Monday, 26 February 2018

Clothing and the Asylum Seeker Drop In Centre

This week we read Parashat tetzaveh - preoccupation with clothes, specifically the clothing of the priest.
sash headress  tunic  robe     ephod  breastplate
Of course clothing at the heart of the work of the Drop In centre.
Bags of it, arriving, sorting, distributing it.
And perhaps more importantly, more important in terms of how we relate to the destitute more generally.
Asylum seekers, of course, imposed destitution. Not allowed to work, receive a handout from my taxes, your taxes, but not really enough to lift above anything other than destitution.
Poor person on street - have you checked in yourself what makes you more or less likely to stop and say high, or hand out some food, or some cash. What is precisely the right level of destitution made visible in clothing that twangs our heartstrings?
Be absolutely clear, I do this.
Man, white bearded, standing outside the o2 at 7:40am on Thursday, faded and frayed hoodie zipped up against the cold, plastic bags around the shoes, belted with a length of string around his waist was an A4 sheet of paper, ‘Im hungry, please help.’ That twanged my desire to love the stranger in my midst. But the woman, sat on the cardboard sheet, kerchiefed head, hand outstretched with a piteous look on her face less so. Was it the clothing.
Reminded of one of my favourite tales

My first story is a tale told of Eliayhui Hanavi - Elijah the prophet,
Eliyahu appeared in a strange town just in time for the wedding of the daughter of the most wealthy man in the village. But he is traveling in disguise, no-one least of all the host of the wedding knows who he is.

Eliyahu arrives at the wedding dressed, well, how shall we say it, dressed like a tramp.
His shirt is worn and torn and filthy.
His pants are covered in patches
His pocket of the jacket is ripped.

The father takes one look at this bedraggled stranger and insists the tramp is shown to the door. No hospitality, not accepted.

So Eliyahu leaves, only to return but this time dressed as a prince.
The silk ruffle of his shirt lookes resplendent.
The crown on his head glistens in the candle light of the banqueting suite.
His suit, clearly made-to-measure, is styled after the very heights of fashion.
Peeking out from the sleeves of his jacket are cufflinks set with diamonds and sapphires.

The stranger, suitabely attired, is welcomed with grace and honour that would be due a Prince, seated at the top table and served the very finest food.
But Eliyahu takes the soup and dips his crown in it.
He takes the delicate mousse and rubs it into his fine shirt and then smears the main course all over the sleeves of his fine jacket.
The host looks at this mysterious stranger in surprise, unable to get a get a question past his tongue that now seems just too big for his mouth.
But, but ..

Eliyahu responds, ‘You see, it seems that all this respect was not paid to me, but to my clothes. So I thought it only fair that they, not I, should enjoy the menu.’
The twin message of the Eliyahu story are clear – clothes do not ‘maketh the man’ or the woman. But those of us who can afford to dress ourselves with a reasonable degree of splendour are too easily beguiled into thinking they do.
Too easy to allow ourselves to be beguiled by the clothes that people wear, especially too easy to think that other people don’t deserve our love because they are not dressed like us -
Not to say that clothes aren’t important, whole parasha.
sash headress  tunic  robe     ephod  brestplate
Actually I’ve seen all these.
Not on a priest, of course, but on a Meit, on a dead person.
One of the most powerful of all Jewish rituals Taharah and Tachrichim. A little dark, my apologies,
The dead body is undressed and covered with a large sheet to preserve modesty and say verses from Zekhariah

3:4): And [the angel of God] raised his voice and spoke to those standing before him, saying: “Remove the soiled garments from him”; and said to [the High Priest]   
“Behold, I have removed your iniquity from you, and I will clothe you in fine garments.”
And after a process of cleaning, all done with utmost consideration for the dignity of the deceased begin to clothe in Tachrichim.
Might look simple, indeed coarse linen, unfinished. Death isn’t a fancy business.
And by the way everyone - man and woman, sinner and Tzaddik alike, wears the same Tachrichim - everyone is equal before death.
But here’s the single most remarkable thing about this whole remarkable ritual.
As put on the Ktonet - headress
As put on the  tunic
As put on the belt
As finish
These are the garments of the holy service. Go to death dressed as the high Priest went to do holy service. Just not fancy, at all.
The honour and the dignity we would wish to endow our beloved departed is embodied in the ways we dress them.
If we care about someone we wish to dress them well.
It’s always been this way, when I say always I mean from the Garden of Eden.
When God expels Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, does something extraordinary - Kotonet Or - a garment of skin, or maybe a garden for the skin.
In Midrashic imagination this garment serves to keep Adam and Eve safe in the dangerous world they encounter outside the paradisical garden.
And fig leaves because they were ashamed. Because we feel ashamed if we can’t dress appropriately. And that kind of embarrassment drives us away from being able to leave a full, purposeful life.
Clothes to keep up safe, and clothes to prevent our shame.
It’s always been this way.
Talmud Sotah - how can you be godly, after all God is an all consuming fire. Don’t worry, says Rabbi Chana Bar Hanina in Tractate Sotah[1] just do the simple decent things God did. “Just as God clothes the naked, as it is written, 'And Adonai, God, made coats of skin for Adam and his wife'  (Genesis 3:21) so should you also clothe the naked.”
It’s definitely NOT the case that clothes are not important.
Especially if you don’t have clothing, the sort of clothing that keeps you safe and allows you a sense of dignity.
The Drop In takes place this Sunday. I don’t know if still looking for volunteers. And the clothes for this weekend are, I think, all bagged and sorted and ready to go.
But it’s going to be cold in the coming week. As we plan our Purim costumes it’s a good time to be aware of the blessing of having clothing - a blessing we are commanded to say every morning.
Baruch Atah … Malbish Arumim.
And it’s a good time to remember that God’s provision of clothing for the naked and the destitute of our day will only be made manifest if we make it manifest.
That’s the miracle of the work of the Drop In centre, a privilege to honour that work today,

Shabbat shalom

[1] 14b

Friday, 2 February 2018

Inside the Knesset

I am just back from an exceptional trip to Israel as part of the European Masorti Rabbinic Assembly. Aside from the chance to reconnect with colleagues from across Europe (France, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Sweden, Czech Republic ...), our trip was timed to coincide with the 40th Anniversary Celebrations of the Masorti Movement in Israel. And so we, and a bunch of other international Masorti types, found ourselves at the Knesset.

Over the course of several hours we met with Yesh Atid Chairman, and poll-leading candidate to be the next Prime Minister, Yair Lapid MK, head of the opposition Boojy Herzog MK, Chair of HaTnuah Tzipi Livni MK and Speaker of the Knesset, and senior Likkud politician, Yuli Edelstein MK. It was a tremendous privilege to be able to put matters of Masorti concern to such high ranking Israeli politicians.

Whether the presenting question was conversion recognition, government funding of ultra-orthodoxy to the exclusion of other branches of our faith or access to the Kottel, the real issue underlying so many of our questions was the relationship between Israel and her Diaspora. Leaders of the American Masorti Foundation - also represented - shared that it was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain traditionally hugely supportive Jews for Israel - indeed the same issue arose in the context of a question on the deportation of ‘infiltrators’ or ‘refugees’ from war-torn African States.

Yair Lapid talked about the importance of fighting religious coercion without fighting religion. He talked of the importance of not handing religion over to the ultraorthodox (“defrosting it for the holidays”). Boojy Herzog talked about the absence of values in a political world driven by the need for power to achieve anything and insisted that there is no conflict between being worldly and religious. Tzipi Livni talked about the importance of a Jewish State that allowed “each of us to express our Judaism in different ways.” Yuli Edelstein rejected any notion of a split between the Diaspora and Israel - citing data drawn from Birthright returnees - and the atmosphere in the room grew heated.

But the highlight was a meeting with newly elected MK Yael Cohen-Paran, a woman who came into politics through environmental activism and was invited onto Tzipi Livni’s HaTnuah list. Cohen-Paran is a proud Masorti Jew, a founder member of the Masorti Kehillah of Pardes Hannah. She came into our meeting room directly from a testy meeting of parliament on the deportation of refugees furious at the proposal tabled, ‘this isn’t the Israel I want to be part of, this isn’t the Israel I want for my children. What about “And you shall love the stranger”? It’s not moral, it’s not Jewish to forget our past.’

It was an extraordinary insight into the Israeli democratic process. There is so much more I could share, and will on another occasion. Anyone interested in these issues is warmly encouraged to sign up to a monthly bulletin from the Masorti Movement’s Pluralism Rights Watch - mail to go on their mailing list.

What I would like to share, on Shabbat, after the service is a look at some of the signs I saw around Jerusalem on my short trip. There are stories and insights I hope will prove interesting. I take a Rabbi’s version of holiday snaps, you are welcome to view them, during Kiddush.

Good to be back, Shabbat Shalom

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