Reasons to be Cheerful

Reasons To Be Cheerful

The last few days have been special in many ways. On top of the Covid-19 restrictions, many of us have had to deal with swelteringly hot weather and soaring temperatures. And watching the news doesn’t bring much solace, with Covid-19 peaks in parts of Belgium and across Europe, terrible events in Lebanon, conflict in Belarus, and so much more. Uncertainty about the future is perhaps the most difficult thing to deal with. Are the restrictions ever going to ease? Are we going to be free to travel soon? Make plans? Are the schools going to restart as normal or at least close to normal? What is ‘normal’ going to look like? What about our own synagogue life? The only certainty is it won’t be the same as it was. Humans are social creatures, and limitations on our social activities are an extra psychological burden we all have to carry these days.

But in the midst of all this negativity and uncertainty, something good – or should I say something excellent – happened. Four long-time members of IJC were fully embraced by the Jewish people after attending a unique Beth Din, convened in our synagogue Beth Hillel. I know from experience that convening a Beth Din is far from simple at the best of times. Rabbis are busy people, and although they consider Beth Din work an essential part of their rabbinical commitment, it’s not easy to get three recognised rabbis (members of an official rabbinical association) in the same place at the same time, and keeping them there for a whole day. Fortunately, Rabbi Marc Neiger of Beth Hillel did the honours this time, setting up a hybrid live/online Beth Din with cameras, microphones, projectors and screens.

Rabbi Marc and myself were present in the synagogue, wearing masks and keeping our distance. Rabbi Haim Casas (Spain) and Rabbi Philippe Hadad (Paris) joined online, all of us members of the Kerem Rabbinical Association based in Paris.  Sym was first in the chair. Sym joined IJC when Rabbi Nathan was still with us. Their journey to this day has been one of twists and turns, but their arrival was spectacular. Next up was IJC’s first ever family to go through the giur programme together. Ditter Leon-Pino and Dedbie Bilbao were joined by their little daughter Anory as they proudly recited the Shema, after dazzling the rabbis with their knowledge and exceptional story. Last but not least, Nikoleta Mosquera also appeared with her husband Andrès Mosquera (now in his second year at rabbinical school) and their little daughter Rebeca. Her story and commitment to maintaining a Jewish family also deeply impressed the rabbis. It was very difficult to feel the emotion of this moment and not be able to celebrate with a warm, welcoming hug.  But that time will come.

On a personal note, another member of IJC who joined at precisely the same time as me way back in our Uccle days, also appeared before the Beth Din, this time under the auspices of the European Beth Din (based in London). Rabbi Jackie Tabick (official convenor) joined from London, Rabbi Edward Van Voolen joined from Amsterdam, and Rabbi Haim Casas from Spain. I wasn’t allowed to participate in this session because the only candidate was my partner – and soon to be husband – Peter Du Breuil. I was banished to the garden for an hour. I know Peter finds it difficult to stop talking when he gets started, so I had to laugh when he told me afterwards that he rounded off his response to the first question only to be thanked by Rabbi Jackie for already answering her next seven questions. Peter is proud to be Jewish and is looking forward to continuing his contribution to our community, and not just by ironing the rabbinical intern’s shirts and pouring him the occasional G&T.  

 

Brian Doyle

IJC Rabbinical Intern

 

A New Jewish Festival?

A New Jewish Festival?

Last week I had the honour of representing the Jewish community in the Province of Flemish Brabant at a ceremony to commemorate those who have died as a result of Covid-19 and to express solidarity with those recovering from the disease. I sang El Male Rachamim – a Jewish prayer for the dead mostly associated with funerals and stone settings, expressing confidence in the mercy of God, the Shekinah and Her protective wings. I have to admit I was a little nervous, because I had never sung this beautiful prayer before. But the wings of the Shekinah carried the melody. The Muslim representative intoned a surah from the Qur’an in more or less the same musical tone. I felt aligned with him. 

The days ahead lead us from Shabbat Chazon, in which the prophet Isaiah’s visions assail our ancestors for being a brood of vipers, offering sacrifices tainted by public and personal injustice, mistreatment of the weak, the poor, and the outcast, to Tisha b’Av, our people’s day of collective lamentation for the disasters – khurbanot that have befallen us in the course of history; these disasters begin with the spies returning from scouting the promised land and instilling fear instead of confidence in God’s plan (repeated last Shabbat in the first parashah from Devarim), through the destruction of both Temples, the expulsions from Spain and England, the Shoa.

Tisha b’Av is also, by tradition, a day for visiting cemeteries. Perhaps I should have intoned some verses from the book of Lamentations at the commemoration. I believe those who have lost loved ones would have understood the words of Israel’s lament over the destruction of Jerusalem: “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! […] Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are on her cheeks. […] From on high he sent fire, sent it down into my bones. He spread a net for my feet and turned me back. He made me desolate, faint all the day long […].

Surely Covid-19 is a global khurban.

But perhaps the challenge is to listen to Isaiah today more than ever.  Our ceremonies and commemorations may not be tainted, our lamentations may be heartfelt and genuine, we might even mean it when we say ‘you’re in our prayers’. But how do we confront private and public injustice in the days of Corona ? How do we promote just treatment of the weak, the poor, the outcast? How will we do this in the months to come, as our weaker, poorer sister nations continue to face the pandemic with little if any resources while wealthy nations amass potential vaccines by the millions.

Someone jokingly asked if Jews would have a commemoration in centuries to come, a new festival during which everyone wears a face mask but few know the origins of the tradition. Will we read Lamentations on that day or Isaiah ?

Brian Doyle

IJC Rabbinical Intern

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

 

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.

 

Read more: Capping a Successful Year

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

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. 

 

Read more: Emerging from the Wilderness

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.

 

 

Read more: Not Quite Oysgezoomd