Category: Rabbi’s Message

Let us bring more holiness into the world

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick on how we can increase light in the darkness at this hugely difficult time

As I sit down to write this article, Israel is at war with Hamas and no one knows how things will develop over time or what the outcome will be, so I don’t wish to speak specifically to this topic. If I did so, I might be at risk of writing something that will be irrelevant by the time you have a chance to read it. However it has become clear that, regardless of how things pan out in Israel, the situation here at home in the United Kingdom is not quite what we had thought it to be. We have felt in recent weeks that the sense of security we have enjoyed here since the founding of our synagogue in 1939 might be a mirage. I personally have experienced worry walking through the streets of London, wearing my kippah, speaking Hebrew, or displaying any other signs of my Jewishness. This has led to my questioning whether or not it makes sense to light the Chanukah candles in the window, directly visible to passers by as our tradition dictates. My concern is that someone might see the candles and realise that ours is a Jewish home and do something foolish to harm or scare us. For this reason, rabbis throughout the centuries have taught that it is permissible to light the Chanukah candles inside your home, where the flames shine for you and your guests, out of sight of those who might wish you harm. While this certainly should be done in times where your Jewishness can prove to be fatal, thankfully, we are nowhere near that situation at present. Therefore we are left in a quandary.

What should we do this year as we celebrate the miracle of the oil and God’s providence over our lives? I think the answer lies within the candles themselves. There was a disagreement about whether we should start with one candle and increase the number each of the eight nights, or if we should start with eight candles and decrease the number of lights every evening, corresponding to the depletion of oil at the time of Maccabee victory. The rabbis concluded that the tradition should be according to the former opinion, which is how we light the candles today. The reason the rabbis gave is a phrase, ma’alin bekedushah ve’ain moridin, which means we only ‘increase holiness’. By increasing the amount of light shining out from our homes into the surrounding darkness, we are adding to the holiness of the world. I believe herein lies the answer to our conundrum, as we start to see an ever-growing darkness around us. Here in London we have two choices. We can either choose to add to that darkness by hiding our light, or we can stand up in defiance by lighting our menorahs in our windows for everyone to see. We will not only add our light to the darkness, but also let the world know that we, the Jewish people, will not allow ourselves to be intimidated into the shadows.

We associate our tradition of lighting the Chanukah candles with childhood, yet this year the candles will burn even more for us as adults. They are not a prelude to the exchanging of gifts but a proclamation of our strength as a Jewish people, the strength given to us by God, the greatest gift one could ever have hoped for. This year I encourage you to light your Chanukah candles in your window where they can be seen even if you normally don’t follow this custom. Hopefully, together, like the Maccabees, we can fight to bring more light and holiness into this darkening world.

The Compassion of Forgiveness

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick on the benefits of forgiving those who have hurt us

Why is it so difficult to forgive others? This is a time of year when we are told that we must forgive people if they apologise to us, but sometimes the idea of forgiveness seems too difficult or painful. Besides, we are told that God will forgive someone if they apologise three times, so why open ourselves up to pain by doing something that God will do regardless?

A number of years ago, I was hurt by someone close to me. My entire world was turned upside down by their actions and I felt little but contempt – even hatred – toward them. I went out of my way to avoid this person and was overcome by anger whenever our paths crossed.

At one point, I took a chance and forgave them, only to be hurt once more. And so I decided that no utterance of forgiveness would ever leave my mouth again (at least toward this person). I convinced myself I was taking a stand on moral grounds and that I was doing the right thing by punishing this person for their behaviour.

But the thing is, the only person who was truly punished by my choice was me. I was the one filled with animosity and resentment. I was the one suffering from stress, worrying about when I might run into this person and what I would do or say. I was the one living with the nagging suspicion that maybe I was doing the wrong thing by not forgiving them.

And then one day, the inevitable happened. I was forced yet again to decide between forgiving this person or holding onto this grudge – and I cautiously chose to forgive them. While the process was slow and painful while rebuilding trust and learning anew how to navigate the terrain of our relationship, eventually things began to feel different. I was no longer weighed down by the emotional burden I had been carrying. I actually could feel a difference in my body as well as in my mind. In the end, Irealised it was far easier to forgive someone than to bear a grudge against them.

A while back, I read a news story about someone who, standingoutside a criminal court, publicly expressed their forgiveness towardsthe person who murdered their loved one. I was initially amazed by their willingness to forgive, but I also understood their choice, which they said was rooted deeply in their faith.

During the High Holy Days, we recite numerous times the 13 Attributes of God; invoking God’s compassion, patience, love and forgiveness. Imagine if we allowed ourselves truly to internalise these words when we say them – if we reassured ourselves that the best way to experience the Divine in our world is by extricating any hatred and resentment from within it. If the family of a murder victim can forgive their loved one’s killer, can’t we forgive those who commit far less severe transgressions against us?

We all agree it would be unthinkable for an adult to condemn a child to a life of punishment for wronging them. Instead through our patience, understanding and forgiveness, we give them another chance, showing the child that we believe they can be better, thereby encouraging their growth and maturation.
And yet, when we hurt others, even intentionally, we are behaving much like children – not fully aware of how our actions may impact those around us. With this in mind, it seems almost cruel to withhold forgiveness from those who wrong us, once we understand that the best motivation for growth is not anger and punishment, but love and forgiveness.

So this year, as we make our way through the High Holydays, I invite us all to embrace the idea of forgiveness. As difficult as it may be, I know it can make us all better people. And that is indeed what this time of year is about.

Eating and thinking

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick on a new Shabbat feature at Belsize Square

If you take a moment to consider some of your most powerful Jewish memories, chances are they involve food: Shabbat and holiday meals with loved ones, B’nei Mitzvah celebrations, even sitting shiva. And though we fast on Yom Kippur, one could argue that the absence of food, followed by the breaking of the fast, plays a large role in defining the holiday.

The fact is that food is central to the Jewish experience. In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Ancestors), Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya famously stated: Im ein kemach, ein Torah or ‘Without sustenance, there is no Torah.’ By this he means that people are unable to focus on their learning if they are not properly fed – and that is precisely what we intend to do at Belsize: feed you.

Starting in June, once a month, we will be offering an expanded kiddush that will include not only a proper sit-down lunch, but also a chance to do some learning. You’ll be invited to hang out at the regular kiddush for a while and then make your way to another space where you’ll be able to load your plate with delicious fare to enjoy while you sit and shmooze with others. Before we start our learning, Cantor Heller will lead us in a song or two, followed by Birkat Hamazon.

And then we will begin our learning. Initially, this will focus on deepening our understanding of central symbols and objects within Judaism – often relating to any upcoming holidays. You might learn some secrets about how a Torah is made, or why we dress it in such fancy garb. Or maybe you’ll discover what makes a shofar or mezuzah kosher, or how far you can push the boundaries of design on any given ritual object. There’s so much to uncover and we’ll do just that over lunch one Shabbat per month.

Now, you might be curious to learn about these topics, but perhaps coming to services isn’t really your thing. That’s okay! While we would love you to join us for services, there is no expectation for you to do so. You’re more than welcome to come to shul around midday and join us for lunch and learning. Just being with the community on Shabbat is what we’re hoping for.

And if you can’t make it at all on Shabbat, no worries – we will be resuming the release of my Taste of Torah videos on the shul website and You Tube channel, in which I’ll give a brief overview of the topic we’ll be discussing that Shabbat. While these videos will certainly be informative, the deep learning will only be available to those who attend in person on Shabbat.

I have a few goals with this initiative. First of all, I want to share some of the learning that makes Judaism so exciting – not only in a theoretical sense, but on a truly practical level, which is why we’ll be focusing on ritual objects that we use all the time. I also want to help you find ways to connect with Shabbat. If attending services hasn’t been doing that for you, maybe eating and learning will. And finally, I’m hoping this new initiative will help strengthen our sense of community. So often, we come to synagogue and only chat with the people we know, if anyone at all. By taking time to enjoy a meal together and engage in great conversation, we can all deepen our connections with the community.

So I hope you will consider joining me and Cantor Heller on 10 June as we launch this new programme. Subsequent sessions will take place on 8 July and 9 September. I look forward to lunching and learning with you soon!

The call of the Seder

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick on how to find a personal connection to the lessons of Passover

‘In every generation, we are obligated to see ourselves as if we went out from Egypt.’

This line from the Passover Haggadah is a pretty difficult one to grasp. Thank God, the vast majority (if not all) of us have never tasted the bitterness of slavery or felt the sting of a whip on our backs. So how can we see ourselves as if we went out from Egypt?

Sure, the Haggadah may be trying to teach us empathy for those who are suffering. But if that were the
case, why not just say that explicitly? While I do believe that empathy is one of the major goals of the
Passover Seder, I think this line is speaking to something different. But before we can address what that might be, we must first understand what it means to ‘go out from Egypt’.

The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, meaning ‘a narrow place’ or ‘dire straits’. Whenever the Torah speaks of Egypt, it uses language of ‘going down’ – as in one goes down to Egypt. This phrasing stands in stark contrast to the way we speak of Israel and Jerusalem – as we say one who moves to Israel has ‘made Aliyah’ or has ‘gone up’ to Israel. Therefore, Israel represents the pinnacle of ideology, while Egypt represents the pit of despair.

But Egypt represents more than just despair. Egypt represents alienation, as our ancestors were strangers in this foreign land for hundreds of years. Egypt represents disorientation, as our ancestors knew not where to turn to find salvation from their enslavement. And Egypt represents ignorance and juvenescence, as our ancestors did not yet know about freedom, education, Torah, or God.

In other words, when our ancestors went out from Egypt, they did not just leave slavery, they left behind feelings of alienation, disorientation, ignorance, and despair. And they did not just travel to the promised land, they embarked on a journey towards community, purpose, understanding, and faith.

While it might be difficult to see ourselves as if we went out from a place of servitude, each of us can surely relate to having found ourselves at one point or another in a metaphorical Egypt – a time when we’ve felt like an outsider, lost, or unaware. The Passover Seder is an opportunity for us to reflect on our past year and consider any metaphorical ‘Egypts’ we may have left behind since the last time we were humbled by the act of eating Matzah – the ‘bread of affliction’.

And the Seder is also an opportunity to consider any symbolic ‘Egypts’ in which we might currently be standing. Here, the task is more pressing – the Passover Seder is a call to ask ourselves how we will find the strength to leave behind these new, modern-day Egypts. Will salvation appear in the guise of family or community? Will it come to us through new insights we uncover in an article or a book? Or will we find the strength to leave behind our Egypts through our traditions and faith?

No matter where you happen to find yourself this year – in the straits of your own, personal Egypt or the heights of your spiritual Mount Sinai – I encourage you to take the charge of the Haggadah seriously this year: strive to see yourself as the recipient of a sacred promise to be brought into the Promised Land.

Turning over a new leaf

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick on how trees – and humans – prepare for change

The world of trees is fascinating, yet some of it is invisible to our eyes. We can watch buds develop into leaves, and flowers give way to fruit, but for these events to occur, something far more miraculous must first take place, hidden from sight.

Around late summer or early autumn, perennial trees will begin their transition to dormancy – when they slowly stop growing in anticipation of winter. It’s during this time that a tree will begin shedding its fruit and losing its leaves, so that by the first frost, the tree is fully dormant and protected from the cold weather.

But dormancy actually consists of two periods: the earlier endodormancy, when a tree will not grow at all, no matter what conditions it is exposed to; and the later eco-dormancy, when the tree is open to the possibility of growing new buds once it has met a requisite number of hours under ideal conditions. This protects the tree from budding too early and being exposed to frost damage.

For most fruit-bearing trees, the moment of transition from the endo- to eco-dormancy periods occurs around January. It then takes a number of weeks before the first buds appear on a tree, signalling to us that spring has arrived. But as far as the tree is concerned, the rebirth of spring actually begins far earlier – at the start of the eco-dormancy period.

While we may have no idea that such changes are happening within our arboreal neighbours, those who are finely attuned to nature certainly are aware of these processes. Although scientists didn’t begin to understand these stages of growth until about 200 years ago, our ancestors have been keenly aware of this process for at least 2,000 years.

The two great schools of thought in the Mishnah, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, understood that trees began their rebirth in the middle of winter – they just couldn’t agree on the exact date. While Beit Shammai said this transition coincided with Rosh Chodesh Shevat, Beit Hillel argued that the change happened two weeks later, on the 15th of the month, or Tu B’Shevat.

It’s remarkable to think that, even without access to empirical science, our ancestors could understand the hidden, inner world of trees. But it isn’t terribly surprising, as anyone who strives to understand God’s world will realise there is complexity and beauty hidden below the surface wherever we look – especially within humans.

The rabbis of the Mishnah explain that people are similar to trees in many ways. I imagine the rabbis understood that within each of us occurs a multitude of changes that are hidden from the view of others. Often times, the most profound changes come on so slowly and subtly that we don’t even recognise them occurring within ourselves. But when we pause to reflect on our lives’ journeys, we realise how much we have grown and changed.

When we are trying to make a change in our lives, it is important to be patient and to remember that even while we may not realise it, microscopic changes are happening within us all the time.

Right now, we might feel like that barren tree, braced against the harshness of winter. But soon – and likely before we even realise it – we will be standing tall and beautiful in the full bloom of summer. We simply need to have faith in the process.

A few of our favourite things

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick on what makes this time of year special

Every holiday contains an element of nostalgia, memories of past celebrations with family, friends and community. But there’s something truly special about the memories associated with Chanukah, and there are a number of reasons why this may be.

First, there’s just something cosy about wintertime and Chanukah is the only holiday we celebrate during this season. Almost everyone loves cuddling up in a warm jumper with a piping hot cup of tea or cocoa. There’s also the mystical feeling of being in a darkened room illuminated by the warm glow of candles.
And as children, it’s a rare treat to stay up past dark, with the added excitement and anticipation of exchanging gifts and the joy of spinning the dreidel (sevivon in Hebrew) with your loved ones.

And the food! Nothing beats the aroma and flavour of deliciously crisp latkes (levavot). But then there are also the doughnuts (sufganiyot) and the chocolate gelt.

In short, while Chanukah itself might be a rather minor holiday, it has understandably come to occupy a significant place in our collective conscience because of all the wonderful memories associated with it. And each year offers a chance to create new memories and establish new traditions.

Last year I had my first experience of Belsize’s Chanukah Market. I had no idea what to expect and couldn’t believe how truly wonderful it was. The food! The music! The food! The knickknacks! Have I mentioned the food?! As wonderful as the event was, I realised that what was truly special about it was the nostalgia that was on offer: sweets and treats from the continent, a love of which has been passed down for generations; familiar festive songs; affordable gifts that can bring a bit of joy to our loved ones; and most importantly, the warm embrace of community.

Judaism is a religion deeply rooted in memory – sometimes those memories are more theoretical and academic, other times they’re more visceral. What makes Chanukah special is not so much a deeply religious experience, but rather those deeply held memories that have come to define so much of who we are: a people that values family, friends, tradition, and – of course – food!

The opportunity of a blank slate

How will you prepare for the High Holydays? asks Rabbi Gabriel Botnick

While most people would tell you their favourite Jewish holiday is Chanukah (for the gifts and food), Passover (for the family and food) or maybe even Purim (for the costumes and food), my favourite holiday is actually Yom Kippur (hint: not for the food).

What I love about Yom Kippur – as well as Rosh Hashanah – is its transformative nature. Every year, we are provided with a chance to start again – unencumbered by any missteps of the previous year, as long as we take seriously the call to right any wrongs we may have committed against others.

Therefore the question is: what will you make of this ‘tabula rasa’? The High Holydays present us with an open door onto an entirely new world of possibilities. If you find yourself on a path that no longer excites you, will you seize this opportunity to find a new one that does? Will you use the contemplative and introspective naturof the Holydays to engage in honest internal dialogue? Or will you let this annual chance for change pass you by?

For the most part, the High Holydays can be whatever you allow. They can be beautiful, powerful, and even life-altering, or they can be an inconvenience, a bore, or merely a chance to socialise.

The nature of your Holyday experience is based partly on whether you allow yourself to be fully present in the moment, but mostly on how you prepare yourself for this special time of year. That might mean reading through the Machzor (prayer book) in advance to understand better the liturgy, listening to a podcast on Teshuvah (repentance), attending a class on spiritual themes of the Holydays, and more.

The point is: you can’t just show up on the day, having given little thought to its significance and expect to have a meaningful experience. At the very least, you must prepare yourself mentally and spiritually to be open to possibility. And if you do, this just may be the year that you learn to love the High Holydays as much as I do.

Encountering the Divine

Where do you feel most connected to God? asks Rabbi Gabriel Botnick

There’s an old Chasidic tale about a rabbi and his son. Every day, the rabbi and his son would walk to synagogue together for morning prayers, but one day the son told his father to go ahead without him. The father got to the synagogue, put on his tallit and tefillin, and began to lead the service. When they got to the Shema, the father looked around but didn’t see his son. He thought this was curious but continued with his prayers. When he finished his silent prayers, he looked around and still didn’t see his son. Now he was starting to worry. Finally, at the end of the service as he was putting away his tallit, the father turned around and his son was right there behind him. The same thing happened for a few days and the father’s worry turned into curiosity. The next day the rabbi decided to follow his son to see where he was going instead of the synagogue.

From behind a neighbour’s tree, the father watched his son walk out of the front door, but instead of walking down the street to the synagogue, the son turned down a path into the woods. Keeping his distance, the father followed his son into the woods until his son stopped in a clearing, put on his tallit and tefillin and began to pray. The father watched in relief and confusion – he was relieved that his son was praying, but why did he come to the woods to do this? The father waited until his son concluded his prayers before approaching him.

Just as the son was putting his tallit away, his father came out of hiding. “Beni, my boy, what are you doing out here?”

“I am praying, Abba.” “I can see. But why do you come to the woods to pray? Why not pray with us at the synagogue?”

“I come here to connect with God,” the boy replied.

“But my boy, it doesn’t matter if you’re in nature or the synagogue – God is the same everywhere.”

“I know, Abba, but I am not.”

This story rings true for so many of us. How much more likely are we to have a spiritual experience out in nature – walking on the Heath, visiting the seaside, or enjoying a tea in the garden – than sitting in synagogue? But there is one pitfall with this parable: it only addresses the profundity of encountering the Divine on one’s own. Empirical evidence shows one is far more likely to feel a connection to something greater than oneself when participating in a group experience.

I’d say it’s not an ‘either/or’ situation. We can feel that connection in both environments, but our experience in each space helps to inform and support the other. This summer, as you head out for a walk on the Heath, to swim in the ponds, to visit the coast, or just sit in the garden, take time to reflect on how you feel. Can you sense the warmth of the sun inside your body as well as on the outside? Do the subtle hints of fragrance on the wind bring any memories to mind? Whatever it is that you notice in those moments – those sensations that lift you up and bring you joy – try to hold on to them and carry them with you when you’re next in Synagogue. As you sit in your seat and let the beautiful song of the choir spill over you, close your eyes and recall those moments in nature. You might find it will profoundly change your experience of being in Synagogue.

On Fruit and Transformation

Thought Shavuot was all about dairy foods? Think again, says Rabbi Gabriel Botnick

When you think of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, what do you picture as the forbidden fruit they ate? You might imagine an apple though we have no true idea what grew on the Tree of Knowledge. However, history has provided plenty of hypotheses.

Our sages have suggested the fruit might have been a grape, reasoning that nothing brings on more trouble than wine. Or it might have been a fig, since immediately upon eating it, Adam and Eve saw they were naked and made loin cloths out of nearby fig leaves.

But the most interesting hypothesis I’ve read about the forbidden fruit is that it was wheat. One might dismiss this as wheat is not a fruit, but we must remember we’re dealing with rabbinic logic here!

In ancient times there were two main grains that were widely cultivated: barley and wheat. Even though it is hearty and healthy, it’s not so easy on the stomach, so our ancestors avoided making barley into bread. Instead, they used it forstews, beer or animal feed. Wheat was held in much higher esteem, asit could be ground into a very fine flour for making easily digested bread.

Our sages also teach that the first solid food most children ate was wheat bread, which their parents would feed them once they started talking. This suggests a direct connection between wheat and knowledge, so sages identify the forbidden fruit as this grain.

But the symbolism of wheat and barley goes even deeper. In ancient Israel, farmers would plant wheat and barley seeds in the autumn, just in time to be nourished by the winter rains. However, the barley grows faster and would be harvested in March or April, while the wheat would be harvested in May or June. In the Torah, the barley harvest is associated with Pesach as the Israelites would make an offering of barley to God then. Fifty days later, the Israelites would celebrate Shavuot and bring an offering of bread, made of the finest flour from their wheat harvest.

Of course, the importance of Pesach and Shavuot extends beyond the agrarian, as they remind us of the two most central events in our people’s history. Pesach celebrates our liberation from enslavement and the birth of our people, and Shavuot celebrates the day God gave us the Torah and we attained knowledge.

Shavuot’s association with wheat, a grain so tied up with knowledge, led our sages to teach that ‘without wheat, there is no Torah; without Torah, there is no wheat’.

The 50-day journey that takes us from Pesach to Shavuot is called the Omer. The essence of this period is to see ourselves transform from being merely free animals into cognitive humans – finding our humanity through the wisdom of the Torah.

On this journey from Pesach to Shavuot, I encourage you to manifest your fullest potential as a human. And if you find yourself stuck, just remember Adam and Eve, who taught us that even the simplest of acts (like eating an apple) can prove to be truly transformative.

Spring cleaning for the soul

While many Jews will spend the day after Purim resting and reflecting on the previous night’s festivities, a small group of people will already be looking ahead one month and beginning their preparations for Pesach. I know it’s crazy to think about, but the time for eating matzah will soon be upon us. And while some people might spend a week or two (and many only a day or two) looking up new recipes, loading up on groceries and cleaning the house in preparation for the holiday, few people consider the spiritual preparations the holiday demands.

You see, just as Pesach can be viewed as the Jewish approach to spring cleaning, some rabbis say that we should treat the holiday as a chance to do some spring cleaning of our souls – a bit like a Yom Kippur 2.0.

The Maggid of Kozhnitz – an early and influential Chassidic rabbi – famously taught that just as we prepare for Pesach by clearing our homes of all signs of chametz, so too we must prepare for the holiday by clearing our souls of all negative inclinations. Pesach, he explains, is a joyful holiday – one that celebrates freedom and new beginnings – and requires us to be open to the joy these blessings bring. So just as we must wash the dirt off our windows to let in the most sunlight, we must also clear away the grime of our negativity if we are going to let in the joy of the holiday.   So how do we clear away our negative inclinations? The same way we clear our homes of chametz. We start the search for chametz in the places where we are most likely to eat it – in our kitchens and dining rooms – so we need to start looking for negativity where we most often exhibit it. Do you find yourself speaking poorly about other people more often than you should? Then you will want to use this month to be more aware of what you say when speaking of others. Do you find that you don’t treat your body as well as you should? Then this is the perfect time to think more about what you eat and how you stay healthy. No one knows you better than yourself, so take some time to identify one or two aspects of your life on which you would like to focus.

Now, before you worry about recalling every aspect of your life in which you can be negative, remember that we are only required to search for chametz in places we can reach. Don’t worry about remembering every slip-up you made this past year – by addressing the things you actually can remember, odds are you also will address the things you can’t recall. And just as you would never go to a friend’s house and start cleaning out their chametz, you should use this time to focus on doing your own spring cleaning – that’s already a big enough job as it is.

Don’t forget – to clean a house really well, you have to start by tidying up the place and preparing your supplies. So don’t fall into the trap of thinking you only need to spend a few minutes on this spiritual cleaning if you’re going to do a thorough job. This process takes time and preparation. But if you start early enough, it will be easier to identify your biggest obstacles and to figure out how to address them – in that way, you can get the most joy out of the freedom and new beginnings that come with your holiday celebrations. And really, is it ever too soon to start preparing to be happy?

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick