Inspirations from Literature – w/c 8 September 2014
I’ve always enjoyed reading with my children. Since they were young we’ve gone on countless journeys together, discovering new and exciting stories and introducing some classics from my childhood.
But as they’ve grown I can’t help but notice their bookshelves are full of stories about somewhat rebellious young characters – fighting dark enemies, dealing with vampires or working as spies.
As a young man, I was fond of the adventure stories of Jules Verne, the French-born science-fiction novelist. In particular I remember 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and perhaps that underwater adventure was what prepared me for the first time I read the Book of Jonah.
It’s the one about a reluctant young prophet called upon by God to realize his potential. The only problem is that Jonah’s not convinced being a prophet, and the responsibility it entails, is what he wants to be doing.
So he jumps on a ship thinking it’s a good way to avoid facing God … only for it to be tempest-tossed. Eventually, he’s thrown overboard by the ship’s captain and crew and is swallowed by a whale – there he spends three days until finally agreeing to accept his Divine mission.
What I like most about the book of Jonah is that it’s essentially a short story – just 4 chapters – about a teenage boy who’s forced to grow up fast. His naivety in thinking he can hide from God, his self-absorbed tendencies, his willingness to risk grave danger by being thrown overboard, possibly to his death! And, finally, after a gruelling physical challenge, accepting his prophetic mission – yet resenting its success.
The story of Jonah reminds me, that like it or not, sometimes we all just need to ‘grow-up’ a bit and take time to search and listen within ourselves to our true calling.
I have to admit I’ve not yet tried getting the children to read the Bible, but I think it would sit pretty easily amongst their current selection of teenage adventures with heroes battling to find themselves and succeeding.
Momentous Decisions – w/c 15 September 2014
Thirty years ago young men from aspirational, middle-class Jewish families in the US didn’t take ‘time out’. But I had just announced to my family, plans to spend a year studying in Israel before starting university. My dear parents feared the worst!
‘Why would you waste an entire year?’ teachers and friends asked. I wasn’t sure of the answer but was determined to find out.
It was an opportunity to live away from home and adapt to the customs and language of another country. I could visit the holiest sites of the three Abrahamic faiths, meet backpackers from around the world, and for the first time be fully responsible for my own decisions.
The school I studied at was headed by a striking man called Rabbi Noah Weinberg. Descended from a long line of Jewish scholars, he was a towering figure – over 6 feet tall, trim, upright, with white flowing beard. Then aged about 50, his eyes sparkled with vitality and he always seemed to be smiling.
He played the role of philosopher/ educator, disarmingly asking his students the simplest questions – ‘What are you living for?’ ‘What is the purpose of your Life?’
As a young man with few serious responsibilities it was easy to ‘agonize’ over such questions. He explained at the one extreme a person could choose to be a hedonist, not caring for anything but their own pleasures – while at the other, an altruist, taking responsibility to help make the world a better place. Where did we choose to fit in?
When I returned home the routine of university and career took hold but Rabbi Weinberg’s questions always stuck with me, ‘What am I living for? What is my purpose in life?’
Marrying a woman from a different culture, moving with her to a new country and late in life embarking on a career as a communal rabbi, were decisions driven in part by these questions.
In retrospect, my parents were brave to let me ‘waste’ a year – it helped shape my life in more ways than I expected.
Treasured Possessions – w/c 22 September 2014 (Rosh HaShanah)
Time. You know … the personal time that accumulates into a human life. It’s never long enough!
So, it troubles me immensely whenever someone says ‘I’m just killing time’ – which usually means distracting themselves until the next really important thing happens.
My father, who had the habit of waking up at 5:00am every day, once asked me during my indolent teenage years ‘what would you do if you had $86,000 to spend today?’
At the time I had the habit of sleeping late and in the haze of waking, wasn’t sure if he was breaking the news we’d won the National Lottery or if he was just being facetious. It turns out to have been the latter. He wanted me to realize there are 86,400 seconds in a day – each with great potential.
This week we celebrated the Jewish New Year, Rosh HaShana. It is what Jews believe to be the birthday of Creation and an awesome day of reckoning before God.
Whether taken literally or metaphorically, Rosh HaShana requires Jew’s to ask ourselves the question, ‘how have I spent the last year of my life? Have I used my time well?’
One of my earliest memories of Rosh HaShana is being 5 or 6 years old. Mum would dress us boys in tiny dark suits, white shirts and clip-on neckties, so we could walk with our father the 15-minute journey from home to the synagogue. I still remember the warmth of his hand holding mine.
In 2011 my father died. And now that my children are old enough, they walk hand-in-hand with me to synagogue. Hopefully I can convey to them my father’s appreciation for time.
You know, that personal time that accumulates into a human life … it’s never long enough. But the memories we create with it, are the most treasured possessions we have.
Atonement – w/c 29 September 2014 (Kippur)
A friend told me the other day about a group of people with whom he had done business, who earlier this year harmed him financially and never apologised. When he saw them recently he was surprised by the intensity of the rage boiling inside him.
There’s nothing worse than a situation turned sour. Especially when it involves people you know or are close to. Like a bad song playing on constant repeat, there are vivid memories of what happened and what was said. How they behaved and how you responded.
It made me think of the biblical account of the Giving of the 10 Commandments. The most important event in Israelite history was spoiled by a small group who instead created the Golden Calf.
Quickly grasping the severity of the situation, Moses appealed to God to ask forgiveness and apologize on behalf of those who acted wrongly.
His effort diffused the situation immediately, putting in place a process of atonement – recurring every year in the Jewish calendar on Yom Kippur. It’s the day we ask forgiveness for sins committed against God, for ways we may have mistreated friends, colleagues or family. It’s also an opportunity to apologize for negative things we’ve done to ourselves.
Over the years I’ve noticed, the older I get, the more heavily the past weighs on my mind. But I’ve also come to recognize that dwelling on the past doesn’t resolve it.
A senior colleague from the Church of England once explained beautifully, that bearing a grudge or hating someone who’s harmed us, is like holding a glass shard; the more we hate, the tighter we squeeze … We’re the only ones to suffer.
Today is Yom Kippur – an opportunity to break any cycles of self-destructive behaviour and return to our true selves! I hope those who hurt my friend make amends but equally so, I pray he will find the immense relief and peace Yom Kippur offers.
Harvest – w/c 6 October 2014 (Sukkot)
There’s a Pick-Your-Own farm in Enfield not far from where we live. Every year it opens around late May and closes by the end of October. They mostly grow soft fruits and root vegetables. Depending on the summer weather, the sweet corn can also be delicious.
At least once or twice every season we try to take the children there; not just because fresh picked vegetables and fruits taste so much better than from the store, but because we want our city-raised children to know where food really comes from.
There are a few messages we hope they take away from the experience. They should feel with their own hands how the Earth is sacred, and though it is muddy and messy, if treated well it can produce an abundance of wonderful food that sustains human life. And we want them to learn that they can only harvest what was already planted, and by extension, that most important things in life require advance planning.
We’re in the midst of the Jewish Festival of Sukkot this week. Known in English as the Festival of Booths, historically it was an agricultural festival coinciding with the autumn harvest. Our ritual requires building a temporary outdoor living structure called a Sukkah intended for use during the week-long holiday.
Sukkot is a joyous time in the Jewish calendar, one associated with the idea of Faith in G-d. In ancient times, farmers gave thanks for their bountiful harvest. Today, jokingly, we tell ourselves ‘one really needs lots of faith to assemble an open-air booth to use for a week during the British autumn’. Inevitably it rains at least a few times while we’re dining there.
But there’s another message about agriculture we’d like our children to understand which is more profound. The way we treat our fellow human beings is also the way the earth will treat us.
And, just as those who came before us planted so that we could enjoy the ‘fruits’ of their labours, I pray my generation does enough for our children, teaching them to do the same for those who follow afterwards.
Sharing Good Things – w/c 13 October 2014 (Simhat Torah/ Bereishith)
Once a month in our Rambam Sephardi Jewish community in Borehamwood, we hold a cooking event, open to children, aged 12 and above, as well as to adults. It’s run by Danine, a vivacious mother of 3 who loves cooking passionately.
Held in her kitchen, the volunteers cook-up a 2-course, sumptuous vegetarian meal for about 40 people. But they don’t eat it. The food is distributed to a ‘shelter’ in town the following day.
Personally, my cooking skills are limited to making omelets and opening a box of cereal when I’m hungry. So for me, the experience was limited to chopping vegetables or spreading on toppings at the end. But what impresses me about Danine is her infectious energy and immense patience with her volunteer cooks. It’s not just her enthusiasm for cooking that she imparts to those in her kitchen – it’s her belief in the importance of what we’re doing.
In the Torah there’s a concept called ‘shemitah’ or Sabbatical year. One way ‘shemitah’ is observed is that every seven years in the Land of Israel farmers are obliged to give their fields a break – literally they let them lie fallow and not cultivate them. During this time, farmers also give up personal ownership of their fields – meaning whatever produce grows on its own, is considered communal property, free for anyone to take.
Let’s be honest, it takes enormous trust to observe Shemitah – to believe that God will provide even though we’re not working the land. But it also takes enormous heart and generosity of spirit to open up and reach out to those less fortunate and share the food you’ve worked hard to produce.
It’s almost a year since we began hosting our volunteer cooking club. But as well as benefitting the recipients, the impact it has had on volunteers has been just as significant.
Putting effort into something we give away undoubtedly has a positive benefit. As we chop and peel, saute and stir – there’s plenty of opportunity to think about what we can make, share and give away.
The Power of Knowledge over Ignorance – w/c 20 October 2014
Bedtime in our household never quite runs like clockwork. During the school term when the children must wake at 7:00am, they always seem to have too much energy at night and can’t fall asleep on time.
Though most evening’s it’s my chore to get them ready, I confess they’ve learned to outsmart me on a regular basis. They’ll ask for a snack, hide under their beds, refuse to brush their teeth or turn on a reading light and stay awake. It takes great patience to refrain from yelling at them.
My wife who arrives home later, and who is much more the disciplinarian between us, asks ‘so how did it go tonight?’
Through experience, I’ve learned to spare us both the agony of another conversation about parenting skills – by simply replying ‘it was fine dear’ – justifying the response to myself with the notion, ‘what you don’t know probably won’t hurt you.’
Many of us have the habit of bending the truth so others will hear what they want, either to save anguish, to avoid confrontation or perhaps for more sinister reasons. This happens between parents & children and between spouses no matter their age.
Sadly, it becomes increasingly harder for us to distinguish between a white lie and outright self-deception.
In the Book of Genesis, G-d asks Adam, ‘Did you eat from the Tree of Knowledge I commanded you to refrain from? Adam’s immediate reply was ‘The woman you gave me, she gave it to me to eat.’ For his ingratitude to G-d, Adam’s punishment was more severe than had he simply admitted his own crime.
Perhaps this week I’ll tell my wife what really happens during the children’s bedtime ritual, but I think she already knows!
Music – w/c 27 October 2014 (Faith in the World Week)
In my 20’s, I moved from New York City to Tokyo to study at a top Japanese university. The girl I’d eventually marry went there, and they had a special course in English for international students.
We’d met the previous summer as undergraduates on a month-long exchange programme in the US, and I believed, despite the enormous differences in our backgrounds, the relationship could work.
One of my first impressions of Tokyo was waking up at 4:00am in a Youth Hostel on the 21st floor of a central Tokyo high-rise. Outside I heard the sound of the Boso-zoku motorcycle warriors revving their engines on the boulevard below. In synchrony a flock of huge black birds flew past the glass window in the lounge. I’d arrived in the country of the modern-day Samurai and wondered what I was doing so far from home.
These were the days when telephones were still the main means of instant communication. And the previous day we’d arranged to meet at nearby Hibiya Park this afternoon in front of one of their large fountains.
It was a bit surreal walking from Yurakucho Station to the park, not yet being able to read the street signs. But once there, I bought a cold drink, settled down on a bench, opened a Japanese language primer, turned on my Walkman and waited. I was listening to Leonard Cohen, a cult favourite then, who had recently released what would become his stellar hit ‘Hallelujah’.
Perhaps it was the angelic music of the chorus, but when she arrived I somehow knew everything from here on would be alright. This past summer was our 20th anniversary.
On Friday nights in a Jewish home, husbands sing to their wives the chapter in Proverbs describing a ‘Woman of Valour whose Value is Greater than Rubies’. It’s also sung when couples are under the marriage canopy, the chupah.
Recently, it’s become popular at weddings to sing these verses to the tune of ‘Hallelujah’, and as the officiating Rabbi, I can’t hold back an enormous smile when the music begins.