Parashat Noach: We will not be silent: renewing the work of creation

Parashat Noach

Ten generations from the Creation of the first human beings the earth is corrupted, violent and vile.

וַתִּשָּׁחֵ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ חָמָֽס׃

וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְהִנֵּ֣ה נִשְׁחָ֑תָה כִּֽי־הִשְׁחִ֧ית כׇּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר אֶת־דַּרְכּ֖וֹ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ קֵ֤ץ כׇּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃  {ס} 

The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness.  When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth, God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.

In three verses (Genesis 6:11-13) the narrative drives home the problem – human beings have damaged their environment irredeemably. Ha’aretz “the earth” is mentioned six times, each time with the connection that it is corrupted  – from the root שָׁחַת  meaning spoiled, destroyed, corrupted, decayed….

God doesn’t directly reference the corruption of the people – it is the earth which is expressing the consequences of human action and inaction, the earth which is acting out the full horror of what humanity has become. And it is on the earth that the full punishment will be felt, as the floods rise and the rain falls, the waters that surround the land which were divided above and below at the time of creation return to their place, and no land will be seen for 150 days and nights.

The intertwining of people and land is complete. What one does affects the other, yet we also know that the land is used again and again in bible to be the metric against which ethical behaviour is measured – and should we not follow God’s requirements we will be unceremoniously evicted from the land for which we have stewardship.

When God decides to end the corruption on the earth God speaks to Noach. God tells him – all flesh will be ended because it is the action of humanity that has brought this unspeakable destruction about, and God is about to end creation – both people and land must be ended.

And Noach says – well, interesting Noach says nothing. Indeed, we have no record in any of the narrative of Noach speaking. Not to God, not to his family, not to humankind. His silence is a cold core at the heart of the story.  Noach doesn’t react, doesn’t warn, doesn’t plead or beg or educate or protest….

Instead Noach builds the boat, collects the animals and their food as God has commanded him, floats in a sea of destruction as everything around him drowns. And when eventually the dry land appears and they are all able to disembark, still Noach doesn’t speak. He builds and altar and sacrifices to God. He plants a vineyard and makes wine and gets drunk, and only then does Noach speak – he speaks to curse his son who had shamed him while he slept off his drunkenness. (Oddly while it was his son Ham who had seen him in this state, Noach actually curses Canaan, the son of Ham.)

He breaks this long long silence for what? To curse so that one group of society will be oppressed by another. He has essentially learned nothing.

We read the story every year. Every year Torah is reminding us – it just took ten generations to completely spoil the creation of our world. We read it and yet we don’t notice it. Instead we focus on the rainbow, the promise from God not to destroy us again by flood. We have turned it into a children’s story decorated with colourful pictures of rainbows and cheerful animals on an artfully dilapidated boat.

We don’t pay attention to the silence of Noach, which mirrors our own silence. We too don’t protest or change our behaviours or warn or educate, we too just doggedly get on with our lives. We don’t pay attention to the way that nature rises up to right itself, the planet ridding itself of the dirt and destruction humanity has visited upon it. We don’t pay attention to the drunkenness of the man who cannot cope with what he has seen, nor the warnings which echo when he finally speaks – to curse the future.

Noach is the quintessential antihero. There is nothing much we can see in him to learn from or to emulate. Yet his story can teach us a great deal. First and foremost it teaches us that abusing the earth will bring devastating consequences to all who live on this planet, and to the planet itself. We learn that the earth is fragile and complex interdependent system, that it does not take long – ten generations – to corrupt and seriously damage it. We learn that the way to avert this is not only to change our behaviour but also to engage with each other and support each other in changing how we treat our world, silence and focus only on self-preservation will not bring a good outcome for anyone. We learn that the trauma of survival in such circumstances will mark the generations to come.

Bible tells us that God repents having made human beings on the earth. (Genesis 6:6) and so brings about the flood. It tells us that God wearily understands that “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21) after Noach has made his sacrifice having survived and returned to dry land. Much is made of God’s covenant not to bring total destruction by flood ever again – the symbol for the promise being the rainbow that appears in the sky – but this is not an open promise to the world that we will not bring about our own destruction, merely a divine understanding that perfection will never be part of the human project.

A perfect world is beyond our grasp, but that should not stop us grasping for a world which is healthy and healing, nurtured and nurturing, diverse and complex and continuing to evolve.

In the yotzer prayer, one of the two blessings before the shema in the shacharit (morning) service, is the phrase    “uvtuvo me’chadesh bechol yom tamid ma’aseh bereishit”

In [God’s] goodness God renews the work of creation every day.

Creation is not static, it is a constantly emerging phenomenon. Our tradition makes us partners with God in nurturing the environment we live in. If  God is said to give us a new possibility each day to make our world a better place, then unlike Noach we must grasp the challenge and work hard to clean up our world, and so avoid the inevitable consequences of just looking after ourselves and keeping silent.

Bereishit – the roots of social justice are entwined with our creation as human beings

And the Eternal God said, behold, the human being is become like one of us, to be able to know good and evil (Gen 3:22)

ֶוַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, הֵן הָאָדָם הָיָה כְּאַחַד מִמֶּנּוּ, לָדַעַת, טוֹב וָרָע;

What had been an ability reserved for divinity, to know and differentiate good and evil, to understand morality and make ethical decisions, has now become a human capacity. We can no longer exist in a state of ethical indifference to the world – we cannot claim we do not understand the consequences of our actions.

The Italian rabbi  and biblical commentator Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno (died Bologna 1550) wrote an extraordinary comment on this verse. He read the latter half of the verse as meaning that humanity will know good and evil while continuing to “wear our image”, an intolerable situation because of the human tendency to give in to the yetzer ha’ra, the inclination towards material rather than spiritual imperatives.

For Sforno the problem was that the human being, in favouring their yetzer hara, would not then reach the spiritual level set out for them when God first created them in the image of the divine, but I read his comment slightly differently. While protected and camouflaged because they were wearing the clothing of being created in the image of God, human beings would continue to choose selfishly intentionally. They would bring into disrepute the name and the meaning of being a religious person, they would disgrace and dishonour the values taught by religious traditions, because they would use it for their own purposes and to fulfil their own needs.

I cannot help thinking of how often in our world people wear the clothing of integrity while simultaneously denigrating and demeaning it. Of the police officer who used his warrant card to kidnap, rape and murder a young woman walking home, and all the other stories that are emerging as women tell their stories. Of the politicians who flaunt the national flag in their interviews as if they are defending the values of our nations. Of the despots who rule in the name of “the people” and divide communities by disparaging some imagined “elite”. Of the clergy and the educators and the employers who have historically abused their power and abused those in their power. Of the “nationalists” who foment hatred against outsiders and people in need. The list seems endless right now.

Moral authority  must be much more than clothing we can take on or take off. And much more than the roles we inhabit professionally. It must come from within, be ingrained in how we choose to behave whether “in role” or not, our actions informed by it whether we can be seen or whether we are in private.

Judaism is very clear that each of us is responsible for our own actions. God has given us a pure soul for which we thank God every morning in the “elohai neshama” prayer. It is for each of us to take care of that gift, to be aware of what might taint it and how we can make reparations and teshuvah in order to keep ourselves in good order. No one else can act as intermediary or offer absolution – we have to do the work ourselves.

 But Judaism is also interested in our responsibility for others and for our world. In this week’s sidra the first murder, the fratricide of Abel by Cain, is recorded. And God asks Cain the same question that God asked Eve – “What have you done? (Mah zot aseet/ mah aseeta?”. Eve tries to pass the blame onto the serpent who is then cursed among all the animals, (Genesis 3:13ff) but Cain’s denial of responsibility is far more chilling, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and it leads to him being cursed from the very earth of which he is made, as God says “the bloods of your brother cry out to me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10).

We cannot read this sidra without being very clear that the actions of one can impinge upon another. We cannot see God’s responses to our actions as being anything other than a repeated demand that we act ethically and morally, in the interest of the community rather than pursue our own desires. We see that God doesn’t ignore or deny the wrongdoing even if we might try to do so, to mitigate, to explain away, to obfuscate to ourselves or to others.

Each of us has the gift of moral discernment. We know the difference between right and wrong; we can identify even in the most complex situations what we should be doing, even if we choose not to do so. Each of us has the gift of a pure soul, every morning we are reminded in our prayers that the condition of our moral being is our own responsibility.  Each of us is also tasked with the welfare and well-being of our own communities, of giving a gentle “tochecha”(rebuke/honest feedback/helpful criticism) when we see someone whose behaviour is not in line with ethical imperatives.  We are indeed “our brother’s keeper”

In this very first sidra of the yearly cycle, we see the roots of social justice established as part of the agreement between God and humanity. We see how each of us is given the ability to understand right and wrong, each of us is given the choice, the continuous and continuing choice, in how we decide to act. We see that none of us are isolated or insulated from each other, that the choices we make may have deep impact on the lives and wellbeing of others. That we have responsibility to and for each other.

So when we see people wearing the image of the divine while at the same time diminishing the presence of divine will in the world, we have to speak up. When we see people abusing their authority, abusing their power over others; when we see politicians gaslighting the electorate or waving the flag to cover their selfish and destructive behaviour, we have to stand up and speak out. When we hear the rhetoric of hate in the guise of patriotism, we must call it out, confront it and those who speak it.

If like Adam, Eve and the Serpent we just try to pass on the blame, or like Cain we deny that any blame might be attached, we are denying the humanity of the other and denying our own human obligation to support and care for others – our obligation to act in the image of God. If we add to that our wearing the clothing of integrity and moral authority while denying the obligations they entail, we are truly ignoring the lessons of this sidra, and we are adding insult to injury by not only choosing our yetzer ha’ra over our yetzer hatov, but masquerading, pretending that this is divinely sanctioned behaviour.

Hiding behind a professional role, clothing ourselves in terms of values while choosing to behave directly in contradiction to those values, whether it be a religious professional or a policeman, a politician charged with working to benefit the country or a regulator tasked with ensuring their organisation does what it is supposed to do – Sforno was right to be worried. If we traduce the divine image in which we are made while proclaiming our rights and our righteousness, the damage we can do is amplified beyond measure. And so society loses trust in educators and police, in politicians and regulators, in journalists and in clergy…

29th Elul – entering the year of release

29th Elul  6th September 2021

We are about to enter a shmitta year.

Every seventh year is the biblically mandated “sabbatical year”, what is called sometimes Shabbat la’aretz – the sabbath for the land. Shmitta means “release” and not only is the land released from its ongoing work of production and allowed to lie fallow, but also debts are forgiven, private agricultural land becomes open for people to glean what grows of itself, and there is a kind of community reset of economic and social justice.

Time exists in patterns and cycles in the biblical world. So we see that in the same way that humans will work for six days and then take a day of rest, the land must be worked for six years followed by a year of rest. There is another echo too – there are seven weeks – seven times seven days which will culminate in Shavuot on the 50th day– rabbinically interpreted as the time commemorating Matan Torah – Revelation at Sinai; and there is the cycle of seven times seven years, which will take us to the 50th year – the Jubilee – when society is reset, people return to their own land, slaves are freed etc.

There are three passages in Torah which establish shmitta:

Exodus 23:10-12

Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves. Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labour, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed.”  The passage is set between the command not to oppress strangers as we too were strangers, and the command to keep shabbat which emphasises the rest of the entire household, servants, strangers and animals alongside the family. Not, I think, a coincidence. The poor and marginalised are the focus, the animals and the ones without land or agency.

Then we have Leviticus 25:2-7 :

When you enter into the land that I assign you, the land shall observe a Sabbath of the Eternal. Six years you may sow your field, and six years you may prune your vineyard, and gather in the yield; but in the seventh year, the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Eternal God: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines. It shall be a year of complete rest for the land, but you may eat whatever the land will produce during its Sabbath—you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound labourers who live with you, and your cattle and the beasts on your land may eat all its yield.

And here the focus is on the wellbeing of the land which has its own needs, its own character to be cared for and recognised. Here people are not the owners or the exploiters of the land, but in a peer relationship with it.

The third passage is from Deuteronomy and adds an extra dimension – the remission of debts.

“Every seventh year, you shall practice remission of debts. This shall be the nature of the remission: every creditor shall remit the due that they claim from their fellow; They shall not exact payment from their fellow or kin, for the remission proclaimed is of the Eternal. You may exact payment from the foreigner, but you must remit whatever is due you from the kinsman…. If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kin in any of your settlements in the land that the Eternal your God is giving you, do not harden your heart or shut your hand against your needy kin. Rather, you must open your heart and lend them sufficient for whatever they need. Beware, lest you harbour the base thought, the seventh year, the year of remission is approaching, so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give them nothing. They will cry out to the Eternal against you, and you will incur guilt. Give to them readily, and have no regrets when you do so, for in turn, the Eternal your God will bless you in all your deeds and all your works. (Deut 15 1-10 redacted)

In his commentary “Shabbat Ha’Aretz”, Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in British Palestine, wrote of the shmitta year: “The Sabbatical year comes to correct the situation of inequality and societal rifts, by removing a major source of power of the elite: debts owed to them……….What the Sabbath achieves for the individual, the Shmitta achieves with regard to the nation as a whole.”

Every year we have the opportunity to consider and where necessary to reset the trajectory of our lives. Indeed we have the opportunity every day, but the yearly audit is baked into our internal calendars. And every seven years we are invited to think more deeply, to think beyond our own lives and our own time, and to connect to the condition of our world (though again, this is an invitation every day of our lives should we want to hear it). With its focus on the poor and marginalised, on the land, and on the resetting of debts and return to community equality, the Shmitta calls us to social and economic and ecological justice.

We are coming to the end of Elul – tomorrow we will hear the shofar call us back – back to ourselves, back to our values, back to God. We enter a period that will take us through the ten days of return and through Yom Kippur, all the while invited to contemplate what we are, what is our life, what is our purpose, what can we become, what can we let go of, what holds us back and what will help us to move forward.

The new moon of Tishri will soon be in the sky. As we enter the year of release, let’s release ourselves from old habits and old fears, and with Jewish communities all over the world, like Jewish communities for generations, take the first steps into a new year, a year of newness.

2nd Elul 5781 We can each do our share in making the world a better place.

2nd Elul 2021 10 August 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg sworn in United States Supreme Court

On this day in 1993 RBG was sworn in as the second woman – and the first Jewish woman – to serve on the US Supreme Court.

At the time she said “I am a judge born, raised, and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of the Jewish tradition. I hope, in my years on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, I will have the strength and the courage to remain constant in the service of that demand.”

Throughout her life and career, Justice Ginsburg fought against oppression and inequality. She is credited with transforming opportunities and livelihoods previously dictated by gender inequalities. She was influential on Civil Rights Law, and dismantled a network of laws which supported sex discrimination. Perhaps surprisingly, many of her landmark legal successes came while she was representing men. Ultimately, Justice Ginsberg was clear: gender inequality is harmful to everyone. 

She also said “Promoting active liberty does not mean allowing the majority to run roughshod over minorities. It calls for taking special care that all groups have a chance to fully participate in society and the political process.”

We can’t be RBG, but she was carrying on a legacy of justice that is our inheritance and obligation too. We may not be able to change or to create legislation, but in our own ways and our own worlds we can have the strength and courage to serve that command.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, asked to give advice to young people about how to fulfil that obligation said “Let them be sure that every deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can do our share to redeem the world despite all absurdities and all the frustration and all the disappointment.”

We can each do our share. Indeed, it is all that we can do. The only question is how we plan to do it.

Mishpatim – following God’s time and learning the lessons of God’s world

In amongst the diverse laws of Mishpatim, laws about slaves and murder, about kidnap and assault, about how to treat parents, damage to livestock, theft, seduction, damage to crops, sorcery, bestiality, idolatry, loans, treatment of the enemy in war, bribery etc. we have the statement

“Six years you shall sow your land, and gather in the abundance of it; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave, the beast of the field shall eat. Similarly you shall deal with your vineyard, and with your olive grove. (Ex 23:10-11)

 This instruction is repeated and expanded in Leviticus chapter 25, verses 1-7:

And the Eternal spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath for the Eternal. Six years shall you sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather its produce. But the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath for the Eternal; you shall not sow your field, nor prune your vineyard. That which grows by itself from your harvest, you shall not reap, and the grapes of your untended vine, you shall not gather [in quantity, as if to sell]; it shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. And the sabbath-produce of the land shall be for food for you: for you, and for your servant and for your maid, and for your hired servant and for the traveller who sojourns with you; and for your cattle, and for the wild beasts that are in your land, shall all the abundance be for food.”

And even more so in Deuteronomy:

At the end of every seven years you shall make a release. And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release that which he lent to his neighbour; he shall not exact it of his neighbour and his brother; because God’s release has been proclaimed…..If there be among you a needy person, one of your brethren, within any of your gates, in your land which the Eternal your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your needy fellow;) but you shall surely open your hand to them, and shall surely lend them sufficient for their need. Beware that there be not a base thought in your heart, saying: ‘The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand’; and your eye be evil against your needy fellow, and you do not give to they; and they cry out to the Eternal against you, and it be sin in you. You shall surely give to them, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give; because for this thing the Eternal your God will bless you in all your work, and in all of the works of your hands. For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, saying: ‘You shall surely open your hand unto your poor and needy fellows, in your land. If your fellow, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold to you, they shall serve you six years; and in the seventh year you shalt let them go free. And when you let them go free, you shall not let them go empty; you shall furnish them liberally out from your flock, and your threshing-floor, and your winepress; of that which the Eternal your God has blessed you, shall you give to them. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Eternal your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this thing to-day.’ (15:1-2, 7-15)

 The concept of a sabbatical year, a year when the land is not worked, planted or harvested, but instead allowed to lie fallow, and any produce that grows despite the lack of planting or maintenance is available to anyone, is a biblical innovation that promotes three different social “goods” – allowing the land to lie fallow and recuperate, setting free the Jew who had sold themselves into bonded labour, and the annulment of debts which, if allowed to grow unfettered, would prevent a family ever  leaving poverty.

(The Jubilee, after every seven cycles of sabbatical years, had the added feature of returning any hereditary land and property to their original ownership or their descendants).

The rest for the land is not only about recuperation and restoration – the bible tells us that the consequence for not observing the sabbatical year is exile.  So clearly this is more than an agricultural technique co-opted into a ritual observance – there is further learning to be gained from this mitzvah. What does the enforced rest from working the land do to make our failure to comply mean we are punished so severely?

When we added to the other factors specific to the sabbatical year – those of freeing slaves and annulling debts – it seems that the common theme is to remind us that “ownership” is a fragile phenomenon; that we cannot presume to do what we like with what we own because the ultimate owners are not us. We are simply the stewards, the possessors of the usufruct, holding it on temporary loan and required to return it in good condition.

In the shemittah year, the landowner and the landless are made equal. Both must search for their food – and this mitzvah is not a brief event. For a full year the rights of the landowner and the rights of the landless are the same. For a full year the land is allowed to rest. All people and all animals are able to eat from the produce that grows without help – fruits from the trees, any crop that had self-seeded, any perennial vegetable.

Living like this for a year must reset so many societal assumptions.  Not only is private ownership suddenly not a given, the land cannot in this year be locked away from others – they must have access to glean what food they can. The land itself is expected to rest – something we rarely ask today of our earth, instead we fertilize and spray and burn and rotate in order to get something more from the land. But in the biblical shemittah year the land is like a person, getting its own Shabbat.  In the cycle required by God, six days of labour followed by a day of rest; six years of the landowner sowing and harvesting followed by a full year of “hefker”, of the produce of the land being available to all – we are reminded that we live to a different expectation, we live to a divine expectation.

 

 

Behar: to treat with respect is the essence of holiness

The bible is very clear – everything we have belongs to God and is at best ‘on loan’ to us. And we have to treat it properly and with respect. Even the land must be allowed to rest, rather than be worked to produce more and more. Besides giving the land a chance to return to a good condition, the sabbatical year also meant that all people, whether they were rich or poor, would find themselves dependant on what the land produced naturally, as all of them would have to collect and gather the food that was there, rather than the usual experience of the richer ones harvesting a good amount and leaving a proportion in the field for the poor to glean. This would have been a transformational experience in that the ones who always had food would become aware of the conditions the poor faced all the time, and one imagines that the bible hoped this learning would motivate them to help support the needy.

Leviticus is a book that is primarily about the ritual system and how holiness is created, and reading some of the narrative here we become aware of the agenda of social justice that is threaded through it, how the world cannot be made perfect if justice is not available for all. Even during the shemitta year, the year when the land is to rest and recuperate, the obligation for tzedakah for the poor continues – in other words just because you are tightening your belts, you don’t forget the needs of others who rely on the help they get from society in order to survive.

Everything we have belongs to God and is, at best, on loan to us. When we harvest the land we leave food for the poor. When we help a fellow human being who is in financial difficulties we give them their dignity and are not to charge interest on any loan we give. The laws remind us that even the money we have is not ours to use as we please. It is a conditional loan, to be partially used for the benefit of others.

As we look into an uncertain future where politically, socially, financially we know that times will be tough and we will almost certainly feel ourselves to have lost some of the security we felt in earlier times, the message that comes through this part of Leviticus could comfort us a little – and could teach us a lot. We must – even now -continue our obligation to a just society where the gap between rich and poor must be actively narrowed (if not removed) on a regular basis. We must – even now – continue our commitment to tzedakah, to the dignity of our fellow human beings, and to our land. And if we maintain our understanding that each of us has a part to play in bettering the world, and that sometimes that process requires us to start again in a different way, then even now when following news sites may leave us feeling impotent angry and depressed, we can stop, take stock, and get on with helping to create a healthier and holier world.

 

 

Chanukah Readings: It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness

Bible tells us that the first thing that God did having created the heavens and the earth was to utter the words “Let there be light”, and there was light. God saw the light was good, and God divided the light from the darkness, and so began the ordering of a world which would ultimately sustain and nourish humanity, and they in turn would work with God to continue the process of perfecting creation.

Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights, comes to remind us of the need to continue that work, even though it might sometimes seem that the darkness is all enveloping, and the world has reverted to the state of primordial chaos filled with terrifying uncontrolled forces that is contained in the phrase “tohu va’vohu”

Just as light was the catalyst for the world to develop into a place where we could live and thrive, so too light is the response we must make when faced with a darkening world. Just as bible commands that a light was to be continually burning in the tent of meeting outside the veil of testimony, and the priesthood had to tend to it evening and morning in order to keep it in good order as an eternal statute for the generations, (Exodus 27:20 and Lev 24:2) so too we need our ner tamid, our continually tended and burning light, to remind us not only of God’s compassionate and watchful presence in the world, but also of our obligation to bring God’s presence further into the world. As the book of Proverbs tells us,” Ki ner mitzvah, v’torah or : the commandment is a lamp and torah is light” – to act as God wishes us to act brings light into our world. (6:23)

Chanukah, like all festivals of light, comes in the winter darkness to remind us that the glow of even a small candle can alleviate the deep darkness, and as the Talmud reminds us “the candle of one person can bring light to many people” (Shabbat 122a)

There are many small candles lit in the world, many people doing good work in creative and imaginative ways, tending to the ner tamid, keeping the light of hope alive. Our High Holy Day confession includes the phrase “Al cheit she’chatanu lefanecha b’tim’hon ley’vav – For the sin we have committed before you by giving in to despair” and I must confess that each time I read the news of what is happening in the world, the way so many people are terrorised and terrified, violently murdered or imprisoned or forced to live hand to mouth, treated without compassion or empathy, uprooted and fleeing for their lives or stuck in a societal stratum below any human dignity, I give in, for a while, to despair. And when I see how governments oppress and harass their own people whom they are supposed to protect and support, close their eyes to the pain of their public and to the social justice values of civil society I succumb to frustration and fury that “they” are misusing their power so freely, unchallenged and unrestrained. And I come close to despair.

But then I remember those many people and organisations, those many small candles lit and tended to, which challenge the dejection and despondency and allow me to hope, to connect, to believe that the prophetic values of the Hebrew bible are not only alive and well, but are fighting back hard to be heard and to be seen, to bring light back into the world

So here are eight organisations of civil society in Israel who bring me hope. Eight organisations in whose light we see God’s light, who speak out for justice because, like Rav Kook, they do not have the power to keep silent. One for each of the nights of Chanukah: as you light the small flame of each candle, remember the words of Isaiah “I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. These things will I do for them, and not forsake them.” (42:16)

 

First Night of Chanukah:   Tag Meir – The Tag of Light

Founded in Jerusalem in 2011 in response to Tag Mechir (price tag), this is the largest grassroots organisation in Israel that works against hate crime and religious racism in Israel. Transcending religious divides, Tag Meir is an umbrella organisation for a coalition of groups who support and campaign for democratic and Jewish value of justice for all the people. It protests violence and responds to victims of violence. Tag Meir’s mission is to connect different groups in Israeli society in the battle to eradicate racism and violence, and to educate for tolerance and empathy, as well as creating public events to raise and amplify the voice of those committed to democratic values. They offer Israelis the chance to voice their opposition to violence, to publicise it to all who need to hear, from Government to the victims themselves. They hold demonstrations and vigils, they pay condolence calls to victims of terror, they repaint over racist graffiti, they offer material support to religious places defaced. They meet with politicians and decision makers to end incitement and inflammatory rhetoric. Their motto : Or Bimkom Terror – Light instead of terror.http://www.tagmeiren.media-sb.co.il/

 

tag meir

Second night of Chanukah :   The Sir Charles Clore Jewish-Arab Community Centre in Akko

The vision and life’s work of Mohammed Fahili, this is the only Jewish- Arab Community Centre in Israel. It began in 1985 as a simple after-school club run by volunteers and located in the communal bomb shelter of a poor neighbourhood, this was part of an effort by the local Jewish and Arab residents to improve their living environment.  In 1991 the Clore Israel Foundation funded the construction of a purpose-built community centre.

The Centre’s aim is to provide high-quality, low-cost activities for Akko’s residents regardless of ethnicity or ability to pay. It functions as an important part of the community, offering enrichment programmes from infants to pensioners, allowing the people of Akko to meet over shared interests and needs, informally connecting people and building strong relationships. Many of the children that they cater for are from large, poor families and are vulnerable to the dangers of street life.  They help combat school drop-out by offering extra-curricular activities and programmes, nurturing Akko’s children to help them achieve a future. They also offer vital programmes for women and a cultural club for pensioners from the Former Soviet Union.

The Centre is an independent, voluntarily funded, not-for-profit, non-political and unaffiliated organisation.  It is funded almost entirely by voluntary donations from people who believe in the importance of their work in creating a better future in the region.

 

Fahili himself is an inspiration a candle in a dark room. With courage, humility and perseverance he has created an oasis of hope, a meeting place, a model for how Israeli society can be. http://ajcenter.org.il/

fahili

 

 

Third night of Chanukah:  Hiddush For Religious Freedom and Equality

Founded in 2009, Hiddush works through advocacy and public education to strengthen Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Taking as its platform the 1948 Declaration of Independence, which states “”The State of Israel … will ensure complete equality of social and political rights of all its inhabitants irrespective of religion … it will guarantee freedom of religion and conscience” Hiddush is a partnership between Israeli Jews and World Jewry to ensure that this guarantee remains at the centre of the Israeli Government’s policy.
www.hiddush.org

 

 

Fourth Night of Chanukah:  YTheater Project Jerusalem

Founded in September 2009 in Jerusalem, this is the Israeli-Palestinian Community Theatre for a Change. YTheater engages Israelis and Palestinians together in a creative process of empowerment and responsibility. Using activist community theatre methods, it builds relationships, nurtures civic virtues, and helps the participants to work together strategically. YTheater runs workshops for Jewish, Arab, and Anglo youth and young adults to empower leadership.

 

“We are Palestinians and Israelis. Our lives and world-views usually exclude one another. We agree about almost nothing.   We are positioned in opposition. Our souls are on the line. We burn with the passion of the Middle East. We grope for new pathways – to break through impasses, to un-lock the grid of violence, and to mend what is broken. Creating theatre is our shared language; the stage is our meeting point. We are Muslims, Jews, Christians and Druze who collaborate. We struggle, we do not whitewash. We face difference and difficulty with caring and respect. Awe for life feeds our commitment to persevere, to create, to pry open our own hearts and the hearts of our audiences and participants. YTheater Project Jerusalem explores, interprets and innovates. We delve deeply into our behaviour, traditions, and societies.  We critique, provoke, and even, humbly, propose.In a region raw with conflict and pain, we rehearse for better life together. We are contributing to the infrastructure for better Palestinian and Israeli civil society.  YTheater builds relationships that heighten confidence and active will toward peace.”       Website    http://ytheater.org

 

 

Fifth night of Chanukah:        The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants

The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, founded in 1998, is Israel’s leading organization protecting the rights of refugees, migrant workers and victims of human trafficking. For over 15 years Hotline staff and volunteers have been visiting Israel’s immigration detention centres to monitor conditions, meet with detainees and provide paralegal intervention and legal representation. We represent some of the most vulnerable people in Israel and advocate for government policies consistent with a just, equal and democratic Israel.

By combining client advocacy with impact litigation, policy initiatives and public outreach, we aim to achieve broad-based, systematic improvements in policies and practices ensuring that the human rights of migrants in Israel are respected.

Their main activities are Crisis Intervention, Legal Action and Public Policy and Education.       Website http://hotline.org.il/en/about-us/

Sixth Night of Chanukah: The Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality

In 1997, a group of concerned Arab and Jewish residents of the Negev (the southern desert region of Israel) established the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality to provide a framework for Jewish-Arab collaborative efforts in the struggle for civil equality and the advancement of mutual tolerance and coexistence. The Forum, also known as “Dukium” in Hebrew, is unique in being the only Arab-Jewish organization established in the Negev that remains focused solely on the specific problems confronting the Negev.

The Forum’s activities and projects are based on the principle of Arab-Jewish cooperation and among their members are leaders of the Negev Arab community and academics. As a joint Jewish-Arab group we maintain a balance and equal partnership in the bodies of the organization as well as in the decision-making processes.

NCF is engaged in a wide range of grassroots activities. They have worked with community leaders in “unrecognized” Bedouin villages to deliver vital basic services to their communities. In the spirit of coexistence, Bedouin residents and Jewish volunteers work together to provide clean water, nursery schools, access roads and rubbish removal systems to over a dozen villages.

In collaboration with other NGOs, the NCF has filed legal petitions against discriminatory practices affecting Bedouin communities in the Negev. For example, as a result of a joint petition submitted to the Israeli Supreme Court in 2005, the government agreed to properly dispose of sewage flowing through Um Batin. Other petitions have led to the establishment of health clinics in ten unrecognized villages and to the prohibition of toxic crop spraying.   Website www.Dukium.org

Seventh Night of Chanukah:    Breaking the Silence

“Breaking the Silence is an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories. We endeavour to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis, and are engaged in the control of that population’s everyday life.

We collect and publish testimonies from soldiers who, like us, have served in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem since September 2000, and hold lectures, house meetings, and other public events which bring to light the reality in the Territories through the voice of former combatants. We also conduct tours in Hebron and the South Hebron Hills region, with the aim of giving the Israeli public access to the reality which exists minutes from their own homes, yet is rarely portrayed in the media.

Founded in March 2004 by a group of soldiers who served in Hebron, Breaking the Silence has since acquired a special standing in the eyes of the Israeli public and in the media, as it is unique in giving voice to the experience of soldiers. To date, the organization has collected testimonies from over a 1,000 soldiers who represent all strata of Israeli society and cover nearly all units that operate in the Territories.”

 

Eighth Night of Chanukah:        Shomrei Mishpat: Rabbis for Human Rights

“Founded in 1988, Rabbis for Human Rights is the only rabbinic voice in Israel that is explicitly dedicated to human rights. Representing over 100 Israeli rabbis and rabbinical students from different streams of Judaism, we derive our authority from our Jewish tradition and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our mission is to inform the Israeli public about human rights violations, and to pressure the State institutions to redress these injustices. In a time in which a nationalist and isolationist understanding of Jewish tradition is heard frequently and loudly, Rabbis for Human Rights give expression to the traditional Jewish responsibility for the safety and welfare of the stranger, the different and the weak, the convert, the widow and the orphan.

RHR works primarily in the following 4 fields:

Socioeconomic Justice Work in Israel:

Rights of the Poor: RHR focuses on raising awareness and lobbying the Knesset for better economic rights for impoverished Israelis at the national level. At the local level, our Rights Centre in Hadera helps hundreds of Jews and Arab citizens obtain socioeconomic rights that have been denied to them, and run empowerment and advocacy groups of local Arab and Jewish citizens  from the Hadera area who focus and advocate for policy changes of their choosing.

Rights to Public Housing: RHR provides legal representation for public housing tenants in Beit She’an, Beersheva, and Hadera whose housing does not meet their needs or who are facing eviction.

 

Human Rights Work in the Occupied Territories: For example the Olive Tree Campaign: RHR works year round with Palestinian farmers from several dozen villages in the Occupied Territories, to ensure that they can regularly access their agricultural lands, often denied to them because of their proximity to Israeli settlements.. During Tu B’shvat, we purchase and bring hundreds of Israeli and international volunteers together with Palestinians to plant some 2,500 olive trees in areas where settlers have cut, uprooted and/or burned trees in acts of vandalism and arson.

Challenging Land Confiscation in the Occupied Territories: RHR works to legally prevent or reverse the takeover of Palestinian lands in Area C, and ensure that Palestinian farmers can safely access those lands. We continually monitor the implementation of previous rulings on land access issues.

Promoting Human Rights Education in Israel: RHR works in 12 pre-military academies, exposing every year some 600 young Israelis to our human rights teachings based on our rabbinic interpretation of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. We believe that teaching human rights to young people who then continue onto their army service better equips them to deal humanely with the realities on the ground.

 

Human Rights Yeshivas: For more than a decade, RHR has been teaching about human rights and Judaism to Israeli university students. We currently run 2 human rights yeshivas, with a total of 40 participants. Students who participate in the program receive a stipend, and intern in a human rights or social change organization in order to understand more deeply the challenges facing Israeli society.”

 

RHR_logo_for-Site

 

LIGHTING THE CHANUKAH CANDLES: BLESSINGS

Candles are added to the Chanukiah from right to left but are lit from left to right.

(On the Shabbat of Chanukah, light the Chanukah lights first and only then the Shabbat candles)

Light the shamash first, then use it to kindle the rest of the Hanukkah lights. As you do, say or sing:

Baruch atah Adonai ,Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tsivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah   Blessed are You Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who makes us holy through doing the mitzvot, and commands us to light the lights of Chanukah.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, she-asah nissim la’avoteinu bayamim ha’hem Baz’man hazeh. Blessed are You Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who performed wondrous deeds for our ancestors in days of old at this season.

 

And on the first night only, add the blessing:

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, she’hecheyanu v’kiy’manu v’higianu laz’man hazeh.

Blessed are You Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this season.

 

As you light the other lights (or after you have finished lighting) recite the following:

Hanerot halalu anu madlikin / Al ha’te’shu’ot v’al ha-nissim v’al ha’nifla’ot, Sheh’aseeta la’avoteinu bayamim ha’hem biz’man hazeh/ Al y’dei kohaneh’cha ha’kedoshim; V’chol sh’monat Y’mei Chanukah Hanerot halalu kodesh hem, V’ein lanu reshut le’hishtameish ba’hen/ Ela lirotan bilvad, k’dei lehodot ul’haleil le’shimcha hagadol Al nisse’cha Ve’al niflotecha Ve’al yeshu’ote’cha.

We kindle these lights to commemorate the saving acts, miracles and wonders which You have performed for our ancestors, in those days at this time, through Your holy priests. Throughout the eight days of Chanukah, these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make use of them, but only to look at them, in order to offer thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles, for Your wonders and for Your saving acts.

 

Eight Other Readings about Light and Mitzvot

 

“We live in a dark time. In a world ravaged by war, prejudice, disease, and now, an economic crisis that will put hundreds of thousands of people at risk of suffering. We need to bring more light. And to bring the light, we need to become the Maccabees- a people of faith who believed that liberty is worth fighting for, that human dignity is worth fighting for, and that justice is worth fighting for.” (Rabbi Sid Schwarz)

 

 

“If you offer your compassion to the hungry and you feed the famished creatures, then your light will shine in the darkness and your gloom will be like noonday” Isaiah 58:10

 

“When you think about someone or something that inspires you, the expression with the word נֵר would be Ner Le-Raglav- נֵר לְרַגְּלָיו. Literally, the expression means “a candle by his leg” but the contextual English translation for this expression would be “guideline” or “guiding principle.” I would add to this the meaning of “someone that you can follow”,  as it appears in Psalm 119:105 “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path.” “נֵר-לְרַגְלִי דְבָרֶךָ; וְאוֹר לִנְתִיבָתִי.”

 

“According to the Created Worlds and Destroyed Worlds interpretation of the Bible, the passage in Genesis follows a major destruction of the world previous to our own. The light mentioned in Genesis 1:3 was a supernatural light that had the power to repair elements of the previously destroyed world. Day one of creation records the day when this supernatural light of repair was introduced into our current world. Day two records the start of the repair of the atmosphere and water. Day three describes the completion of the repair of the atmosphere and water and the repair of plant life. Day four describes the repair of the Earth’s relationship to the Sun, Moon, and stars. Day five describes the repair of marine life and winged creatures. Day six describes the repair of land animals and man.

 

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” (Isaiah 9:2)

 

But the path of the righteous is as the light of dawn, that shines more and more unto the perfect day. (Proverbs 4.18)

 

“The Holy One said to Israel “My children, since My light is your light and your light is My light, let us, you and I go and give light to Zion. Arise, give light, for your light has come (Isaiah 60:1)” (Pesikta de Rav Kahana 21:1)

 

The Launch of Tzelem at the Speaker’s Rooms 28th January 2015

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In the beautiful and opulent surroundings of the State Rooms of the Speaker’s Apartment in Westminster over 60 Rabbis and Cantors from the different Jewish streams in the UK came together to launch a new organisation: Tzelem- the Rabbinic  Voice for Social and Economic Justice in the UK.

Founded on the Jewish principle that we are all created in the image of God (b’tzelem Elohim), Tzelem builds on the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew bible which speaks of the vital importance that social and economic justice is available for everyone.  Jewish tradition has long advocated the rights of the marginal and the powerless, and our teachings are rich in texts calling for us to take part in asserting those rights, and standing up in the face of the powerful in order to achieve them.

It is the purpose of Tzelem to continue this tradition by critiquing the issues at the root of our society that keep the vulnerable and powerless exposed and helpless.  We aim to take action in order to change the structures that maintain the marginality of the weakest in society, and to change the way they are viewed.

Four Rabbis spoke from their own close experience of mental illness, child poverty, homelessness and immigration. It was a sobering experience made even more poignant in the surroundings in which we heard it, to be told that one in four children in Britain do not have adequate nutrition. It was painful to hear stories of the rapidly downward cycle into homelessness that left people without hope for the future, or so ill after exposure to the elements that their whole self fragmented. It was moving to see a colleague speak of his own struggle with bipolar disorder and the depression that accompanied it made all the more difficult because of the fear of stigma, disapproval and rejection.

 Rabbis and Cantors, like other clergy, see every strata of society and this is one of our strengths and one of the reasons we must be a driving force in contributing to a fairer society. Our texts and tradition demands it of us, and so does the lived experience of our role. We see what is often hidden from other members of society – the desperation, the poverty, the lack of hope, the pain and the willingness to ignore the weak and vulnerable in the busyness of life. Tzelem has come like a ray of hope into the worlds of many colleagues. We have watched other faith traditions step forward and demand justice and economic security for all members of our society and we spoke out as individuals each in our own milieu, but the creation of this platform with rabbis and cantors from across the spectrum of observance has given us energy and hope that our voice will be amplified, that together the voice of Judaism and its demands for justice for all will be heard in all the corners of the United Kingdom.

At our launch we reminded ourselves of what our tradition demands of us, and we reminded ourselves of the poverty and the pain that exist within the communities in which we live. We cannot stand by while the pain of our fellow human beings calls out to be addressed and ameliorated. As Hillel wrote two thousand years ago “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself then what am I? And if not now, when? (Avot 1:14)

For more on the texts of the launch and on Tzelem, see http://www.tzelem.uk/#!Launch-Resources/c14bu/7293522D-5710-49E6-BA0A-8E5986FA912A

shall your brethren go to war and you sit here? reflections on parashat mattot at my farewell service

“The tribes of Reuben and Gad approached Moses and the leadership saying ‘If we have found favour in your sight, let this land be given to your servants for a possession; do not bring us over the Jordan.’ And Moses said to the children of Gad and to the children of Reuben: ‘Shall your brethren go to the war, and shall you sit here?” 32:5,6

This question asked by Moses of the two cattle owning tribes is one that resonates so poignantly today. “Shall your brethren go to war, and shall you sit here?”

We have been watching anxiously as Israel has been slipping once more into war. And as we obsess over the news feeds and the reporting, the analysis and the social media links, we wonder about what is our role? how could we sit here while our fellow Jews are at war? And what is it that we should be doing?

In a skype conversation earlier this week with Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, we asked him to talk us through the very serious issues facing Israel that his organisation is engaged with and the list was long and depressing– serious economic poverty among many Israelis both Jewish and Arab , the problems of the asylum seekers and of the Bedouin in the Negev, the children who are traumatised by the stress of normal everyday living, the crisis of the unemployed and underemployed…. The reality is that while Israel is facing war, all the same problems are still there in her society, many of her people are insecure and vulnerable not just to the rockets coming over from Gaza and from the North but simply their place in society is not protected. He spoke of the work that RHR (known in Hebrew as shomrei mishpat, guardians of justice) has done not only in taking many cases to court in order to gain protection for people, but also in working with the government to mitigate some of the more draconian laws. He spoke with pride of the work done by Idit Lev to develop a policy to help the most underprivileged and of how Government was even beginning to work at funding it – only to say that now we don’t know what money there might still be, it may all have gone in the artillery into Gaza. We sat and listened to the analysis of all that must be addressed in Israeli civic society, conscious that when Israel is at war it is so easy to put these issues into the ‘pending’ file as the rockets being fired from both sides take centre stage in our attention.

He also spoke of the Jewish texts on self-defence, of the rodef, the pursuer, and the principles and laws that dictate the rules of self-defence, and of how we find a way through the tangle of feelings and thoughts that I guess most of us have been enmeshed in recently. Jewish law lays out a general principle of self-defence based on a Biblical case of a thief invading a private home at night (Ex. 22:1-2),: We read in tractate Sanhedrin “The Torah decreed, ‘If [the rodef] comes to kill you, kill him first’” (Sanhedrin 72a). But the rabbis also limit this principle extensively, recognizing the enormous danger of providing a legal way to bypass the judicial process and essentially allow murder. So rabbinic law provides that force must only be used if it will prevent a particular victim from being killed; such force must not be premeditated but rather a spontaneous act when life is in immediate danger ; and no more than enough force is to be used – in other words if you can achieve your objective without having to kill the rodef, then if you do so this principle will not defend you – you will still be liable for murder. Rabbinic law also clarifies explicitly that any self-defence in this case must not harm any innocent third-party. The verse: “Neither shall you stand idly by the blood of your neighbour” (M. Sanhedrin 8:7) is used to teach us that everyone who is aware in a situation must attempt to save innocent people from life-threatening danger.

The law of the rodef, the pursuer, is complex and problematic, and because it is based in biblical precedent, while it is bound by many rabbinic constraints it continues to live as a principle, both for our benefit in some circumstances and for a problematic approach to our realpolitik in others. But there is another kind of rodef we find in Mishnah – the rodef shalom. In Pirkei Avot we find that Hillel says “Be a student of Aaron, a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace (rodef shalom), a lover of people who brings them closer to Torah.”

What does it mean to be both a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace? One response from Rabbi Shmuel de Ozedah (16th century Tzfat, Land of Israel) suggests that the phrase ‘lover of peace’ refers to oneself and one’s immediate world, while the ‘pursuer of peace’ refers to the one who brings peace about between people. He writes “one needs first to love peace for oneself, and since it is a good thing in our own eyes and we love it for ourself, we will be drawn to go and bring peace about between others”

The concept of the rodef moves in a process from its earliest incarnation of avenging the death of blood relative to permitting us to defend ourselves – even if necessary pre-emptively – against attack, and further it is the structure within which we can create a more peaceful world.

So how are we to be to be a rodef shalom, the figure that Hillel exhorts us to be? In a 4th Century text (Avot d’Rabbi Natan) we find this explication: “The phrase teaches us that a person should be a pursuer of peace among people, between each and every one. If a person sits in their own place and is silent, how can they pursue peace among people, between each and every one?! Rather, one should go out from one’s own place and go searching in the world and pursue peace among people.”

And so it seems that we come full circle. Moses speaking to the tribes of Reuben and Gad asks “‘Shall your brethren go to the war, and shall you sit here?” The author of Avot d’Rabbi Natan challenges us that to pursue peace we have to go out from our own place and go searching into the world in order to bring peace about. And Rabbi Shmuel de Ozedah says “we need first to love peace for ourself, and since it is a good thing in our own eyes and we love it for ourself, we will be drawn to go and bring peace about between others”.

Sitting here and knowing that people we love and care for are potentially in danger, that the Land of Israel is once more at war, that many innocent people on both sides are becoming collateral damage rhr2is a painful and uncomfortable place.

Sitting here and watching the news on our various pieces of technology, we feel powerless and frightened, angry and misunderstood – and we desperately want peace. Across the world, many of us fasted this week on 17th Tammuz along with Muslims fasting for Ramadan – and then broke fast as two peoples together – as a way of making a statement that we want to have peace. (The hashtag on twitter was #hungryfor peace). Across the world many of us have sent supportive messages to family and friends, have signed petitions and donated money to organisations busy in building up relationships across the boundaries even while these relationships are under strain. But what else can we do?

It became clear to me this week just how conflicted I felt in my wanting to continue helping the social justice campaigns in Israel at a time when Israel is at war. Could we criticise an unjust situation perpetuated by Israel while she is facing such a serious time? Conversation with colleagues and friends here showed I was not alone in my anxiety, and it was interesting how the same conversation with colleagues and friends in Israel was different. They recognised the unease we feel in hutz la’aretz, the desire not to add to the criticism or the pressure. But they also recognised that we cannot sit quietly just because our brethren have gone to war – the critical issues of social justice do not go away, and to mask them because of the matzav, the emergency situation – is to abdicate our responsibility to our brethren.

So: to be a rodef for peace we need first to love peace for our own nation – including all the different groups who live within it, and then to go out to gain peace between Israel and her neighbours. To be a rodef for peace we need to agitate for the rights of all who live within Israel, as well as to drive dialogue and mediation between Israel and her enemies. And in that mode I tell you about this week’s events in Al Arakib, a Bedouin village in the Negev where despite the freezing of the Begin Prawer plan legislation until the Supreme Court decides the ownership of the land, the State is bypassing the judicial process and once again bulldozing this village, while the inhabitants who live in its only remaining secure structure, the cemetery, are fasting for Ramadan.

Can we stand by even though Israel is at war on its borders and its cities are vulnerable to missiles even though protected by the iron dome? I think we cannot, and I ask for you all to not stand by but to be rodfei shalom, people who agitate for peace. In the words of Isaiah 57:19 Shalom Shalom lerachot ul’karov amar Adonai שָׁלוֹם שָׁלוֹם לָרָחוֹק וְלַקָּרוֹב, אָמַר יְהוָה- Peace, peace, to the one that is far off and to him that is near, says the Eternal.

When Moses asks the two tribes ‘Shall your brethren go to the war, and shall you sit here?’ it is a rhetorical question. He is asking a number of things of them, and laying down some expectations. One of them is that they support their fellow Israelites as they fight for their land. One of them is that they don’t just sit comfortably and take no responsibility for their own community, and one of them, one which speaks deeply to me, is that we are one people, one community, regardless of all the differences of practise and of opinion that are so vehemently expressed wherever you look in the Jewish world. The Talmud reminds us (Shevuot 39a) Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh – all of Israel are responsible for each other. It comes in the context of sinning, where if one Jew sees another about to sin, they have the obligation to step in and prevent them. We have real responsibility for each other, and according to Jewish law that communal responsibility is an obligation. Working for the health of community and the well-being of everyone within it is a primary obligation from which much else of value follows.

I chose to work as a community rabbi because I believe in Judaism and I believe in community. I chose to work in South London for so many years because I see in this area a reflection of what I grew up with – a community that can overcome its differences and work together for shared principles and values, that takes its place in the world and that recognises the interconnectedness of our lives. I wrote in Kehillah about this, about the role of community in our lives and the need to nurture it and build it. I would like to finish with the words I ended that article with:

A Jewish community is more than a place for prayer, though that is at its heart. It is a place for gathering, for shared purpose, for organising support for each other as we all face life’s trials. It is a place of safety and for challenge, for learning and for teaching, for deepening our understanding about ourselves and enacting our life’s purpose.

For me as a Jew, as well as as a Rabbi, the building and nurturing of a community has been a source of energy and a source of comfort. And I know that the work will go on here. The words of Rabbi Tarfon speak in my mind “Lo Alecha ha’Melacha Ligmor, VeLo Atah Ben Chorin LeHibatel Mimena” We are not expected to finish the work, but neither are we free to desist from engaging with it.

So I wish for you to “gei gesundeheit” to go well with the continuing journey. And “Chazak ve’ematz”, be strong and of good courage as you enter the next chapter of community life.