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Etz Chayim – the ‘Tree of Life’ – is the Hebrew name of Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue.
I can’t wait for JK Rowling’s first adult novel for a number of reasons. Firstly, having been totally scared witless by the darkness of some of the Harry Potter books and having thoroughly enjoyed them, I am interested in what demarks an adult novel from that written for a child. Secondly, will the wealth of JK Rowling mean that Alex Salmond drops his bid for an independent Scotland as taxing her will easily cover the oil money Scotland ‘loses’ to the UK. Finally and most seriously, I am on tenterhooks as to whether the storyline is also largely based on ‘the Jewish experience.’ Harry Potter contained magicians – chosen people misunderstood by others – and the main theme is the battle between good and evil with the leader One Who Must Not Be Named singling out one group for persecution. The hero – until revealed as a bit of a hunk treading the boards of the West End – was almost a depiction of the child-Woody Allen and every episode ends with a feast mirroring the ‘they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s go eat,’ motif of most Jewish stories.
Of course we Jews do not need to rely on JK Rowling to tell us such good stories. This is Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath on which traditional Jews will read an additional Torah portion that tells of how the Amalekites attacked the Israelites when they were at their weakest having left the Sea of Reeds on their journey into the Wilderness. We do not read the portion from Exodus but from Deuteronomy that subtly changes what the Israelites and all their descendants for all generations will remember. It is not that God will blot out the memory of the Amalekites but that you shall utterly blot them out.
In the traditional haftarah for this Shabbat Zachor, King Saul is instructed by Samuel to annihilate the Agagites, the descendants of Amalek. He spares King Agag, the best of the sheep, oxen, the fatlings, the lambs and all that could be taken as booty. For this act of disobedience, Saul’s kingship is damned and Samuel takes matters into his own hands and kills Agag, not just in one blow but the Tanakh recounts how he cut Agag into pieces.
Just as we have avoided following tradition and will leave the leitmotif of the archetype of evil to our Purim celebrations this Wednesday night and next Shabbat morning, we will also try to blot out from our thoughts that evil. Literally we blot out the name of Haman so he is the One Who Must Not Be Named. There are plenty of good reasons to do this but I am also concerned that there is much that we miss in so doing.
By telling stories, do we often forget or deliberately omit talking about serious issues that our stories raise. At Jewish Book Week, widely accepted as one of the best cultural offerings London has to offer in the year, there will have been an incredible amount of discussion, debate and talk about the issues raised in the stories and narratives of fact that were presented. Some may have related the stories to how they were feeling, to their life experience and perhaps to those of their families. I am guessing but I suspect that very few will have internalised the themes and then talk about them openly.
I was deeply moved by the suicide of PC David Rathband, one of the victims of Raoul Moat. We cannot imagine the torment that he felt as his life slowly disintegrated before him. In the same week was a memorial football match for the Wales Manager, Gary Speed who also committed suicide having suffered deeply from depression.
These will in the future be recounted as stories based on fact. Perhaps one day someone will write a cultural work, an opera, film or play about their lives.
How many times have we experienced a cultural presentation in a book, film, play, through art, and been deeply moved, troubled, perhaps even traumatised. Has a nerve been hit physically or emotionally. Have we had discussions about these feelings with ourselves, in our heads – but not shared these thoughts, verbalised them, shared them.
We are very good in our free society at depicting all manner of life experiences and emotions. I am not so sure that we are as good at talking about them, sharing them and exploring them so that we might, just possibly, stand a chance of resolving our troubles.
This month we have so many cultural activities in our community that will celebrate life and upon what we believe in. We will celebrate Purim and our triumph of being here against the odds, the defeat of the One Who Must Not Be Named. We will meet to dance an Irish Jig, to sing and play in the Rock Choir, to audition for the children’s opera Brundibar, for a youth club, for adult learning, launch a new art exhibition, enjoy the comedian and musician Daniel Cainer to raise funds for food parcels for our twin community of Yvpatoria in the Crimea.
Yet the one event that I urge you to attend is one that might not be so much fun but in which I utterly endorse as a vital part of life. That is our Dying Matters seminar. This will give us the opportunity in the safe environment of our community, to hear about dying and death but most importantly, give us the space to talk. Not just to tell stories but to relate ourselves, our feelings and thoughts – to hear them and allow others who may share them and be better able in turn to give voice.
Eternal God, may we have the courage to give voice to our deepest fears and thoughts, with those we love and with in the safety of our community. May they become gentler in their intensity and provide support for others so that we may all celebrate each moment of life we have.
© Copyright 2011 NPLS