Sunday, 31 July 2011

Ultimately it's our responsibility

I want to share with you a story which took place in Newcastle at a Bar Mitzvah in the Shul hall. I was seated next to a Rabbi from the nearby Gateshead community.

For those people who do not know let me explain; Gateshead is a very frum community, just the other side of the River Tyne. It is described by some as the Jewish University town of the Charedi world, because it is famous for its institutions of Higher Jewish learning. It boasts four Yeshivot and three Kollelim and two girls Seminaries, plus Jewish Primary and Secondary Schools.

Newcastle on the other hand, of which I was the Rabbi, is a mainstream- middle of the road Jewish community. With a mixture of people who are entirely Shomer Shabbat to people who virtually keep nothing at all.

People of all shades.

So I sit next to this Rabbi at this Bar Mitzvah.

This was the gist of the conversation:

“Rabbi Black- at the end of 120 years, you will Please G-d go up above to the pearly gates of heaven where the angels will ask you the following question: Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ben Shemariyahu HaCohen Black- You were the Rabbi of the Newcastle Jewish community for X amount of years. What did you achieve in that time allotted to you? Did you raise the standards of the community? Did you try to encourage people to keep Kosher? Did you make your community Shomer Shabbat? Because at the end of the day, if you did not, then it falls upon you- because you had the power and potential to do something about it and you did not, it is therefore your responsibility.”

I felt I had been attacked, personally challenged for my own shortcomings or for that of my community. My reaction to this Rabbi was as follows;

“Rabbi X – at the end of 120 years you are going up to the pearly gates up above and the angels will ask you the following question: You who lived in Gateshead for so many years- you who lived in a community which is so permeated with a love of Judaism and love of G-d. Did you take that love of Yiddishkeit- that love of Torah- that love of G-d, and did you share it with your fellow Jews who live in Newcastle- because if you did not- why didn’t you? Why was it good for you and not for your fellow Jews outside the daled amot; the four cubits of Torah learning in Gateshead. It’s all very good for the self, but what about the Jews who are outside your community. You spoke about love of Torah – love of Yiddishkeit and love of G-d but what about the love of your fellow Jews? And if it’s not there why not?”

The Rabbi from Gateshead was lost for words- he hadn’t expected such a sharp response.

But on reflection his words – his challenge to me was very real indeed. What he was saying to me and in a very direct way was that the Rabbi is the one who has the power, the potential to change community to transform individual lives, to lead them to the next stage in their religious development, to have the vision and programme for the future, and if he is not doing that and the community lacks growth – then ultimately, he is responsible.

And at the same time I realise that we all have the duty to share what we have with others. If we have some level of learning, if we understand an aspect of Torah in a particular way it’s all too easy to become separatist and not share what we have. It’s so simple to say I’m o.k where I’m at, why do I need to care about a zweiten yid- another Jew? When it’s cold outside it’s easy to wrap oneself up in the fur coat to keep oneself warm but what about other people. How do I warm them up in their Judaism?

We need to be friendly and warm and welcoming. Is there a new face in Shul today? Have we greeted and said Shabbat Shalom and invited them to our homes?

And it’s all got to do with Tisha B’Av-

Listen to this statement from the Gemara in Yoma:

The reason for the destruction of the First temple, says the Gemara was because of three cardinal sins in which they were steeped:

idolatry, bloodshed and immorality-

But what about the second temple- these sins were not rampant during the second Temple period so why was it destroyed?

Answers the Gemara: Sinat Chinam; Baseless hatred .

The nine days is the right time to reflect on our relationships with our fellow Jews.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

The darkest hour for the Jewish community

I have just finished watching the footage of the funeral for Leiby Kletsky.

I cannot help but cry for a family distraught beyond measure for the loss of their little child. For those who don’t know; Leiby was a Chassidic boy of eight from Borough Park in Brooklyn, who went missing on Monday afternoon. He was supposed to have met up with his mother after Day Camp but he did not show up at the agreed place.

CCTV footage showed pictures of the boy at an intersection in Brooklyn obviously lost. He stopped a man to ask him how to get to the Sefarim store. The man went away – he had an appointment with the dentist. Came back a little later and you see on the CCTV footage the little boy walking away following the man.

The man was identified as Levi Aron- a thirty five year old divorced man who had recently moved to the area. When they went to his home at Kensington to interview him at three in the morning on Wednesday, the man brought the investigators into his apartment. There was blood everywhere and body parts were found. Other parts of this young boy’s body were found in a dumpster. Levi Aron was arrested immediately.

Looking at the photo of the accused you think how he looks so normal. One would never have thought that this man would have done such a thing.

The whole story gives me the shivers.

This type of thing doesn’t happen in the Jewish community does it? Child and wife abuse doesn’t happen? Does it? The shock is that this type and form of crime is the first that I’ve heard of from within the orthodox Jewish community.

Our weaknesses are that we are all very trusting. We try to see the good in everybody. After all, isn't it better to look at people with your right rather than the left eye? As a Rabbi surely I’m supposed to try to accentuate the good in life and see that in everybody?

Whacko! Animal! Monster!! These are some of the appellations that I have read on various blog and news sites. But the truth is he had two eyes a nose a mouth and two ears like you and me. His photo doesn’t fit the stereotypical picture of a monster. Yet he did what he did. I can never understand the mentality of such a person. Whether or not this is a person suffering from mental illness is for the authorities to determine. But the fact is a person has it within his capacity to do such a crime.

However, this story reminds me of something that happened in our family a few years ago. We had a Polish cleaner. Somebody we thought we could trust with everything. I think of the many times that we left her alone in the house and with the children. Then one day we received a phone call from a lady in Hendon from the place where she was residing as au pair for a Jewish family. The lady of the house had (wrongly in my opinion) gone into her bags when she was out, and found; perfumes, rings, and baby’s clothes- an abundance of them. She knew that we had just had a baby girl- and some of the clothes that we had received as presents had gone missing.

We were shocked. These were all the clothes that we had received from the birth of our baby. Over the time she had worked with us she had quietly filtered off rings and clothes –we still today do not know what she had taken. Somebody in whom we had put our trust had betrayed that trust. Could we ever trust anybody ever again?

The police commissioner on the case said that this was just happenstance, Leiby just happened to be the wrong child in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the eyes of the Orthodox Jewish world there is no such thing as coincidence there is a reason for everything. We don’t understand Hashem it is beyond our rationale.

Perhapsultimately this has been sent to us as a warning: to watch and look after our children, to recognise that we are near the three weeks- a time of tragedy for the Jewish people or just to recognise the importance and value of every single Neshama.

May his soul be bound up in eternal life

Friday, 8 July 2011

The Eternal Message

"Mah Tovu ohalecha Yaakov mishkenotecha Yisrael."

"How Goodly are your tents O Jacob- Your dwelling places O Israel."

I say these words every single day without fail on my entering the Shul in the morning, and so do many of our fellow Jews throughout the world. It begins my day with this optimistic message of the beauty of Shul and community.

What do they mean? Mah Tovu ohalecha Yaakov- How goodly are your tents O Jacob- One explanation from the Gemara in Megillah is that they refer to the Synagogues and Yeshivot of the Jewish people wherever they may be, that the blessing is eternal.

And who originally said them?

It was Bilaam the Heathen Prophet in this week’s Sedra employed by Balak, the King of Moab to curse Israel; but try as he might the words that came out from his mouth were not curses but blessings.

And indeed Our Rabbis say that from the nature of the blessed that spurted forth from his mouth, you can deduce exactly what the curse was supposed to be. In other words, Bilaam wanted the exact opposite of what he achieved. He fully intended to curse Israel

Shelo yiheyu lachem batei knessiyot ubattei medrashot- That your Shuls and Yeshivot should not endure, yet he ended up only with blessing.

So the question is: There is no doubt that Bilaam intended to curse Israel, yet as he admitted to Balak in a later communication, “Even if you were able to give me a house full of gold and silver- I am unable to transgress the word of G-d- Everything that G-d puts into my mouth I have to say”.

Bilaam becomes a mere automaton.

So my question is, why do we commence each and every day when we enter Shul with the words said by a heathen prophet and sorcerer, who set about with the intent to curse Israel?

The question becomes more pronounced and aggravated when we hear the words of the famous 16th Century Halachist – the Maharshal- Reb Shlomo Luria who said in a responsa the following:

Ani matchil berov chasdecha umedaleg mah tovu she-amro bilam – veaf hu amro likllalah-

He says- I begin from the next line and I miss out Mah Tovu because it was said by Bilaam who intended to curse Israel.

In other words the Maharshal rejects saying Mah Tovu because of its negative source.

Yet we, by “we” I mean The Jewish people anywhere you go in the world, have accepted these words from Bilaam as part of our everyday prayers, no questions asked?

You’ve got to listen to this one because the message is simple but profound.

We recite mah Tovu – a prayer recited by a Heathen prophet Bilaam, the first thing that we say every morning when we come into shul because it symbolises the essence of Judaism.

And that is... the power to transform curse into bracha- blessing.

Bilaam intended with full sincerity to curse Israel- but he ended up blessing them.

The quintessence of Jewish history has been that we take a situation of kelaala- of curse- of negativity- of no hope, and we transform it into bracha- blessing= positivity- hope for the future.

And I can go throughout Jewish history and you can see the Mah Tovu.

The Churban Beit Hamikdash- Temple destruction- something about which we begin our national mourning on Shiva asar betamuz for three weeks.

Yet out of that negative experience comes a spark of positivity, a glimmer of hope, because when Reb Yochanan Ben Zakkai, the Chief Rabbi of the Jewish people at the time of the destruction heard about the impending catastrophe, he went to see Vespasian the Captain of the Roman Legion- and he said to him:

“Give me Yavneh as a town where I can set up a Yeshivah – an establishment of Jewish learning- a makom Torah- a place where there would be Jewish continuity”

Reb Yochanan Ben Zakkai knew the Temple was going to be destroyed but he found the positive in a very negative situation. We look back at what happened next in history. The Temple was destroyed- that was an inevitability, but Yavneh was alive and well.

And from Yavneh came the Sages of the Mishneh and the Talmud- and if it were not for the foresight of Reb Yochanan Ben Zakkai- we would have become lost in the quagmire of history. It was the ability of Reb Yochanan to see the Mah Tovu, the blessing out of the curse.

The positive out of the negative.

Right up to modern times. The most destructive and negative experience of our history-the holocaust- millions of Jews perished at the hands of their Nazi oppressors, yet out of those flames of destruction- when Jewish communities in Europe were literally reduced to atzamot yevashot- dry bones- yet out of that negativity, that period of no hope came the emergence of Medinat Yisrael- Our homeland.

And we look back at history and we praise those who had the prescience to look forward to see the mah Tovu- the positive out of an extremely negative situation. Against all odds they fought to build our land- that tiny strip of land –one of the smallest countries in the world- yet it has defied all natural phenomena to become the country Israel is today, despite the fact that there are people who still question its right to exist. Despite the fact that we are surrounded by millions of Arabs who have vowed to destroy us- Yet we hold our heads high because we are able to say Mah Tovu ohalecha Yaakov...

Shabbat Shalom