Freedom & Justice – w/c 15 June 2015
Every year in late spring, Jewish people observe Shavuoth, a festival celebrating the 3,300-year anniversary of the Giving of the 10 Commandments. That monumental event, accompanied by roaring thunder and flashing lightening, changed the history of all mankind.
Since becoming a rabbi I’ve come to understand that those famous engraved stone tablets, conveyed the idea there is a moral imperative and that all of humanity are equal in the eyes of God.
Today, where we view religion as oppressive and antiquated, we’d probably prefer the lighter name ‘life principles’ rather than commandments. Yet, to this day, at least twice a year, the 10 Commandments are read aloud in synagogues, reminding us of our universal duty to G-d and to each other.
Sadly, the original stones have long since disappeared. And the oldest copy of a complete Torah scroll only dates back about 1000 years. But as people, who for a time weren’t permitted to live in the United Kingdom or other parts of Europe, British Jews value this idea of freedom and human rights.
So we will proudly share in the year’s historical celebration of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta – a document symbolically guaranteeing liberty – and enshrining in law – the freedom of all its citizens.
And though Magna Carta’s relevance has undergone great scrutiny and transformation over the last 8 centuries, many recognize that it is still the basis upon which to develop an ‘equal society’. Interestingly, in the late 1200s, the Crown mandated that the Magna Carta also be read before the public twice a year.
Countless celebrations will take place across the country this week. And an original copy of the document from the year 1215 will even be on display at the British Library until September.
And though we all look forward to the fanfare, it is important to remind ourselves that our good fortune – even in the 21st century – is still not fully enjoyed by all, including many who live in other parts of the world.
Facing My Fears – w/c 22 June 2015
At age 9 I remember the telephone ringing during dinner. We were all in the little kitchenette of our home when news arrived that our uncle had been rushed to hospital after suffering a major heart-attack while at the theatre. The call set off a frenzy of activity and caused my parents great distress. This was the first time the threat of ‘death’ intruded into my childhood; and the fear of it sent me upstairs to my room to quietly pray he would survive!
In 2011, as Rabbi of a small community in Hertfordshire, one afternoon the phone rang. The male caller sounded anguished. He apologized but needed to speak with a rabbi urgently – his mother-in-law was dying. That long forgotten childhood Fear instantly pierced my heart. And though in Seminary we trained for this inevitability, I felt unprepared.
Curbing a sense of panic, I asked the caller for details – his mother-in-law’s name, the address and how imminent the situation was – promising to ring him back shortly. Immediately … I called a mentor who rehearsed the rituals with me and then added – ‘stay calm and trust your better instincts’.
At the residence, the son-in-law explained that the lady, nearly 90, had decided to stop eating a few days earlier and was slowly but peacefully slipping into unconsciousness.
The end-of-life ritual in Judaism is probably similar to other religions – a brief confessional prayer and a few minutes of chanting. But, I sensed more was needed. And though we’d never met, instinctively I took this sweet ladies hand and began singing sacred melodies that she would know well. After about 20 minutes when all seemed tearful but calm, I discretely left.
Sadly, a few days later, the family asked if I would conduct the funeral.
Since then there’ve been more than a hundred phone calls, each requiring its own unique response.
We face many fears in life – the fear of death perhaps the hardest. But that first occasion helped me to realize that beneath our deepest fears is a well of hope and courage – which we can all access when listening quietly to our higher instincts.
Faith in Action – w/c 29 June 2015
While officiating as visiting-rabbi in the 250-year-old Plymouth synagogue in Devon not long ago, I was introduced to a young man from Iraq who was seeking asylum. His case began in 2012. It’s gone through several hearings, and he’s now awaiting possibly a final trial next month.
While not expert in law or politics, as a rabbi it was hard not to sympathize with someone who claims to have been beaten in his home country because of his religious beliefs, someone who abandoned all that was familiar to flee to safety. I don’t know how his case
will be resolved. But from the testimony about him provided by those in the Plymouth synagogue who were supporting him out of their own pockets, he seems like someone who would contribute positively to the United Kingdom.
It is said that G-d looks at us the way we look at others. Closing ourselves off to those less fortunate is often too tempting a proposition.
In the Biblical story of the Prophet Elisha and the Widow’s Oil, the prophet performed a miracle allowing the widow to fill nearly endless containers of oil from the small jug she already possessed. When she finished, he advised her to sell the excess and keep the proceeds.
The arguments against supporting refugees are numerous and enormous but when we consider how fortunate we are , it only takes a bit of Faith to realize the important responsibility G-d gave us to care for and help those who are more in need than we are.
Human Resilience – w/c 6 July 2015
Not long ago I witnessed a young driver who must have felt aggrieved when he was inadvertently cut-up. To make a point, he overtook the car ahead of him then slammed on his brakes nearly causing a pile-up. In the car, I also sometimes lose patience with other drivers when those who are ahead of me may be going too slow, especially when I’m in a hurry.
My wife, a paradigm of patience who knows me well, always cautions just before I’m ready to toot the horn. ‘The driver in front of us could be the grandmother of one of our congregants,’ she says. Her comments often have an amusing and disarming effect.
We live with plenty of stress around us – some stresses, like driving, we’re aware of, while some quietly wear away at our souls. Most jobs have stress cycles. Often we also feel overwhelmed by hearing the news, seeing others suffer, experiencing serious illness or generally feeling unable to cope.
One of the greatest causes of stress is the friction between the life we’d like to live and what we feel we’re ‘stuck’ with. My enchanting wife has an even-tempered philosophy for this too. Our happiness is based on a balance of effort and expectations.
If I was a farmer, she says, growing apples, as long as the harvest exceeded forecast, I should be happy. If there’s a bad crop this year and yields are low, it would be upsetting.
The farmer can’t control things like the price of apples or the weather. These elements are where the role of Faith comes in. The only thing we can control is our attitude. So we pray that our positive efforts lead us to good results.
The well-known Serenity Prayer authored by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr expresses this best:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference
In addressing our daily stresses, if we stop and look more carefully, relief is usually not so far away.
Celebration – w/c 13 July 2015
In the United Kingdom it happens about 80 times per hour or nearly 57,000 times per month. Sometimes it takes years of effort and anticipation, and other times it seems accidental. It occurs to the rich and to the poor, in cities and in villages. Yet every time it happens, we’re struck with a sense of awe. The birth of a new child is miraculous!
A rabbi is not an obstetrician but there are occasions when it almost feels that way. My wife and I have been called in the middle of the night when couples with young children – who don’t have relatives living nearby – go into labour and rush off to hospital. On one occasion we looked after a 2-year old for 24 hours until his sibling was born.
Other stories include the unexpected home delivery when a mother isn’t able to make it to hospital on time. And while we’ve only been present at the birth of our own children, having opportunity to see a one-day old child and the joy it brings to young families – is a transformative experience.
In Judaism we believe having a child is not just the ‘natural’ result of human reproduction, but that children are a gift from G-d. Necessarily, we develop a sense of responsibility and over-protection that never ends. We feel obliged to provide not only for their physical needs but for their moral and ethical training as well.
A lovely custom that illustrates this sense of communal celebration and nurturing is the ‘meal Rota’. For about 2 weeks after a new mother returns home, ladies in the community take turns preparing a full day’s meal for the family. It lifts the unnecessary pressure of domestic chores from the mother, allowing her to rest and gradually regain her strength.
As a community, we watch our children grow to become young adults. We pray for the opportunity to celebrate happy milestones together, never forgetting what a miracle birth is.
Best Advice I’ve Been Given – w/c 20 July 2015
Every business has its challenges. In the early noughties, I worked in London as European sales manager for a Japanese firm selling consumer electronics. At the time I told myself that technology enhanced people’s lives and made for a better society.
Our company’s Asian factories churned out great products – admittedly with the occasional hiccup – and we sold lots of gadgets in markets from Ireland across to Russia. It was fascinating to see how each country had its own cultural tastes, its own design preferences and especially its own adverts. So our quarterly production and sales meetings were a kind of mini-United Nations with at least half a dozen languages being spoken.
But people and industries change over time and after several years of excellent results and a few awards, I began to enjoy the task less and question the true benefit my work really provided. As is well known today, physical goods such as computers, home electronics and the like, lose their value as soon as the box is opened. As I grew closer to being half a century old, the unspoken question wouldn’t go away. ‘Is this the best I could do with my life?’
At the time, a good friend who’s known me since university, advised considering a career change. He saw how important religion had been to me over the years and advised studying to become a rabbi. Not an easy choice, it meant giving up the business travel, the perqs, a decent salary and what most people considered a respectable career, to leave the workplace, retrain and learn new skills.
It also meant learning to invest and have faith in the ‘goodness’ of people even when they didn’t behave that way. But, thankfully, my new work provides a wonderfully different kind of satisfaction – the opportunity to impact positively on the spiritual lives of other’s.
In business it’s easy to become cynical and though I miss commercial work and the wealth it created, as a rabbi it’s equally rewarding to be involved in creating a community with spiritual values.
Finding G-d in Unusual Places – w/c 27 July 2015
Japan has fewer bank holidays than the UK. In summer, O-Bon is the 3-day Buddhist festival to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors. People return to their ancestral villages, and visit and clean their family graves. It’s a time of going from house-to-house drinking and eating meals together. The popular belief is that during O-bon, one’s ancestral spirits revisit the family household.
During my second summer in Japan one of the other foreign students organized a 2-night stay in a mountain cabin in the Japan Alps during the O-Bon holiday. We would leave on Sunday morning from Asakusa Station heading north by train for about 2 hours – departure was at 10:40am.
Thereafter, we’d take a bus to the base of Mt Nasu and a cable car to the top, then walk another 7 kilometers to our cabin. The reward was 2 nights in an area with relaxing outdoor thermal springs!
I can’t recall why but the 10:40am train came and went without me.
Innocently I decided to take the next departure. But when I got to the bus depot the ticket salesman said that ‘by the time we arrived at the mountain, the cable car would be closed’.
There’d be no way to reach the cabin by nightfall.
In the queue behind me was a young, Japanese ‘salaryman’ and, despite the long weekend, he’d just managed to leave the office and was headed to visit his rural relatives. Overhearing my dilemma he immediately offered, ‘you can come to our village and then early tomorrow get the cable car.’
Surprised – but curious – I accepted … and soon learned that his uncle was an 11th generation Shinto Priest; their family had owned the village shrine for more than 200 years. And despite me being a foreigner, they treated me to the warmest hospitality.
I never did catch-up with my classmates but that weekend’s unexpected adventure and the kindness of a complete stranger, showed me that G-d can be found in the most unusual of places.
My Most Memorable Holiday – w/c 3 August 2015
Not long after moving to the United Kingdom in 2000, my wife and I began taking our annual holidays to destinations in the Indian Ocean. We tried Mauritius one year, the Seychelles the next. But probably our most memorable holiday ever was in the Maldives archipelago.
The Maldives is a tropical nation in the Indian Ocean comprised of 26 coral atolls, each made up of hundreds of islands. It is known for its white-sand beaches, blue lagoons, and extensive reefs giving shelter to rare species of whales, turtles and tropical fish.
During mid-winter in England we arrived in the capital and transferred to a connecting flight which took us to Filitheyo Island in the Faafu Atoll.
Pale-skinned and fleeing the European darkness, suddenly we were near the Equator in bright sun with temperatures above 30 degrees! There were 16 of us, most were newlyweds. Each had those large hard-shell suitcases advertised on TV, the kind a gorilla couldn’t break open.
Transferred to the nearby aerodrome by motorized rickshaw, we boarded a sea-plane. And after a short flight we landed in the water and taxied up to a large uncovered raft in the middle of the ocean – just big enough to hold all of us … and our over-sized suitcases.
Then the plane departed, leaving us standing, dazed by the intense sun, surrounded by a vast ocean. Flying fish whizzed by in schools before diving back into the water. Unsure what to do next we were soon relieved to see a handful of local boats coming to collect us.
For two amazing weeks we forgot about the harsh European climate, office politics, the mortgage, and all our other daily burdens – and marveled at the incredible underwater ecosystem.
Kind David in Psalms cried out ‘How great are thy works O Lord, Thy thoughts are very deep.’ What better way to appreciate G-d’s Creation, than to experience such Divine underwater life.