Shabbat – even more welcome under lockdown!

 Thank you to the National Health Service,
to everyone looking after people who are ill,
keeping essential services going, providing food and medicines,
caring for others and supporting our collective morale.
Thank you! Every strength and blessing to you,
in the UK, Israel and across the world!

 I can’t be the only person who’s losing track of time. One day simply runs into another. That’s why I’m finding the traditional Jewish way of structuring the week so helpful: Sunday is rishon leShabbat, the 1st day towards Shabbat; Monday is sheni leShabbat, the 2nd day towards Shabbat, and the week culminates in Shabbat itself.

It would be easy to undervalue or even forget the Sabbath in these strange times. After all, we’re mostly at home anyway, can’t travel and can’t invite anyone round for Friday night dinner. Our house, often so full of people, feels like a ghost town and the dog stares disconsolately at the empty rooms. (Or perhaps he’s thinking ‘my space at last!’)

It’s easy to let go. That’s why I’m writing in praise of Shabbat. I imagine for any non-Jewish reader that Sunday, Friday or another festive date could be similar.

The Shulchan Aruch, the key 16th century code of Jewish law written by Rabbi Joseph Caro, insists that everyone ‘has to make a special effort to honour Shabbat.’ Therefore ‘One should get up early on Friday to prepare for Shabbat.’ No one should leave the work to others – even if, in these strange times, we could.

It would be easy to say, ‘Why lay the table beautifully under lockdown?’ ‘Why make sure there’s at least something, one thing, special, for the meal when things are hard to come by?’ Keeping up our care and discipline is especially important, now we’re stuck inside and often alone. Shabbat gives the opportunity both to love and honour its traditions and to care and be kind to ourselves and those closest to us. In fact, we may have greater opportunity now than ever to keep the day sacred from sundown to sunset.

Unlike candles, wine and challah, there is no requirement to have flowers on the Shabbat table. For many there is little or no, access to the outside. So maybe, if you have one, put a picture of a flower or tree on your Shabbat table. Make it beautiful.

The Talmud tells how Rabbi Yannai would put on his finest clothing on Erev Shabbat and turn to greet the sacred day with the words which have become so familiar: ‘Come, Shabbat bride’. No one has ever accused me of being a smart dresser. But right now, I’m thinking that I’m going make a point of wearing my best clothing for the Sabbath. Commenting on the Shulchan Aruch, the Mishnah Berurah specifically discusses the case of the person who is entirely alone for the whole day, as many of us will be in the current circumstances, asking whether he or she needs to change. Yes, the author answers, we dress in our best clothes not to show off to each other but to honour the presence of God.

Electronic means of communication are not permitted on Shabbat, – and it’s a wonderful and welcome chance to get away from the computer! So we should try to be in touch with as many of our family and close friends as we can during Friday, wishing Shabbat Shalom. Many of us feel painfully alone and a call, a conversation, singing at least Shalom Aleichem before the Sabbath comes in is a blessing.

Speaking of blessings, Friday night before Kiddush is a time for family blessing; parents, especially, bless their children. I am very aware that many grandparents are in prolonged isolation and unable to see their beloved grandchildren. The blessing can, and should, therefore be done by Zoom or phone, prior to the onset of Shabbat.

But in these stressful weeks, and I plan to say this later at our pre-Shabbat Kabbalat Shabbat service on Facebook Live, I want to suggest something further. We all need our spiritual strength; Judaism has a three-thousand-year-long history of resilience. Please think of parents, grandparents, family, friends, ancestors, teachers, Jewish and also not-Jewish, who have brought us blessing. I am hoping that their presence (virtual, like everything else at the moment) will be like hands above our head, and that their spirit and the humanity, wisdom, discipline and courage of our people will embrace us, willing us blessing, wishing us Shabbat Shalom.


Anxiety and Inspiration

Venishmartem me’od lenafshoteichem’ The Torah teaches us to take the utmost care of our own – and other people’s-  lives.
The Talmud teaches that in matters of civil law ‘The law of the land is the law’
Please be sure to follow guidelines carefully and strictly to protect yourself, your family and our entire society.

A special Shabbat Shalom to everyone in this unnerving and perplexing changed reality. Below my greeting you will find details about this Shabbat what we are offering.

Two passages of Torah have been on my mind; one joyous, one sad. I want to end with the latter, so I’ll begin with what’s harder.

Badad yesheiv – alone shall s/he sit:’ these words describe the fate of those who have the infection; in the Torah it’s nega-tzaraat, often translated as leprosy by which everyone was afraid of being contaminated. The phrase is echoed later in the Hebrew Bible at the beginning of the Scroll of Lamentations, where it refers to Jerusalem, the beautiful city under siege, lonely and locked out of the human community.

Many people around us are in self-isolation, in quarantine, and some in hospital. Those ancient words ‘alone shall s/he dwell’ have a deeply resonant afterlife today. It is essential to acknowledge the fear and uncertainty which grips us all. However calm we may appear, I can’t imagine that any of us doesn’t have his or her lonely ‘what if?’ moments. I certainly do.

But – and I never knew I would be so grateful to online technology – today’s ‘alone’ is not alone. I have witnessed a surge of heart, a tide of spirit, expressed by email and what’s app, on skype and zoom, by phone and by text. It’s not just ‘remote’ technology, it’s palpable in the mind, heart and soul.

There’s a great deal of care and love not just ‘out there’, but around us and close to us. Perhaps because it’s happening worldwide, in our isolation we are in fact in profound solidarity. I pray that this will bear us up in our most trying hours. I pray for strength and health for us all and for each and every one of us as we try to help others. I pray for imagination, for good – and joyful – ideas of how to connect.

That leads me to the second text: ‘Ozzi vezimrah Yah – God is my strength and my music.’ Perhaps a better translation is ‘God’s music is my strength.’ This transport me in my thoughts to Israel, Italy and elsewhere, to the balcony choirs, each person not alone but united in the togetherness of music.

I often ask people about their music, not their Desert-Island-Disc favourite pieces, but their inner music. ‘How can I find strength?’ I’m frequently asked by friends and congregants in their hour of stress. In typical rabbinic fashion, I usually respond with a question: ‘What nourishes your spirit?’

Some people answer straight away: my family; nature; walking the dog; poetry; meditation; Beethoven’s Ninth. Others say they want to think about it. I always say: ‘Whatever it is which restores your inner strength, however great the pressure on your day, be absolutely sure you make time for it.’

What would your answer be? What’s mine? I believe that everyone has something special known to their soul which makes their spirit sing. We can’t always access it; we may need encouragement and help in restoring the inner quiet which guides us back to that chamber of our heart. But there within exists a melody and its music has the power to sustain and restore our resilience, even in the face of fear and pain.

In these challenging days, which are likely to continue for some while, we want our inner music and we need each other to help us find it.

Kabbalat Shabbat: Friday at 5.00pm at this link

Havdalah: Motzei Shabbat at 7.15pm at this link



Caring for each other at a difficult time

It’s hard to live in uncertain times. Almost everyone I speak with is worried about how to keep their loved ones and themselves as safe as possible and how to support others. None of us has perfect answers. I’m reminded of Keats’s concept of ‘negative capability’, the capacity to live amidst uncertainties and doubts.

Even Moses, whom the Torah describes as having a hotline to God, wants certainty. Four times in just two verses (which we read in the Torah tomorrow) he uses the word ‘know’. ‘Make known to me your ways,’ he begs God. Tell me what to do; be clear. The Talmud explains that he wants to understand why bad things happen. As so often, the question is more powerful than any putative answer.

But not everything in this new ‘coronavirus reality’ is uncertain.

On a practical level, there are strong guidelines from Public Health England. The synagogue leadership is taking expert advice every day; we ask everyone to act on it. Please see our website for updates.  The Torah insists ‘venishmartem me’od lenafshoteichem: you must take great care of your lives.’ Our health and the health of those around us takes priority over virtually everything. Rabbis are not in the habit of asking people not to come to shul. But in this situation, we are telling anyone who is vulnerable or a potential risk to others please not to attend.

Another certainty is that we can and shall support each other. ‘Ish lerei’eihu – each for their neighbour,’ we just read in the Megillah. We need to be there for one another, if not physically, then by phone, facetime or online. It matters deeply to us in the synagogue to know who may be isolated, alone. Tell us, so that we can be in contact, not once but regularly over these difficult weeks. We need to think ‘community’ in its best sense, not just for members of our synagogue, but including those near us, dear to us, and for whom we have, or should have, concern in our hearts.

We are also mindful of the economic impact on many people and are considering what (modest) support we can offer.

None of us has entirely waterproof morale. There are already a number of people in self-isolation. There will be more. We may all face similar measures to those taken in Italy. We will therefore send a daily message, with links to good online programmes.

On a more homely basis, we will be holding a short daily dial-in Maariv service every evening at 8.00pm which will always include some English, some personal words and the opportunity to say Kaddish.

We are planning our own ‘broadcasts’ (could Kol NNLS be a good name?) As well as traditional Torah learning, we intend to include 10 -15 minute slots by members on such subjects as: a favourite Jewish story; a recipe with simple ingredients; favourite poems; and ‘what you can see out of your window’ about birds, plants, even clouds and insects which we might scarcely have noticed before. It’ll be good to hear many familiar voices from our community on these close to home topics.

We plan to trial these programmes at the end of next week and will send out details of how to download or access simple technologies which will enable as many people as possible to participate.

I’d be lying if I did not acknowledge that I’m worried about how I myself might manage two weeks or more in isolation, despite all the technical aids available. I’m full of admiration for the people I know about who are coping well.

I hope I could make this a time of Teshuvah, not in the sense of repentance for sins, but in the deeper meaning of ‘return’. Return, that is, to what most matters: to valuing others, especially those I take for granted; to appreciating life’s simple gifts so that I mean ‘Baruch’ when I say the blessing over good bread; to being in touch with the soul, which even in someone as unmusical as me, knows how to sing with life before God.


Seeking spiritual strength in these anxious times

Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

I’d never thought I’d find William Blake’s famous lines so sustaining. But with the marathon in the holy city cancelled, I plan to run my 42.2 kilometres here and think myself in Jerusalem. (After all, Israel Guide Dogs and Peace of Mind still need the funds I hope to raise in order to offer the amazing help they provide.)

Lots of us have had to cancel travel plans. It’s a minor inconvenience compared to what those who are really struggling with Coronavirus are going through, especially those whose lives or livelihoods are threatened. We pray for healing for those who have the illness. We wish strength, courage, good judgement and inspiration to everyone working in health care, public health planning, and on the basic infrastructures of food, water and medical supplies in countries across the globe.

Please follow the advice we have issued to our community. We are trying to find the right balance of sound guidance based on the best medical advice, so that we avoid negligence on the one hand and panic on the other.

On a spiritual level, the virus is forcing many of us to rethink. It’s taking us back to the limitations of earlier ages when one could not assume freedom of movement, ease of travel or (relative) safety from infection. A few injections, we’ve assumed, and we can go almost anywhere in the world.

This week is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of ‘Remember.’ Before Purim, we recall the evils which Haman’s ancestors, the Amalekites, perpetrated against the Children of Israel.

But Zachor, ‘remember’, ‘be mindful’, has a far wider resonance in Judaism and I’m wondering if this can help us in our present situation.

Every day we are called upon to be mindful of creation, zecher lema’aseh bereshit. With my plans of going here, there and to lots of places, I often fail to notice where I am. ‘Did you see that amazing tree?’ my wife may ask me. ‘What tree?’ I am liable to answer.

Few of us will find it easy if we should be restricted in our movements or even quarantined, voluntarily or otherwise. But perhaps for at least some of the time, we can make this an inner opportunity to revisit in our thoughts, or online, places we have seen, a view we cherish, a leaf or flower we enjoy. It’s never too late to value the experience with which life has privileged us. I’m drawn to people who speak with grace about even the so-called little things, a poem, a view, a conversation with a friend.

The author of Psalm 8 asks ‘What is a human being, that you [God] should be mindful of him or her?’ It’s a question to put to ourselves. I rush past so many people and, though I try, am attentive to so few. Now, when we are more vulnerable, we can perhaps think of our neighbours, anyone who might appreciate a call, a small kindness in a time of anxiety. We might value it for ourselves, reconsider how deeply such ordinary words and actions matter.

Mindfulness applies to our own lives too. With more stillness, can I hear myself breathe, listen to my own spirit, ponder and re-evaluate the meaning of this gift of life? Can reading, poetry, Jewish teaching, ancient wisdom, music, a true conversation, help me?

Every day, too, we are told in our prayers to remember the Exodus from Egypt. It’s a call to respect human dignity, – in every human being. Don’t degrade; don’t misuse; don’t make anyone feel like a slave. Don’t garner every stalk of grain, don’t go over your fruit trees for a second picking, we are told in Deuteronomy. Leave enough for the poor. It’s a constant recall to the understanding that, whatever our status, we belong to one humanity, one natural world.

The swift and frightening travel of the Coronavirus is an uncomfortable, but hopefully passing, reminder of this interdependence. However, the question of what we do to our world and how we leave it for each other and the future is far deeper and more ancient. How can we be faithful trustees of human life? Of all life? It’s the issue at the top of the international, trans-cultural agenda: a call, not to despair, but to consider how we can change our habits and what we can give.

I hope that, through these anxious times, we can support each other and perhaps even help make them, in part at least, an opportunity to deepen our own lives, our commitment to others and our care for the world.


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