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Rabbi Wittenberg's Weekly Message

Erev Shabbat, 17th July 2009
25th Tamuz 5769

Dear Community,

I feel sad this week as Shabbat approaches. Maybe it’s because we have entered the three weeks which precede the fast of Tishah B’Av. I always find the traverse of this period of time painful, with its powerful reminders of destruction and persecution. But this week I think it’s more because of what’s happening to friends that I feel sorrow. I’m sure there are times when you’ve experienced the same. Here are fragments of a few conversations I’ve recently had:

- ‘I lost two of my closest friends in the last three days. It’s hard to fathom what’s happening in my world.’

- ‘It’s difficult being ill, but I’m going to learn from it. I’m determined to take away from this a deeper understanding.’

- ‘It was so quick at the end. But it was peaceful and we felt very close. Now, it all seems unreal; it’s impossible to take it in.’

I sometimes debate in my mind which is the greatest value in Judaism, mishpat or hesed, justice or loving kindness. I’m usually inconsistent; it depends what I’m thinking about and with whom I’m speaking. In Kabbalah, the two qualities, referred to as the two domains of divine energy Gevurah and Hesed, are understood to co-exist in a precarious balance which we, by our prayers and actions, have to uphold. Not enough love and the harshness of too much judgment predominates in the world; not enough justice and love becomes indulgence and ceases to have meaning.

But in the end, I think I come down on the side of hesed, loving kindness. This is where I find the deepest humanity, this is where I discover my God. ‘There is no limit to the reward for deeds of loving kindness’, teaches the Mishnah. I witness them all the time. Often it is the little actions which indicate the deepest attentiveness, an alertness to the needs and sensitivities of others in the most ordinary details of our lives, a humility, a personhood attuned not to the self but to the feelings of others: ‘Here, let me carry that for you’.

This, too, is where I believe God is often to be found. Here, in the awareness of our weakness and mortality, we see people selflessly offering one another their hands, their heart, their soul. Isn’t this, perhaps, God within each of us, speaking to us in and through the limitations of our flesh, of that which is incomparably greater than ourselves, love, compassion, generosity and beauty? Here, the great consciousness which flows through all being touches us in the small individuality of our lives and says to us ‘Listen! Here am I’.

Shabbat Shalom

Jonathan Wittenberg