D'var Torah, B’har, Iyar 5768/Sat 17th May 2008

by Jackie Richards

The writing is the opinion of the author and does not necessarly reflect that of Kehillah North London.

Celebration to end the first phase of development

Have you ever known something really drastic is going to happen but it is out of your personal control? You had to face the challenge; there was nothing you could do about it.

How did you react and feel inside? What inner strength did you find? Did you call on others to help you? Did you seek support from God?

To what extent did you feel the glass was ½ full or ½ empty. Were you excited or panicking in despair?

Well the portion this week is concerned about trust and coping.

Torah portion B’har Sinai, Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2 is a powerful reading full of magnificent themes. As we heard in the reading, it introduces the concepts of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. This focuses on the regulation of time and the subsequent economic social consequences. It builds on what has already been stated for Shabbat, resting on the seventh day and the individual relationship between each person and God. 

The sabbatical year “The Sabbath of the Eternal” necessitates the land being rested during the 7th year and refraining from sowing seeds, pruning and harvesting.  The Jubilee year focuses on leaving the land fallow, landed property being returned to original owners, liberty of Israelite slaves and alleviation of debt. The Jubilee began from the sounding of the shofar on the Day of Atonement of the seven weeks of years i.e. 7×7 = 49th year to the end of the 50th year.

The sabbatical year was a reality, carried out for centuries and is documented in Roman records, whereas the Jubilee never did happen in reality.

This portion is an expression of social idealism and humanitarian concerns.  It has real relevance for the 21st century.

So I could have chosen any number of important themes, including the environment, not exploiting the soil or finite resources; good husbandry and being custodians for the natural world, or the relationship between human beings, nature and beauty, or social justice, human rights, freedom from slavery or the alleviation of developing nations debts.

All of these are very important issues. But I know that everyone in this room will have strong views about these issues. So I am not going to “tell granny to suck eggs” or make us feel complacent.

It could have been about our relationships with the land of Israel especially as Israel has just celebrated its 60 years anniversary. But it is enough to mention that we all desire and pray for  peace and harmony in the Middle East for all its peoples hopefully within our lifetimes: as well as peace to all areas of the world where there is war and conflict .

But, as I said at the beginning of this address – I am focussing on Trust.

The underlying purpose of the portion was not about the practicalities of farming or property regulation or slaves although these were outcomes – the underlying purpose was the maintenance of the ongoing relationship with God and ways human beings should relate to each other and the environment they live in. It is about letting go of good practice, knowledge and skills and usual social order and facing the unknown.  “Just being” for a whole year.

The sabbatical year which as I said earlier did happen was a challenge to trust that God would provide sufficient to eat. The land is ultimately God’s property not individuals and it was not to be exploited for the enrichment of some individuals to the detriment of others.

So earlier, did you decide you would see the unknown as optimistic challenge (glass half full) or trepidation (glass half empty)?

Let’s go back in time and join the scenario. You know the sabbatical year is approaching. As farmers and farm hands you have to put aside your knowledge and skills and do nothing on the land… You can eat what grows naturally but this must be shared with others. Your status and relationships change as everyone gathers together in the fields looking for food. Food will dwindle – are you pleased to share or are you selfish? Whose tummies grumble the most?

Meanwhile any animals will be getting thinner and not producing so much milk. Crops won’t go to market and stores are reducing.

You experience a change in lifestyle, changes in ways you relate to others and material change and you are losing weight to boot!

What a levelling of status – meeting the rest of the community in the fields together – not mine or yours. But this sabbatical year will also give you more time, after all you aren’t working – time to think, ponder, worry and spend your times in different ways. Your whole routine changes – work, relationships, status, livelihood.

You get more insights about your life!

Oh that is ringing bells with me!!

As most of you know I am an OAP from tomorrow and leaving full-time work in July! I really empathise with this situation. What’s going to happen? Will I earn enough to live? How will I fill my time? Will I have sufficient social contact? Will I become invisible as my work status ends? Anyone who has been made redundant, unemployed or retired goes through this transformation and although there can be family, friends or professional support, in the end you are on your own and you have to adapt and change. The transition might be a challenge but there is no choice but you go through it and who knows what the future brings!

During the sabbatical year there was a chance to see life in a different way. More time to relax with family, friends and neighbours.   You know your yields will be no good but you have to sit on your hands and just wait and watch. There is time to dream and hope for the future and trust in God.

How relevant is all this to NLPJC? We are a community that came together with a purpose and for some of us a dream – to create a vibrant Jewish community in Inner North London relevant to all ages and forward looking and outwards. Against the odds, and some pessimism we trusted each other and worked together. We have come a long way in the last six years. We have successfully created an inclusive, intergenerational Jewish community, but there is a lot more to do. We have completed our first phase.

We have arrived – We are here and we can contribute!

The community is entering a transition period. There is a chance to reflect on achievements so far, and learn from experience.

We are so lucky to have new strong leadership to carry on the next phase of development to take the community forward. We all wish the management committee all our sincere best wishes.  

This is a community of individuals, friends and families and we are all respected and we are all part of the whole. We flourish in our diversity.  

It is a transition too because R Shulamit, our inspiring and thoughtful rabbi will be on maternity leave and we all look forward to celebrating with her, Chaniah and Rebekka in the near future.  We thank her for all she has done as our Rabbi and leader. In the meanwhile, we welcome and will benefit from Rabbi Cliff Cohen leading us.

NLPJC aims to become more confident and self-reliant and this will only happen if we all relate well to one another, listen and learn and NLPJC is part of our lives and we are contributing to the wellbeing of others as well as ourselves. I am sure in coming years we will continue to study, learn, create, socialise, pray and laugh and cry together.

This torah portion has so many important themes and such relevance for us all as individuals, a community & as Londoners. We are all living in an ever interconnected, world community – the Global village is becoming a reality and we are going forward through turbulent times. Actions in one part of the world affect others elsewhere.

Like Noah’s Ark our world is vulnerable and sailing forward in the universe – it is a gift that we have life and resources – we are alive, living now and fortunate to be living where we do.

In our daily lives we can try our best to use resources the best way we can and not make materialism our God. We can all contribute and make our personal worlds where we do have some influence, a better place for everyone we relate to including our children and neighbours, work colleagues and old people, and some of us might even trust and seek support from God!