D'var Torah, K’doshim 5780/Sat 2nd May 2020

by Michael Lomotey,

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

As we are all experiencing this change in circumstances and the weeks roll on with the prospects of a somewhat changed society on its way, it helps to occupy the mind with matters related – or not.   We can wax philosophical and spiritual and it’s great to have food for thought. 


I’ve done that by taking a deep dive into this week’s Torah portion, reading a verse and jotting down the immediate first thing that came into my mind. 


V 23. When you enter the land  –  Fruit trees are forbidden for three years, in the fourth they are dedicated to the temple and Israelites can only eat from them in the fifth year. 


An interesting concept, we don’t know why. However, in these times when many among us are concerned about climate change, the often ignored challenge is the damage humanity is doing to the planet on an ecological level. Ignored but not insignificant. Whilst cutting emissions to stop the earth warming up has a deadly serious time limit, the ecological crisis – and what I mean by that is the bad things humans are doing to nature – like spraying pesticides or changing natural habitats for our agriculture – stands to cause some very significant problems. 


Can you guess what is the most abundant life form on earth?  


It’s not insects but microbes. In fact, our best science estimates the human body is made up of almost equal parts human cells and microbes. In favour of microbes. We are basically half bacteria. A squirmy thought but true.


And as for total amount by weight, all humans together weigh about 600 million tonnes. For bacteria we have to add a few zeros and at a whopping 70 billion tonnes there are 1,600 times more of them in weight than us. How insignificant we are. But what huge impact we have.


Microbes create all life and sustain it. The lowest rung on the food web, without them we’d be nowhere. They do magic by turning sunlight into cell tissue using photosynthesis. And are eaten up the food chain by bigger and bigger organisms and that’s how we get fruit trees. Plants, like trees take their nutrients from soil created by microbes. 


I’ve learnt in these times of increased home gardening that for new fruit trees, stripping blossoms can ensure a better yield in subsequent years. So, who knows the reason for that verse, but it has an interesting adjunct. Not eating new fruit helps crop yields during following years.

In v27 it says don’t round cut the head or corners of your beard. We are not sure of the exact interpretation on what this means. 


But, “what if you don’t have a beard or can’t naturally grow one?”, was my first thought? It mentions hair too.


Between Passover and the next festival Shavuot, which we will celebrate with our incoming Rabbi  Leah (yaay), the interim is known as the time of counting the Omer – another period when crops are prohibited, but this time for only 7 weeks.  But for many Jews it’s a tradition not to cut your hair (or get married or listen to instrumental music – but vocal music is okay? Where does this tradition come from? 


According to a newspaper article, and newspapers are always right, it has its roots in the first century of the common era when a plague is sadly said to have killed 24,000 yeshiva students of the famous Rabbi Akiva the sage. The Omer period is therefore a period of mourning for those lost to that plague and no haircuts or marriages are allowed. It’s a chilling link to our present time. 


Two thirds of the way through the counting, there is a pause when traditionalists can cut their hair or celebrate. It’s called Lag b’omer. Lag is just Hebrew letters lamed and gimel which are the number 33. The 33rd day of the Omer you can cut your hair and celebrate. Why? Well this day is linked to one of Rabbi Akiva’s students, another well known scholar R Simeon Bar Yochai who wrote famous mystical books. In Israel and amongst some Hasidic communities, Lag b’Omer is a real celebration with bonfires and stuff.  And you can also have hair cuts.    My colleagues Claire and Rob who together helped organise this service said they hadn’t thought about the significance of hair trimming during isolation.


They asked how we should go about getting a trim? My answer. I don’t know. I’d suggest don’t do it yourself unless you know what you are doing. Or you don’t mind a wonky fringe.   In the age of the internet and online sharing, I’m sure there are lots of tips to find if you really need to. Without the internet how did we manage before? We used reference books and we asked friends, neighbours or family for advice or shared what we know too.


What about the tools you would need, scissors, mirror, clippers? Borrow them maybe?  I have a colleague Sam on my postgrad course who is looking at the sharing community. It’s very exciting to see alternatives to buying stuff which has been the mainstay of society for the past three decades or more.  And my own Sue used to run a local sharing scheme called LETs which has hundreds of members.


Sharing is great. And cost effective. If done safely and well in a trusting community. 


Smart cities of the future will rely on technology and connections and sharing. What will they look like? Urban bike sharing with child seats is coming. Energy sharing is already here with micro grids in India and Africa where cash strapped households share energy from solar panels with neighbours. District heating is big and growing in the UK, Enfield council up the road has lots which involves one main shared unit on an estate, and everyone gets a share of the heat. No need for individual boilers in each house. Simple. It’s economical and energy saving. 


So, whilst hair cutting is ancient and probably sharing tools is too, it is also very modern. 


Tool sharing cooperatives, libraries and banks. Lift shares in cars. Pay as you go car hire. Sharing computing power in astronomy. And the wonderful Servas, the holiday exchange programme. 


It’s all about altruism – being unselfish and having a drive to help others – which in turn drives more altruism. The more you get involved in community support, the more your values change. 


And it’s a fact that the more you engage a value, the stronger the attachment to that value. 


Holidaying by the sea, lunch in the park or in green spaces encourages a desire for more of it,  more greenery or the like. Just like the advertising industry impacts on values and shifts us towards self-interest. Working with values is significant. The Manchester Museum changed its advertising to show compassionate values and portray an assumption that everyone is compassionate.   It worked wonders and they saw not only donations increase but volunteering increased too which was unexpected. 


But there is a word of caution. Engage a value and gain stronger attachment to it. Our governments know that and that if you engage security values and threats to the population it can shift us towards self-interest values. This is what Thatcher knew and deployed.  


Consider the prevalence of security notices and warnings in public places. They drip into wider discourse that tweaks our values which is likely to push us more towards self-interest. 


But for transformative change we won’t succeed by grafting good values onto self-interest, there’s is a need to push strongly towards compassionate virtues and sharing ones.  


This is mirrored by NHS values. It’s free at point of need and is an actual real social justice and equality value. 


There is a clear drive by neo-liberal strategists who want to break down the NHS not just for the obvious profit motive, more importantly to them, they want to break it up because of the value it represents. They need to break those values – the values of the NHS – to keep their market driven agenda.   I’ll leave that thought there for you. 


Finally, I want to mention v33 the ger. The stranger, ‘Love one another for you were strangers in Egypt; I am the Eternal’  it says.  


My obvious first thought was that this concept is mentioned 36 times in the Torah. Be kind to strangers, deal with them justly, use fair weights and measures and don’t cheat a stranger but unique in ancient society was the call for love. But only in the Hebrew bible in ye olden days appears the injunction to love the stranger. 


It’s the golden rule but with added charm. 


Love the stranger, I’ll leave that there too.


Two years ago, I gave a sermon on this same portion, Acharei Mot/Kedoshim, with our friend and Kehillah member Davina Good. We talked about weaving and cloth making in biblical times which we’d researched together. I dedicate this D’var to Davina. 


May her memory be for a blessing, alongside the memory of all of our beloved ones. 


Shabbat Shalom