19 February 2019 – If Only They Could Talk
I’m one of those people who can never throw anything away. Our cupboards are filled with costly bric-a-brac and drawers overflow with expensive curios acquired long ago. Even the memory capacity on my mobile phone consistently is bursting at the seam with accumulated family photos.
My wife, who has an infinite amount of patience, has told me ‘It’s gotten to the point that there’s no room in our home for anything new.’ This was the motivation over the past few months for me to become familiar with our local high street charity shops. Whenever I entered, with bags to give away, I wondered ‘how much does one really need in life?’
While some of my contemporaries still like to accumulate things, with little exception, I’ve now discovered that it’s more joyous to give them away. Divesting, I’m hoping, will help me find a way back to a simpler, less cluttered, quality of life.
My late mother understood this a decade before she passed away, dividing up all her treasures and summoning each of us to take what we wished or let it be discarded. And still, after she died, there were trunks of her favourite items for us to go through.
An ancient rabbinic saying from the 2nd century book, Ethics of the Fathers, states that ‘one who increases possessions, increases anguish’, meaning that the more things we have, the more worry they’re likely to cause us.
We’ve done this kind of clean out once before when our children outgrew their belongings. And perhaps this decluttering period will be seen as my minimalist phase. But more and more, I find myself using less and less. Gifting is a natural way to release joy.
When first acquired, these lovely items were a part of my life. If they could speak, perhaps we would thank each other for the pleasures received. But circumstances change, and these silent sentries, sitting in a corner of the house, no longer draw my attention.
25 Feb 19 – Standing Up to the Bully
I still remember my first experience with bullying, when in primary school an oversized child in an upper year goaded me into a fight. Fellow students gathered, and though my effort was valiant, it didn’t stop him from landing a blow to my nose. Humiliated, blood dripping and confidence shaken, I expected worse might follow.
Then an older boy intervened, stepping in at his own peril. Stunned by the unexpected turn of events, the bully lost heart, the fight soon ended, the crowd disbursed, and the Good Samaritan helped me nurse my bruise.
Not long after the fight, our teacher organised a public apology during morning assembly. In those days, both sides were required to seek forgiveness from each other. The brave lad who intervened was praised, and for those merely watching, an important lesson was to be learned. Failing to act or protest was a conscious choice, and they all received a detention.
This childhood experience was probably in my unconscious mind when I recently attended a conference in India on Breaking Barriers and Building Trust. Among the participants were delegates from Tibet, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iran, Nigeria, Cambodia and other countries in which parts of their populations have endured much suffering. As is often the case, one of the largest complaints from victims was that the perpetrators were never brought to justice. Nor did their governments yet offer any official apology.
The Prophet Moses in Deuteronomy tells us ‘Tsedek, Tsedek Tirdoph’. Justice, Justice you must pursue. Interpreting this passage, the sages of old understood that one can’t be passive towards social injustice, expecting correct behaviour to occur spontaneously. True justice must be actively pursued, along with some form of restitution for the victims.
4 March 2019 – Resisting Temptation
In our neighborhood, we separate our recyclables which get collected every week on Mondays. And while we try to be careful in reducing our rubbish output, as a family of 4, which includes 2 teenagers, there’s still quite a lot that gets thrown away.
Recently, I was astounded to learn that virtually half of the plastic ever manufactured has been made in the past 15 years and that more than 8 billion kilos of it ends up in the world’s oceans each year.
Those wildlife pictures of sea bird skeletons, stomachs filled with colour beads, or of fish entangled in plastic bags, have interrupted my complacency. Yet when thinking of the environment, I’m tempted to tell myself, with more than 7.8 billion people in the world, there’s little I can do.
In the Genesis creation story, the Almighty encouraged our first forebears to be fruitful and multiply, and to fill the world with their presence. But once they were placed in the Garden of Eden, G-d’s instructions to Adam and Eve were to serve and to protect the earth.
As an experiment, I decided to look for the different plastic items that are part of my life. From my morning toothbrush, to the milk container, the wrapping around fruits and vegetables, and even to the ATM cards in my wallet, it’s impossible to live a life without plastic!
But while plastic may be problematic, it’s also so ubiquitous. And just like many things in life it takes persistence to change unconscious habits. Recently in our home, our daughter introduced metal drinking straws and my wife bought reusable cloth bags for doing our shopping. We also use less foam and more recyclable paper plates.
The good news is nearly 1 in 5 items worldwide gets recycled and that amount is increasing steadily. So today, I’m going to try and find one more way to minimize my use of plastic. Well, at least after I get some cash from the local ATM.
13 March 2019 – Divine Comedy
My first job in New York City in the 1970s was to drive a yellow taxi cab. In those days, the theory test only required answering a handful of questions describing how to get from one landmark destination to another.
During my first week at work, early one morning a business man going from Grand Central Station to Wall Street hailed my cab. He was tall, impeccably dressed, carried one of those expensive, stylish, thin leather briefcases and gave me a piece of paper identifying the address he was going to. Once in the cab though, it was clear we didn’t share a common language. All I could make out was that; he was from Italy, the meeting he was attending was quite important and he didn’t want to be late.
These were the days long before Satellite Navigation and I decided it would be quicker to take the FDR Drive, an expressway that skirts the eastern edge of the island. But down near Wall Street instead of exiting towards the City Centre, I inadvertently and incompetently took the wrong turning, taking us over the Brooklyn Bridge. To this day I remember well the look of concern on the gentleman’s face as he saw New York’s financial district disappearing behind us. I can’t remember how many times I apologized.
Thankfully he was understanding and it wasn’t difficult to loop around at the bottom of the bridge to correct my error as quickly as possible. When we finally arrived, to my great surprise, instead of being angry, the man paid the fare and even gave me a large tip – perhaps because there’s nothing more stunning than the view of Manhattan from the Brooklyn Bridge.
Judaism’s highest aim is for humans to emulate the divine. Just as God is merciful, compassionate and forgiving, so should we be.
Few of us are perfect. While it may be irreverent to suggest the Almighty has a sense of humour, I learned from that taxi error that we each have a choice how to react when things don’t go as planned.
20 March 2019 – Powerful Stories
You would probably never notice them but in the hours after a major accident, alongside the emergency services, a chaplain will usually be hard at work.
Recently I became a volunteer at my nearby regional police headquarters and had the privilege of hearing a talk by a retired chaplain. He’d worked alongside the British Transport Police for many years and was on duty in Paddington in 1999, when the Ladbroke Grove train disaster happened.
Even though the crash occurred a long time ago, the details were fresh in his mind – providing food and drink to the crews working around the clock, or sitting silently with those who’d lost a loved one. Recalling the people he’d helped with those simple gestures, still brought tears to his eyes in 2019.
The Torah is comprised of many laws intended to guide and govern the relationship of care that we have with each other. Among them is the often repeated command to ‘love the stranger’. This refers to the person who isn’t from our own tribe, but is a fellow human being to whom we can offer compassion.
Whether it’s at a hospital bedside, on a military base, at a police headquarters or at the scene of a major incident – chaplains provide pastoral support to emergency workers, survivors and family members – to people of all religions or none.
The retired chaplain told us that after his experience at Ladbroke Grove, he was sent to several other rail disasters during his active career. But when he awoke on the morning of 5th October, he never imagined what lay ahead – it was his love for God and humanity that gave him the strength to console all those he met despite the tragic circumstances.
Eventually he was granted a Chief Constable’s Commendation from the Prince of Wales.
27 March 2019 – Loving the Earth
Halfway up Mount Rochers de Naye on a single gauge railway out of Montreaux in Switzerland you’ll find the Caux Palace. Built in 1905 as a 300-room resort for the rich and famous, royalty and celebrities, it offers splendid views over Lake Lausanne, near Geneva. Its mansard tiled roofs and conical towers give the palace an enchanting air.
Ironically, it never succeeded as a luxury hotel because after less than a decade, two world wars, in quick succession, prevented customers from using its state-of-the-art facilities. In the post war 1940s, it was declared bankrupt and had to be rescued by a consortium of local Swiss citizens.
During the past 70 years, it has served as a haven for refugees, as a centre for peace and reconciliation, and more recently, as a training ground for workers in the Chinese hotel management industry.
But for several weeks each summer, it draws young and old from many different countries who wish to learn about leadership, fellowship and ways to grapple with many of our global concerns.
That is how my daughter and I found ourselves on a crisp-blue-sky, sunny summer’s day, looking below at the little specs that are boats sailing across the glistening lake surface. It was a perfect place to shake-off our city anxiety. For her, the visit was a post-GCSE unwinding and for me it was preparation for leaving my community.
From the hotel’s long terraces and even from the room’s modest balconies, we were struck by the panoramic grandeur of the surrounding Alps. It left us with a deep feeling of humility. And over the next few days, conversations my daughter and I shared, helped re-shape our perspective on life’s smaller problems.
Psalm 115 states that ‘The Heavens belong to the Lord, but earth was given to humankind.’ There was a moment on that wondrous mountain where I felt we were in God’s Presence. While I learned a lot that week about global warming and deforestation, the best part was sharing this magnificent outdoor experience with my daughter.
3 April 2019 – Spiritual Health
When we lived in central London, my wife and I employed a part-time nanny to look after our 2 small children. Her duties were to take them to school, collect them afterwards, and help with homework – until one of us returned from the office. Over the decade of our children’s primary years, we were fortunate to find some really wonderful people and got by with minimal turnover.
Ten years ago, just as I was completing my rabbinic ordination, we employed a woman who later it turned out professed a devout belief in a faith different from our own. While she was meticulously punctual, disciplined and officious, it was awkward when she invited me to lectures at her place of worship.
She seemed more interested in persuading me to change faiths than in learning about what I hoped to do as a new rabbi. Very likely she thought her efforts were for my own benefit but as her employer, her persistence was surprising. At the end of the year when she resigned, perhaps disappointed in having failed to win over a new convert, I breathed a sigh of relief.
At the time, my skills in interfaith dialogue were non-existent. But since then, I began attending then facilitating inter-religious discussions between clergy of many different faiths. Eventually, I learned that to know someone well requires compassionate listening. The more I listened, the more it was possible to go beyond my own prejudgments and stereotypes.
It’s taken years, much honest thinking, and even quite a bit of debate with members of my own faith, for me to realize that true spiritual health is not found in imposing my ideas on others, but in seeking the place where we can speak, listen, respect and celebrate our differences.
By allowing each person I meet to navigate their own Divine path, I affirm that the Almighty is capable of loving us all. Experience has also taught that like a harmonious symphony, I’m not complete until I can see the goodness not only in my fellow Jews but in those I consider ‘others’.
8 April 2019 – Siblings
Next week Jews begin celebrating the 8-day festival of Passover. Many families use this opportunity to bring together relatives and friends – in what is called a Seder – re-enacting the story of the Israelites being freed from Egyptian bondage.
While still living in our parent’s home, this was a highlight of the calendar year for my siblings and me. It was exotic. Lots of relatives came. Children were the centre of attention. Like many festivals, there were special customs and food. I remember these were always evenings filled with laughter and singing.
As the years passed, the 4 of us boys went on to university and started families of our own. And when our parents were no longer able to be the hosts, we took turns hosting them instead.
In my home, before the meal is served, we read the Exodus story and I ask participants about the wider meanings of Freedom. Our ancestors may no longer be slaves but to what extent are we enslaved – working long hours, living under financial pressures, mistreating one another.
My best Seders have engaged the adults, linking Jewish history to the present, while also keeping our children excited by their surroundings. As part of the ceremony, we drink 2 cups of wine on an empty stomach, so my wife needs to remind me to finish the discussions before the dinner gets cold.
Now that our parents are no longer and my siblings are spread widely across 3 continents, we meet infrequently. We do our best to attend family weddings and celebrations. But on Passover, especially, I miss my brothers and the ties that bind us together.
Seder night is a lovely tradition that each year also marks the progression of time. Remembering that wonderful period as one family around a big table, I’m thankful to my parents for their efforts in creating a timeless Passover tradition for my siblings and me.
Hopefully, our children will equally value its importance once they have families of their own.