Saturday, 19 November 2011

Am I a resident or an alien?

 Some words from Shabbat: AJEX Shabbat.

When Jewish people come together we try to find some message from the Torah which is applicable to the events of this week.
The Torah speaks to me…..this means that we believe that the Torah and its values are everlasting therefore it must have some association and relevance with my life. 
This morning we read in the Torah about the death of Sarah, the Matriarch of the Jewish people. Avraham comes to Chevron to mourn her passing and to purchase a burial place for his beloved wife:
The burial site would be the cave of Machpelah which is still today a place sacred and revered by both Muslims and Jews
He approaches the inhabitants of the land, the Hitites with the following statement:
Ger VeToshav anochi imachem
“I am a stranger and a resident with you-grant me an estate for a burial site with you, in order that I may bury my dead from before me”.
These seem to be strange words- almost paradoxical
Ger VeToshav anochi imachem
I am a stranger and a resident with you.
What does Avraham mean when he says to the Hitites that he is a stranger but at the same time he is a resident? Either, you’re one or the other, but can you be both?
On the simple geographical level perhaps Avraham was saying that he was originally born elsewhere in Charan, outside  Canaan- he is a Ger- a foreigner- a stranger but now he is a resident- because he has been living over here for some time. Simply put, he’s saying: “You know I might not have a right to purchase this property because I was born elsewhere. However, I have been resident here in Canaan for a few years so perhaps you should consider that fact”.

On a deeper level these words could mean that Avraham, now after the passing of his dear wife Sarah, realised the reality of his own existence and mortality – that we come through this world as strangers, just passing through, we’re not here in this world forever- and it is only in the next world that there is real permanence. And this is what Avraham is saying: “Ger Vetoshav- I am a stranger in this world but the place where I will truly reside is in the next world…and I’m just passing through”.

Or perhaps Avraham was referring to the condition of the Jewish way of life in exile that throughout the existence of the Jewish people in the diaspora the Jew has this double tension; on the one hand the Jew must not lose touch with his identity, the Jew must remain a Jew and not assimilate, vanish into the melting pot. The Jew has the values of Torah and his traditions to uphold, but then on the other hand there is the need to be a loyal subject or citizen of the country.
Indeed it was Jeremiah after the Temple had been destroyed and the Jewish people had been led into Babylon that he sent the following advice to his people:
Vedirshu et shalom hair asher higleti etchem shamah. “And you shall seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and entreat G-d on its behalf”.
Today based on this statement we still offer up a prayer every Shabbat for the Queen because we are living here, and this is our country.
Ger VeToshav anochi imachem- I am a stranger and a resident with you. On the one hand the Jew remains strong and passionate about Judaism, on the other hand the Jew remains a loyal member of the State. Both are compatible with each other and complement one another. There is the double role of the Jew, the Jew who is the particularist involved in Judaism and its values, but then there is the Universalist message of Judaism. I am fully integrated and part of the wider society.

But it hasn’t always been good news for the Jews in this country.
Several months ago a programme was shown on TV called Bodies in a well. Whilst excavating the foundations of a new shopping centre, fifteen bodies were found thrown down an ancient well in Norwich from the thirteenth century. The DNA testing of five of the bodies found that they were most certainly  Jews and that it must have been a situation where the general population ganged up against this Jewish family and literally threw them down a well. The bodies remained there untouched until they were found in 2004.
And this was not an isolated incident of anti Semitism in this country there are countless stories of blood libel, accusations and in 1190, six hundred prominent Jews in York were locked up in the Cliffords Tower, committed suicide rather than be forcefully converted out of the faith by the mob who had gathered against them.
And in 1292 the Jews were expelled.
So in light of that you could read again another interpretation about  the nature of Jewish existence
Ger Vetoshav anochi imachem
I am a stranger and a resident with you- Even though I have lived in this country I remained a stranger- through the persecution and torment of millennia!- and that’s what anti Semitism and racism creates.

So my friends we commemorate today the many people who gave their lives fighting for King and country- we must also not forget the many Jews-60000 who also fought for this country during the second world war.
For what were they fighting?
I believe they were fighting for the freedoms that we have today that we tend to take for granted. Thank G-d we are living in a country where we are free to practise our religion. I am free to come to shul every day to pray and study Torah. I am free to walk in the street without fear of persecution-even though I am quite openly Jewish. We are all free regardless of religion or colour to live our lives in peace. And we are free to vote and democratically challenge and to speak our minds
All these freedoms are here because people fought and gave their lives so that we could have a better life….
Therefore our mission must be to live upright and good lives- that does justice to their memory.
Tehei zichram baruch

May their memory be for a blessing. Amen

Thursday, 10 November 2011

A Bowl of Sweets

You’re probably wondering why a bowl of sweets?
Well you’ll find out by the end of this post….
This week in the Torah we encounter Avraham sitting at the entrance of his tent. It was three days after his Brit Milah he was in distress.
"G-d appeared to him in the oaks of Mamre- and he was sitting at the opening of his tent at the heat of the day. He lifts up his eyes and he sees and behold three men were standing above him, and he ran to greet them from the entrance of his tent".
The Torah then describes in detail the actions of Avraham how he involved himself in providing hospitality to these three men. It’s not Rabbinical commentary- it’s the Torah here speaking to us.- just read it yourself- He offers them water, he takes bread, he washes their feet. He slaughters a cow, he prepares the food. He runs to Sarah to tell her to prepare cakes.
And then he stands above them under the tree as they partake of the meal which he had prepared for them.
Notice the immediate difficulty here. We started by saying that Hashem appeared to him as he sat at the entrance of his tent. Yet where does Hashem disappear to in all this?-Instead of continuing the dialogue with God, the narrative completely breaks off and starts speaking about how Avraham  occupies himself with these travellers. Strange, a bit of a Chutzpah dare I say it on the part of Avraham to depart from God in mid sentence. Yet our Rabbi’s didn’t look at it in a negative way at all. On the contrary, they learn a very important ruling from this;
They say the following;
 "Gedolah hachnassat orchim mekabbalat p’nei shechina- the mitzvah of hospitality- welcoming people into our homes with warmth and enthusiasm is so great that it outweighs the receiving of the countenance of Hashem"-because that was exactly what Avraham did.
Here we see Avraham sitting at the entrance of his tent- he’s in pain. God comes to visit him, maybe to hasten his healing, yet Avraham says ..
“hold on a sec- Hashem I’ve got this mitzvah to do- I’ll get back to you”- and it’s only after these wayfarers have gone on their way  that the narrative returns to the dialogue between Hashem and Avraham.
So what do we learn from all of this? Number one we learn about the importance of Hachnassat Orchim to the extent that our Sages say that it is one of the features with which one can delineate whether one is a descendant of Avraham or not, by the fact that you practise hospitality.
Second- we learn that nobody is too important- or high and mighty to fulfil the mitzvah. Sometimes we say we’ll leave it to somebody else to do it- it’s beneath my dignity to start doing all this physical mundane stuff and running around after people- Comes along the Torah and says that if Avraham Avinu can go out of his way to do it with so much trouble, even though he had been just subjected to his brit three days previously- who are we to reject such an important mitzvah.
But third- the mitzvah of Hachnassat orchim elevates the individual. At the outset when the angels appear to Avraham, they were standing above him. But after he has fulfilled the mitzvah- vehu omed aleihem- he stood above them under the tree as they ate.
By performing the mitzvah of Hachnassat Orchim we elevate ourselves to the level of the angels.
One of the questions asked of me a number of years ago when I first came to Kenton was;  What attracted you to become a Lubavitcher?
My answer was not the philosophy or deep rooted Chasidiut or fervent prayer. No it was none of these- you know what it was-a bowl of sweets. When I was only twelve years old a Lubavitch family –the Sufrin’s- came to live in Ilford and every Shabbat afternoon I used to go to the Rabbi’s house and he would leave out a bowl of sweets for our consumption whilst he slept. By the time he would wake up- the sweets were all gone- so were our teeth!!
The message; we never know the effects of our hospitality.
Just saying Shabbat Shalom and showing a personal interest can make the world of a difference to a fellow Jew.