Reflections on Ramadan and Interfaith Iftars

Reflections on Ramadan and Interfaith Iftars by Rabbi Jeff Berger

Ramadan UK 2019 occurred from 5 May to 4 June, and the fasts typically began as early as 3:00am and often went out after 9:00pm.

Now here’s a little bit of astronomy for you. A solar calendar has 365 1/4 days, the lunar one is roughly 354 1/3 days. While the Jewish calendar is solar-lunar in composure and adjusts so that Passover always falls during the spring, the Muslim one is only lunar. Thus, each year the start of Ramadan shifts by 11 days. Muslims over 18 years old will remember fasting in the middle of the English winter when dawn is close to 8:00am and sunset occurs around 4:00pm. Muslims also have a way of adjusting the time for breaking-the-fast in areas closer to the polar caps where sunset is delayed for long periods.

Occurring in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and involving fasting (sawm) from pre-dawn to dusk as well as much prayer and reflection, the month of Ramadan marks the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh).

For the devout, it offers an opportunity to read through Islamic Scripture, leading to a sense of spiritual purification. Muslims are encouraged to increase their financial giving (zakat), and all good deeds (taqwa) are amplified many times over.

Children above puberty are expected to fast during the month of Ramadan. Men and women refrain from marital relations. There are fasting exemptions for pregnant and nursing women as well as for the sick or the elderly. The fast ends each day with a meal known as Iftar.

At Mitzvah Day, most of our staff were invited to join an Iftar at least once last month. Whether it was a gathering like the one hosted by Naz Legacy in partnership with the Mayor of London, which began at St Pauls Cathedral with Bishop Sarah with the Iftar meal at Guildhall joined by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, or more local ones, like in Gospel Oak where the community is still coming to grips with a fatal knife crime that occurred in early April, the overwhelming sense a guest receives is a deep warmth and hospitality. The hosts went to great lengths to provide kosher food for Jewish visitors and to cater for all different dietary requirements, and the warmth of welcome and embrace overflowed.

Iftars are a bit like the New Year count down. People begin gathering an hour or so before the fast goes out, to either help set up the room or to hear speeches from the local Imam or community leaders explaining the aims of Ramadan and some of the tenets of Islam. More than once, unsuspecting non-Muslim guests were caught off guard when a microphone was handed to them with the request to say a few words.

And then, as the Muezzin calls out the end of the fast, you can hear bottles uncapped and the sound of water pouring into glasses, followed closely by the offering of a very sweet dried date. The rest of the evening progresses rather quickly as there is only a short while to have the first bites of food before it’s time for the night prayers. The main meal follows thereafter.

Beyond the incredible and seemingly effortless hospitality from those who have been without food or liquid for 18 hours day-in and day-out throughout Ramadan, is that sense of holiness that comes from religious fasting. Over the past few years it has become commonplace for government offices, synagogues and churches to host Iftars for their Muslim neighbours – as a way to reach out, to build bridges and to improve social cohesion.

From a Jewish perspective, one couldn’t help but notice remarkable similarities. In Hebrew the word for Fasting is Tsom compared to the Arabic Sawm. Muslims have a tradition during the last 10 days of Ramadan to increase their reading of the Quran in the Mosque. Because it’s not known on which night (Laylat al Qadr) the revelation occurred, there’s a custom to stay awake on odd-numbered nights. Many Jews just did the same thing on Shavuot to commemorate the revelation at Sinai.

The Mitzvah Day Team would like to extend a special thanks to all those that hosted us and to all those that extended invitations, as we couldn’t attend them all. It was a pleasure and a privilege to be so warmly welcomed into so many communities this past month and we look forward to joining you for Mitzvah Day projects in November!

Shavuot – Festival of the Harvests

Shavuot – Festival of the Harvests

Shavuot is one of the 3 major ‘foot festivals’ in the Torah because it was a time of pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The Biblical description of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, marks the conclusion of the counting of the 49 days, 7 weeks of the Omer which counts the time from Passover to Shavuot, the harvest festival. There are two harvest items that were taken as offerings to the temple, the first being an offering of 2 superior loaves of bread made of the finest white flour from the new wheat crop and the second was bringing the first summer fruits.

The Talmud describes how farmers throughout the land would tie their first new buds with a ribbon and later when these matured into fruits, they would be harvested, delicately placed in a basket and taken to the Temple in gratitude to the Almighty for the land’s bountiful produce.

Not long ago on a study tour in Israel, a Christian minister was awestruck trying to imagine the animated procession of devout farmers on their ascent to the Holy City, because pilgrimage is a part of all of the Abrahamic traditions. For Muslims, hajj, pilgrimage to Mecca, bears a striking resemblance to our foot festivals and even the word chag and haj can be seen to come from the same root sources.

When the pilgrims arrived to Jerusalem with their gifts, the farmers would recite a declaration that still appears in our Passover Haggadah, a testimony to the Almighty’s kindness not just to us, but to our forefathers going back to the promise made by G-d to Abraham and his descendants.

Shavuot is also associated with the Book of Ruth because it takes place during the harvest season, and Ruth who was widowed and living with her widowed mother-in-law Naomi, extended herself in an act of selflessness and kindness by collecting grain for their household. The once wealthy Naomi who had lost her status and possessions during a prolonged stay in Moav, was left with nothing except the generosity of the local farmers, who according to the Torah laws, allocated a portion of their fields for the poor. Ruth’s good fortune was to end up in the field of Boaz, a wealthy and generous patron.

From these 2 elaborate harvest ceremonies and from the decision by the sages of old to link the Book of Ruth with Shavuot, we can learn important lessons. The first I would like to focus on is the need for those of us who have plenty, to follow the example of Boaz, to graciously share what we have with those in need.

The second message we can take is that, whether it would have been commanded in the Torah or not, we are universally and morally compelled to help look after the welfare of our fellow human beings. For those in need of compassion, or for others starting their lives over after traumatic circumstances forced them to relocate to the UK, surely we can spare something, especially a small portion of our time, to be of support to them.

This is a message especially relevant for those of us at Mitzvah Day who continually reach out to charity partners old and new, and our dedicated Mitzvah Day participants, learning about their needs and how we can support them both during Mitzvah Day and throughout the year.

Be sure to check out our available projects page and make sure you’re registered for Mitzvah Day 2019, November 17th!

Wishing you a joyous Shavuot festival,

Rabbi Jeff and the Mitzvah Day team

Addicted to Hatred – 4 September 2018


Addicted to hatred

Calming island sunset in Japan where Rabbi Berger could reflect.

With only a week until Rosh Hashana, many of us will be reflecting on the past year and looking forward to what lies ahead.

In our family, we were fortunate to survive this year’s GCSE exams and to visit American relatives in August who introduced us to the popular Netflix series FAUDA. Created, written and produced in Israel and based on real-life experience, this award winning drama which debuted in 2015 has run through 2 seasons, with a 3rd series expected in 2019.

A gripping drama about an Israeli counter-intelligence unit operating in Gaza, it grabs its audience from the first instance. Nearly every scene is driven by blind rage, violence and seething hatred. The remainder is filled with immorality and lawlessness – a perfect formula to appeal to today’s mass audiences.

One can see why this kind of entertainment is addictive. Anger and rage are the new caffeine in our diets – not just on TV but in so many places; on social media, on university campuses and in what used to be civil society. In politics this trend is not just in Hungary and Poland, but in the USA and the UK.

Look around and you’ll see how easy it is to be drawn to this dark side and to observe the social trauma it can cause. But you’ll say, surely there are those who ‘deserve’ our hatred. Perhaps yes, but as Yoda, from Star Wars warned,

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Readers are probably familiar with the famous quotation attributed to an anonymous monk from the 11th century, repackaged in 1961 in simpler language and attributed to Aldous Huxley:

“As a young man, I wanted to change the world. I found it was difficult to change, so I tried to change my nation. When I found it impossible to change the nation, I began to focus on my town. Failing even this task, and as a mature person, I tried to change my family, Now much older, I realise the only thing I can change is myself.”

When we examine the emotional ebbs and peaks in our daily lives, we can see from where we get our energy. Our passions often are the source for our greatest enthusiasm, fulfilment and joy.

How sad then to see so much energy being wasted on stereotyping, prejudice, bigotry, anger and resentment. This can even be found inside our houses of worship, where intolerance and impatience can come to the fore, when acceptance of differences would be more appropriate.

All the while, those most upset insist that others are the source of their unhappiness and displeasure. If only ‘they’ would be like ‘us’, life would be much more predictable and satisfying.

Sadly, in this digital age we’ve almost entirely lost the ability to dialogue; to recognise different views and to acknowledge them with respect and understanding. Instead, we adopt uncompromising platforms, and when we meet those who disagree with our ‘narrative’, the result is shouting and aggression.

Many of us, though familiar with the first part of the monk’s parable quoted above, are unfamiliar with its conclusion.

“Suddenly I realized that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.”

It’s not too late.

Perhaps, this week before Rosh Hashana – and days before the UN-designated International Day of Peace – we can strive to let go of our hatreds and fears. To do so only requires a quiet mind, reflecting within to identify where we can better expend our emotional energy, and then consciously moderating our thoughts and tempering our behaviour.

When we hear the Shofar welcoming New Year 5779, let’s do so from a new place – an internal space of resilience and calm, appreciating that all of us are created in G-d’s image. Finding holiness first in ourselves, we should then be able to recognise it in those who are different from us.

May we merit a year filled with G-d’s blessings, and with the goodness we choose to bestow upon ourselves and upon each other!

Tizku LeShanim Rabot/ Shanah Tobah

Jews Must Stand Up When Muslims are Being Targeted – 13 August 2018


Jews Must Stand Up When Muslims are Being Targeted

On our summer beach holidays along the boardwalk promenade where people strolled throughout the day but especially in the evening when the temperatures were cooler, there were caricature artists sitting on folding chairs in front of their A1-sized easels with charcoal and pastel pencils ready to hand. They were waiting to draw quick sketches with exaggerated features of any tourists willing to part with the equivalent of about 10 quid.

Over the years on more than one occasion I stopped for the requisite 5-10 minutes that it took for the sketch to be drawn. The successful artists were clever and had lots of custom. Watching their handiwork come to life, I could see something of a humorous superficial likeness but which lacked subtlety or nuance.

There’s been so much written and spoken this past week about the former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s article in the Telegraph that compared women wearing a niqab or burka to letter boxes and bank robbers. Like those summer holiday artists, caricaturing a small number of Muslim women who choose to wear overtly modest clothing seemed to lack nuance and tact.

Last Friday I had the privilege as an Orthodox rabbi to visit a North London mosque where the Imam spoke at length about the hurt and outrage this stereotyping caused within the Anglo-Muslim community. Sitting on the floor with more than 400 worshippers, I too felt a great sense of sadness and upset.

That someone in high office who is a potential candidate for prime minister would offend more than 5% of the population, some of whose ancestors have lived here for more than a century, defies belief. Sitting next to and around me were hard-working people from the professions and from the civil services, people who contribute through their taxes and through their charitable works to the betterment of their neighbourhood and beyond.

During the Imam’s sermon he mentioned the need to stand up against Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred that regrettably are much more commonly expressed in public now than any time in the last 2 decades. From the article, I wasn’t entirely convinced Mr Johnson’s reference was deliberately Islam phobic but it was perceived that way by the Muslims I spoke with.

It also made me wonder how my community would feel if someone made fun of the way we dress. Orthodox Jewish men and women also have a code of modesty that affects what we wear. Admittedly, we’ve gotten used to poking fun at ourselves. But coming from an outsider, we tend more often to bristle.

Just as Jews find it offensive when anti-Semitism occurs in the Labour Party, one must confront other forms of bigotry in the Tory Party. It’s hard to sit quietly and watch the hurt and pain caused to Muslim friends who want, like all the rest of us, simply to raise their children and aspire to the benefits of a tolerant, multi-cultural British society, yet find themselves uncomfortably ridiculed because of outward appearances.

We’re all in this together. If we want sympathy in fighting anti-Semitism, surely we must do the same when we see insensitivity and injustice, especially if that results in hatred being directed at others.

The Prophet Micah (6:8) asked rhetorically, ‘Oh Mankind, what is good and what does the Lord seek from you?’ To be just, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’

To me that verse suggests that to find real balance, it’s not enough to think we’re right, or even to be merciful, but that our actions must always pass the litmus test of whether we have sufficient humility towards others and before God.

Rabbi Jeff Berger served the Rambam Sephardi Synagogue for 7 1/2 years and is now an active proponent of interfaith dialogue.


Week of 24 May 2018 – Parshat Naso

WEEK OF 24 MAY 2018

Summary: The Book of Numbers, fourth of the Five Books of Moses, spans the 40 years in which Bnei Yisrael wandered in the wilderness.

Naso, the 2nd parasha in the Book, is the longest single parasha in the Torah, covering Chapters 4:21-7:89. It includes; priestly duties of carrying the Mishkan and a census (8,580), camp purification ritual, restitution for wrongs committed, treatment of a wife accused of unfaithfulness (Sotah), the vows of a Nazir, the Priestly Blessing, and identical gifts brought by the Princes of the 12 Tribes during the consecration of the Mishkan.

Comment: In this week’s Parasha, Naso, the Torah lists the 3 verses recited by Kohanim to bless the nation. There are 15 words in total, with the last word being Shalom (peace)!

The Ben Ish Hai (Baghdad 1835-1909) points out there are 14 digits in a human hand – each finger having 3 digits and the thumb having 2, adding up to 14 – leaving the word Shalom unrepresented. To remedy this, we have the custom of using a cup of wine to sanctify special occasions such as Shabbat & Yom Tob (Festivals), Wedding Ceremonies, Brit Milah (Circumcision) and Birkat haMazon (Grace after Meals).

He also mentions it was the custom in his time to eat only two meals a day, breakfast and dinner, except on Shabbat when 3 meals were consumed. Thus, during the six days of the week a person could enjoy 12 meals and on Shabbat 3 more, making a total of 15. In this case, Seudah Shilishi became the 15th meal, completing the corresponding idea of Shalom. For both reasons above, we offer people the greeting ‘Shabbat Shalom’!

This week we especially encourage our readers who are Kohanim to attend synagogue. If you come to Rambam Sephardi you’ll also have the pleasure of blessing our community, as we do Birkat Kohanim every Shabbat.

Please join us on Shabbat when guest speaker Anthony Orkin from Campaign Against Antisemitism will address our community at the end of services.

REMINDER: You will by now have seen the pan-European survey request being circulated in the Jewish press. It’s being carried out by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights with the Institute for Jewish Policy Research and Maccabi GB. If you haven’t already taken time to fill in your response, we urge you to do so. Click the link here to participate.

Week of 29 March 2018 – Psalm 72 & Shabbat Pesah

This comment is in memory of my late mother (Brainah Leah bat Moshe Aharon) and for all those who read Tehillim for the sake of others. [To see the full Mechon Mamre text, please click here.]

Psalm 72 is dedicated to Solomon. It is presumed to have been written by his father David when designating Solomon his successor, just before David’s demise (See I Kings 1:30).

At 20 verses it is slightly longer than average. This Psalm spells out the qualities of G-d’s ideal king. The Divinely-inspired monarch must not act for his own glory but to bring people to the worship of G-d and the fulfilment of mitsvot.

It follows 3 themes: a short prayer for a smooth succession, a prediction of Solomon’s extensive reign, and on offer of blessings to the G-d of Israel.

לִשְׁלֹמֹה: אֱ-לֹהִים–מִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ, לְמֶלֶךְ תֵּן; וְצִדְקָתְךָ לְבֶן-מֶלֶךְ. Of Solomon. O G-d give to the king Your judgments, and Your righteousness to the king’s son. (Psalms 72:1)

There is an understanding in the Babylonian Talmud that this Psalm also has a messianic connotation. The ideal Jewish king is one who champions the needs of the poor, the weak and the oppressed on the basis that a nation’s long-term stability and happiness is dependent on having justice as its foundation. The assumption is that peace will reign over the world when there is righteousness, not corruption.

יִשְׁפֹּט, עֲנִיֵּי-עָם–יוֹשִׁיעַ, לִבְנֵי אֶבְיוֹן; וִידַכֵּא עוֹשֵׁק. May he judge the poor of the people, and save the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor. (Psalms 72:4)

יִפְרַח-בְּיָמָיו צַדִּיק; וְרֹב שָׁלוֹם, עַד-בְּלִי יָרֵחַ. In his days let the righteous flourish, and there be an abundance of peace, till the moon be no more. (Psalms 72:7)

In his success, the ideal king’s rule will extend throughout the known world. Ancient nations as far flung as Arabia and Ethiopia will perceive his wisdom and voluntarily wish to be in alliance; even nomadic tribes that ordinarily resent any system of government. All will benefit from the material success that results. The Psalm also hopes for continuity of reign in the king’s family line.

מַלְכֵי תַרְשִׁישׁ וְאִיִּים, מִנְחָה יָשִׁיבוּ; מַלְכֵי שְׁבָא וּסְבָא, אֶשְׁכָּר יַקְרִיבוּ. The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall render tribute; the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts. (Psalms 72:10)

וִיחִי– וְיִתֶּן-לוֹ, מִזְּהַב שְׁבָא: וְיִתְפַּלֵּל בַּעֲדוֹ תָמִיד; כָּל-הַיּוֹם, יְבָרְכֶנְהוּ. So they may live and he may give them of the gold of Sheba; that they may pray for him continually, yea, bless him all the day. (Psalms 72:15)

יְהִי שְׁמוֹ, לְעוֹלָם– לִפְנֵי-שֶׁמֶשׁ, ינין (יִנּוֹן) שְׁמוֹ: וְיִתְבָּרְכוּ בוֹ; כָּל-גּוֹיִם יְאַשְּׁרוּהוּ. May his name endure for ever; may his name be continued as long as the sun; may men also bless themselves by him; may all nations call him happy. (Psalms 72:17)

Psalm 72 closes the 2nd book in the division that sees the Psalms divided into 5 books. Psalm 41, which completed the 1st book, also ends with this liturgical formula praising G-d.

Curiously, the last verse signals the end of the words of King David, raising the question ‘who authored the remainder of the Book of Psalms?’

Rashi answers that this Chapter is out of order chronologically, and that it was actually the last to be written by David. Rabbi SR Hirsch suggests that when the ideal king succeeds to empower people throughout the world to live a righteous life, the goal of David’s prayers will have been achieved.

וּבָרוּךְ, שֵׁם כְּבוֹדוֹ– לְעוֹלָם:וְיִמָּלֵא כְבוֹדוֹ, אֶת-כֹּל הָאָרֶץ– אָמֵן וְאָמֵן. And blessed be His glorious name for ever; and let the whole earth be filled with His glory. Amen, and Amen. (Psalms 72:19)

כָּלּוּ תְפִלּוֹת– דָּוִד, בֶּן-יִשָׁי. This ends the prayers of David the son of Jesse. (Psalms 72:20)

HAPPENINGS THIS WEEK: It was deeply heartening to see that more than 1,500 people turned out to the Enough is Enough rally in front of the Houses of Parliament earlier this week. Well done to the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council for organising on short notice a campaign that hopefully will begin to address nearly 2 years of complaints of antisemitism in the UK Labour Party!

After 7 1/2 years leading the Rambam Sephardi community, we regret to announce that Rabbi Jeff Berger will, in the coming months, be stepping back from the day-to-day running of the community. The search for a suitable replacement is getting underway. The Board and community are thankful for the tireless work of both Rabbi Jeff & Michie in establishing the community and in helping us grow to the level we’ve achieved.

Many thanks to the brave few who helped clean the hamets from our storage room at Yavneh College, including: Ori, Emil, Lisa, Joey, Danielle, Leo, Coby, Justin & Michie. Photos of the tidied up room can be found here & here.

Heartfelt thanks to all who contributed anonymously to our Pesah Assistance Fund. We’re happy to inform that the sum raised was higher than last year and is already being distributed.

Week of 22 March 2018 – Psalm 71 – Parshat Tsav-HaGadol

This comment is in memory of my late mother (Brainah Leah bat Moshe Aharon) and for all those who read Tehillim for the sake of others. [To see the full Mechon Mamre text, please click here.]

Psalm 71 is unattributed (beginning without superscription) and largely written in the first person singular. Known as a Prayer in Old Age, it reflects the life of someone who has experienced much suffering and is still threatened by enemies.

At 24 verses, it is longer than average and almost neatly divides into 2 portions. The first half focuses on prayers and supplications to G-d, while the second concerns praises of gratitude to the Almighty.

Psalm 71 contains the following themes: 1) that G-d deliver and save him, not cast him off in old age nor be far away, 2) that his enemies be put to shame and that G-d continue to rescue him, and 3) that G-d be praised as the Rock of his youth, the support of his adult life, and the hope of future generations, to whom he will continue to give everlasting thanks.

בְּךָ-יְ-הוָה חָסִיתִי; אַל-אֵבוֹשָׁה לְעוֹלָם. In You, O LORD, have I taken refuge; let me never be ashamed. (Psalms 71:1)

אֱ-לֹהַי–פַּלְּטֵנִי, מִיַּד רָשָׁע; מִכַּף מְעַוֵּל וְחוֹמֵץ. My G-d, rescue me from the hand of the wicked, out of the grasp of the unrighteous and ruthless man. (Psalms 71:4)

עָלֶיךָ, נִסְמַכְתִּי מִבֶּטֶן–מִמְּעֵי אִמִּי, אַתָּה גוֹזִי; בְּךָ תְהִלָּתִי תָמִיד. Upon You have I relied since birth; You took me out of my mother’s womb; Of You is my praise continuous. (Psalms 71:6)

אַל-תַּשְׁלִיכֵנִי, לְעֵת זִקְנָה; כִּכְלוֹת כֹּחִי, אַל-תַּעַזְבֵנִי. Cast me not off in the time of old age; when my strength fails, forsake me not. (Psalms 71:9)

אֱ-לֹהִים, אַל-תִּרְחַק מִמֶּנִּי; אֱ-לֹהַי, לְעֶזְרָתִי חוּשָׁה. O G-d, be not far from me; My G-d, hasten to help me. (Psalms 71:12)

Many verses in Psalm 71 reflect similar phrasing found in earlier Psalms (I.e. 22:10, 31:3, 35:4-28, 41:8, 51:13 and others). It is suggested that if this Psalm was written by David, it would correspond to the period when Absalom his son usurped the thrown and David was at risk of assassination. An alternative suggestion is that it was written by Jeremiah.

The Artscroll commentary (Sefer Tehillim, p.149-50 footnote) adds ‘One should look forward to old age because it can be a uniquely productive period of life employed in the service of G-d. It furnishes the opportunity to impart to the younger generations the knowledge of G-d accumulated throughout a lifetime of varied trials and experiences’.

The name ‘Holy One of Israel’ (v. 22) only occurs two other times in Psalms. It implies the Holy Covenant entered into between G-d and the Jewish people and the pledge of future redemption. The author describes the great exultation that will arise at the time of the Divine restoration.

וַאֲנִי, תָּמִיד אֲיַחֵל; וְהוֹסַפְתִּי, עַל-כָּל-תְּהִלָּתֶךָ. But as for me, I will hope continually, and will praise You more and more. (Psalms 71:14)

וְגַם עַד-זִקְנָה, וְשֵׂיבָה– אֱ-לֹהִים אַל-תַּעַזְבֵנִי: עַד-אַגִּיד זְרוֹעֲךָ לְדוֹר; לְכָל-יָבוֹא, גְּבוּרָתֶךָ. And even in old age and grey hairs, O G-d, forsake me not; until I’ve declared Your strength unto the next generation, Your might, to everyone who is to come. (Psalms 71:18)

גַּם-אֲנִי, אוֹדְךָ בִכְלִי-נֶבֶל– אֲמִתְּךָ אֱ-לֹהָי: אֲזַמְּרָה לְךָ בְכִנּוֹר– קְדוֹשׁ, יִשְׂרָאֵל. I also will give thanks to You with the psaltery, to Your truth, my G-d; I will sing praises to You with the harp, O Holy One of Israel. (Psalms 71:22)

Finally, we quote from the Artscroll (Ibid, p.148 footnote) about the poignancy of Verse 9 ‘cast me not off in the time of old age’:

‘The Psalmist captures the sense of urgency, almost desperation, with which the elderly tenaciously grasp G-d’s hand. The decline of health and strength exposes the inability of human resources to overcome adversity and to achieve true fulfilment in life. It is only in the shelter of G-d’s love and protection that true happiness can be found. G-d extends shelter to those who seek it regardless of whether they are in the prime of youth or in the lengthening shadows of old age.’


EVENTS THIS WEEK: Congratulations to Joe Arazi who won the 1st Rambam Sephardi 2018 Shesh Besh tournament on Monday night in a lively set of matches. Many thanks as well to Joe and Derek Sheena for helping organise the event, and of course to Nick at Orli for hosting us. The exciting photos can be found here.

Sincere thanks to soon-to-be-Rabbi Aaron Hass who joined us at Rambam Sephardi this past Shabbat. Aaron led Kabbalat Shabbat services beautifully and delivered an informative drasha on Shabbat morning. His talk during Seudah Shilishi at the home of the Wahnon Family included much useful information about preparing for Pesah. Sincere thanks to the Gotlieb & Gasc families for hosting Aaron and to Abe & Annette for a delicious Seudah.

We received a lovely note from Rachel Cohen following her Bon Voyage Shabbat with us. Some excerpts include: ‘Thank you so much for making Shabbat Rosh Hodesh Nisan a wonderful day in my life – a highlight to treasure for years to come PG … Please do thank the community, on my behalf, for making Shabbat a most magical experience and for preparing such a lovely Kiddush. I enjoyed every minute.’

Here are a few other gentle reminders:

From 25 May 2018 a new law will come into effect called the General Data Protection Regulation. It was passed by the European Parliament in 2016 to prevent organisations from collecting and using personal data without a person’s consent.

Anyone subscribing to any website will be receiving an electronic request in coming week’s to verify their consent to remain on that organisation’s mailing list. Undoubtedly, Rambam Sephardi will have to do something similar. Only those who give their consent will be included in the new mailing list.

It seems hard to believe but this is our 248th issue of the Rambam Sephardi Newsletter. We’re looking for some unique content to mark our 250th Issue in a few weeks time. Suggestions can be sent to the Rabbi or to this address.

Week of 15 March 2018 – Psalm 70

This comment is in memory of my late mother (Brainah Leah bat Moshe Aharon) and for all those who read Tehillim for the sake of others. [To see the full Mechon Mamre text, please click here.]

Psalm 70 is attributed to David and is only 6 verses in length. There are 3 main themes. They are: 1) Asking G-d’s deliverance, 2) Seeking for one’s enemies to be shamed, and 3) Wanting all people to rejoice in the Lord.

Known as a Cry for Help, Psalm 70 repeats almost verbatim Psalm 40: 14-18. Unique to this Psalm is the appearance of the word ‘remembrance’ in the opening sentence, for it is not G-d who needs to remember but human beings.

We will observe examples of the similarity in verses:

This initial pair differs only in the first two words. Where verse 40:14 seems like a gentle request, our verse 70:2 implies a slightly greater tone of urgency.

אֱ-לֹהִים לְהַצִּילֵנִי; יְ-הוָה, לְעֶזְרָתִי חוּשָׁה. O G-d, to deliver me; O LORD, make haste to help me. (Psalms 70:2)

רְצֵה יְ-הוָה, לְהַצִּילֵנִי; יְ-הוָה, לְעֶזְרָתִי חוּשָׁה. Be pleased, O LORD, to deliver me; O LORD, make haste to help me. (Psalms 40:14)

In the second set of pairs, again only 2 words differ: ‘together’ and ‘to sweep it away.’ The ‘shame’ being wished upon his enemies is so they will realise their evil deeds and cease.

יֵבֹשׁוּ וְיַחְפְּרוּ, מְבַקְשֵׁי נַפְשִׁי: יִסֹּגוּ אָחוֹר, וְיִכָּלְמוּ; חֲפֵצֵי, רָעָתִי. Let them be ashamed and abashed who seek after my soul; let them be turned backward and brought to confusion who delight in my hurt. (Psalms 70:3)

יֵבֹשׁוּ וְיַחְפְּרוּ, יַחַד– מְבַקְשֵׁי נַפְשִׁי, לִסְפּוֹתָהּ: יִסֹּגוּ אָחוֹר, וְיִכָּלְמוּ– חֲפֵצֵי, רָעָתִי. Let them be ashamed and abashed together who seek after my soul to sweep it away; let them be turned backward and brought to confusion who delight in my hurt. (Psalms 40:15)

In the third set of pairs, the only difference is the author’s choice of the Divine name. In encouraging all to seek the Divine Presence and find joy in relationship with G-d, the author demonstrates an alternative to the path of oppressing others.

This echoes the Messianic tone at the end of Psalm 69. This idea further corresponds to another well-known principle found in the Ashrei prayer that ‘G-d is close to those who call out to the Lord in truth’.

יָשִׂישׂוּ וְיִשְׂמְחוּ, בְּךָ– כָּל-מְבַקְשֶׁיךָ: וְיֹאמְרוּ תָמִיד, יִגְדַּל אֱ-לֹהִים– אֹהֲבֵי, יְשׁוּעָתֶךָ. Let all those who seek You rejoice and be glad, and let those who love Your salvation say continually: ‘Let G-d be magnified.’ (Psalms 70:5)

יָשִׂישׂוּ וְיִשְׂמְחוּ, בְּךָ– כָּל-מְבַקְשֶׁיךָ: יֹאמְרוּ תָמִיד, יִגְדַּל יְ-הוָה– אֹהֲבֵי, תְּשׁוּעָתֶךָ. Let all those who seek You rejoice and be glad; let those who love Your salvation say continually: ‘The LORD be magnified.’ (Psalms 40:17)

Some suggest this shortened form of Psalm 70 may have been intended for liturgical use in the Temple – with the verses taking on a ‘national’ application rather than a personal plea. Other observers suggest that Psalm 70’s similarity to the end of Psalm 69, makes it appear as an addendum. An American contemporary version put to guitar can be found here.


Our Kahal enjoyed the wonderful experience of the visit of the Israeli Ambassador HE Mark Regev who joined our Shabbat service last week. The Ambassador’s talk on ‘Three Reasons to be Hopeful about Israel’ made a deep impression on our Kahal. Additionally, our teenagers appreciated his very down-to-earth style during the separate discussions they shared.

That the highest representative of the State of Israel in the UK also spends his time visiting synagogues around the greater London area, in and of itself, strengthens our bond to Israel and gives us hope. It was a particular honour for us that Ambassador Regev read the Prayer for the State of Israel.

Victor Itzhak’s brilliant presentation this week on Emotional Well-Being reinforced the need to step back, be a bit less serious, and look at ourselves in a more relaxed way. His talk focused on positive mental health awareness and the ‘Zones of Regulation’ tool kit. Participants identified a desire within the community to set-up support groups for our children and for adults. Stay tuned for more exciting programming!

Here are a few other gentle reminders:

This week we’re looking forward to hosting Aaron Hass as hazan and scholar-in-residence at Rambam Sephardi. Aaron will be leading Kabbalat Shabbat services and delivering the drasha on Shabbat morning. There will also be a Seudah Shilishi (without Motsi) at 6pm at the home of the Wahnon Family.

RACHEL COHEN BON VOYAGE: This week we also acknowledge her contribution to Rambam Sephardi and thank Rachel Cohen who’s been a dedicated volunteer in our community for 3 years. Rachel recently moved to Hendon and we felt it was appropriate as a community for us to share our bon voyage wishes with her. Please join us!

Uniquely, we will be using 3 Sifrei Torah this week because it is Rosh Hodesh Nisan and also Parshat HaHodesh. One Torah is used for VaYikra, one for Rosh Hodesh and one for Parshat HaHodesh. This phenomenon of 3 Torah scrolls being used during services only occurs on a few occasions during the year.

UK-RUSSIA DIPLOMATIC CRISIS: There is concern that diplomatic equilibrium between the UK and Russia may change drastically and unpredictably in the coming days. It would strengthen Prime Minister Theresa May’s case on the world stage to release evidence proving the direct link between Last Sunday’s attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury and the traceable source of the nerve agent’s manufacture.

More deeply troubling is the growing awareness that a wider scale chemical attack could be randomly copied elsewhere. What used to be dark imaginings of Sci-Fi films from the 1970’s is becoming a credible scenario in our time. There’s clearly a global need for greater diligence in identifying and limiting the production of such agents. We pray in the immediate future for a calmer, more responsible worldview to prevail.

We note with sadness the passing of world-renowned mathematician and cosmologist Stephen Hawking this week. Overcoming the debilitating affect of motor neuron disease (a form of ALS), Hawking in 2016 credited his success to having a sense of humor. ‘It’s also important not to become angry, no matter how difficult life is, because you can lose all hope if you can’t laugh at yourself and at life in general.”

Week of 8 March 2018 – Psalm 69

This comment is in memory of my late mother (Brainah Leah bat Moshe Aharon) and for all those who read Tehillim for the sake of others. [To see the full Mechon Mamre text, please click here.]

Psalm 69, attributed to David, is also quite long at 37 verses. It is known as the Prayer of the Persecuted and contains 4 major themes. 1) Complaints of great distress, 2) Seeking relief and deliverance, 3) Calling for Divine wrath against enemies, and 4) Offering prayers of hope and salvation.

The first section epitomises the position of Jews in exile, who, according to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany 1808-88), often were preyed upon by their hosts, in an effort to rob them of dignity and possessions. Even those from the tribes of Ishmael and Edom, relatives by blood, stood by idly. But rather than convert and be accepted, the Jewish people remained steadfast in their faith.

הוֹשִׁיעֵנִי אֱ-לֹהִים– כִּי בָאוּ מַיִם עַד-נָפֶשׁ. Save me, O G-d; for waters have come-in even unto the soul. (Psalms 69:2)

רַבּוּ, מִשַּׂעֲרוֹת רֹאשִׁי– שֹׂנְאַי חִנָּם: עָצְמוּ מַצְמִיתַי, אֹיְבַי שֶׁקֶר– אֲשֶׁר לֹא-גָזַלְתִּי, אָז אָשִׁיב. More than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; many are they who would cut me off, wrongful enemies; shall I return what I took not? (Psalms 69:5)

מוּזָר, הָיִיתִי לְאֶחָי; וְנָכְרִי, לִבְנֵי אִמִּי. A stranger I’ve become to my brothers, and an alien to my mother’s children. (Psalms 69:9)

Employing a technique learned from Moshe, the Psalmist pleads for G-d’s mercy, for the sake of all believers. For when a righteous person appears to needlessly suffer, it causes doubt in the minds of all others as to whether there is a G-d of justice. (Verse 14 appears in the Shabbat minha service before taking out the Torah.)

וַאֲנִי תְפִלָּתִי-לְךָ יְ-הוָה, עֵת רָצוֹן– אֱ-לֹהִים בְּרָב-חַסְדֶּךָ; עֲנֵנִי, בֶּאֱמֶת יִשְׁעֶךָ. As for me, let my prayer be to You, O LORD, in an acceptable time; O G-d in your abundant mercy, answer me with the truth of Your salvation. (Psalms 69:14)

עֲנֵנִי יְ-הוָה, כִּי-טוֹב חַסְדֶּךָ; כְּרֹב רַחֲמֶיךָ, פְּנֵה אֵלָי. Answer me, O LORD, for Your mercy is good; in Your abundant compassion turn to me. (Psalms 69:17)

חֶרְפָּה, שָׁבְרָה לִבִּי– וָאָנוּשָׁה: וָאֲקַוֶּה לָנוּד וָאַיִן; וְלַמְנַחֲמִים, וְלֹא מָצָאתִי. Reproach broke my heart; I was sore sick; and I looked for compassion, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none. (Psalms 69:21)

Though acknowledging his punishment is from G-d, the penitent is indignant over unauthorised attacks by his enemies. According to Rashi, those who persecuted the Jews throughout history, often did so ‘far more than necessary and with savage delight.’

Alone and oppressed, the author cries out for evildoers to be erased from the Divine Book of Life, denied the opportunity to themselves repent. (Hints of this are still found at the end of the Pesah Seder.)

שְׁפָךְ-עֲלֵיהֶם זַעְמֶךָ; וַחֲרוֹן אַפְּךָ, יַשִּׂיגֵם. Pour out Your indignation upon them, and let Your fierce anger overtake them. (Psalms 69:25)

יִמָּחוּ, מִסֵּפֶר חַיִּים; וְעִם צַדִּיקִים, אַל-יִכָּתֵבוּ. Let them be blotted out of the Book of Life, and not be written with the righteous. (Psalms 69:29)

In a world where good and evil clash openly, Psalm 69 concludes with a passionate hope for the return to Zion of the exiled Jewish nation. Rav Hirsch adds that the loyalty to G-d’s will during troubling times is more highly regarded than pledges of devotion during safer, more prosperous periods.

אֲהַלְלָה שֵׁם-אֱ-לֹהִים בְּשִׁיר; וַאֲגַדְּלֶנּוּ בְתוֹדָה. I will praise the name of G-d with a song, and magnify it with thanksgiving. (Psalms 69:31)

כִּי אֱ-לֹהִים, יוֹשִׁיעַ צִיּוֹן, וְיִבְנֶה, עָרֵי יְהוּדָה; וְיָשְׁבוּ שָׁם, וִירֵשׁוּהָ. For G-d will save Zion, and build the cities of Judah; and they will abide there, and have it in possession. (Psalms 69:36)

Some modern Biblical scholars, based on the Midrash, suggest that this Psalm was written not by David but by the Prophet Jeremiah because of what appear to be references to the Babylonian captivity.

Understandably, due to its many ‘persecution’ references, this Psalm is also very popular to those of a different faith.


THIS WEEK IN DETAIL We begin this week’s Newsletter with comments on International Women’s Day, with an article on the reawakening of interest in America for Sephardi tradition, and with thanks locally to those who joined us for Purim.

Separate, but importantly, we request you to read about the We Believe in Israel petition circulated by Luke Akehurst. The latter leads us directly into the exciting announcement about our special guest this Shabbat.

We are excited to inform members that this coming Shabbat there will be a senior diplomat special guest speaker from the Israel Embassy in our community. Please join us for services and a special Kiddush afterwards.

‘International Women’s Day (March 8) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.’

For more than a 100 years various movements have promoted the equality of women. That in the 21st century gender discrimination continues to exist is deplorable. Areas like science & technology need more women. (For more information visit the IWD website.)

In America next weekend, the Sephardic Education Centre is planning a 3-day conference to highlight a Jewish way of life inspired by Maimonides’ teachings, known as the Classical Sephardic Worldview. ‘The SEC is focused on building a new generation of spiritual and community leaders … modern, progressive and inclusive, but who still follow halakhah (Jewish law).’ For an insight-filled article on the reawakened interest in Sephardi traditions that is gathering momentum in the United States, please click here.

A rousing round of applause to all of our Rambam players, to the Seudah chefs and to both of our Megillah readers – Charles Darwish & Raphi Lavi. Despite the snowy weather, it was a fantastic celebration this year!

Special thanks to David Hadley for the wonderful photos (click here). David generously covered this event free of charge. In appreciation, we include a link to David’s website. Thanks also to Adrian Kelaty for use of his video equipment. The film’s full version can be seen here. There are so many others to thank, we’ll direct you to the Purim programme instead.