On Rosh Hashanah we affirm that we can change.

On Rosh Hashanah we affirm that we can change.

Friends,

This is an incredibly special time of the year.  In a few weeks we will celebrate, separated but still together, the High Holy Days; Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, then Sukkot and Simchat Torah. With all the uncertainties that surround us these days, the High Holy Days will be very different this year.  But what remains constant is the ability of Bet David to enter the High Holy Days on a path toward forgiveness, repentance, reflection, and renewal. We have worked hard and thoughtfully to ensure that these spiritual themes and prayerful experiences, as much you seek them, find their way to you.

The Torah declares:

“Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Nitzavim, Dtn. 30)

On Rosh Hashanah we affirm that we can change. We proclaim that we can fix our mistakes and mend our ways. We believe that human beings are capable of repentance and change. Change however comes with difficulty. We know that we all have a tendency to resist it. This is part of our human nature. Everyone wants to hold on to the past and their image of the past. However, when we attempt to hold on to such imaginings, we never serve the future. We find ourselves alone and comforted only by memories. Thus, change is necessary. It is required for our society. It is required for our people. It is required in our personal lives. We must regularly reinvent ourselves.

On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate our ability to change. We dip the apples into honey and say, “May it be Your will, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, to renew this year for us with sweetness and happiness.” The Hebrew word for renew is chadesh. We make new. We make the old new. We are never trapped in our old ways. Our lives are not predestined. Our choices are not predetermined.

Too often we feel that our lives are beyond our control. The past six months have proven that there are things that we cannot determine. Our health is not entirely in our own hands. Often, other people’s choices affect us and direct our lives in uncharted territories. Yet our choices remain in our own hands. This is what we can change. And this is what we mark on Rosh Hashanah.

For Chayim and me these High Holy Days will be a time of a huge transition, moving from Johannesburg to the UK. The beginning of 5781 will also be the end for us of six wonderful years at Bet David. It is a time to say goodbye, but also to embrace the change that will be happening. I know that Bet David is in good hands and that you will continue to go from strength to strength.

Chayim joins me in wishing all of you and your families a blessed New Year filled with love, peace, joy, health, prosperity and Yiddishkeit.

May you be inscribed and sealed for a good new year.

Rabbi Adrian M Schell

How can we sing a song of our God on alien soil?

How can we sing a song of our God on alien soil?

Dear Friends,

The past few weeks have been difficult here in South Africa, as they have been for almost everyone. We said goodbye to cherished friends, family members and congregants who were laid to eternal rest due to the pandemic. As we continue to make sense of the turmoil and disruption this crisis has caused, both close to home and to  society as a whole, I find myself – as I often do – turning to Jewish heritage and tradition to help find meaning in the world around me.

Last week, we marked the 17th day of the Jewish month of Tammuz, the beginning of three weeks of ritual mourning. These weeks follow a path that begins with this anniversary of the Babylonian breach of the gates of ancient Jerusalem and carries us until the anniversary of the burning of Solomon’s Temple and the start of the first exile. That date is marked, along with a great many other Jewish tragedies, including the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492,  by a fast on the 9th of Av, observed this year on July 30th.

I’m always struck by the liturgy of this period. The words of Psalm 137, By the Rivers of Babylon are exemplary for the profound mourning of our people’s loss:

There we sat,
Sat and wept,
As we thought of Zion…

How can we sing a song of our God on alien soil?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
Let my right-hand wither…

Still, as we read  Lamentations on Tisha B’Av, we find, even in the words of  sorrow, messages of hope and of the possibility of renewal. Even the fast itself is considered a Mo’ed, a  festival. For though it is a day of profound sadness, it is also a day of promise for a joyful future, as the prophet Zechariah assures the people it “shall become occasion for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah.” (Zech. 8:19)

These texts and our tradition hold all our emotions that feel so right for this  moment in our world.  We hold the sorrow of profound loss, we sit with  anxieties and fears in this time of transition, and still we find a way to  express our hope for the future.

We need to grieve. We need to name the anxiety and fear that comes with this crisis and we need to lift up hope – hope for what is possible, hope for a brighter future, hope for what we will build together in the years to come. And we need to do all these things at the same time.

I invite you to share your losses, your fears, and your hopes as we continue to walk through this crisis.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Adrian M Schell

By the Waters of Babylon, painting by Arthur Hacker, c. 1888
By the Waters of Babylon, painting by Arthur Hacker, c. 1888
(c) Rochdale Arts & Heritage Service; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Parashat Eikev: Cut away the foreskin of your hearts

Chaverim,

See, the heavens and the heaven’s heavens belong to Adonai your God, the earth and everything on it. Yet Adonai fell in love with your ancestors and God chose you, their descendants, from all peoples, just as today. So, cut away the foreskin of your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. (Parashat Eikev, Dtn 10:14-16)

The reference to cutting the „foreskin of your hearts“ is dramatic, maybe even wince inducing. It is an uncomfortable metaphor for us, and it is meant to be so. Tradition understands this Torah term generally as a call to fast, for example on Yom Kippur, but it is much more than that. There is a notion that we should feel uncomfortable about our reluctance to appreciate life’s gifts we have received, such as jobs, health, food, family and so much more.

With beautiful words, the Torah reminds us that we live in a universe that is wondrous beyond our ken. (What on earth are „the heaven’s heavens“? It can only mean something that is a mystery to our feeble understanding.) Yet, despite our seeming insignificance in this vast reality, we have been given gifts of immeasurable love—life and earth, thoughts and feelings. We should live in perpetual gratitude. So, why do we forget so easily? Why do we dull our minds to the miracles around us and within us?

Moses pleads with us to remember. He extols us to cut away the barrier that stifles our awareness. We are meant to be reminded, uncomfortable as it may be, of the fact that we are made of vulnerable flesh and blood … but we are so much more. We are feeble creatures that, yet, can be joined in covenant with God. We are temporary and transient, yet we can be in dialogue with eternity.

It is five weeks until we will welcome the New Year. May those five weeks be blessed with a deeper understanding of who we are and how lucky we are to have God in our lives.

Wishing you all a wonderful Shabbat.

– Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Jeff Goldwasser )

Parashat Masei: The grass only looks greener from far away

Chaverim,

This week’s portion summarises the entire route followed by the Israelites from when they left Egypt until they were ready to enter Eretz Yisrael. The parsha begins, „Moshe wrote their going forth according to their journeys.“ At the end of that same verse this idea is repeated, but the words are reversed: „And these were their journeys according to their going forth.“ Why is the order switched?

The beginning of the verse expresses how God regarded their travels. Whenever God wanted them to go forth God wanted them to progress to the next step in the plan, to journey toward their destiny. Every stop was custom-made, tailored to help them towards their goal. Each place came with challenges developing the nation’s character. However, the second verse looks at the traveling from the nation’s point of view. The people saw things differently. It is human nature for one to think that he would be much happier and more productive if only he were somewhere else. They would journey simply to go forth, hoping it would be better in their next destination, hoping it would have more to offer, but not because they were thinking of reaching their purpose.

It is common to think, „If only I was in a different school, if only I lived someplace else, if only, if only, if only … I would be so much more productive.“ But, despite all its difficulties, the situation that you are in – right here and right now, is holy, and this is the time and place where you are able to grow. You don’t need to go anywhere else.

Furthermore, the grass only looks greener on the other side because you are looking at it from a distance. You don’t see any of the blotches and cracks since the grass is covering them. All you see is beautiful green grass. Therefore, let us embrace the place and the situation we are, and use them as a starting point to grow for our next step.

– Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Eli Scheller)