Sunday, 25 September 2011

Yossi's Bar Mitzvah

We celebrated our son’s Bar Mitzvah this past Shabbat. I just thought it would be apposite to post my sermon on this blog:

Yosef Yitzchak, Yossi or Yoyo, as we affectionately call you. You’ve done us all proud –Didn’t he do well!

You’ve leyned beautifully –and you recited Haftarah really well-you are a credit to your teacher – whoever he is!- But it’s nothing to do with him- it’s got to do with you- you took your lessons seriously. You sat down you practised. We are proud of you- and we love you.

I want to direct a few words of Torah to you, but before so doing I looked into your Sedra of Nitzavim Vayelech to find some appropriate words that I could say to you. The New Year is on the horizon.

I found in the last portion of your first Sedra this morning the following words… Moshe is about to die:

He directs the following message to B’nei Yisrael:

“Look- I have placed before you today life and good. The death and the evil.”

Note these words; the word life is associated with good. Death is associated with evil.

And then comes the exhortation from G-d

“You shall choose life- in order that you shall live, you and your offspring.”

What’s going on over here? What is Moshe saying to B’nei Yisrael before he dies?

One of the most fundamental issues in Judaism is that we believe that everybody has what we call bechira chofshit- free choice.

G-d has placed before each and every one of us choices, and if we want to be good, upright, decent people; living lives permeated with fulfilment and purpose; If we want to deal honestly in business, we desire to sit, study Torah and interact with our fellow beings in a just and charitable way – the choice is in our hands. Conversely, if we G-d forbid want to turn our backs from the Torah, sever our connection with the Jewish community, or act deceitfully in our dealings-the choice is in our hands. In every aspect of life, the choice is there. Take away that freedom to decide between right and wrong, good and bad; we would become mere automatons, fulfilling God’s will with no meaning or choice in the matter.

So Moshe is saying; look I’m putting before you the choice… Good which is synonymous with life and bad which is equal to death.

What did he mean? Listen to what our Rabbis say-“the righteous even in their death are called alive” and conversely “the wicked even whilst alive are called dead.”

What did they mean with these words?

Simple.. If you live a life devoid of meaning, where you fail to make the connection with Hashem and your fellow man. You neglect to live a life where you pursue goodness, honesty and integrity in your lifestyle- then what is your life about?

But, if you strive to be a good person to fulfil His commandments and to follow His ways-to study Torah- then your life has meaning, and you are Chayim-alive forever.

And that’s what we’re saying on Rosh Hashanah through to Yom Kippur… Zochreinu Lachaim melech chafetz bachaim- Remember us for life- king who desires life… Give us a life which is the one that You Hashem desire for us to live.

And this is the message of Moshe … Uvacharta Bachaim- Choose life!! You’ve got the free choice… but make the right one.

My Dear Yossi- I now turn to you on this Bar Mitzvah day. Bar Mitzvah is the time when we become responsible and obligated in the Mitzvot. Yesterday you officially started putting on your Tefillin. Something you began already two months previously, but that was practise. Yesterday you put them on as a person obligated to do mitzvoth.

Today you were called up for the first time. Before your Bar Mitzvah you weren’t permitted to be called up but today you’re called up. On Thursday afternoon you couldn’t be counted as part of the Minyan but on Thursday night you could.

So what’s it all about? The answer is that now you are responsible as a Jew. You make the choices. You pull the punches.

Your name is Yosef Yitzchak. You are named after the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe: Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn- who lived at a very difficult period of our history.

Today you are free to live your life as a Jew. You can go to Shul and daven. You go to a great school Hasmonean where you can learn Torah and fulfil all the Mitzvot. But imagine if you were forced into a life where it became illegal to study Torah. That means that if you were caught Studying Torah- or going to Shul to daven or trying to follow Judaism you could be arrested and sent to prison.

Can you imagine that?

Well this is exactly what happened to Yosef Yitzchak, the sixth Lubaviitcher Rebbe. Because he lived in Russia in the times of the communists who prohibited Jews to practise their religion- and he was arrested and sent to prison twice for the crime of being a Jew.

The famous story is told about Reb Yosef Yitzchak when he was facing trumped up charges in St Petersburg. The Head of the Ogpu, the secret police put a gun to his head demanding he confess his crimes. Yosef Yitzchak didn’t wince.

He said.. “If you believe only in this world then of course I should be afraid. But if I believe in this world and the next, why should I be afraid?”

Yet he continued and kept the spark of Judaism alive even though he knew that he could be exiled or sent to prison or even murdered for his beliefs.

Today Yossi you have complete freedom to live your life as a Jew- Nobody is going to send you to the Siberian concentration camps in the Gulag G-d forbid if you stand up for what is right. Because we live in a free world. But you have the choice.

So Yosef Yitzchak you are named after the sixth Rebbe because we knew that he lived a life of selfless devotion to Judaism and that’s what we would always want from you.

Your Brit Milah was on the second day of Rosh Hashanah in Shul in Newcastle where you were born- I suppose that technically makes you a Geordie. It’s interesting to note your paternal grandfather: Rev Sydney Black also had his Brit on Rosh Hashanah in shul in Kalish – I suppose the chances of that happening in the same family are very remote.

So you have the connection with Rosh Hashanah when we ask Hashem: Zochreinu Lechaim to give us life…

So my message to you is

Uvacharta bachayim

Choose life… Choose a life of meaning and of value. Choose a life where you run to do good. It’s not always the popular thing to do, but it’s the right thing. Choose a life where you can make a difference…you learn Torah and do mitzvot

May you continue to strive mechayil el choyil from strength to strength. May you always be a source of nachas to your grandparents to mummy and daddy to your brothers and sisters and may your name Yosef Yitzchak – Yosef which means to increase and Yitzchak which means laughter- may you always bring joy to all those who love and know you and let us say Amen.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

The Case for Israel

A few weeks ago I spent a few days holiday in Edinburgh and whilst there- the Edinburgh Fringe Festival was taking place. My wife and I went for a short walk we were approached by a young man who had two tickets to give away from a show and was trying to tempt us to take them- The thing was that the show was about to start immediately. We looked at the tickets – worth £15 each. I was tempted. But we turned it down for the following reasons

The venue was in a church-

The subject matter of the play was not suitable:- something about love

We had seven children to look after (which I think could have been the main reason) and

I read on the small print that this event was in aid of Palestine and on fighting the racist apartheid Zionist state.

This was not the only time that I noticed that there was this anti Israel, excuse me.. anti semitic slant. Indeed I was almost tempted into an arts and crafts fair but once again I was turned off because it was in aid of a fund supporting Palestine.

You only have to read the goings on from last week:- a student from St Andrews was found guilty by the procurator fiscal of racial abuse after he had attacked a young Jewish man in his lodgings and desecrated the Israeli flag-- to know that there are problems that our Jewish students are facing in the Universities. A University Chaplain told me this past Wednesday that many of his Jewish students feel very intimidated because of the massive anti Israel and anti semitic bias on campus.

But you only have to see the media to see this going on. Two weeks ago we saw the terrorist attacks near Eilat when eight Israelis were murdered. The IDF immediately counter attacked. The BBC focussed in not on the initial terrorist attack but on Israel’s counter attack and how there were demonstrations in Egypt because seven Egyptian police officers had been killed mistakenly by the Israelis- The Israelis had apologised for the mistake and at the very end of the BBC report by the way this had happened because of a terrorist attack in Israel.

And we judge Israel by a double standard. Israel has to defend its borders and the security of its people, especially when they are attacked by missiles from without-but what about Turkey who have been in the news a lot recently with their condemnation of Israel and in their breaking off of diplomatic relations -but hey has anybody told them …. have they got a justification to oppress the Kurds who live in their borders?

Does anybody do anything about that?

Or the people of Darfur. A crisis nobody in the west seems to know anything about. But if you look into the history of the conflict-look it up on Wikipedia it’s about Arab Muslims against black Muslims- it’s simply a race issue and the world shuts up-Yet when Israel needs to do things for its own security the whole world is in uproar.

Listen to this letter that was forwarded to me by my chairman; Mike Topper just before Shabbat- it says it all…

A Scottish professor responds to campus boycott. The Edinburgh

Student's Association made a motion to

boycott all things Israeli since they claim Israel is under an

apartheid regime. Dr. Denis Maceoin (a non-Jew) is an expert in Middle

Eastern affairs. Here is his letter to those students. AN

Dr. Denis MacEoin, a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly,

addresses The Committee of the Edinburgh University Student Association.

Received by e-mail from the author, Dr. Denis MacEoin, a senior editor

of the Middle East Quarterly,

TO: The Committee Edinburgh University Student Association.

May I be permitted to say a few words to members of the EUSA? I am an

Edinburgh graduate (MA 1975) who studied Persian, Arabic and Islamic

History in Buccleuch Place under William Montgomery Watt and Laurence

Elwell Sutton, two of Britain's great Middle East experts in their

day. I later went on to do a PhD at Cambridge and to teach Arabic and

Islamic Studies at Newcastle University. Naturally, I am the author of

several books and hundreds of articles in this field. I say all that to

show that I am well informed in Middle Eastern affairs and that, for

that reason, I am shocked and disheartened by the EUSA motion and vote.

I am shocked for a simple reason: there is not and has never been a

system of apartheid in Israel. That is not my opinion, that is fact

that can be tested against reality by any Edinburgh student, should he

or she choose to visit Israel to see for themselves. Let me spell this

out, since I have the impression that those members of EUSA who voted

for this motion are absolutely clueless in matters concerning Israel,

and that they are, in all likelihood, the victims of extremely biased

propaganda coming from the anti-Israel lobby.

Being anti-Israel is not in itself objectionable. But I'm not talking

about ordinary criticism of Israel. I'm speaking of a hatred that

permits itself no boundaries in the lies and myths it pours out. Thus,

Israel is repeatedly referred to as a "Nazi" state. In what sense is

this true, even as a metaphor? Where are the Israeli concentration

camps? The einzatsgruppen? The SS? The Nuremberg Laws? The Final

Solution? None of these things nor anything remotely resembling them

exists in Israel, precisely because the Jews, more than anyone on

earth, understand what Nazism stood for.

It is claimed that there has been an Israeli Holocaust in Gaza (or

elsewhere). Where? When? No honest historian would treat that claim

with anything but the contempt it deserves. But calling Jews Nazis and

saying they have committed a Holocaust is as basic a way to subvert

historical fact as anything I can think of.

Likewise apartheid. For apartheid to exist, there would have to be a

situation that closely resembled how things were in South Africa under

the apartheid regime. Unfortunately for those who believe this, a

weekend in any part of Israel would be enough to show how ridiculous

the claim is.

That a body of university students actually fell for this and voted on

it is a sad comment on the state of modern education. The most obvious

focus for apartheid would be the country's 20% Arab population. Under

Israeli law, Arab Israelis have exactly the same rights as Jews or

anyone else; Muslims have the same rights as Jews or Christians;

Baha'is, severely persecuted in Iran, flourish in Israel, where they

have their world center; Ahmadi Muslims, severely persecuted in

Pakistan and elsewhere, are kept safe by Israel; the holy places of all

religions are protected under a specific Israeli law. Arabs form 20% of

the university population (an exact echo of their percentage in the

general population). In Iran, the Bahai's (the largest religious

minority) are forbidden to study in any university or to run their own

universities: why aren't your members boycotting Iran? Arabs in Israel

can go anywhere they want, unlike blacks in apartheid South Africa.

They use public transport, they eat in restaurants, they go to swimming

pools, they use libraries, they go to cinemas alongside Jews -

something no blacks were able to do in South Africa.

University is supposed to be about learning to use your brain, to think

rationally, to examine evidence, to reach conclusions based on solid

evidence, to compare sources, to weigh up one view against one or more

others. If the best Edinburgh can now produce are students who have no

idea how to do any of these things, then the future is bleak.

I do not object to well-documented criticism of Israel. I do object

when supposedly intelligent people single the Jewish state out above

states that are horrific in their treatment of their populations. We

are going through the biggest upheaval in the Middle East since the 7th

and 8th centuries, and it's clear that Arabs and Iranians are rebelling

against terrifying regimes that fight back by killing their own

citizens. Israeli citizens, Jews and Arabs alike, do not rebel (though

they are free to protest). Yet Edinburgh students mount no

demonstrations and call for no boycotts against Libya, Bahrain, Saudi

Arabia, Yemen, and Iran. They prefer to make false accusations against

one of the world's freest countries, the only country in the Middle

East that has taken in Darfur refugees, the only country in the Middle

East that gives refuge to gay men and women, the only country in the

Middle East that protects the Bahai's.... Need I go on?

The imbalance is perceptible, and it sheds no credit on anyone who

voted for this boycott. I ask you to show some common sense. Get

information from the Israeli embassy. Ask for some speakers. Listen to

more than one side. Do not make your minds up until you have given a

fair hearing to both parties. You have a duty to your students, and

that is to protect them from one-sided argument.

They are not at university to be propagandized. And they are certainly

not there to be tricked into anti-Semitism by punishing one country

among all the countries of the world, which happens to be the only

Jewish state. If there had been a single Jewish state in the 1930's

(which, sadly, there was not), don't you think Adolf Hitler would have

decided to boycott it?

Your generation has a duty to ensure that the perennial racism of

anti-Semitism never sets down roots among you. Today, however, there

are clear signs that it has done so and is putting down more. You have

a chance to avert a very great evil, simply by using reason and a sense

of fair play. Please tell me that this makes sense. I have given you

some of the evidence. It's up to you to find out more.

Yours sincerely, Denis MacEoin

So What do we need to do as Jews?

First –we need to stand with Israel – if we do not stand with Israel who will?

Second: -We need to know the facts- not the fabrications fed to us constantly by the media – there’s a book: The case for Israel by Alan Dershowitz.

But the message is:- We all need to become ambassadors for Israel.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

The Koren Sacks Machzor

So here it is at last, the moment for which we have all been waiting; the New Koren Sacks Rosh Hashana Machzor. Let me begin by saying that I am not on commission from Koren and I never received the new Machzor from Koren to review. But I'm impressed that this new Machzor has a lot to offer.

It is wrong to assume that Koren is trying to copy the Artscroll. Artscroll has its own features- and follows the Ashkenaz American tradition- but this one follows the Anglo Jewish tradition and is a Machzor with a difference.

First it has a unique Hebrew font which is special to all Koren publications- this is very easy and clear to read. It differentiates between the Kametz katan and the kametz gadol- a very important feature for Sefardic pronounciation.

There are 1073 pages to this Machzor, which is an abundance of pages. However, that does not make it extra heavy because the pages are quite thin- but strong. The shade of the paper is a light cream which means that the print doesn’t glare back at you.

It is quite easy to hold in the hand- not too large

The interesting factor is the page layout.

The Hebrew is on the left side and the English is on the right. It means that the Hebrew and English meet in the middle and fan out on each side making it easier to read.

Also it doesn’t always use block paragraphs but instead utilises a very poetic style of writing, using one line for each phrase. It means that in the body of the text there are not too many words on a page.

The rubrics are very clear and concise giving practical instruction and sometimes a brief analysis of the prayer at hand.

The translation is modern and very readable- the commentary from the Chief Rabbi is excellent but not cumbersome. And there is a good explanation of many of the piyutim (poetic liturgical hymns)

So in my personal opinion I think it’s a very good buy and I think we should be making the change to this wonderful new innovation to our services.