much store by the blessing that we should be victorious over our surrounding environment. That battle has been won and now we preside over a world of shrinking rainforests, pollutants and human-influenced climate change threatening catastrophe on disaster. There is perhaps wisdom in reflecting on our role in an environment we farm and cultivate – it is not a relationship of dominance of one over another. It is, or at least is supposed to be, one of service and protection. We need to treat our environment as something that can support us, if we support it.


Among many other Jewish organisations the Masorti Movement, and this Synagogue, are working to increase our ability to take small, but significant steps to retrain as guardians of our environment. Please take a moment, at this time of celebrating the cycle of our trees to check out and make a pledge, read up on an issue that interests and make a change.


Shabbat shalom


Rabbi Jeremy


Talmud in NW8

My Talmud Class is kicking off again this coming Monday, 24th January, 8pm at New London Synagogue.

Over the next five weeks I’ll be looking at some key texts, well known and less well known, from the Babylonian Talmud.


All texts will be shared in English and Hebrew, the class is open to those both with and without previous Talmud experience and each session is self-contained.


This week – the story of Honi Hamaagel, magic worker, Rabbinic irritant and (in the aftermath of Tu B’Shvat) witness to an early eco-hero.


I hope to see you then (and equally any of the following four Mondays until 21st February)


Rabbi Jeremy



Rabbi Jeremy Gordon

New London Synagogue

0207 328 1026


Sermons, Blogs and Thoughts


Friday, 14 January 2011

Carrying the bones


There is a fascinating reference to a death long since past in this week’s parasha. The book of Genesis ends with Joseph extracting a promise from his people that they will ‘carry [his] bones up from here’ (Genesis 49) when they are eventually redeemed from Egypt. Fast forward through all the oppression and plagues to a time the Israelites are ready to leave their place of confinement and Tosefta Sota depicts the Children of Israel raiding the booty of the nation while Moses frantically searches for Joseph’s bones, knowing that he can’t leave without them. Other Midrashic tales suggest the Egyptians know the Jews can’t leave without Joseph’s bones and so they bury them in a lead casket in the Nile. Moses stands before the Nile and calls out for his ancestor, ‘Joseph, Joseph the hour you spoke of, when you told us we would be redeemed has come.’ In Midrash Shemot Rabba Moses even quotes back the verse from Genesis at Joseph, and the coffin rises like some Arthurian legend. The children of Israel leave with Moses, as the Bible states ‘carrying the bones of Joseph’ (Exodus 13).


It’s a cute narrative showing the Jews besting their foes, yet again, but it also teaches an important lesson about the treatment of ‘bones’ the last physical remnant of those we have loved and lost. Reading the Bible once a person dies – ‘goes down to Sheol’ – there is nothing much there. Ideas about heaven or re-incarnation or apocalyptic re-birth develop post Biblically. But there is still tremendous attention paid to the importance of burial and care for a body, even one deprived of life. Rabbinically the body of a deceased echoes with its once-tenured soul and the relatives of a deceased remain in relationship. There is, in rabbinic Judaism, a sense that a life is judged on its end, but that the judgement is ‘spread out’ against the family. ‘For all of the first week the sword is drawn; for the first month it shakes, and it does not return to its sheath until twelve months.’ (Bereshit Rabbah 100.) We owe a duty of care to our deceased.


I’ve been reflecting on this reading of a proposal of the burial societiy used by some of our sister communities in the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues. The Joint Jewish Burial Society has purchased land adjoining the Cheshunt Cemetery and are installing there facilities for performing Taharah – the ritual preparation of a body for burial. They are also making available a possibility for a woodland internment, which I know some members have spoken to me about. They are even looking at providing a separate (and separated) space within the new grounds for burial of Jews and their non-Jewish partners. Anyone interested in these developments is invited to contact me. The rest of us should, as the Rabbis teach, count our days carefully and tend compassionately with both the memories and the earthly remnants of those we have loved and lost.


Shabbat shalom


Monday, 10 January 2011

Living Wage - Slaughter the Sheep

Going back to last week


Moses goes to the children of Israel with the good news –

God is coming, God’s going to come and take you out of Egypt, rid you of this slavery, redeem you and take you as God’s people ..


And nothing.

Vlo shamu el moshe mipnei kotzer ruach v’avodah kashah.


They can’t hear Moses because of shortness of spirit and hard work.

They can’t see the light even when a candle is waved before them.


The enslaved people don’t know how to yearn for redemption, they cry out from the weight of slavery, but they don’t yearn to be free.

They’ve forgotten what they should be doing because they are so busy working.

Two weeks ago,


Children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God saw the children of Israel, and God took cognizance of them. (Exodus 2, 23-25)


The slaves don’t remember who they are – the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, participants in a covenantal relationship with God.

They have a destiny, a role in the world that is not about labour.

God has to remember that and carry, as it were, God’s people along until a time when they can yearn for their own freedom and begin to make their own contribution.


Since that moment of shortness of spirit and hard labour Moses is not commanded again to speak again to the children of Israel until the midst of this week’s parasha. It’s almost as if God knows there is no point speaking with the enslaved people, their ears are shut.


Come back to this second attempted conversation with the Children of Israel later, God tells the children of Israel to slaughter a sheep.

Why a sheep?

I’ll come back to that later, for now I’m interested in this inability to hear the call to freedom.

Why is it that the Israelites can’t respond to Moses telling them that they are going to be free.


Even the Rabbis are surprised.

V’chi yesh lecha adam sh-hu mitbaser besorah tovah vaino sameach

Have you ever heard of a person getting good news and it not making them happy?[1]


That’s the impact of slave labour, work so hard that can’t even hear a promise of redemption.

That’s how bad it gets.

It’s not purely an ancient phenomenon, nor is it something that only applies in the sweat shops of Bangladesh and ‘over there.’ Labour practices which constrict the soul and limit the ability of a person to participate in a redemptive journey are also found in this country.


I had an interesting insight into the way in which power of avodah kashah – backbreaking labour – shuts a persons ears through my work with London Citizens.


We are, as a Synagogue members of a campaigning organisation, London Citizens, most known for their work with the Living Wage.

There is, as I am sure you will know, a minimum wage in this country - £5.93 an hour.

It’s legislation that recognises that, unless tempered, some employer – employee relations can result in pay for work at levels that effectively enslave. As a society we have deemed that employing at less than £5.93 an hour is slave wages and should be illegal.


But there is a problem with the minimum wage.

If you are working a 40 week, 50 weeks of the year on minimum wage you are earning the grand total of £11, 860 a year, before tax.

For the Americans here that’s $18000 a year.

Not a lot of money.


What kind of people are expected to live on £II,000 a year?

Overnight cleaners working on contract cleaning the sorts of offices where the rest of us tend to work during the day.

Hotel staff in the hotels we probably stay in.

Health care assistants wiping up after those who are too old, senile or ill to take care of themselves.

The hidden labour force of this country


And what’s the problem with paying people only a national minimum wage –

I think the problem is that it turns them into the Children of Israel, enslaved in Egypt.

Unable to realise that there is anything else in their lives but hard labour.

They end up having to take a second, and third job just to put food on the table.

They can’t provide for their kids, they can’t afford basic health care, they can’t properly educate their children.

End up costing the rest of us as we subsidise slave-level employers with work credits and anti-poverty tax spend.

It might be legal, but it’s still not employment at a level that allows a person to be part of a redemptive journey.

It doesn’t allow a person to be free.


So London Citizens have adopted a campaign to ensure that everyone in London is paid at least a living wage, a wage calculated by the GLA at £7.35 an hour – enough to allow a member of the workforce of this country to feel a worthy employee, enough to allow them to feel like a free person.


Campaign well over a hundred years old in this country, always been led by religious voices.

Particularly active have been the Quakers, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation remains particularly involved.

The campaign works with small groups of citizens arranging to meet with employers and explaining them the injustice of low pay, the value of paying staff at a living wage level.

Incredibly success, employers such as Canary Warf, KPMG, Barclays, University of London, Greater London Authority, it’s a long list.


I met a cleaner who benefited from the campaign.

He had been running a youth club for at risk Yeminite kids who lived in his area, and was having to stop because he needed to earn more money for his family but then the living wage kicked in and he was able to carry on.

You can’t be a full citizen until you get paid enough to take you out of slavery


Work is good –

Sheshet yamim tavod

Love work – ehov et hamalacha

But slavery is bad because blinds, deafens and dumbs us.

If interested in the Living Wage campaign, let me know.


Promised to come back and touch on the second attempt of God to instruct the Children of Israel, now their slavery has ended.

Tells them to take a sheep and use the blood to daub the doorposts.


Why a sheep.

Rambam thinks a way of snubbing the Egyptians – who venerate the sheep.

But Kli Yakar suggests something else. Sheep are fairly pathetic creatures, led wherever the shepherd leads them, even, as Psalm 44 suggests – to the slaughter.

God wants the children of Israel to slaughter dafka a sheep because God is trying to get us out of that mentality.

The mentality of someone who only works to live, nose to the grindstone, missing what is going on around them, missing being part of a broader society.

Missing what is means to be free, missing what it means to be part of a redemptive journey.

Interesting that this is directed to people who aren’t doing slave-labour.

No longer being employed on the equivalent of £II,000 a year.

Sometimes need more than merely the removal of slavery, or getting a decent paycheck to remind you that you are free and that there are more important things in the world than work.

Sometimes you have to slaughter the sheep

The inner sheep, perhaps, inside us all that will happily wander round, doing what we are told, not stepping back from the professional merry-g-rounds that can otherwise suck up our every energy.

Sometimes you have to slaughter the sheep.


For those of us fortunate enough to be paid far more than either the minimum or the living wage, slavery can still be a problem, self-imposed slavery, or the slaver imposed by societies expectation that we wear the right kinds of lcothes and live in the right style and custom.

Slavery comes in many forms.

We need, always to remember we are Children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

We have a role in redemption.

We need the call to step back from work and appreciate the possibilities of freedom.


For that we need two things

A base level of material sustenance – a living wage

And then we need to be prepared to slaughter the sheep.


Shabbat shalom

[1] Mehilta Bo, mesechata pischa 5

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