Capping a Successful Year

On Sunday, June 14 the IJC held its 17th Annual General Meeting. It was my first as IJC President and it was unlike anything I had imagined as this year we met on Zoom and not in person. And yet, even if virtual, our meeting felt like a gathering of old friends to celebrate what has been a good year for our community.  We have persevered through the Corona crisis thanks to a strong online presence. During the lockdown we have learned that services like Kabbalat Shabbat, lectures, lessons and chats can be organized online and may be a complement to physical events in the future.

 

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Emerging from the Wilderness

The parashah we studied on June 13 – Sh’lach – reflected a period of uncertainty in fledgling Israel’s existence. The people are encamped in the wilderness of Paran, not far it transpires from the land that was to become our home. God tells Moses to send spies, powerful men, tribal leaders (named by name), to scout the land and report back. What kind of country is it? What are the people like? Are they many? Are they strong? Are their towns fortified? Is the soil fertile? We’re told that 12 spies went out and came back with conflicting reports. Most of them were negative, and only Caleb and Joshua proclaimed the goodness of the land.

 

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Not Quite Oysgezoomd

It’s Mother’s Day on May 10th here in Belgium, and our kids made breakfast this morning for their two dads! It’s hard not to be reminded of their dear mother and of our own mothers, the women who raised us and left their indelible mark on the people we are – for good or for bad.  The separation demanded by Corona regulations makes it difficult for many to reach out to their mothers in the conventional ways.  Flowers, brunch at a local eatery, a family BBQ. For those of us who have lost our mother, we reach out in memory, say Kaddish, light a candle, caress a photograph.

 

 

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We Can't Breathe

From an open letter distributed by avaaz.org-

The last words of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, musician, and father of two, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer who pinned him down and knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes:

"It's my face man

I didn't do nothing serious man
please
please
please I can't breathe
please man
please somebody
please man
I can't breathe
I can't breathe
please
(inaudible)
man can't breathe, my face
just get up
I can't breathe
please, a knee on my neck
I can't breathe
shit
I will
I can't move
mama
mama
I can't
my knee
my neck
I'm through
I'm through
I'm claustrophobic
my stomach hurt
my neck hurts
everything hurts
some water or something
please
please
I can't breathe officer
don't kill me
they're gonna kill me, man
come on man
I cannot breathe
I cannot breathe
they're gonna kill me
they're gonna kill me
I can't breathe
I can't breathe
please sir
please
please
please I can't breathe"

*****

The news has changed.  Until a week ago, the headlines and most of the content were dominated by the Coronavirus and various national plans to relax lockdown restrictions. We were all looking forward – if still with a little trepidation – to extending our bubble. 

Then video footage of an arrest in Minneapolis injected a new virus into our global social fabric, a virus that spread almost instantaneously, not bringing disease, but bringing indignation, outrage and anger, bringing a desire to stand up and shout, and changing the significance of a simple statement – I can’t breathe – perhaps forever.

The dreadful event and viral video footage has triggered riots and violence and perhaps opportunistic anarchy. As human beings we watch the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd with mixed feelings, sensitive to the outrage, appalled by the destruction. But as Jews, we cannot remain silent. Justice is our core business. The Torah tells us to pursue it, and the Prophets rail against those who would turn a blind eye to it. As Jews it is difficult for us to breathe in the face of injustice.

This is injustice writ large, and it is a symptom of an underlying virus of endemic racism. Like Corona it can have a lethal effect on the respiratory system.

Brian Doyle

IJC Rabbinical Intern

 

When Can We Get A Haircut?

The period between Pesach and Shavuot is called the Omer, a period in which tradition invites us to count the days, literally, until Shavuot. The Omer is considered a period of mourning in which some follow the mourning tradition of not cutting their hair. According to the Talmud, this is an act of mourning for Rabbi Akiva's students who died from plague at that time (Yevamot 62b). Others suggest it's a kind of folk magic - we let our hair grow so that the harvest will grow. Others still draw a connection between the Hebrew word for haircut - tisporet - and the word for counting - sefirat (haOmer).

Many of us stare in the mirror each day in lockdown, groan that we still can't visit the hairdressers for a haircut, and watch our hair - if we have it - get out of control. But not cutting our hair perhaps makes more sense this year even if it's not connected to the Omer. It could 'count' as a little ego-sacrifice, a reminder that we are not in control, that we are part of nature and subject to the realities of the natural world. In that sense it can even be an act of humility (cf. neohasid.org - Rabbi David Seidenberg).

But to reconnect with the mourning of the Omer makes just as much sense to me right now.  Not cutting our hair can be an act of mourning for lost stability, a lost sense of security about tomorrow and the next day, the loss of the possibility of touch and social warmth, the loss of friends and family, neighbours, the real people behind the numbers we see every day on TV. We have plenty of reasons to mourn - so it's OK not to cut your hair.

Brian Doyle
IJC Rabbinical Intern

 

By Name and Not by Number

24 May 2020 

This week we start a new book of the Torah – Bamidbar or the book of Numbers.

Bamidbar gets off to what might seem a rather dull start. God asks Moses to take a census of the tribes.  God wants to know the numbers, literally. But some of the rabbis ask themselves why God wants another census when they just had one – in Exodus, prior to the construction of the Mishkan.

Rashbam – Rashi’s grandson – offers a very practical answer.  The census was military – to ensure the people would have a strong enough army to face potential hostility when they entered the land. That’s why the Levites are not numbered – because they had ritual things to do and weren’t expected to serve in the army (there are modern day parallels I’m sure you are aware of). For Nachmanides, the army reference means we should not rely on miracles. We know from history that God intervenes, God liberates, but here as Israel is about to enter the land, it’s important for the people to be prepared for hostility.

Perhaps the most memorable of Nachmanides’ reflections on this passage is the idea that God loved the people so much he wanted to count them, out of love for them, and to see how they had prospered and multiplied after going down to Egypt only 70 in number.

The Midrash, however, in Bamidbar Rabbah, takes us one step further and focuses on something even more important. “The Eternal ordered Moses to number the people in a manner that would confer honour and greatness on each of them, individually.” It wasn’t just a question of counting families or households as we tend to do today in Jewish communities; the people were to be counted by name, by each person’s individual name.

Many of us follow the Covid numbers on TV every day.  We’re happy and relieved when we see the numbers decline, when we see the curve flattening out. But we’re still only looking at numbers. Behind each number is an infected or hospitalised person, an anxious person and an anxious family. And then there are the deaths, a bereaved family, traumatised by the death of a loved one in isolation … we are all individuals and we are counted by name.

For the 15th century Spanish Rabbi Isaac ben Moses Arama (in his Aḳedat Yitzchaḳ - The Binding of Isaac) the census at the beginning of Badmidbar is not about counting “… animals or material objects… each one had an importance of his or her own … and God had shown special love to towards them… this is the significance of mentioning each one of them by name and status; for they were all equal and individual in status.”

In our Covid circumstances we are all individuals, not objects or animals, and we are counted by name just as Moses counted the people before entering the land.  And while we might be tempted to pray for an easy solution, a quick fix, a miracle cure, like Israel we are called to be prepared, to use our own resources and to rely on common sense and qualified experts.

Nachmanides adds an extra nuance, saying that what was unique about this second census was that each person got a personal blessing from Moses and Aaron. This new count was to extend a special blessing to each and every individual.

We can all use a special blessing these days. Maybe this week? Shavua Tov!

Brian Doyle

IJC Rabbinical Intern

Seeking Comfort on Shabbat

In the course of this week, one of the reflections (by Naomi Lev) on the Daf Yomi from Shabbat 53 caught my attention (read the page on Sefaria here). It centred around a discussion among the rabbis that made use of the Talmudic legal principal kol v’chomer – from minor to major. If a rule applies to one situation it can also apply to another. The discussion was about carrying things – or not carrying them - on Shabbat; and it was extended to animals carrying things, since, like us, our animals and our servants (I really must remember to give the servants a day off) are not supposed to work – or carry – on Shabbat.

Basically, the rabbis broaden the debate from allowing us to hang a basket of food around an animal’s neck to save it from bending down, to placing a saddlecloth on its back to keep it warm. Both are permitted for the comfort of the animal on Shabbat – and the saddlecloth is more important – major – than the basket - minor. While the entire rabbinic debate is about avoiding work and not carrying burdens on Shabbat, here the idea of Shabbat comfort is introduced.

As progressive Jews, we search for ways of making Shabbat holy by making it unique and special. We may not have the same concern about carrying physical burdens on Shabbat as the rabbis in the Talmud did, but what about our mental burdens, perhaps heightened and exaggerated by these anxious days of Corona lockdown?

Making Shabbat unique and special can be about finding ways to rest – to cease from the work that preoccupies us during the week. But it could also be about taking the time to unburden, seeking comfort for ourselves, just as the rabbis sought comfort for their animals. Perhaps seeking comfort for ourselves on Shabbat could be another way of being holy like the Eternal is holy, the focal statement of the second part of this week’s double parashah AchareiMot/Kedoshin

Now who mentioned kugel?


Brian Doyle
IJC Rabbinical Intern