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Being a Hybrid Community

4 September 2020

Dear Members and Friends

Yesterday, I ring a friend – an academic and teacher - who has been isolated and alone in his home for five months without a computer or any kind of device that would enable him to receive emails, teach via Zoom or be in touch with his colleagues and friends.  He has been writing, he tells me, preparing for a major lecture and providing the centre where he teaches with weekly material which he sends, handwritten, by post. 

We discuss this week’s Torah portion which includes a long section in Deuteronomy 28 known as the tochachah – the rebukes.  These verses mirror in reverse the blessings listed at the beginning of this chapter that will come upon Israel if they listen to the commandments of God.  Liberal synagogues generally avoid reading these distressing curses, but in more traditional communities, where they are read from the Torah, they are chanted in a low voice and hurried over as though the reader is saying, ‘God forbid that any of these calamities should befall us.’ 

My friend assures me that his focus on these difficult verses that speak of panic and pestilence, poverty and pain, does not reflect his current state of mind and I remind him that the parashah includes the blessings and also the famous verses that are included in our Pesach Haggadah, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father…’ 

He points out to me the fact that the beginning of the parashah is addressed to the individual: ‘When you enter the land that the Eternal One your God is giving you as a heritage…’  Each verb, he says is in the singular – a fact we lose in English.  We are not yet a community, we live somewhere in the twilight zone of being displaced, wanderers for forty years in a desert that has left us at times hungry, angry and disconsolate.  Now on the eve of our entrance into the Promised Land, Moses, in the name of God addresses each one of us as an individual. When you are settled, then you shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, “I acknowledge this day before the Eternal One your God that I have entered the land that the Eternal One swore to our ancestors to assign us” (Deuteronomy 26:3). 

It is only when the pilgrim worshipper has set down their basket of fruit before the priest and begins a sixty-three word litany, rehearsing the memory of oppression and rescue from Egypt, that the language moves into the plural: ‘The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labour upon us…The Eternal One freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power…’ (Deut. 26:7-8). 

Over the past five months, we have been in the curious situation of being quite isolated from the rest of the world – at home with immediate family or completely on our own, like my friend.  And now, encouraged to return to school and college, to return to our offices and some semblance of ‘normality’, we move from the singular to the plural, from our own individual, daily concerns, to the needs of a wider community. 

As Rabbi Igor indicated in his message last week, few of us will be permitted to be in our Sanctuary this Shabbat, or indeed over the festivals.  Unless there is a local lockdown, we will have to get used to creating a ‘hybrid’ community, a few of us in the Sanctuary, many more watching online.  We have almost become used to sitting alone in our homes watching services and forgotten the power of being part of a physical community. 

Last week, standing in the grounds of our cemetery at a funeral, I invited the few people present to join me in reciting the Kaddish.  It was overwhelming suddenly to be surrounded by the voices of this intimate gathering, to understand clearly – as if for the first time – what it means to hear the voices of others, to feel a visceral sense of community, friendship and intent – even from those I didn’t know. 

There is great sadness and a sense of loss in knowing that few of us will be able to return to the Sanctuary for our prayers over the coming weeks.  But there is the knowledge that we are still a community, at one in our prayers and our hopes, that in time we will return in person to our worship, our learning and the many events and activities that we have offered at the LJS in the past and will resume when it is safe to do so. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Alexandra Wright

Fri, 11 September 2020 22 Elul 5780