12/25/2014

Shabbat Vayigash

Candles Friday 26th 4:14pm
Havdalah 27th 5:10pm
The Fast of the 10th of Tevet is next Thursday.

I was brought up in a culture where one was taught to avoid being aggressive, not advertise oneself, instead to be modest and self-effacing. The idea of a perfect Englishman was to remain discrete and restrained. The benefit of this is that one does not rush to speak one's mind or to come to conclusions. One thinks before one acts. Of course the disadvantage of such an approach is that you tend to prevaricate or appease, as Britain did with Hitler until it was almost too late. Indeed the Jews of Persia have often been referred to as “the Jews of Silence” because they too preferred not to make waves, living in an alien Shiite culture. So too were the Jews of Russia under Communism. So which is better, to be open, strong, fight for what we believe in, or to be passive and hope things turn out right?

The Torah gives us examples of both. But this week it is Yehudah, the fourth brother, who emerges as the strongest, most forthright defender of the brothers and Benjamin. Whereas Reuven, the first born, the less open, the more compromising, is all but ignored.

We live in a world where compromises are necessary. We are all so interdependent. And yet if we do not fight for our rights, no one else will do it for us.

12/04/2014

Shabbat Vayishlach

Candles December 5th 4:08pm
Havdalah December 6th 5:03pm

The dramatic encounter between Yaakov and Esav has come to be regarded as probably the most significant event in the Torah for relations between Jews and non-Jews. Two brothers compete for love and for a heritage. They part company as enemies. They meet again after many years with anxiety and hesitancy. They finally reconcile but go their separate ways.

Esav in late Talmudic tradition becomes Rome/Christianity and Ishmael becomes Islam even though neither of those people or religions were in existence for hundreds, indeed over a thousand years after the Biblical encounter. Since the Bible could not possibly have had Christianity or Islam in mind, how did this association come about? And should we conclude that just as Yaakov and Esav were eventually reconciled so too the Nations of the World will one day be reconciled to Israel?

“It is a well known rule that Esav will always hate Yaakov.” It's a post Talmudic statement of course that reflects the suffering of Jews in Medieval times particularly at the hands of Jews and Christians and one is obliged to take notice of history. Nowadays that the cries of “death to Jews” is heard again both in Christian and Muslim societies we would be stupid not to take heed and respond.

Even so it would be wrong, both morally and traditionally to think that everyone is like that or that it must always be so. Just as we ourselves have self-hating Jews so too does every other group in society have those who go against the current and can think for themselves.

But the text of the Torah says something more. After the struggle with the Angel it says that Yaakov will now be called “Yisrael” because “you have fought with God and man and have survived.” Just as we have those within our ranks who fight us politically, so too do we have those who struggle with religion, with God. Some of us often find religion a struggle. But we can overcome. So too can others.

11/27/2014

Shabbat Vayetzey

Candles Friday 4.12pm
Havdalah 5.15pm

Last week we read about what looked like Jacob taking advantage of Esav when he exchanged soup for the birthright. And then Jacob and his mother deceive Isaac in order to receive Isaac’s blessing even though God had already promised it to Jacob.

This has often created difficulties for the commentators and one of the main responses is that in this week’s reading we see Jacob being deceived himself when Laban “misleads” him over whether he was to marry Leah or Rachel. There is a principle in the Talmud “The way one treats people is the way you will be treated back.” But that cuts both ways.

Whatever way one may be inclined to criticize Jacob, the measure of a great leader is his ability to deal with his opponents in the appropriate way even if it might not have been the way he personally would have chosen to act.

The truth is that Esav did not care about his birthright. Even so he would never have accepted that Jacob was a more God fearing person. Indeed he claims wrongly that Jacob stole it. When he did not. It was the blessing he gained by devious means. Even so Isaac refused to retract it when he discovered it was Jacob he had given it to, not Esav.

Yet Jacob pays Laban back for his deception and the cycle continues. In the end Jacob breaks that cycle when he returns home and makes peace with Esav. In the end Jacob gained nothing materially and Esav inherited all his father’s property. So clearly he was not out to gain financially.

There are two conclusions. One is that if you are dealing with dishonest people always be on your guard and you may need to deal differently to the way you normally do. The other is that one can always make amends. It’s never too late to change.

11/20/2014

Shabbat Toldot

Mevarchin Rosh Hodesh Kislev
Candles Friday 21st November 4.13pm
Havdalah 22nd 5.10pm

Here’s a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest “ Good wombs have borne bad sons.” I can’t think of a more apposite quote for this week’s Torah reading. Rivkah our saintly mother produced twins, one good, Yaakov, and the other bad “Esav.” Both had the same parents, the same upbringing and yet they turned our very differently.

In Shakespeare’s day it was an argument between “Nature and Nurture.” In our day we argue as to whether the Genes or the Environment have a greater impact on how our children turn out.

There are lots of experiments that show that identical twins separated at birth still show common traits years later and conversely we have all come across families in which children turn out very differently, one disciplined and ambitious, the other lazy, indulgent and self-absorbed. And of course we have also come across families where everyone is self-motivated and others where everyone turns out to be a bum.

But was Esav such a bad guy? Sure he was a physical, passionate person, given to rash, ill-considered actions. Not the best man to lead a tribe that believed in deferring gratification and taking a longer view.

But, he was a loyal devoted son to his father, desperately wanted his blessing and only threatened to kill Yaakov after he got the blessing through subterfuge. Esav saw his parents did not like his choice of women so he tried to do better the second time round. And he and Yaakov made up in the end and both helped bury their parents. It is hard to say that Esav was completely bad person.

The moral is that you can never tell. Good parents do their best but there are never guarantees. That's so for life in general. If we do our best we will have more opportunities to succeed.

But even pious Jews at prayer, wearing talit and tefillin can still be hacked to death by barbarians as we saw in Har Nof this week. There are no guarantees. But we must still try our best.

11/13/2014

Shabbat Chayey Sarah

November 14th Candles 4:19pm
November 15th Havdalah 5:13pm

This week’s reading from the Torah starts off by recording Sarah’s death and then goes on to say that “Avraham came to mourn her and to cry over her.”

In general there are two very different processes involved when someone dies. First comes the shock of the loss and then the adjustment. Sometimes the shock is so great that the adjustment takes a very long time. Psychologically there are so many different levels of loss. Each one affects us differently. There is no single way or responding and no fixed time it takes to get over the shock and adjust.

In the Jewish tradition we have two very different processes, the private and the public. The first is the formal, the burial, the Shiva that lasts for seven days, the most intense ritual where the community gathers round to give moral support, to take care of the mourners as they try to come to terms with their loss. Then the Shiva forces us to formalizes the mourning and give it communal expression. This is followed by a thirty day period of less strict mourning when we return to normal daily activity and this second degree of mourning lasts for a year in the case of our parents.

The public, formal, periods of mourning have a different function to the personal loss which cannot really be dealt with in a public way. Dealing with loss takes time. The Talmud implies that it takes a whole year before ones heart adjusts to loss.

In Avraham’s case it seems he goes through the formal mourning, the hesped, first and then cries over his loss after that. This seems counter intuitive. Surely one cries first and then adjusts. It seems to me that the Torah is saying that one simply has to get a grip on oneself in order to arrange all the things necessary for burial and cope with the communal mourning and only then, perhaps when one is alone can one really begin the process of crying that leads to healing.

May we be spared sadness and be blessed with joy.

10/30/2014

Shabbat Lech Lecha

Candles Oct 31 5.33pm
Havdalah Nov 1st 6.37pm

God’s promises to Abraham are expressed in this week’s reading of the Torah. He tells him to leave his birthplace, that he will succeed and be blessed. Later on there are two covenants in which God promises that the land from the Mediterranean to the Two Rivers would be his and his children’s. And at the same time he promises that Ishmael too will be blessed.

What is the nature of a Divine promise? It is a way of saying, “You have the capacity to achieve this.” But still it depends on your own efforts if you are to succeed or not. Its not unlike a parent seeing the capacities of his or her children, putting all their love and support into them and hoping they will succeed. But they can never be sure how things will work out.

This commitment is explained in the Torah, this week, through the idea of a covenant, a Brit.

In the first, the “Covenant of Parts" God intervenes to ignite a sacrifice that Abraham has prepared. This mystical capacity to intervene in human affairs can happen, but one can never predict when or how . So one has to get on with ones life nevertheless. One can access this spirit through Torah, prayer ( meditation) and good deeds but, again, one can never be sure of the results. This is Divine pro-action.

The second Covenant, circumcision, symbolizes dedicating our bodies to a higher authority; our commitment to an ideal. But a once only commitment is not good enough. Life is a constant struggle and we have to go on trying our best to be good and to succeed. This is human pro-action.

Despite Gods initial promises, encouragement and support Abraham still had to face famine, war, competition, tragedy, family conflicts and a wife in a state of crisis. He did not expect everything to go smoothly and yet he survived and flourished.

As the rabbis say in the Talmud, “We cannot rely on miracles.” The message is that God helps those who help themselves and even if one is fortunate to receive Divine help, one never know when or how it will come about.

10/23/2014

Rosh Hodesh Cheshvan

Candles Friday 24th 5.42pm
Havdalah 25th 6.36pm

Those of you who have seen Hollywood’s recent version of Noah starring Russel Crowe will know how much fanciful material was added to the Biblical story. Some of it actually has a source in Midrash most of which was written down a thousand years after the Torah. And in a way we keep on adding to Midrash whenever we try to find explanations or lessons that are relevant to us today. The Hebrew word Darshan, the person who explains the Torah in lectures or sermons is the same word as Midrash. The difference lies in authority.

The Torah tells us almost nothing about Noah’s sons except in the case of Ham whose son Canaan was cursed for seeing Noah drunk and naked and making fun of him (some Midrashim say he did something much worse). The narrative is hinting at the reason for the Israelites future displacement of the Canaanites for their corruption and immorality. All three sons had an identical background yet one of them seems to have spawned more evil than the others.

And indeed we see all around us different cultures and different people within cultures who are more violent or more corrupt than others. Some cultures glorify violence and death more than others. Like the Canaanites, those that choose violence end up destroying themselves.

The message I derive is clear, that good moral education starts at home and can have a profound impact on the way our children lead their lives. But it also illustrates how even within perfect homes some children do not always turn out the way parents hope. It may not be because of anything we have done. The more we understand of genes the more we realize that humans are are capable of being both better and worse than the examples they have seen around them.

10/07/2014

Sukot Timetable

For Sukot we will be back on the ground floor in our usual, but now refurbished, synagogue. Entrance is on East 68th Street. There will be a Sucah there and lulavim and etrogim will be available during the service.

Erev Sukot October 8th
Candles 6.07pm

1st Day Sukot October 9th
Shaharit 9.30am
Torah 10.15am
Speech 11.30 am

Evening Candles 7pm

2nd Day Sukot October 10th
Shaharit 9.30am
Torah 10.15am
Speech 11.30am

Shabbat Candles 6.09pm

Shabbat Hol Ha’moed Sukot October 11th
Shaharit 9.30am
Torah 10.15am
Speech 11.30am

Havdalah 6.52pm

Hoshana Rabah October 15th
Erev Shmini Atzeret Candles 5.56pm

Shmini Atzeret October 16th
Shaharit 9.30am
Torah 10.15am
Speech 11.30am

Simhat Torah Candles 6.49pm
We join the main service at Park East for the evening.

Simhat Torah Friday October 17th
Shaharit 9.30am
Torah 10.15am
Dancing and refreshments 11.30am

Shabbat Candles 5.35pm

Shabbat Bereishit October 18th
Shaharit 9.30am
Torah 10.15am
Speech 11.30am

Havdalah 6.46pm

10/02/2014

Timetable for Yom Kipur 2014/5775

Friday October 3
Candles 6.15 pm
Fast begins 6.20
Mincha 6.30 pm
Kol Nidrei 7 pm

Saturday October 4
Shacharit 9.15 am
Torah 10.30 am
Musaf 12 am
Mincha 4.30 pm
Neilah 6 pm
Fast ends 7.08 pm

There will be children's supervised activities in the classrooms from 11.30 onwards.
Please remember not to bring cellphones to the synagogue and to respect the atmosphere for those who wish to pray and mediate.
If you want to talk please do so outside the sanctuary. 
Please ask your children play outside and not disturb those praying. 
Thank you.

9/18/2014

Shabbat Nitzavim and Vayeyleh

Candles Friday 6:38 pm
Havdalah Saturday 7:40 pm

Don't forget Rosh Hashanah begins next Wednesday evening.

In this double parsha we read from the Torah this week, there are three underlying themes.

We are heirs to a tradition that started at Sinai over three thousand years ago, long before any other monotheistic religion. Metaphorically, we all stood there to receive and commit ourselves o perpetuating that tradition.

Human beings by nature are changeable, malleable and fickle. Many of us will inevitably turn our backs on our tradition and simply lose out by rejecting it.

But just as significant is that many of us will always return to our tradition and thus we will defy the odds and survive.

If we look back at history, these statements have all been born out. We have always managed to survive and Judaism has been kept alive in the face of world opposition. Many Jews have assimilated or been lost in other ways. And yet despite it all we are still here.

What an appropriate message for this time of the year as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah and the inevitable question, “Where do I stand and what am I doing to help keep us alive.”

8/28/2014

Shabbat Shoftim

Candles 29th at 7:13
Havdalah 30th at 8:06 pm

The Torah insists that a just society should have a system of judges and policemen. Judges establish the law and policemen enforce it. It then goes on to asset that the criteria for both should be that they are committed to justice and do not take bribes or give preference to the rich and powerful over the poor and weak.

This was written thousands of years ago and yet the sad fact is that it is very, very rare even in modern enlightened states that this is the case.

In the USA judges are often elected and to gain re-election they become indebted to donors and people who might help them get re-elected. We have seen how a Brooklyn DA was so indebted to some ultra Orthodox communities that he refused to pursue some scandalous cases of child abuse amongst those communities. And that was the tip of the iceberg. Politicians become so indebted to their donors they often vote against what they believe in to keep campaign promises. Ambassadors are appointed very often simply because of how much they helped a President get elected.

The same goes for policemen. We see all the time how politicians intervene, influence police policies, appointments and practices. Police themselves are often bribed and guided not by fairness but by interests and power. This cannot be just or fair and it is not. America may well be better than most other countries but it is still far from following the principles the Torah laid out so long ago.

And we too in our communities put too much emphasis on wealthy and powerful members and not enough on those less fortunate or the poor, the needy and the disadvantaged. That is not what the Torah asks or demands of us.

8/14/2014

Shabbat Eykev

Candles Friday 15th at 7:34
Havadalah 16th at 8:30pm

This week we read this phrase from the Torah. “And you shall eat and be satisfied and you should bless, thank, your God for the good land He has given you.” It sounds obvious enough and from this we derive the principle in Judaism of the beraha, the blessing, the obligation to appreciate and to give thanks.

“Sure“ you might say “that’s obvious and I do it all the time.” But do we? I suggest we do not. I cannot tell you how many times I see people sit down to eat in kosher restaurants, at festive occasions or simply having a snack. They tuck into their food without a second thought and certainly without blessing God beforehand or afterwards. Without thinking where the food came from or about our good fortune. How many people do not have enough food or water for sustenance.

People often say that the laws of Kashrut are complicated, burdensome and unnecessary. But the fact is we need these laws and customs to remind us every day, every time we eat, to think before we eat and to appreciate how fortunate we are to be able to eat and drink as much as we like and often more than is necessary.

People often say they can be good or spiritual without having to keep the laws and rules. But the sad human fact is that without the obligation most of us either forget or can’t be bothered. We take it all for granted.

7/24/2014

Shabbat Masei

Rosh Hodesh Av Monday July 28th
Candles Friday 25th 7.58pm
Havdalah 26th 8.52pm

This week the Torah lists all the places the Children of Israel camped at during their 40 year trek from Egypt to Israel. The lands conquered and not yet, are then allocated to the tribes as the narrative of the Torah concludes before the final push over the river Jordan into the Land of Israel. Remember the last book of the Torah, Devarim is essentially a revision of the forty years and a repetition of the laws.

Two seemingly unimportant issues are added to this narrative. One is the idea of Cities of Refuge. If one was suspected of a crime or had unintentionally committed one, a person might in that time (as in parts of the world today) be killed as part of a blood feud. To avoid this one could escape to one of twelve cities (really towns) of refuge, cities inhabited mainly by priests but functioning as any other settlement would so that one could continue an occupation and earn a living. There one could live with one’s family protected until the wheels of justice finally settled the issue (or the High Priest died). It was a crucial component in the penal system. Unlike our modern concept if prison (incarceration). It symbolized the need to preserve the pace, to control hotheads and to provide refuge for whoever felt threatened even by members of one’s own family.

The second episode concerns the Heads of the Tribes raising issues of fairness in allocation of lands in Israel, specifically with what would happen if a woman who owned land in one tribe married someone from another.

These two seemingly minor issue were dealt with right at the end of the forty year saga before arriving in the Land of Israel. The message was clear. Conquering a land is one stage. But making sure the people could live securely and fairly under a just legal system, with mechanisms for settling disputes, was even more important for the long term health of the people.

6/26/2014

Shabbat Hukat/Rosh Hodesh Tamuz

Candles Friday 27th 8:11pm
Havdalah 28th 9:06pm

We jump almost 40 years to the start of the invasion of Canaan. As the Children of Israel approach they first encounter Edom (descendents of Esav). They send ambassadors asking for permission to pass through. They stress their family ties and expect some reciprocity or at least no opposition. They offer to compensate them for anything they use on the way. Edom refuses and marches out to block them. Israel is disappointed but it does not go to war. The decision is to go round instead.

The Amalekites, kings Og of Bashan and Sihon of the Emorites all assume this is a sign of weakness and so try to attack Israel. They are destroyed and their lands are confiscated. Some modern liberals argue that the Israelites were barbaric in destroying these tribes. But in many ways they represent the sort of implacable hostility, the jihadi hatred we encounter nowadays in the same area.

The moral is clear. One has to choose ones battles. Sometimes one decides that for various reasons one would prefer to avoid conflict. Sometimes ones offers to negotiate and compromise. Caution is not necessarily a sign of weakness and if our enemies mistake it for that they are going to suffer. The message is clear. One does not treat every enemy in the same way. But when there is no alternative one either stands ones ground and one defeats the opposition or one is lost.

In the Middle East if you are not brutal and fanatical you are presumed to be weak. If you try to be humane you are perceived as soft. It is easy for people living in peace with secure boundaries and abstract ideals to attack Israel. And it is true we should not descend to the level of brutality the others use. But our strength and ability to defend ourselves is what the Torah instructs us to do and is what in the end ensures we survive.

6/19/2014

Shabbat Korach/Shabbat Mevarchin/Rosh Hodesh Tamuz

Candles Friday 20th 8:10pm
Havdalah 21st 9:05pm

This week’s Torah reading, Korach, is named after the bad guy who lead a rebellion against Moses because he felt that the way Moses was allocating powerful “government ministries” was based on nepotism. In fact the Torah stresses that Moses was acting according to a higher authority.

The commentators argue about Korach’s motive. Was it power or more wealth he wanted? Perhaps he genuinely disagreed with Moses on religious and political issues. No one could accuse Moses of not listening to another point of view or indeed to criticisms. He had an open mind. And that is the measure of a great leader. Moses was the most humble of men. He was not at all arrogant. But he could be and was decisive once he evaluated the situation and made up his mind.

That is the quality of good leadership whether in politics, business or even choosing a partner in life. Sadly we are witnessing one of the most unsuccessful periods in American foreign policy ever in which almost every decision has shown weakness and an incapacity to understand the mentality of the people one is dealing with. America has backed the wrong people and refused to help those who might have been more effective. You might like to re-read the 1958 political novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer “The Ugly American” or Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana” or recall Neville Chamberlain to know how disastrous such an approach is and that this has happened before.

What it does show is that Israel cannot rely on its alliance with the USA, however beneficial, to protect it. Every red line has been crossed with no response. Moses would never have let that happen.

6/12/2014

Shabbat Shelah Leha

Candles Friday 13th 8:08pm
Havdalah 14th 9:03pm

What is a spy? Surely we mean by this a person who is acting undercover, usually deception is involved and often extra judicial slaying, James Bond! At the moment in the USA we are concerned at Governments spying on their citizens. Yet the very fact that there is talk about reaching a compromise with Edward Snowden suggests they are not altogether happy about what has been going on in their name and perhaps they have been breaking their own rules. But is all information gathering spying? I don’t think so.

In this week’s reading God says to Moses that he should send men to reconnoiter ( laToor) the Land of Canaan in preparation for invasion. They were not technically spies. They were told to “tour” the land and gather information, bring back a report. From their own account they were quiet open and interacted openly with the local inhabitants and reported conversations.

But later on in the last book of the Torah when Moses recounts these events years later, he uses different words. He says that the Children of Israel asked him to send men to “undermine” the land (Lahpor). That clearly implied undercover action aimed at bringing the Canaanites down. And of course we know it ended badly. You see intent makes a huge difference.

5/29/2014

Shabbat Naso

Candles Friday May 30, 7:59pm
Havdalah May 31, 8:55pm

The reading this Shabbat concerns the ceremony of dedicating the Tabernacle. The emphasis here is not as in the earlier Book of Leviticus on the priests but rather on the elders representing each tribe. The message is that the religious leadership and the nation in general are just as much invested in the fate of the people and the religion must speak to the people not just the “religious ones.” Everyone need to work together. The religious leadership and the lay, the spiritual and the material supplement each other.

SHAVUOT
Tuesday Night June 3, festival begins at 8:02pm

The festival of Shavuot is in a way the orphan. Not as family and home orientated as Pesah and not as full of rituals as Sucot or as solemn as the Days of Awe. The Bible focusses exclusively on the harvests and the first fruits. The emphasis is on nature, ecology, the balance between God, Humanity and Nature and our mission to conserve and protect and value and thank the Almighty. Although this message became less significant when we stopped being a land based agricultural society, it is becoming clear how relevant this message is as the danger of destroying our ecological system becomes more and more significant.

Wednesday morning June 4
Service 9:30am - 11:45am
Candles 8:58 pm

Shavuot is also the anniversary of the Sinai Revelation, the Torah, our Constitution. We symbolically re-commit ourselves to Torah. That is why we read the Book of Ruth because her commitment to a Jewish life and her human kindness symbolizes the importance of accepting Torah and choosing to live a full Jewish life. The consequence of her devotion was to have King David as her direct descendant.

Thursday morning June 5
Service 9:30 am - 11:45pm
Festival ends 8:58pm

Shabbat Behaalotecha
Candles Friday June 6 at 9:00pm
Havdalah June 7 at 9:00pm

Lighting the Candelabrum in the Temple is nowadays remembered by the eternal light we burn in our synagogues in front of the Ark. Keeping the light burning symbolizes how we have and will continue to keep our people and our traditions alive.

 Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach!

5/22/2014

Shabbat Bamidbar

Shabbat Mevarchin
Rosh Hodesh Sivan next Friday

Candles, Friday 7.53pm
Havdalah, Saturday 8.49pm

The fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar, literally means “desert.” It covers the main events of the forty year period of wandering through the desert of Sinai and the Arava into what is Jordan today before crossing over into the Land of Israel.

In mystical terms words have significance on many different levels. The most obvious example is the Hebrew root SFR which means a book SeFeR which involves reading. The same root SoFeR is a scribe, to write and again LiSFoR is to count and finally to speak is LeSaFeR. The same root applies to all different ways in which we communicate and understand each other. Only the vowels change. So that when we look at a text or an object or a person on so many different levels, superficially, emotionally, objectively, with involvement or dispassionately, with commitment or detachment. We can see them, hear them, talk and “read” their minds.

MIDBAR, wilderness, is another example of a word with multiple meanings. It has the same root as DaBeR to speak, and DaVaR an object. On the face of it a desert is empty. It is a silent zone of physical emptiness. But a scientist will be able to see amazing stories and worlds in the rocks and sands. Biologists discover the creatures and organisms that eke out a secret life in what appears to be barren lifelessness. Even silent objects can “speak” to one. The desert is a place of such silence that one can almost hear it. There is none of the constant noises and hums and rumbles and sirens that assail our ears and consciousness all the time in cities.

That is why the greatest of spiritual minds (of all religions) came alive in the desert. You need silence to be able to open your mind to God (just as you need people to be sensitive to humanity). That is why we were taken out of metropolitan Egypt and into the empty silent desert to be more receptive to a Divine message. And its why in today’s busy noisy world we need occasions to take a break and retreat into a religious atmosphere.

5/08/2014

Shabbat Behar

Candles Friday May 9th 7:47pm
Havdalah May 10th 8:43pm

This week the short Torah reading contains a range of laws, from the Sabbatical, to property leases, to the treatment of indentured servants. In all cases there is a common thread that is not immediately obvious. Life is constantly changing and fortunes rise and fall. Change means that we can never guarantee what the future will bring. It is how we treat those either below us or dependent on us that defines us as good human beings.

The Sabbatical and the laws about property leases are part of a theme that we should never assume permanence either in our personal or work lives. To help achieve this we need breaks to our routines, during the course of the day, the week, the month and the year. These “holy moments” or “holy days” all help in getting us to live on a spiritual level as well as a physical one.

Too much dependence on materialism and society is in its way a form of servitude even if it is not imposed. But society gives people power over others. There’s nothing wrong with accumulating wealth and power so long as you are sensitive to those less fortunate. That’s why in the laws about people who work for you or you see enslaved by others the Torah keeps on reiterating “Do not treat them aggressively.” People dependent on you are still human beings who need to be treated with dignity. Too often our secular culture encourages abuse and aggression, the idea that only the strong succeed. The measure of good person is someone who understands that to get the most out of other people you need to respect them.

5/01/2014

Shabbat Emor

Candles Friday May 2nd 7.33pm
Havdalah May 3rd at 8.29pm

There is a very sad story at the end of this week’s Torah reading. The son of an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father cannot find his place amongst the Israelites who came out of Egypt. In his anger and frustration he publicly curses God. Moses does not know how to deal with him and so he has to consult God. Why? Wasn’t the Law clear to him after Sinai?

The commentators are divided as to why the young man became so bitter. Some say it is because he was an outcast because of his non-Jewish father. Some say it was because his mother was a woman of loose morals. Others say he did not get the support and love of his parents. Perhaps this is why Moses hesitated. He was sensitive to the circumstances that conspired against this young man.

So you see we have always had such problems. The fact is that even the best of parents produce children who go off track or rebel. It may have something to do with the home, or genes or circumstances. Even the most religious of families produce those who reject Judaism and the most irreligious sometimes produce children who become committed. There are no guarantees but there are ways of reducing the odds. Regardless of what our children do we must love them. But it is up to us to do the right thing both in terms of how we train them and in the examples that we ourselves show them.

4/24/2014

Shabbat Kedoshim

Mevarchin Rosh Hodesh Iyaar (Wednesday & Thursday)

Candles Friday 7:26pm
Havdalah Saturday 8.22pm

This week’s reading is the most significant in all the Torah for those who want to see Judaism as an ethical system. Here are some of the ethical laws we will read:

Don’t steal, deceive or lie.

Don’t oppress or rob your neighbor.

Don’t delay paying your worker’s wages.

Consider the needs of the poor.

Don’t curse a deaf person or put an obstacle in the way of the blind.

Don’t hate your neighbor in your heart.

Don’t take vengeance or bear grudges.

In justice favor neither the poor nor the rich, but follow the law.

Love your neighbor as you would yourself.

Yes, I think we would all agree that these are good moral teachings and we should abide by them. Most of us consider them more important than the ritual laws and customs, and yet the fact is that those who ignore one often tend to ignore the other.

I intentionally left out of this list another law that comes in the middle:

Do not tell tales about people or stand by when someone else is in danger.

We all hear every day of examples of people not going to help others, and I am pretty sure that most of us indulge in gossip to some extent every day. Why do we disregard these very important laws if we all agree that ethical rules are so important? Is it habit? A failure of education? Or perhaps that once we decide we will only do what we feel like doing, it’s a slippery slope!!!

4/17/2014

Timetable for Shabbat and Last days of Pesah

Shabbat Hol HaMoed

Friday 18th Candles 7:18pm
Havdalah 19th 8:14 pm

Last Days of Pesah

Sunday Night: Candles 7:20pm

Monday April 21st:
Shaharit 9:30am
Kriat HaTorah 10:15 am
Sermon 11:30
Candles 8:16 pm

Tuesday April 22nd:
Shaharit 9:30am
Kriat HaTorah 10:15 am
Sermon 11:30 am
Havdalah 8:17pm

4/10/2014

Shabbat HaGadol - Acharei Mot

Candles Friday 11th April 7.10pm
Havdalla 12th April 8.05 pm

Pesach Timetable

Sunday evening 13th April

Bedikat Hametz. After dark search for any left over Hametz.

(If you want to sell your Hametz please email me with the address and location before Monday morning.)

Monday 14th April Erev Pesach

Morning. Hafsakah 10.15 am when we can no longer eat Hametz

Monday Evening First Seder Night of Pesach

Tuesday Morning April 15th

Shaharit 9.30 am

Kriat Hatorah 10.15 am

Musaf 11 am

Sermon 11.45 am

Evening Service

Second Seder Night and Sefirt HaOmer

The Seder should not begin before 8 pm

Wednesday Morning 16th April

Shaharit 9.30 am

Kriat Hatorah 10.15 am

Musaf 11 am

Sermon 11.40 am

May you all have a joyful and memorable Pesach

4/03/2014

Shabbat Metzorah


Candles Friday 7:04 pm
Havdalah Saturday 8:00 pm

Why were the priests in ancient Israel involved in checking for leprosy and other infectious disease? Surely this was the job of the doctor. But then if you think of the term “Witch Doctor” you realize that it was common practice for religion and health to be interconnected. The priest reminded us that we need a spiritual dimension to lead a full and healthy life.

But what was the point of the Mikvah, the special pool or sea or lake that people who had become ritually separated, had to dip into before resuming normal intercourse? It had nothing to do with cleanliness. The Hebrew words “pure” and “impure” do not denote being clean or not. If one was not completely clean one couldn’t go into the Mikvah. So clearly it was not a physical thing. In fact it was the symbolic transition from one religious state to another. Just like Noah’s flood changed the world from a prehistoric state to a moral ethical one, or a convert changes from one religious state to another, so the Mikvah symbolized a new start.

Most of the laws we read this week about the Mikvah no longer apply because the change in status only applied to people who wanted to go into the Tabernacle or the Temple which no longer exist. In that sense every one of us is “impure” at this moment. Interestingly in much of Islam today you cannot pray if you have had sex before washing yourself.

In Judaism today the Mikvah marks the transition from a woman’s monthly period to resuming normal sexual activity. But many men, Mystics, Chassidim, go to the Mikvah at the start of every day, others before each festival to symbolize a new start.

The Mikvah nowadays is usually an elegant, modern spa often with facilities for beautification and salon service. Just google Mikvahs in New York to see how different they are to the old poor places our grandparents were familiar with.

But the main point is that we need to recognize the transitions in our bodies and in time, to understand how we go through different phases and to infuse a spiritual dimension into every aspect of one’s private life by doing an act that reminds us of change.

In preparation for Pesach and getting rid of Hametz on the 14th April if you want to sell Hametz please just e mail me with the location of the Hametz and I will sell it for you.

3/06/2014

Shabbat Vayikra

Candles 5:34
Havdalah 6:30

Sacrifices as a subject do not really excite most of us nowadays. The very idea seems rather off putting. But the fact is that we sacrifice vast numbers of animals around the world every single moment. We kill them for food; often under the most cruel, barbaric and unsanitary of conditions. But as is our practice nowadays, we try to hide anything unsavory from the public eye. If people actually saw how animals are slaughtered in America today, regardless of method, most would find it very difficult to eat meat afterwards. But we hide it and forget it.

In the Temple killing animals for food was ritualized in an atmosphere of different chambers, taking animals gently through quiet courtyards, with incense disguising the smells and priests in ceremonial clothes creating an atmosphere of peaceful ceremony rather than brutal killing fields. You placed your hands on the animal, establishing a personal relationship rather than the impersonal conveyor belt of modern slaughter.

When we pray for a return of the sacrificial system we pray for a more ceremonial, gentle humane way of life. The fact is that we may never actually reinstate animal sacrifices . After all the Torah itself offers the option of the Minha, a vegetarian offering. Perhaps all future sacrifices will be vegetarian.

Our tradition tells us that in the future Elijah the prophet will come to teach us how to re- establish ancient rituals. We have no idea what we will be instructed to do. Perhaps he will tell us how wasteful it is to spend so much of our resources in breeding cattle for slaughter rather supporting poor human beings and starving children. Who knows?

Reading this week’s part of the Torah, from the Book of Vayikrah, we should be learning the moral lessons rather than focusing on external matters.

2/27/2014

Shabbat Pekuday

Shabbat Shekalim
Shabbat Mevarchin Mahar Hodesh
Candles 5:26pm. Havdalah 6:22pm

As we come to the end of Exodus we complete the narrative and description of the Tabernacle. The language the Torah uses surprisingly resonates with the language of Creation. In both cases the Torah uses similar language “And He commanded and it was done” “And He saw that it was good” “And the work was completed” “And He blessed them.”

In the case of Creation these terms are used of God. In the case of the Tabernacle they are used of Moses. I understand this to mean that God in His way decided on the creative process and the sort of world we have, with all its gifts and natural resources. Our challenge is not to destroy it, to over use, to degrade the universe He has created. Similarly with the houses and structures we make, we design them to conform to good practice, to Gods laws. The trouble is we humans often tend to degrade and misuse our own gifts and religion too. Whether it is God’s house or our own we must take good care of it.

Shabbat Shekalim

We now enter into the Jewish period of giving. Shabbat Shekalim reminds us of the communal tax dating to Biblical times, to contribute to the upkeep of communal buildings and institutions the way we once did with the Tabernacle and the Temple. Then in two week’s time we have Purim when we give to the poor and to friends. Finally comes Pesach when we have an obligation to make sure poor people have enough to make the Seder and keep the festival. Caring for others, charity, is one of the core principles of our people, our survival and our continuity.

2/20/2014

Shabbat Vayakhel

Friday Candles 5:18pm
Shabbat Havdalah 6:15pm

On the face of it there is not much that is new in this week’s reading from the Torah. We have already been given a full description of how the Tabernacle was to be built. Now we are told how it actually was built.

What is new here is the idea of community. Moshe establishes the idea of Kehillah, a smaller unit within the broader one of the people. The Tabernacle was for the nation. The Kehilla, the community was for those with shared ideas within the wider unit.

It’s like today. Jews span the complete spectrum from religious to secular, rich to poor, capitalist to socialist. We come from different backgrounds and cultures. We are Jews but we are also Persian, Moroccan, American or a melange of several. We often have very little in common with each other.

Most of us Jews live in much smaller Jewish units. The kehilla, the congregation, is a mechanism for uniting smaller units of people. And what unites people more often than not is shared experiences less how they think and more what they do.

After mentioning Kehilla the Torah talks about keeping Shabbat. The work on the Mishkan, the National shrine, stopped for Shabbat. Shabbat, the family, the community coming together, took priority. In fact our place in the Kehilla is defined by Shabbat. Why do we or don’t we keep Shabbat? Is it an accident of birth, imposed on us, or is it a choice, freely embraced?

Shabbat in our world is a voluntary experience. Our particular community only comes together on a Shabbat or Festival. And even then only some of us do. Shabbat might not define us as a nation. But it does tell us how much Judaism is an integral or a peripheral part of our lives.

2/13/2014

Shabbat Ki Tissah


Candles 5:10pm

Havdalah 6:09pm


Why can’t we see God?

This week we read about the Golden Calf. Moses was up the mountain communicating with God and the people down below grew restless. Although they had experienced the great miracles of the plagues and the Exodus they seemed to think that it was Moses who was responsible for everything. In vain did he protest that he was merely the tool of a greater force.

So when he disappeared for almost month the ordinary people who needed strong leadership and had relied in Moses now looked for some other symbol of leadership and that was why they urged Aaron to make a Golden Calf just like the other symbols of kingship and power that the Egyptians, the Canaanites and the Mesopotamians all had.

When Moses returned he was furious that they had so misunderstood the nature of an unseen God. That was supposed to be their great contribution to civilization, that the energy of the universe, the power of God did not need physical symbols or images for representation. The ideas should have been enough.

After he purges the ringleaders Moses tries to re-establish a relationship with God that he feels had been broken. So he asked God to “show me your glory.” In other words even Moses wanted some physical sign that God was on his side.

God replied “no human can actually see God.” But he put Moses in a cleft in the rock, in the same way that we say today “you are in between a rock and a hard place.” When we are under pressure, suffering a crisis, that’s when we want to “see God.” But all Moses got was that God passing by so to speak. He got a sort of after image. He could not claim to have seen God but to have experienced the impact of God.

And that’s true for us. We cannot see God because God is not physical and we are physical beings. We can only experience electricity if we make the transistors or the connections that convert energy into light and power. All we do experience is the impact of spirituality, goodness and morality. And that was what God wanted, not focus on what He looked like but on how we can make the world better by following His direction. God does not represent an image of what is, but rather an idea and inspiration of what might be if we try to achieve it. That is what is meant by trying to imitate God, not to imitate an object that can be seen, but to imitate goodness that can be experienced.

2/06/2014

Shabbat Tetzaveh

Candles Friday 5:01pm
Havdalah Saturday 5:57pm

This week we read about the special garments the priests wore in Biblical times. The very idea of a hereditary priesthood strikes us nowadays as belonging to a previous era, not unlike the hereditary monarchy. Nowadays we believe in meritocracy. And indeed Judaism itself has moved way from being a priest based religion to one that elevates scholarship and is open to those who choose to study. It is the rabbinate that now replaces the priesthood in practical terms.

So why do we still have priests with their own rules and restrictions? Is it just nostalgia? A relic of the past? Or does it symbolize something more significant?

We notice the priest whenever we read from the Torah because he and the Levite get preferential treatment. We also notice the priest at services when they bless the community. In Israel and Sefardi communities it is daily. In some Western communities it is occasional. The blessing actually comes from God. The priest is merely the vehicle. As with life in general, we often misunderstand the real source of our good fortune.

It is a feature of Jewish life that even when a part of our ancient religion falls out of use, like sacrifices, or the Levirate marriage, we like to keep the idea alive in some way to retain the link with the past. We do not like to scrap old ideas. Instead we find ways to adapt or to get round them. This way we preserve the original idea eve if in practice it becomes unworkable.

We revere the past even as we adapt to modernity. We recognize the importance of tradition as well as progress. Sometimes the law may lag in attuning the two, but the process continues within Jewish Law, Halacha, through the very method, the dialectic, the constant debate that the rabbis introduced to supplement the Original text.

1/09/2014

Shabbat BeShalach

Candles Friday 4:30pm
Havdalah 5:25pm

When Moshe led the Children of Israel out of Egypt they headed due east. But after a few days travel they turned south. Initially the Torah tells us they turned away from the quick coastal route for fear of encountering the Amalekites before they would have had time to train militarily and to cope psychologically with warfare.

But then the Torah tells us that God led them back towards Egypt in order to give the Egyptians the impression that they were lost and confused. This was a ruse to lure Pharaoh and his army into the flooded marshland of the north part of the Red Sea where his chariots would get stuck in the soft ground. And of course it was a trap to destroy him and his army as they pursued the Children of Israel.

We know archeologically that the lands of Canaan were part of the Egyptian empire. And had Pharoah’s army been left intact he would certainly have pursued the fleeing slaves and brought them back. After all his was the most powerful army of the time and his iron chariots were like tanks nowadays. Perhaps God responded with drones!

Either way we see here the first use of military tactics, misleading the enemy, luring him to his fate. Tactics are essential both in war and in negotiations. We can see how the negotiations are progressing in Israel between Kerry and the two sides. Both Lieberman and Netanyahu make proposals and counter proposals. One thing is certain. In a Middle East as unpredictable and dangerous, as full of murderous fanatics who at the moment are too busy killing kill each other, no leader of any salt would make concessions that would endanger the security of Israel. Nonetheless to keep our friends on our side and our enemies under control tactics play just as important a role today as they did then.

(I will be away next Shabbat and the Shabbat after.)

1/02/2014

Shabbat Bo

Candles Friday 4:20 pm
Havdalah Saturday 5:17pm

How do you pass on any tradition, specifically Judaism to the next generation? This week’s reading from the Torah puts it in a nutshell. As the Children of Israel are about to leave Egypt they are commanded to respond to their children’s thirst to know “why.” Why should we be different? The answer is our history, our heritage, our spirituality and commitment to our value system. But how do we pass this on?

“When your children ask you” is the obvious command not just to educate but to engage with one’s children on matters of Jewish identity. Without knowing why one is different one will inevitably resent what it is that sets one apart. But simply telling, commanding, is not enough. Actions speak louder than words.

“You must make it a sign” is the second element the Torah emphasizes. Without signs we do not know where to go. Without symbols, rituals and actions all one has is vague sentimentality, slogans that can be blown away at the first sign of difficulty or temptation.

The emphasis in the Torah is on doing specifically Jewish things; Jewish actions and Jewish rituals. Actions are how we show what really matters to us. This is the equally essential way of reinforcing values and loyalty. "Teach your children" and "Show your children."

Hodesh Shevat Tov.