Category Archives: Thoughts on the Week:

Shemini Atseret – In Search of Joy & Gratitude

Sedra of the Week: Shemini Atzeret

Rabbi Jeff Berger looks ahead to this week’s portion of the Torah

Tefillat Geshem: The Prayer for Rain | My Jewish Learning

Shemini Atzeret has a dual identity. It falls on the eighth day, immediately after Succot. It is a festival in its own right, but without rituals. Yet, like Succot, our prayers refer to it as ‘the time of our happiness’ (zeman simhateinu).

One tradition identified in the Talmud is to recite the Prayer for Rain (Tefillat Geshem) in the Shemini Atzeret Musaf service. 

From ancient times, water was perceived as a precious resource for all living beings, even if in Britain we take it for granted. By contrast, from 2014 to 2019, Israel experienced a drought exceeding anything in its past 100 years. 

In a Mediterranean climate with a few months of rain at best, Tefillat HaGeshem was a way to beseech God to provide precipitation during the winter months. When rains were delayed, leaders instituted a series of public fasts.

Andalusian poet Salomon Ibn Gabirol beautifully articulated our dependence on rain in his poem Shifat Revivim with the refrain. “Open now Your treasure, give life to all into whom You’ve breathed a soul, by causing the wind to blow and the rain to fall.”

Atzeret means ‘gathering’. We also refer to Shavuot as Hag HaAtzeret. The Babylonian Talmud informs us that just as Shavuot comes 50 days after Pesach, Shemini Atzeret was intended to come 50 days after Sukkot, but God had compassion on Jewish farmers, not requiring of them another pilgrimage during the rainy season.

Shemini Atzeret thus inspires joy and gratitude. We seldom appreciate what we have until it’s absent or lost. The past months have shown how blessed we are. 

As winter approaches, practising gratitude allows us to see things as they exist, not as we might wish them to be. Rather than lamenting what we’ve lost, Shemini Atzeret dually teaches us to find joy in what we have and to be thankful.

  •  Rabbi Jeff Berger can be reached at rabbijefflondon


Wearing Masks

Torah For Today! Wearing Masks

Rabbi Jeff Berger takes a topical issue and looks at Jewish texts for a response

Mask (Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash)

Two words in Hebrew describe a mask – masveh and masakh. We find masveh in the Torah following the sin of the Golden Calf. 

Moses’s second 40-day experience atop Sinai, which effected forgiveness for the Israelites, brought the replacement set of tablets. 

To assuage their fears, he temporarily veiled his face. Thereafter, in the presence of the divine, and again when conveying God’s teaching to the nation, his face was allowed to shine. 

But in between those encounters, he masked himself. (Misinterpreting this verse, Michelangelo created the statue of Moses with horns.)

The word masakh appears in the description of the curtain that shielded the entrance to the desert Tabernacle. It served as a decorative tapestry and obstructed a direct public view of the divine service.

In each case, these coverings protected others, preventing them from being overwhelmed by God’s glory.  The Israelites were unable to withstand the unfiltered intensity of the divine presence.

In the context of Covid-19 and our government’s requirement to wear masks in public where social distancing rules can’t be maintained, mask-wearing fulfils an altruistic function. 

Dr Ellie Cannon, who attended the recent Mitzvah Day ‘Mask-making with Hugh Dennis’ online event that I helped to organise, said: ‘There is nothing greater we could do as an act of kindness, or a mitzvah, than wear a mask. My mask protects you and yours protects me.”

As we return to synagogue and Jewish ceremonial life, we will be shielded like Moses. 

Our hope is that one day soon, it will be safe to leave off our masks and again experience among ourselves and with others, without fear, the unfiltered intensity of God’s glory.

  •  Rabbi Jeff Berger can be reached at


Sedra of the week:
Naso – Nobility with Responsibility

Naso – Nobility with Responsibility

Most of the year, Jews around the world read the same parsha. But this week we read Naso, while in Israel they have moved ahead to Beha’alotekha, because the second day of Shavuot coincided with Shabbat.

Naso, meaning “to lift up” or “to appoint”, begins with the designation of the Levi tribe to their respective duties in transporting the disassembled Mishkan (Tabernacle). A variation of the word also appears toward the end of the parsha in describing the gifts brought prior to the Tabernacle dedication by the 12 princes (Nasi – “one who is elevated”, plural Nesi’im).

Rashi explains the Nesi’im had been tribal leaders in Egypt. When Pharaoh sought someone to blame, they took the beating. Through the merit of their suffering, they were privileged to bring these dedication offerings.

Nasi therefore implies “nobility combined with responsibility” in a role that gives purpose to previous suffering and connection to the wider community.

We are in the easing stage of the Covid-19 lockdown, beginning to assess the landscape of how we’ll continue as an Anglo-Jewish community. Early in the crisis, our Jewish leadership heard that noble call and created a relief fund.

Naso reminds us it’s important for all of us to come forward with gifts. Where we may wish to reduce contributions, those who are capable should do their best this year to keep or exceed the same level of giving to the charities of our choice.

The future tense variation of the Naso verb occurs in the Priestly Blessing within the parsha, which states: “(Yisa) May God lift you up and grant you peace!”

Through our re-dedication efforts, may the Almighty grant us a safe return to communal life and to peace.

Click here for link to Jewish News article

Thoughts on the Week 30 June 2016

PREJUDICE – WHERE DOES IT COME FROM? Religious prejudice and racial hatred must be learned emotions. They would have to be acquired at stages in a person’s emotional development because it just seems anathema to human nature to house such baseless, vile behaviour.

This thought was brought home during an Armed Forces Iftar Reception at the Ministry of Defense on Wednesday evening. Commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the WWI Battle of the Somme, the evening attended by the Rt. Hon Earl Howe, Minister of State for Defence, also paid tribute to the overlooked contribution of 400,000 Muslim soldiers during WWI.

After the speeches and presentations, a small group of soldiers and guests from the mixed audience attended to their evening prayers, and then we all joined as they broke their fast for the day. Among them were Muslim soldiers who had already served in Afghanistan.

From where do we get our views of the ‘other/ the outsider’, especially when they’re negative? The Torah often informs that the law for the resident is the same as the law for the stranger.

In many cases our values are acquired first from our homes, from friends and during our education.

Not to draw any parallels but growing up in a Jewish area and attending Jewish schools until finishing secondary education can leave our children with a set of values that may go against the pluralist norm. To what extent such schools succeed in teaching respect, tolerance and acceptance is a topic being debated in the USA of recent. (See this Times of Israel article by Yigal M Gross on the problems of Yeshiva Day Schools).

Here in the UK in the week since Brexit, racial violence and hate crimes have spiked considerably. It might just be useful to remind ourselves that people of ‘good will’ must do more to make our voices heard over and above the voices of hate. For those who haven’t seen the Guardian article on Faith Leaders speaking out against prejudice, here are some quotes.

Justin Welby, the leader of the Church of England, said people of “evil will” were using the referendum result as an excuse to vent their hatred.

“The privilege of democracy is to vote, to campaign vigorously, to have robust and firm discussion. It is not a privilege of democracy to express hatred, to use division as an excuse for prejudice and for hate-filled attacks,” the archbishop of Canterbury said at an iftar meal to break the Ramadan fast with the chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, and the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, on Monday.

A common stand against intolerance, discrimination and hatred was “absolutely crucial for the future of this country, and for rebuilding this country with a new vision of what it means to be outward-looking, generous, hospitable, powerful in doing good, strong in resisting evil”.

Ephraim Mirvis, the chief rabbi, said: “Sadly, we know only too well that when political and economic uncertainty strike, discord and hatred are often not far behind. We must heed this warning that even here in the UK, where we treasure diversity, we are not immune to the scourge of prejudice.”

It is our duty to convey these messages loud and clear within our own communities and to those who may be targets of such discrimination. It’s no longer enough to wait for others to act on our behalf.

Thoughts on the Week 23 June 2016

Friday morning, the British electorate is going to wake with a terrible hangover.

Months ago when it was first announced, there seemed to be a healthy excitement over the European Union In/Out Referendum. And, while undoubtedly it’s good the country has gone through the exercise of defining and examining its priorities, we were naïve not to anticipate how fractiously intolerable the discussions would become.

For the past weeks, other than the 2016 European Champions Cup, the main subject of media focus, in the UK (and briefly around the globe), seemed to be which side was Right. Swings in financial markets were attributed to the uncertain result, and even the Queen was alleged to have shown a subtle interest. It’s almost to the point that one can’t be sure if any other work in this country was being done. Finally, today historically, all that effort will come to a head.

But putting aside what the successful outcome of today’s vote will be, tomorrow and going forward, some will look back in disgust at what we’ve become – a country polarised nearly to the breaking point. Tragically, at the extremes, Member of Parliament Jo Cox, was murdered by a white, middle-aged, mentally-deranged, killer shouting nationalistic slogans. So, the bigger question should be, not ‘who won?’, but ‘what comes next?’!

And, to be fair, this polarising politic is not limited to the UK. In the USA there’s an equally growing division unfolding. Regardless of how one defines the policies & personalities of the designated US presidential candidates, a troubling trend among leading democratic nations is an unbending, inflexible struggle for power, combined with an unwillingness to engage the disenfranchised opposition. This may eventually be linked to an increased class divide in the West.

‘Winner takes all and let the rest be damned’ was never Democracy’s intention. Giving a voice to and representing the needs of the widest public was as much the basis of those cherished late-18th century revolutions as was the desire to escape the tyranny of kings.

Sadly, we may be witnessing in our generation a teetering on-the-verge-of-collapse of a system that’s lasted several hundred years but has now become so fractious that it can’t correct its own faults. Efforts to look more at what we have in common than what separates us are being made at the grassroots level. And the public is in wide support. Proof is in how quickly the charities connected with Jo Cox’s death have drawn in over £1 million – in contribution amounts of £5 each.

The British electorate on Friday morning will wake to hear the results of their historic vote, but to face ourselves in the mirror after the past months of political infighting, name calling, misinformation, abusive behaviour and immigrant intolerance will require a much greater concentration on our shared humanity – the values-in-common we must protect and celebrate rather than those which divide us.

It is hoped we’ll recognise in revulsion that it wasn’t worth the tragic loss of a young woman who dedicated herself to making life better for people in this country and beyond. There’s no turning back time to return an energetic wife and mother to her family nor words that can lift the grievous feelings of bereavement many of us felt.

We learned last week that Kedusha (sanctity) can only exist where there’s an absence of Tumah (ritual impurity). Perhaps this idea can also be extended to mean that Love and Tolerance can only exist where there’s an absence of Hatred and Resentment.

The clever politicians who survive the fallout of an agitated populace (nearly 50% of whom will be disappointed) will need to begin focusing on healing-the-hurt rather than gloating over their victory.

Referendums – really not my cup of tea.

Thoughts on the Week 16 June 2016

Sadly, again this week we begin with condolences to those innocently murdered recently in Orlando and in France, by lone wolves who inflict pain and give birth to further hatred – in a seemingly never-ending cycle. Would gun control be a sufficient deterrent, most likely not! Is crying out for the ban of Muslim immigrants into the USA a solution – definitely not. But both play well as media sound bites to ‘control’ the news flow and create the illusion that the news readers have any more wisdom than we do.

Earlier this week, there was a concert at Central Hall Westminster in support of refugee children living alone in Europe. Performed by the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, now Dr Yusuf Islam, the charity event attracted nearly 1,600 fans – younger and older alike – to listen to familiar tunes from a by-gone period.

The concert was in aid of 3 charities –Small Kindness, Penny Appeal & Save the Children. They operate under the tag line #You Are Not Alone. On Tuesday, the Evening Standard interviewed Yusuf to ask about his work.

Perhaps the first high-profile musician to convert to Islam, at the height of his career his religious convictions took Cat Stevens out of the 1970s music world for over 2 decades. And, though he’s returned to produce 3 records with a 4th due out by the end of this year, the concert focused on his earlier hits; Wild World, Morning has Broken, Moon Shadow, Father & Son and Peace Train.

Members of his charitable foundation attest to the sincerity of a man who hasn’t lost focus of the personal. His philanthropic educational work in the British Muslim community and beyond is well-known. For a period in the late 1980s, he was drawn into controversy (responding with libel suits) relating to accusations about religious statements and beneficiaries of his charity. He’s since been granted 2 honorary doctorates and is largely recognised today as a visionary who supports countless worthy causes.

Those interested in assisting the nearly 95,000 children displaced by Syria’s civil war, can click here for more information (