A Journey Towards Beauty
By Rabbi Oliver Joseph
There are ten portions of beauty in the world. Nine of them are to be found in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world, so the midrash tells us (Avot DeRabbi Natan). The teaching continues: there are ten portions of suffering, there are nine in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world.
Having lived in the holy city of Jerusalem I can attest to great beauty to be found there: inspiring people, delicious food, wonderful culture; there are many people who journey to and within that city with intrigue and great spirit. In equal measure, a city of such history and such potential has a great capacity to visit sadness upon its loyal residents and visitors.
Our rabbis of ancient times and also of more recent generations were keen to articulate a vision of belonging that centred around Jerusalem as a geographic centre. Finding spiritual unity and focus by way of the ancient city has served our people for more than two thousand years, and in spite of our dispersion throughout the lands, we have, as a people, largely maintained a sense of communal loyalty and common direction. The reality over a great many years, however, was that Jews did not have the means to visit the city or have full access to it.
In all of these years, whilst fixated on the beauty, sanctity and possibility of Jerusalem, Jews from around the globe have maintained a sense of both beauty and sadness in their own communities. It is in our own back yards that we have actually experienced the great highs and lows of personal and communal life. The Jewish people have found sanctity and holiness whilst dispersed throughout the lands. They have found the Divine Holy Essence which has travelled with our people, as it once did with the Israelites as they travelled through the desert towards the Holy Land.
Jerusalem has been both in our rabbinic imagination and in our history, as a centre of prayer, sacrifice and learning, a place of charity and community. Jerusalem is also an avenue through which Jews have been able to explore sanctity, sacrifice, leaning, charity and community in the places in which Jews live. When we sit at the Passover Seder table and say, ‘Le’shana haba b’yerushalayim’ – ‘next year in Jerusalem’, it is in part an articulation of a great and deep hope that we should find the aspects of Jerusalem’s holiness and sanctity in our own communities, in our own homes.
This work is going on up and down the UK and in many other places across the Masorti Jewish world. Jewish communities are putting their best feet forward and reimagining what their communal and personal Jewish lives can look like. They are re-examining prayer life, hospitality, Shabbat observance and their commitment to Jewish learning. These are the nuts and bolts of our work; Masorti rabbis, cantors and educators are tasked with describing that imaginative leap towards greater beauty and holiness inside our Masorti communities.
Holiness and beauty are not realised over the course of an evening or even over days. The work of building great communities takes many months and years. The most important aspect of it, in my mind, is about sensitivity, about listening. In Elstree and Borehamwood Masorti Community (EBMC), one of the primary communities that I have worked with over the last three years, we have been working hard to reconnect with those in our neighbourhood, promoting our community’s invigoration and growth. One year into my work with EBMC we celebrated our ten-year anniversary. It was a fantastic celebration with dignitaries and teachers from across the community. Since then, our task has been to shape and imagine our growth. Elstree and Borehamwood is the fastest growing Jewish community in the whole of Europe.
It is a fantastic and inspiring place to be and since I started work there, a whole new generation of leaders has taken the reins, engaging our most talented members and taking the community to new heights. Together we are reimagining our prayer life, our Jewish learning, charity giving and community life.
Elstree and Borehamwood is not Jerusalem – but part of the work of those driving our communities forward is to grow our sensitivity to the brilliance and holiness that is to be found in the deep reserves of all of our members. There is beauty within, and whilst the Jewish people will never stop yearning for Jerusalem, a Jerusalem of peace and a Jerusalem of great spiritual realisation and wholeness, part of our Jewish journey has always been to imagine the possibility and sanctity to be found inside our own communities.
Our midrash tells us that there are ten portions of beauty in the world. Nine of them are to be found in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world. Our work as those who lead our communities forward is to find greater sensitivity to the beauty within, to listen more carefully to those around us and to build robust, inspiring and wondrous communities for now and for our future.
Rabbi Oliver Joseph is rabbi of Elstree and Borehamwood Masorti Community and the Chavurah.