Friday, 25 March 2011

E mail Rage

Here is a sermon I delivered three years back, which caused quite a raucous in my community..

This morning I would like to take a few moments to reflect on a subject which is constantly in the news whether we like it or not and will radically effect the way that we conduct ourselves in the future.

People today speak a lot about the Carbon footprint- the measure of the impact that human activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of green house gas produced measured in units of carbon dioxide.

Today we are now coming to the recognition that what we do- how we conduct ourselves in an everyday routine manner in our homes in our offices and on the street will have serious repercussions on our future. But not only that, we realize that through even some of the smallest mundane actions like driving a car, turning our central heating up, we are consuming more energy and that impacts on our world, on our environment.

I remember a few years ago the Chernobyl incident when the nuclear reactor blew up sending a cloud of radioactive dust around the world. The discussion at the time was how the event that took place thousands of miles away had a global impact to the extent that it affected the sheep in Scotland.

What do we learn from this? - We learn the inter-dependence and inter-connectivity of life. We sometimes think that what we do does not have any effect on others, but on a simple physical mundane level, we are all linked together- whether we like it or not.

Another example of this inter-relationship is the financial crisis that seems to be looming on the horizon. We live in a global market place and the impact of the credit crunch and falling house market in America could be finding its way over here. Does this mean recession or even a depression? We’ll leave that to the economists to decide. However, we can definitely see how actions in one part of the world can influence what occurs in another country.

We are inter- connected and we do not always see the effect of our actions on the physical world.

The Baal Shem Tov says that everything that happens in this world on a physical plane occurs on a spiritual level. We think sometimes because we do not see the immediate effects of the way in which we act- that it doesn’t matter ,that we can just comport ourselves in an inappropriate manner, and since I haven’t effected anybody, haven’t physically harmed anybody directly- it’s o.k.

This morning we read from the Sedra of Shemini and we were introduced for the first time to the laws of Kashrut. The Torah says that there are certain animals that we may eat and those we cannot. Throughout our history there have been scholars who have sought to rationalize the rules of Kashrut to interpret and give meaning to why we keep these laws. But, the bottom line is that we don’t always understand every law of the Torah especially dealing with a law on the level of Chok- statute- the type of law that seems to defy all reason.

We do not know the spiritual impact that we effect on our lives by not keeping Kashrut. Because we do not see the immediate result of our actions doesn’t mean that they are not there. The Cabbalists say that through keeping Kashrut we help to spiritually nurture and elevate our souls. And just as we are very concerned with physical sustenance, we have to also guard and protect the spiritual nourishment of our souls.

We spend a lot of time and energy talking about Kashrut but our Rabbis say that not only should we be careful in what enters our mouth and goes into our bodies, but we need to be careful about what comes out of our mouths.

The Talmud says that through speaking gossip- Lashon Harah we virtually “kill” three people. Firstly; the one about whom we are speaking; secondly; the one who accepts the gossip as true and thirdly; the one who speaks the gossip.

Quite a statement.

Through speaking Lashon Harah you kill somebody. Is this Guzma-exaggeration or what? What is the Talmud trying to say here? I think that the gemara is trying to convey that we do not always see the spiritual negative impact, the destruction that we make when we speak disparagingly of our fellow human beings.

But it’s not just our speech. There are new modern modes of communication that we think by using them it doesn’t make a difference. Sometimes we don’t like to tell somebody in their face what we think of them- why? because we prefer not to confront them. So instead we utilize new modern forms of media, and hide behind them because we think we can get away with it.

Take for example the E-mail. It’s brilliant. It allows us to send messages to many people instantaneously.

I can speak to somebody on the other side of the world.

We can use it in the Shul to send out messages to a majority of our members. G-d forbid somebody passes away in the morning and within minutes we can organize the funeral and ensure a minyan will turn up.

We can advertise the Monday night adult education programs to the community. Think about it. It’s instant, it’s cheap and a great mode of communication.

But there are downsides. I’m angry about something. I don’t like the way something has been done in the Shul. So in my fit of anger I hastily write an E-mail. I’m red in the face and writing the E-mail gets it off my chest. And whilst I’m doing it, I c.c to a few other people and then I might do a Bcc to some of my friends. And let’s be honest there is no confidentiality or privacy when it comes to an E-mail. You send it out and it can go on ad infinitum.

And I press the SEND button.

And after I’ve calmed down from my fit of anger I’ve suddenly realised I sent out this E mail. It’s gone half way around the world. I said things in it that I really regret but you know what. I’ve blown it.

It’s written- it’s been carbon copied, it’s been sent. The damage has been done.

An E mail is not a letter. It’s not a conversation.

What we do, what we say- we have no idea the effect and impact we make

Think about it.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

There are no words.......

I have just finished watching a wonderful video on You Tube depicting a young family in their living room – a father and a mother with their young children, having some fun together.

The oldest boy is building some blocks of bricks and the tower has grown so tall that the father has to pick him up on his shoulders to place the bricks on the very top. The music starts and the father picks up his four year old son on his shoulders and dances around the room. In the meantime the tower of bricks topples on the floor to the squeals and delight of everyone present.

You smile with them because it is a story of normal family life. We smile and have fun with the everyday. And that’s part of living. It’s the normality of the everyday from which one finds delight that makes this very video so special.

Today, five of the family featured on that video, taken only a few months ago are dead, murdered at the hands of some sick terrorist.

I think it was Dostoevsky who said that all the philosophers in the world cannot justify the death of one single innocent child.

It is with these words in mind that I approach the latest tragedy from Israel, the wiping out, the eradication of five members of the Fogel family in Itamar.

No words can describe the feeling of sadness and loss.

Members of the family had requested that the photos of the massacre be placed on the internet, so that people could be able to see the full extent and horror of the tragedy. Out of curiosity I looked, having been sent the pictures on FaceBook. The photos depicted a father with his little three month old baby stabbed to death. Another picture gets close to the four year old boy, blood strewn everywhere. The child’s face focussed out, and another picture of his older brother lying in a pool of blood.

I decided not to place a link to these pictures here. I disagree with their being put on the internet to begin with. The internet, Facebook is a public space. Children could have access just by clicking on the wrong link. People faint of heart will be distressed to look at these photos. But another thing, despite the fact that the family and the Israeli government have said that they give their permission- it’s wrong from an ethical and Halachic perspective to view the dead.

Rather, from a Jewish view, we ought to remember this wonderful family from the way in which they lived their lives.

Let their memory be a blessing.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Who is the most favourite influential woman?

Who is the most favourite influential London woman of the past century?

This was a question posed to the readers of the Metro Newspaper this last week. Was it Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of this country, or Emmeline Pankhurst; leader of the suffragette movement, or some other inspirational lady leader?

No. It was Leona Lewis.

Readers of this blog are probably wondering who is Leona Lewis? I had never heard of her. And no- she’s not to be confused with Leonnie Lewis of United synagogue fame. Actually that would have been quite a good choice; Leonnie deserves an accolade for her fine communal work.

Leona Lewis, the one who won the title of most influential woman, is a twenty five year old pop star from Hackney. I found that out from my sixteen year old daughter.

Well, to give her a little slack, she does do a lot of charitable work, and she has had a few hit singles, and she’s very popular in America. And it’s not as if I have anything against pop stars per se. That’s her job and she does make a lot of money. But that doesn’t make her the most influential woman of the past century. Or does it?

Judging also from the figures of the finalists it doesn’t make all that much sense. Leona got 70% of the vote. Coming in a far-away second place was Margaret Thatcher with 5% of the vote. It seems a bit strange that one person should get such a high percentage of the vote, yet most normal people haven’t even heard of her.

So where am I going on this?

There are two ways of looking at this:

Either readers of The Metro Newspaper or readers who respond to dumb polls are pretty dumb-

Or, it was all a set up, in other words all her fans were motivated by twitter or Facebook by a sudden urge to vote for her.

Whatever way I look at it, it all seems a bit glum. We live in a very sad world if we are unable to find any better role models than our celebrities or pop stars and not real people who have given their lives for a cause higher than themselves.

So, from a Jewish perspective; who is the most influential Jewish woman in London of the past century?

Well in my opinion it will have to be the late Lady Jacobovitz.(pictured above). A great lady, a marvellous role model , an inspiration to many, who supported dozens of charities and is missed by all.

And on a personal level there’s always My Rebbetzin; her delicious chicken soup, a great mum, wonderful wife. Well done Yehudit!! : )

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Why are we so sad?

The following sermon was delivered three years ago on Parashat Vayakhel. Even though it is slightly dated the message still applies. Here goes:

Tuesday there was a Report published by the University of Hull about the benefits of the widespread use of anti depressants, and according to this report;

“The new generation of anti depressants has little clinical effect on the majority of depressed patients”- However for those people who suffer severe depression, the report says that these drugs still have a benefit.

It wasn’t actually the findings of the report which drew my eye- But I will come back to that later. What I want to mention are the shocking statistics published from 2006, and that is over 31 million prescriptions were written out by Doctors in the UK for anti depressants.


O.K you might say that many of them were repeat prescriptions. Yet according to reports, as many as one in five members of the population at any time are suffering from depression. These figures are overwhelming. Let me reframe what that means: If I were to say that 20% of the population were suffering a disease; that would be called an epidemic because that is really what it is. Because you cannot necessarily see the physical effects of the disease doesn’t mean that it’s not there. It’s here lurking under the surface.

The fact is that we are living at a time of unprecedented prosperity – despite the gloom and doom from some of our economic forecasters. However, never in history has there been so much affluence and freedom to do what we really want.

Nevertheless; look at the figures from the past twenty years alone...suicide , depression, drug and alcohol addictions have seen a 300% increase, and we have witnessed the collapse of the family.

We have everything – at least more than we have had in the past, but it has not brought happiness.

So what can be done about this problem? If anti depressants don’t really work- what are the alternatives?

David Cameron suggests that we should begin a campaign to see how we can improve society’s sense of well being. He calls this GWB- General Well Being as opposed to GDP- gross domestic product.

In response Philip Hadon- A fellow of the British Association for counseling and psychotherapy said a rather thought provoking statement: A happiness agenda is a laudable aim, but one that is meaningless; happiness is not something you can buy from Tesco.

Health Secretary Alan Johnson in reaction to the report says that 3600 new therapists are to be trained in the next three years.

It has also been suggested that we look at other countries and how they deal with the problem of depression. A model is Holland for example who have invented ecotherapy- where patients are transferred to more rural environments where they get a change of scene, and apparently this has had a curative effect on those suffering from depression.

The bottom line is that the doling out of anti depressants by our doctors to “cure” the effects of a general feeling of unhappiness and depression is not working. More has to be done to alleviate the problem. Depression is not only chemical but there are deeper issues at stake here.

What has Judaism to say about all this? Is there anything that Judaism can contribute to this debate?

I have a Ladies Shiur which meets in my office every Monday afternoon at 2 o clock.

Any lady is welcome to come and participate. At present, we are learning together the Laws of Tefillah in the Rambam - Maimonides. Previously we learned about Hilchot Deot, the laws that speak about our own personalities and defects and also how to look after our own health.

However the Rambam doesn’t just speak about physical health but he also speaks about what he calls the health of the “soul”-mental health. In other words, the Rambam, one of our greatest Rabbis and thinkers and physicians who lived over 850 years ago, recognized that there was such an illness as depression.

What does he recommend as a way to move out of depression?

Listen to what he says

How can we help those people who are suffering from sickness of the soul?

“They should go to experts who are soul healers and they will heal them through delving into their own personality traits and teach them until they turn back to the good and upright path.”

Remember this was written over 850 years before Freud or any of the modern day psychoanalysts came on the scene, yet he suggests that the way forward is to go to a therapist and speak over whatever is troubling the mind and the expert “Rofeh Nefashos”- the soul healer will help you get out of the situation.

There is much more to mental health than just popping pills.

Let me quote the Talmud in Berachot;

“The Shechina, the Divine Presence cannot find rest in the midst of sadness, depression or worry, only through joy of a mitzvah”.

This dictum is inferring that G-d desires that man be in a state of constant joy and happiness in his service to God, and if that is lacking then the Shechina- The Divine presence is affected by that void.

The Psalmist declares;

“Serve the Lord with gladness. Enter His presence with singing.”

In Devarim - Ki tavo the Children of Israel are warned about serving G-d properly and the Tochechah - the curses that come about if we collectively turn our backs on Hashem. Says the Torah;

“These exhortations will occur because you did not serve the Lord Your G-d with joy and good heartedness and an abundance of all.”

The verse is saying that sometimes you can have a physical and material abundance but with that must come contentment.

Focus on the well known words of Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot:

“Who is wealthy? The one who is happy with his portion.”

Notice the stress placed here on wealth and happiness. True wealth can only come about when one is happy and content with ones lot in life. The Mishnah also speaks about the human psyche.

“A person who owns 100 zuzim wants 200.”

It’s human nature that people want more. But it doesn’t buy the happiness. Our Sages, our prophets knew this from day one. The mindless pursuit of material possession will not buy the happiness.

Happiness is a state of mind. It is not about how good or bad your lot is in life, it is about how we deal with what Hashem has given to us.

I’ll conclude with the inspirational Chassidic story of Reb Zusha of Annapoli. A Chassid once came to Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch and asked. “How can I deal with my poverty and suffering?”

The Maggid told him; “go to Reb Zusha and he will teach you about suffering.”

So he travels to Reb Zusha, sees he is living in great deprivation and poverty, and asks him; “How do you deal with your great suffering in life?”

Reb Zusha answers; “Suffering?! I never suffered a day in my life.”

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Tikva/Hope in Odessa -Part 2

I introduce in this post my Shul Chairman Mike Topper who was one of the group who visited the Tikva Childrens Home in Odessa. (Please read the post from February 14th)

Last night at our Adult Education Programme attended by over sixty people, he shared with us some of the harrowing experiences of the visit.

We were all stunned into silence…

To find out more about Tikva Children’s Home please visit:

Read on…….

There are no poor Jews in the World are there? A disturbing statistic is that that everyone we are likely to meet in the Western World are amongst the World’s top 6% wealthiest people. Yes even the beggars that come over from Israel to regale us at services with their sad stories. Certainly we do not expect to see any of our brethren in the bottom 94% - or do we? Well I can tell you I have now met one of the 94% and she is Jewish. One of our party somewhat facetiously asked me if she had a mezuzah on her door. Door – she hardly had a door.

The coach took our party to about ¼ mile from her hovel. We had to negotiate a dirt track in the dark – led by a few waving torches, skipping from dirt to snow, snow through mud and Lord knows what else, back to snow that gave an eerie glow to our nocturnal adventure. This was made even more distressing by the constant barking of a plethora of dogs locked up (we were reliably informed) behind the wire fences either side of us.

When we had negotiated the track we turned off to the right down an even narrower and more congested path to what had been a wooden gate. Today it was falling off its hinges, unfitting and most probably riddled with wet rot and heaven knows what. We pushed this open, the creak of its rusting hinges alleviating the howl from the guardian canines.

Inside – a garden – or a junk yard – with plenty of empty bottles and piles of other unrecognizable junk covered in snow – ahead a washing line the clothes hanging limply in the freezing atmosphere – to a ramshackle shack – a mixture of untreated breezeblock, wood, plastic, corrugated metal roof and another rotting front door.

Inside the door a dark, heavy hanging blanket kept the biting cold from the shelter.

No running water; no electricity; no drainage or sewerage – an outside toilet shack, a rusting table that was the kitchen area.

Inside two beds, some rough storage shelves with a collection of crockery, plenty of empty bottles, some of which may have once held fruit drinks, rough curtains over the one window – this was home to our hostess, 16 year old son and elder daughter. The daughter, we had been told, had been raped by her Uncle at the age of 16. She had temporarily left home but was now back with her mother and brother. Her mind permanently scarred by the experiences of her youth. This was her life.

The lady of the house was pleased to show us this and her other room – similarly furnished.

She had made an effort to put some paintings on the walls, some decorations hung from the ceiling and there were even pictures of her children and a man – the man in her life – who knows?

She was delighted that we had chosen her home to visit.

Almost backing on to the hovel was a detached house resplendent with double glazed windows, satellite dish and illuminated rooms – large garden, Ukrainian luxury we were told. How incongruous, how sad and how utterly depressing.

David Harris told me the other day that this was a ‘posh’ hovel; we have thousands of our brethren living like this in the Ukraine. We cannot even begin to estimate the numbers.

I asked our guides how we can begin to tackle this poverty – there is no answer. Many of the children run away from such homes. They find themselves in State run orphanages; these are of such ilk that yet again the children run away and prefer to live rough on the streets, yes - even in temperatures approaching -20 degrees C in winter, rather than live with the poverty, deprivation and brutality of their surroundings. About 80% of the boys turn to organised crime; for the girls there is nothing but prostitution. The Ukraine is a man’s world – if you are lucky to have escaped the poverty of the masses. Tikva offer the children salvation and hope - Tikva. They constantly look for Jewish Children to save from a life decreed them by the State and by being born in the wrong country, to the wrong parents at the wrong time. They need our gratitude; they need our blessings and they need our help.

There are no poor Jews in the World - are there?