Light in the Darkness (Hanukah) – 30 December 2016
For the past month in our household, the scene goes something like this: The radio alarm rings at 5:30am. It’s still dark out, the temperatures are likely below freezing. And I say,
‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we could spend these winter months abroad, perhaps in Southern Spain where it’s a bit milder and there’s sunlight throughout the day?’ Patiently, as the fog of a short night’s sleep lifts, my wife reminds me – we both have employers, and the children are still in secondary school.
Raised in Japan, she walked 3 miles to and from school for 10 years. Her Asian stoicism kicks-in faster than my laziness can seduce her back to bed. And that spells the difference between us – she’s unflappably set-to-task, while I’m full of fanciful ideas, few very realistic.
Winter in Northern Europe is a challenge for those unaccustomed. The cold, and especially the darkness, leads many of us to withdraw inwardly, like the environment, hibernating, submerging underground, avoiding the harsh elements and keeping safe.
Not coincidentally, following the blaze of autumnal colours, several religions have year-end festivals of light. Among them, this week Jews celebrate Hanukkah, in which we light a candelabra each night for 8 days, to commemorate a victory 2,300 years ago over religious oppression.
While each festival has its own historic context, they share in common the goal of illuminating the darkness. ‘As Light is to Dark, so Hope is to Despair.’
The Babylonian Talmud informs that ‘even a small candle will dispel a deep gloom.’ And, thus, we’re charged each day to perform small kindnesses to bring spiritual light to a despondent world.
At home, we complete our morning routines; the children wake and make their way to school, I drop my wife at the station and go off to morning prayers, getting back to my desk by 8:00am.
Resolutions – 6 January 2017
A few months ago, while shopping at our local supermarket, I returned to the car park to find a large 10-inch gash in the passenger side door, left obviously by a white vehicle. Disappointingly, the person who caused the damage drove off without leaving a note. And there was virtually no way of finding them.
An Automobile Association study in 2015 revealed this occurs more frequently than imagined. Of nearly 20,000 motorists, more than half experienced damage in a car park, and, while 2/3’s said they’d leave a note, 18% said they’d drive off if they weren’t spotted causing the damage.
Many of us see New Year as a time for Celebrations. But as I’ve grown older, the years seem to pass by more quickly and monotonously; same job, same house, same commute, same in-laws, same relationships … In order for time not to blur into a long unbroken repetitive cycle, in our house each year we try to focus on one small behavioural change – a New Year’s resolution.
Because in a world where there’s so much beyond our control, self-control is the one creative, irrevocable investment we can make – in ourselves! Who we are as individuals; how we act when no one is looking, how we respond to each other, to pressure, temptation or conflict is the only true possession we keep forever.
King Solomon in Proverbs wisely stated: A good name is better than precious oils… and the day of death better than the day of one’s birth. That means, we each have a fixed number of years given to us. What we make of ourselves, and especially of our integrity, matters above all else!
Coincidentally, about a year ago, parking on an unfamiliar road, I backed into a car and heard a loud crunch. Admittedly, my first instinct was to scan for witnesses and drive off. But instead, I left my phone number and an apology in a note on the windscreen. And though the repairs cost a few hundred pounds, the peace of mind was well worth it.
What Makes Me Happy – 13 January 2017
Taking my 11-year-old son to swim on a Sunday morning at the local sports centre gives us a chance to be both playful and disciplined, which we each find exhilarating for different reasons. Continuing a tradition from my own childhood, afterwards we share an ice cream and a chat.
As a young boy, I looked forward to that ice cream every week. Then as I grew older, school sports occupied my time and pleasure came from red meat and a little wine. In adulthood, the pursuit of a partner and that Hallelujah-intimacy marriage brought with it, thankfully added a much higher dimension of joy in my life.
And now as a parent, there’s little that surpasses the heart-warming experience of loving my children. Perhaps this is what the American psychologist Abraham Maslow intended in his Hierarchy of Needs, which is a list (pyramid) of fundamental requirements for us to exist.
For many of us, these little moments we create and insert into the mundane often fuel us with the energy to keep plodding along. But, even that wonderful joy of parenthood can be superseded by the deeper pleasure that comes from helping another human being in their time of need.
Since becoming a rabbi, endless opportunities crop-up to impact the lives of others – whether it’s offering a late night listening heart or helping someone under financial pressure think through their issues. Making a crucial difference in another person’s life – without ulterior motive – is high up at the top of that triangle.
In Judaism, we believe there’s a fundamental difference between happiness and joy. Moments of joy can be accumulated throughout life. But real, deep-seated happiness is found in fulfilment of the higher self, not in the sensory pleasures – and this requires a lifetime’s efforts.
Listening to my son talk about his Year-7 school life and friends, homework and holidays, and generally what makes him happy, reminds me of that long road of pleasures that lies ahead of him.
I Have a Dream (MLK Day – 16 Jan) – 20 January 2017
All major world religions have a body of written or oral material that is considered SACRED to their faith. For me, it is the Jewish Bible. Throughout history, however, every time a new religion arose and its ideology clashed with one that preceded it, it seemed people went to war to determine ‘whom G-d favoured most’.
But what if, instead of who’s right and who’s wrong, we recognise each of our Faiths brings a unique spirituality to the total worship of G-d. To use a cinematic analogy, in the 1980s there was a fictional series of Indiana Jones adventure films. Dr Indiana Jones is possibly one of cinema’s most famous characters. He had a deep knowledge of ancient civilizations and languages, and in each episode he pieced together forgotten maps and indecipherable codes, in his search for a holy relic that promised direct contact with the Divine.
Sharing experiences of inter-faith with colleagues, I can’t help but wonder – is it possible each of our Faiths authentically has a piece of such ancient wisdom that when fitted together, harmoniously, it can show us a way to live together in peace?
In the beginning of the Hebrew Bible, we’re reminded that all of humanity was created in the Divine Image – not just those of one particular religion. While we can’t undo the tragic mistakes of the past, we can still have an impact on what IS happening today.
Last summer, our family visited the Martin Luther King National Historic Centre. It is a remarkable repository and worth a visit for anyone travelling to Atlanta Georgia. In 1963, King inspired millions with his vision of racial equality.
My dream is to live in a world where we find ways to respect and accept each other’s religious differences, to confront and banish our own prejudices, fears and hatreds, and to realise we’re all made in the image of the Almighty.
Life’s Theme Tune – 27 January 2017
I’m the kind of person who likes to hum, though clearly not quietly enough to avoid complaints from family and friends. Trained as a rabbi in a liturgical tradition with music that dates back 500 years or more, often a tune jingling in my head is related to the festive season, especially if we have a prayer service upcoming.
There’s a famous story told about the great 20th century symphony conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) who led concerts all over the world. Once while listening to a performance over the radio in the presence of his biographer, he complained ‘there were supposed to be one-hundred and twenty (120) musicians, including 15 violinists. But only 14 of them played.’
The biographer thought Toscanini was winding-him-up and called the concert hall the next day to be told by the director that indeed one of the violinists hadn’t shown up! Amazed, the man then called Toscanini to ask how he knew.
The Maestro explained, ‘There’s a great difference between you and me. As part of the audience, to you everything sounds wonderful. But to the conductor, who knows every note of music, when I realized certain notes were not played, I knew without doubt one of the violinists was missing.’
In Judaism we would say that each of our lives comprises a song, and our lifelong task is to uncover its notes and put them to music. With each of life’s challenges, part of that tune is revealed to us, though often, the full symphony isn’t complete until we reach our advanced years.
Not only are we each a song unto ourselves, but a colleague I’m fond of, says that each of us is part of a much greater symphony. When our voice is missing, when our song is missing – when our lives fail to add goodness to the world – the Heavenly Conductor of the World Symphony knows we are missing. (Fading into humming voice.)
Courage – 3 February 2017
In July my mother who lived in America passed away – after an illness that lasted about 4 months, intensifying briefly before her end. While it wasn’t possible to be there at the final moment of her life, I was with her on 4 separate occasions during the unpredictable swings in her decline.
Motherhood is exceptional – women miraculously grant us life through their bodies. And if we’re fortunate, they occupy a central emotional role during our formative years and beyond.
Children are always a part of their mothers, yet mothers are greater than the sum of their parts. Perhaps for that reason, Judeo-Christianity reveres and commands respect for those who serve as our parents.
My mother lived to be nearly 88 years old. She was immensely courageous in facing her demise, alone, as my father had passed 5 years earlier. Offered the chance last spring for invasive surgery, she politely told her doctors she wanted instead to return to the quiet of her home.
Those who grieve can often be overcome by existential thoughts months after the loss of a loved one. Most religions recognise this and build-in extended periods of mourning and memorializing.
If we calculate the sum total of our days, nearly a third is spent sleeping. Those who work, devote the next, best third, to building a career. If we add in the time it takes to commute, shop, prepare meals, consume them and clean up afterwards, and finally throw in those precious moments sitting in front of the Tele or the computer, there’s not much ‘change’ leftover from a 24-hour day.
Surely human life is comprised of more than just that!
So perhaps this year, more than others, I can’t help but wonder how to honour my parent’s memory and to make best use of the precious gift of life they blessed me with! 1’ 54”
Doing Our Duty – 6 February 2017
(65 years since George VI died & Elizabeth became Queen)
There’s a tradition within Anglo-Jewry that goes back at least to the time of King George III.
Every week in our little synagogue in Elstree & Borehamwood, and in most synagogues around the Commonwealth, Jews recite a prayer for the Monarchy.
In it, we evoke Divine blessings, assistance and protection for ‘our most gracious sovereign Queen Elisabeth, Philip Duke of Edinburgh, Charles Prince of Wales and all the Royal Family.’
The prayer continues in Hebrew, ‘May the Supreme Sovereign of the Universe in mercy preserve them, grant them long life and deliver them from trouble and harm. May the Almighty lengthen the days of their reign, and inspire them and their counsellors with benevolence towards us.’
Just more than a year ago the Queen’s length of service exceeded that of her grandmother Victoria. She’s recently been honoured with a stained glass window at Westminster Cathedral and with the renaming of Parliament’s most iconic clock tower.
Millions listen to her broadcasts and hold her in the deepest of affections. At age 90, Queen Elisabeth II continues to work tirelessly including serving as the patron for many historic charities.
It is said the truest form of leadership is reflected in one’s service to G-d and to others.
In the Biblical period, a Jewish King was required to carry – on his person at all times – a copy of the scriptures. This was to prevent risk of arrogance or despotism, and to serve constantly as a reminder of the responsibilities of being G-d’s anointed.
It is unlikely I shall ever meet the Queen, but were that to happen, and if permitted to speak in her presence, I would share my deep admiration for her 65-years of selfless devotion – steadfast, heartfelt and exemplary. She has inspired millions spanning at least 3 generations – through a life of remarkable service and achievement. Long may she continue!
First Love (Valentines) – 13 February 2017
Growing up as a child in a steel-producing city in the United States, life was regimented and predictable. We went to school, had dinner together as a family every night, and shared all of our holidays with our uncles, aunts and cousins. We were expected to attend university, take up a profession, marry within our own faith, and begin family life not far from where we were raised.
Those who veered off that path were spoken of in quieter voices with a tinge of disappointment or dismay. Yet, somehow, imperceptibly, over the last several decades that’s slowly changed. We now live in a richly, multi-cultural society.
So recently, I was very excited to be invited to a Hindu wedding at the well-known Hare Krishna Temple in Hertfordshire where the ceremony was performed by a Priest who grew up Methodist and converted to Hinduism. The groom, a Hindu, was marrying a Catholic bride. Among the intimate audience of family and friends were a handful of Jews and Christians. A singularly delightful and unique multi-faith celebration even for our times.
Though the ceremony went-on for hours, the novelty of the ritual made me feel the time had passed very quickly. As a practitioner, I was mesmerised by the Priest’s easy blending of ancient custom with contemporary infotainment.
One of my favourite tasks as a rabbi is to perform marriages. Wedding symbolism for good fortune, fertility, long life and abundant love seems to be prevalent among all faiths.
In Jewish tradition the couple stands under a four-post canopy to signify their openness to the world around them, they drink from a silver goblet of wine together to sanctify their commitments to each other, and at the end, the groom breaks a glass to remind all present the world isn’t yet a perfect place.
Long-lasting relationships take much effort, investment and perseverance. Perhaps that’s why we universally celebrate love across all of our traditions!