CJC and Covid-19
The Commonwealth Jewish Council - indeed the Commonwealth itself - was set up to increase and improve links and connections between people across the globe. We hope we have been doing that through these last decades and that you feel the redoubled energy of the CJC in the last few years too. Certainly, I have had the considerable enjoyment of meeting so many of you in your own countries and communities and discovering what a diverse, scintillating and inspiring collection of communities we are.
But right now, with the pressures of attempting to manage the spread and disruption of Covid 19, we find that we must, instead, limit our horizons, diminish our ambitions and restrict our face to face contacts for now. An early casualty of this new situation is the model Seder we were planning to hold in London last week for a significant number of High Commissioners from many Commonwealth countries. It was wonderfully gratifying to see how many had warmly accepted our invitation and we hope that, even though we've had to cancel it for now, the goodwill generated will be something we can build on in future.
But what of us in our communities? Again, here in the UK, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth (Orthodox) and several of the other denominations instructed their synagogues to close and cease all gatherings for the foreseeable future and now, anyway, that has become law. Many of us are facing severely pared down, if not solitary, sedarim this year. It may well already be similar in your country. Together with most other rabbis across the world of every stripe, Chief Rabbi Mirvis has taken the view that the Jewish imperative not to imperil our life or the lives of others take precedence over every other consideration at this time.
If you would like to see his statement, please click here click here
Obviously, we are in an emergency situation and so such measures are required, but we should not ever fall into the trap of thinking that such narrowing is a generally good thing. Quite the opposite! Opening our hearts and minds to others and the way they live, the values they hold and the outlook on life that they cherish is always a good thing and we should always model this approach. It is not least especially in the interests of Jews, but not only for that reason, that we encourage and participate in inter-communal initiatives and goodwill relationships wherever possible. The CJC remains committed to such an approach and warmly welcomes the work of our member communities in this regard.
The precariousness of life - people's future
These current restrictions too remind us of the precarious life that so many lead. We Jews are often amongst the privileged people on the planet, (though that is definitely not true for all our member countries and communities) but many living not far from us are immediately on the edge as soon as such emergency limitations bite. People will lose their jobs, their businesses, their homes and sense of security.
Pesakh should lead Jews annually to think about the oppression that we once suffered and the many many across the world who still suffer, through slave labour conditions, abject poverty, discrimination and hatred. Pesakh demands of Jews that we reflect on this and never take our good fortune for granted, to know that our history does help to make our present - but never determines our future. History is not a trap; it is a springboard. The future is in our hands and we must seize all chances to make it a good one not only for ourselves and our children, but for all the inhabitants of the world.
Small islands, the CJC and your government
With this in mind, we would remind you all of our current campaign - Small Islands: Big Challenges - in which we ask all the countries of the Commonwealth to redouble their efforts to seek to diminish the impact of climate change on the vulnerable island nations, and where we can't achieve that, to help them in mitigating the impact and, in the light of that then, to create a sympathetic funding structure that enables sometimes poor, always small, island countries to address what needs to be done without leaving themselves in penury for the future. Please do what you can to encourage your government to play its part in improving conditions for small island nations. (And if it's already doing a lot, take the chance to congratulate them and let them know that it's noticed and appreciated.) We Jews know what it's like to try to live without a homeland and we should not stand by as others face this prospect, without befriending them or standing up for them.
Useful links and sharing resources
On the positive side, these challenging times have also provided us with an opportunity for a creativity boom. Please do checkout these marvellous Jewish educational resources for ways of connecting with Jewish education and culture from our homes.
Education: - https://www.jewishinteractive.org/
Jewish Culture: https://jewishonline.jw3.org.uk/
Please do share with us any valuable resources or favourite sites you know of or use, or initiatives you are working on, so that we can share more widely across all communities.
Our Pesakh message and hope
The plagues described in the Torah and the seder are still present but sometimes now expressed in different 21st century forms, but these new plagues are baleful nonetheless. (Some are unchanged, and we fear for those in East Africa facing a plague of locusts as I write.) The difference though between then and now is that in the Torah those plagues were visited upon the Egyptians due to their refusal to give their slaves freedom. Nowadays, those suffering today's plagues do so through no fault of their own - and we can often alleviate them.
May I express the hope then that, firstly, you and your loved ones make it through the current predicament in good order. But after that, when we come through it all, we set about alleviating today's modern plagues - modern slavery, environmental degradation, inordinate challenges for small island nations, inequality and discrimination and others, with all the energy we can muster. This pandemic should teach us what we can control and what we cannot, and it urges us to deal with the challenges that are within our power to address.
I hope that this Pesakh you find ways to support each other in your celebrations, perhaps even learning new systems of taking responsibility one for another and thus emerging with our communities strengthened and enriched, rather than disabled and stripped down.
Pesakh challenges us once again this year with its eternal themes. We celebrate our springtime freedom but dip it in tears. We eat maror but dip it in sweet herbs. We once were slaves; we now are free. We still are slaves and still hope to be free. Matzah is simultaneously the bread of affliction and the bread of freedom. We have travelled a distance towards our hopes and dreams - but still have a long way to go.
But equally, Pesakh reminds us of the tenacious capacity of the Jews to emerge from intense challenge with our ideals intensified and our determination enhanced. Let us hope that we live up to our history, our ancestors, their achievements and our challenges.
Hag sameakh and all other good wishes, not least for good health.
Clive A Lawton
Now that Sukkot is upon us, we are bound to think of the way we are grateful for and vulnerable to the bounty and power of nature. This year we asked our affiliate communities across the Commonwealth to document how climate change is affecting their country. Please check out our video and see what they had to say... we believe their personal stories can help to make a difference!
In our tradition, we are urged to remember that there is only one world - in the words of current climate activists 'there is no planet B' - and it behoves us to look after it. Not only is Humanity mandated in Genesis in the Torah to take responsibilty for the world, noting our awesome power to take control of all natural resources, but the Zohar has God telling us that we better not mess it up because there will be no-one else around to put it right.
Remember too that when God creates the world, He notes that each item he makes is 'good' - but for one, Mankind. When he makes Adam, he passes no judgement. After all, we are the only creature - item of creation - that can choose what it does and how it behaves. Everything else fits its role and does waht it isupposed to. But whether or not we are 'good', will be in our hands.
Our rabbis tells of an old man planting a fruit tree. When asked why he would bother, given that he will never live to see it produce fruit, he rightly responds that there were fruit trees around when he was young.
Someone must have done the same in the past for him.
On other occasions, we've noted the importance of trees in the Jewish tradition, but I'm not sure if we've mentioned before that the rabbis advise that 'if you're planting a tree, and someone comes and says that the Messiah has arrived, finish planting the tree first before going off to follow him!'
On this festival we gather the fruits and branches of trees and, in waving the lulav, encompass all the points of the compass and the world, symbolically demonstrating that we remember that for all our urban skill and comfort, in the end, the world out there is still at root natural and we must value it and recognise it. Strangely then, the roofs of our sukkot (the main feature of a sukka) must be made of things which once grew but are no longer alive. We can't use concrete or metal to make a sukka roof but nor can one use the overhanging branches of a tree as a roof covering. We are commanded ot use natural items and to bend them to our use. judiasm is not a religion that urges us to 'return to nature'.
Under the pressures of climate change and the need to act to lighten our pressure on the world, Sukkot teaches us that we must not cease to enjoy and value the natural world and that we have the power and the right to bend it to our will. But we cannot do so wantonly. We cannot waste, as we are taught in Deuteronomy - Bal Tashchit - but we have a right to use the world. This is a subtle and a challenging balancing act.
But in the end it is similar to that which parents the world over strive to achieve with their children. They have all kinds of power over their children and they should not avoid taking control and demanding what they feel is right of their children. At the same time though, they must not overstep the mark or ask too much. If they do, they will end up with ruined children and no relationship to enjoy. Most parents manage to get it more or less right. We now must find the same easy balance in our relationship with nature and the world.
So our wish for your Sukkot is that the waether is pleasant and your days in the sukka are enjoyable. And that then, you re-enter the normal world ever more deeply aware that it is a beautiful world, once beautifully balanced, but now out of kilter. We have an urgent duty to future generations to try and set it back on course while at the same time teaching all who we can influence that the pressure of climate change should never mean that we deny ourselves the wonders and pleasures of the world too. Striking that balance will require great skill, application of our highest capacities and great creativity, as well as forbearance and reduction of thoughtless wastage.
In some ways though, the balance between Shabbat and weekdays - six days of activity and a seventh of forebearance - already shows us part of the way. In fact, we have no right to stand aside for this great pressing issue of our time. We cannot avoid taking that responsibility seriously, as Jews and as citizens of the planet.
Clive A Lawton OBE JP