LAMROT HAKOL – In Spite of Everything
The story I was told about the above pictured synagogue in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is that it was named Lamrot Hakol by its European Jewish refugee founders in a spirit of determined chutzpah. They were saying – to themselves and to the wider world – ‘in spite of everything’ we are here and we are building Jewish community. From their current Facebook page, I would say they’re doing remarkably well!
There is much of this spirit of ‘in spite of everything’ in this week’s Torah portion. Slavery has been endured for over four hundred years and, after hearing of Moses and Aaron’s plans in pursuit of redemptive freedom, conditions worsen. As the battle between God and Moses on one side and Pharaoh and his court on the other continues, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened. Innocent Egyptians suffer and, although we see Israelites miraculously exempted from the direct impact of the first seven plagues, their lives were not made any easier by these varied dramatic events!
In many ways, it was remarkable – lamrot hakol – that the Israelites were still such a distinct grouping. Over the many centuries of Jewish life, other examples of this theme occur. In one such, Solomon ibn Verga wrote of the Spanish Jewish exile who said in his grief: ‘Sovereign of the universe, much have You done to make me forsake my faith. But know for a certainty that nothing You have brought, or may still bring, upon me will make me change. In spite of it all, a Jew I am, and a Jew I shall remain.’
One might argue that Jews and Judaism have survived precisely because there has so often been one kind or another of ‘in spite of everything’. We might celebrate the stubborn, stiff-necked characteristic that keep us Jewish and keeps us going.
There is a feeling of lamrot hakol as I write this D’var Torah, knowing how the cost of living crisis is playing out in the country, knowing how aggrieved and upset many people feel in amongst the various strikes, whether you support the increasing groups of strikers or not.
Specifically, I’m writing on what is termed by some ‘Blue Monday’. In reality, as I hope many of you know, ‘Blue Monday’ was devised in 2004 as a pseudo-scientific way to help travel companies sell holidays! The thinking taps into the mid-winter darkness (though nights are already shortening!) and the knowledge that January is a long month until payday, especially for those who received their December pay a little earlier to help them enjoy the festive season.
One problem is that now ‘Blue Monday’ has its own mythology, there are plenty who will focus upon it, sometimes for nefarious purposes in pursuing their own agenda. Lamrot hakol might help inoculate us against such marketing. That said, we are approaching Mental Health Awareness Shabbat this weekend, and I am alert to the sad reality that our mental health is still much harder to discuss than our physical health, and even that is often not openly discussed!
Here, let me turn back to an aspect of the story in parashat Vaeira. A few verses in to the parashah, we read, “But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage” (Ex. 6:9). Now, we get through the rest of this parashah and into the second chapter of the next one before Moses again speaks to the people – to tell them of what to do on the night of the tenth plague, which will also be the night of redemption!
My thought is that this isn’t a leadership or care model I would recommend. People whose spirits are crushed would not, I contend, benefit through complete silence from their would be leader while all the drama of nine plagues plays out across the land of Egypt. Instead, I would suggest that anyone whose spirit is crushed needs to hear regularly from those around them, be they peers or leaders, so that they might feel a little more informed, potentially slightly more encouraged, and also better prepared for the big message that comes just before that first Passover night.
The word vaeira that gives this portion its name means “I appeared” and it’s used in the context of God speaking to Moses about his mission. May I suggest this week, during the cold of mid-winter and lamrot hakol – in spite of everything – we can make it our mission to appear before someone who might benefit from such an appearance. I like that the Samaritans both debunked ‘Blue Monday’ and replaced it with ‘Brew Monday’, suggesting that we reach out any day of the week offering a brew and a conversation. Someone who feels they’re in the dark might draw some light from a visit, a chat, a call, a message that reminds them they matter. They might or might not be feeling ‘crushed by cruel bondage’, they might be hanging on ‘lamrot hakol’, and your appearance or message might help someone towards redemption!
Rabbi Richard Jacobi East London and Essex Liberal Synagogue
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.