Tuesday, 22 March 2016

On the Terrible Events in Brussels - And Purim

Dear Friends,

Strange times, when lunatics can threaten our very lives simply because we disagree with their - crazy - religious attitudes.
It must be Purim.
I don't mean to make light of the horrific events in Brussels today. My thoughts are with all those who are mourning or are injured. It's a horrific unconscionable attack.

But we have been here before.
We have lived in societies threatened by those who find us threatening.
We have had to find ways to survive not only physically, but existentially and emotionally. We can't always lock ourselves inside.
Buried back in the mists of time we, Jews, found a way to respond to this kind of threat, this shadow that seems to hang over our lives from one generation to another.
They called it Purim.

It's a day of telling the story,
But a day of laughter, chaotic celebration, masquerades and release from the fear - it's even a day of drinking.
There is a time for everything.

So come, join us tomorrow night as we tell the story and laugh and release the tension this threat proposes.
Serious times demand serious responses. We'll get that, I'm sure.
But for one night, let's laugh and drink and celebrate our faith that we are - even in our love of peace, in fact particularly because of our love of peace - stronger than those who hate us,

Purim Sameach,

Rabbi Jeremy

5:30                     Families and Kids' activities
6:30                     Megillah Reading for all
Followed by       Persian Buffet, Schmooze

More info here

Friday, 11 March 2016

On Disagreement

I'm teaching on disagreement at the Shul this Shabbat.
All welcome.

Sources are here

And some lovely sources they are too.

What I am not going to try to post is this stunning piece from Likkeutei Moharan, Reb Nachman.
I think it is utterly stunning.
It's a little technical, designed for those with a background in Rabbinics and a soul able to handle Hasidic exegesis, but stunning.

Hope you enjoy it

Likutei Mohoran 64:4

And know that machloket is the behina  of the creation of the world, for the essence of the creation of the world is by means of the vacated void (as is mentioned above), for without this everything would be ain sof, and there would be no place for the creation of the world. Therefore [God] made a tzimtzum to the sides and made the vacated space, and in that place [God] created all of creation. These are the days of hamadot, by means of speech, as mentioned above – by means of the speech of the Divine were the Heavens made – and this is also the behina of machloket, for if every talmid hacham was ached there would have been no space for the creation of the world.
Rather it is only by means of the machloket between them – when they are disagreeing one with the other, and each one is pulling themselves to a different side, by means of this there made between them the behina of the vacated void which is the behina of the tzimtzum  of the light to the sides, for this is the creation of the world by means of speech as is mentioned above. For all the words that each of the speak, it is all for the sake of the creation of the world which is made by their hands from the vacated void that is between them. For talmidei hachamim create everything by means of speech, as it says (in a discussion in the Zohar on Isaiah 51) and say to Zion – you are my people [ami], do not read ‘ami’ rather ‘√≠mi’ – with me. Just as I create the heavens and the earth, with my words, so shall you. So too one should be careful not to speak too much, only what is necessary for the creation of the world and no more. For by means of the multiplication of the light – for the vessels were not able to suffer the multiplication of the light – they were shattered – and through the shattering of the vessels the husks gained life…

And this is the explanation of the Mishna, ‘All my days I grew up amongst the hachamim, and I found nothing better for the body than silence, and the exposition of something is not the essence, rather the action, and anyone who speaks too much will err.’
Between the hachamim – that is the behina of the vacated void that exists and is created between the hachamim by means of the disagreement and machloket which lies between them…For by means of machloket  the behina of the vacated void is created, and for the midst of the vacated void, the whole world is created…
All my days I grew that is my days and my middot – this is the behina of the creation of the world.
Between the hachamim – specifically the hachamim in the midst of the vacated space, for here is all the world created.
I grew – that is my days and my middot, from small to great.
and I found nothing better for the body than silencefor in the vacated void there is nothing better than silence, as is mentioned above, for it is forbidden to enter there, unless one is the behina of silence, which is the behina of Moses, (as is mentioned above). And this is nothing better than silence, for once a person grasps that behina – the behina of silence – as it says, there is nothing better than silence, therefore their days and middot  have grown there, in the vacated void. And this is
and the exposition of something is not the essence, rather the action for all the words and the explanations of these hachamim, their essence is not the explication alone, rather the action, for they make and create, by means of their words the world (as is mentioned above) – don’t read ami (my people) rather imi (with me). And so

And anyone who speaks too much will err – for the multiplication of the light gives life to the husks, (as is mentioned above).

Thursday, 10 March 2016

It's not About the Bird

A Hasidic tales tells the story of a beautiful bird who belonged to the King. The bird escapes and perches high on some unreachable tree branch. The people, in an attempt to recover the bird for their Monarch, begin to clamber on one another's shoulders, creating a human pyramid stretching towards the branch. But - just inches short of their goal - one of the people holding up the base of this pyramid gets a bit bored, or a bit uncomfortable, decides they can't be bothered any longer and wanders off. The carefully constructed pyramid totters, unbalances and collapses. The bird flies off.

The punchline is the real killer, 'and the King was saddened, because as much as he cared about the bird, what he really wanted to see was his people working together.'

There are exegetical rules for stories like this. The King is God, the people, are us. And the bird? ... It's hard to know, it's certainly not obvious. Maybe the point is that there is no corollary of the bird, doesn't really matter. The story isn't about the bird, it's about whether of not we can work together.

We are living in contentious times, Brexit v Brexin, Trump v Clinton, and everything else. Things also get contentious in our dear ol' Synagogue - if the role of women piece has been sticky, I've just finished teaching a three-parter on same-sex intimacy, commitment and sex (incidentally one of the classes is on-line here, another is coming on-line soon). I was at a meeting this week where a certain level of grumpiness surfaced about who's been asked to do this or that at one Shabbat service or another. All this contention is very suffocating. And it's not about the bird.

Perhaps the single greatest secret in Rabbinic Judaism is its commitment to a very particular style of argument, a style that makes space for otherness, difference. It's a style of disagreement that values the service of the King more highly than the capturing of the bird. And it's a style that operates in such a different way to the way most of us pursue our goals in almost every area of our lives, that it deserves sermonic attention. That's the plan for this Shabbat. If you feel at all in danger of suffocating in contention, come and join us. Because if we can realise it's not about the bird wonderful things become possible.

Shabbat shalom

Friday, 4 March 2016

All Work and No Play Makes ....

Here are the children of Israel, finally been given the instructions for the most important project of the 40 year wandering in the desert.

Build a sanctuary - a place for God's presence to dwell.

For the last three weeks we've been reading through the details; the architectural instructions, the designs for all the vessels and the vestments that will populate the sanctuary. We've even had the funding proposal, about which Lucas spoke so beautifully today.

And then, this week we get the process of construction - exactly how all these plans came to fruition. And sandwiched in the midst of all that comes an instruction about Shabbat

2 Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest to God - whoever works then shall be put to death.

Shabbat is at the heart of Jewish observance, and there are some very lovely things we are called to do on Shabbat - special things - light special candles, eat special bread, enjoy special time together.

But Shabbat is also a collection of forbidden actions - called malachot - things you can't do.
So here's the question, why go into this now.
We were concentrating on something else, we had the instructions about the building of the sanctuary, and next we are going to build the sanctuary.
Why butt in with this information about Shabbat?

Rashi, the greatest of all Biblical commentators, suggests this juxtaposition comes to teach that the construction of the sanctuary doesn't take preference over the observance of Shabbat. Six days you build and on the seventh day you pause from your building and dedicate that day to God.

That's fair enough.
The Bible instructs us to do this, and to do that.
So we get an instruction that clarifies, when it's impossible to both this and that at the same time which takes priority.

But the Talmud goes far further, and Rashi makes the same point elsewhere. The Talmud suggests that the connection between the Shabbat and the sanctuary is more than a simple balancing out of priorities.
The Talmud teaches that the things prohibited on Shabbat are the very acts of work performed in the construction of the sanctuary.

There is a list of categories of work forbidden on Shabbat. They include building, hammering, creation of fire, stitching of cloth, working of leather - all absolutely integral to the construction of a sanctuary made out of cloth and leatherwork. And the fact that they are integral to building the sanctuary means that they are inimical to the observance of Shabbat.

The inability to have both at the same time isn't a co-incidence. It's not that you can't do both your French homework and your maths homework at the same time. It's that we have two competing paradigms of how live in this world.

It's like that famous silhouette of two black faces looking at one another that is at the same time a white vase. Shabbat is the counter to the sanctuary, the sanctuary is the negative of the Shabbat.
One is the process of getting stuck in, conquering, achieving, building.
The other is the process of stepping back, abstaining, paying homage to that which is more important than ourselves.

It's an interesting idea.
We are told to observance Shabbat as a mark of remembering that this world was created in six days, and God rested on the Seventh Day.
Nothing that we build, no matter how fancy or important is more important than that first act of creation and rest.
It's a powerful message for our time.
We are all so busy, all so busy building things - portfolios, bank balances, GCSE exam results.
We are all so busy trying to achieve, conquer, accumulate.
It's good to be reminded that nothing we build is more important than this basic act of homage.

There is a great tale of the dangers of getting too carried away with building way back in the Book of Genesis - the Tower of Babel.
The Rabbis suggest that the excitement around building a Tower so tall that it's head could reach the heavens, was deeply destructive.
There were so many people building, and the Tower was so high that, teach the Rabbis when a person involved in the building project fell off the scaffold they instant had a replacement ready to step into their place, but when a brick fell off the builders mourned the loss of such a valuable raw material.

It's a great Midrash.
And one so relevant for our times.
Every now and again there's a story of I-pad workers committing suicide resulting from the pace at which they are expected to work.
Or the miners of precious metals who are dying to bring us the rare-earths we all take for granted in our smartphone-batteries and low-energy light-bulbs.
All we do is grumble at the cost of LED bulbs, the death of the producers of these raw materials concerns us not at all.

If we pursue work to the exclusion of all else we lose sight of the dangers of the over-extraction of the earth's resources. We lose sight of the dangerous of the over-extraction of our own resources. I had this experience on sabbatical. It was only when I stopped that I realised how depleted I had become.

It is only in the pausing from the acts of business, construction and accumulation that we realise how much we enslave ourselves to modern-day Pharaohs who call on us to produce more and more with less and less regard for what and who gets hurt in the process.

Here is the uncomfortable truth for any of us who might, at this point, be thinking how terrible their bosses at work, or parents at home might be for treating us like slaves chained to seven day a week construction details. Don't point the finger at anyone else. We enslave ourselves to a far greater degree than we are enslaved by any outside force. We persuade ourselves that our current job or project is just too important to stop and reflect. If we wanted to pause we could pause. If we wanted to give ourselves the possibilities of reflection we could give ourselves the possibilities of reflection. It takes a little organisation, a little planning. But it's possible. The alternative is we become voluntary slaves stripping ourselves and the world we live in of their vitality and possibility.

It's got something to do with humility. Whatever this project is that we are embarked on, it's not that important. It really isn't. If you are in the business of saving a life - go ahead, that's fine, you can do that on Shabbat. But if you are in the business of some merger and acquisition, or GCSE coursework we should take a moment to remind ourselves that our attempts to accumulate and conquer aren't the be all and end all of the world. Even a project as mighty as the construction of the sanctuary could afford to stop. Actually it might even be that we can become more productive if we got off the hamster wheel once in a while and thought about why we do what we do and how we get to live the life we wish for ourselves.

I wonder if there is anything we can learn from the world of physiology. Apparently if you stress and re-stress and re-stress a muscle continually it doesn't get stronger. In fact a muscle placed under continual stress will start to cramp, cause pain, atrophy - waste away - even. Apparently the smart thing to do with muscles is stress, then relax, work, then rest. And that's how we get stronger muscles. I don't think our souls, the emotional side of our lives are any different.

But the aim of this process isn't just to be more effective producers of stuff in the six days a week we are working. This is my greatest teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel giving a tip to the young of his day in a television interview recorded shortly before his death in 1972;

            Above all [taught Heschel] remember that the meaning of life it to build a life as if it were a            work of art. You are not a machine. And you are young. Start working on this great work of           art called your own existence.

Are we living our lives as if we are creating a work of art, or are we some modern kind of pre-Victorian donkey chained to a yoke, dragging a stone round and round the threshing floor producing wheat, eating straw and destined for nothing more?

            Start working on this great work of art called your own existence.

Shabbat is how we get to turn our lives into works of art; joyous moments of celebration of what it means to be alive, free from slaver - even our self-imposed slavery, abstaining from the day-to-day work of building, accumulating ever more, taking care of our basic physical needs.

So how do we do it.
The temptations of building a sanctuary aren't, I suspect, going to call too greatly on any of us when we get home from Shul this afternoon.

But try these very contemporary opportunities to step back from the world of stuff, opportunities to step into the world of a life free of the tugs of the get-more get-more society.

First off, don't spend money. Shut the purse, leave the wallet. Buy nothing between now and the time the stars come out this evening - just after 6:30 tonight.
You won't starve - if you really have nothing in the fridge, stock up well at Kiddush. But you can make it without purchasing anything extra to add to your collection of stuff. And you'll save some money.

Next, the phone, oh I know, felt so great when we first got one. All the worlds of opportunity opened up before us, now enslaved to the little blue screen. On the tube's banks of heads down - physiotherapists treating curved over spines and over-stressed thumbs. Try for the rest of the day to communicate off-line, in the real world, to real people.
Wonderful blog - hands-free mama. Notion that if trying to parent while carrying a phone you aren't really being a parent. Dad's are guilty too. I'm guilty too, but not on Shabbat. no phones. Real encounters with real people.

And one more, demarcate.
Wait till there are three stars in the sky and make explicit that you are leaving this glorious world of Shabbat - until next week - and preparing to enter a very different world, that all too familiar world of business and accumulation.
There is a Hebrew blessing
Blessed are you God who made a difference between the  sacred and the humdrum.
In fact there is a whole ritual with candles and spices, it's called Havdalah - I love it - but that can wait for a week.
This week just stop to demarcate the difference between the holy and the humdrum.

No matter how important your project.
No matter how used you are to permanently chasing after the stuff of the world.

Take the rest of the day to stop spending, stop playing with the phone, and then demarcate the re-entry into the world of the humrum.

In so doing remind yourself that not even building the sanctuary took precedence over the honouring of the Shabbat.
In so doing heed Heschel's words,

            remember that the meaning of life it to build a life as if it were a work of art. You are                      not a machine. And you are young. Start working on this great work of art called your own             existence.

In so doing have a sweet sabbath of peace,
Shabbat shalom

In the Beginning

The Biblical journey begins with the relationship between what can be done and what should be done.
"There is so much that you can do," says God to our primordial couple. "Just don't do everything that you can do."
Adam and Eve fail. They take the thing they should not have taken. And so we begin.
In many ways religion is and always has been the moderator between that which is possible, for humanity, and that which we should do.

Fast forward to the very cutting edge of contemporary society, and creation of life has a very different valence. Lives are created in test-tubes; increasingly constructed out of synthesised this and modified that. The realm of the possible has expanded beyond the imagination of ancient framers of effective limits on the possible, or has it?

This Sunday, 6th March, I will be in conversation with two of this country's leading experts on the origins of life - the possibilities of creation, Baroness Deech is one of our foremost ethicists, a former chair of the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority. Professor Baum is one of our foremost scientists working on 'microfabrication' and the ' evolution of eukaryotic cell shape.'

This is the winter Quest lecture of the Synagogue, our keynote opportunity to engage in the vision and the relevance of the community. It's an important occasion and it should be fascinating and fun too.

You can book here and I look forward to seeing you then (7:30pm Sunday, you can even come if you haven't booked in advance!)
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