Sunday, 27 September 2020

When This Passes, What Happens Next

Here’s an extract from the 1927 Yiddish book, Gedoylin Fun Unzer Tsayt about an earlier Yom Kippur in a time of pandemic – in 1848 it was cholera; a disease marked by symptoms that made fasting dangerous. One the eve of Yom Kippur, with the permission of the leading rabbis of the great city of Vilna, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter posted announcements in all the shuls that, because of the cholera epidemic, no-one should say additional parts of the prayers, and that, instead, people should spend time outdoors breathing fresh air. In the courtyard of all the shuls they set up tables with pieces of cake that contained less than the prohibited amount of food that may be eaten. The food was there for those who needed to eat. Reb Yisroel got up on at Shacharit on Yom Kippur and announced that if a person felt weak there was no need to consult with a doctor, but instead they may go into the courtyard and eat. In another account, the Rabbi makes use of words from the Kol Nidrei prayer itself- With the consent of the All-Present and with the consent of this congregation, we give permission to eat and drink on the Day of Atonement.” Al daat hamakom ve al daat hakahal anu matirim – Of course the good rabbi was attacked for his supposedly radical stance, but it takes courage to be a Rabbi. Pandemics call on us all to be courageous. Or, and surely enough on pandemics already!, what about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 1939? War was declared nine days before Rosh Hashanah in 1939. This remarkable letter, from the Minister of Highgate Synagogue was sent to his congregants apologising that the included schedule of service times was going to have to change – what with the existential threat to civilisation; “all evening services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are to be scheduled so as to finish one hour before dark,” he writes. “The shofar is not be sounded at the end of Yom Kippur lest it be confused for an air-raid siren. Top hats are not to be worn ‘for the duration of the war.’ And please bring your gas mask.” But what struck me, in amongst the technical necessities of a transformed run of prayer services, was the Rabbi’s spiritual courage. Amid all the woe of the present time, [wrote Rabbi Lew] let us not for one moment forget our faith in God. My appeal to you is to gather regularly in the Synagogue that we may pray to Almighty to save us and our dear ones, our King and country, from the horrible devastation of war which is raging in our midst. May our New Year bring victory and peace to our nation which is the bulwark of justice liberty and freedom. May it bring prosperity to the needy, health for the sick, safety and security for us all. May God preserve the children who have been taken from our midst [he means drafted into military service] and restore them to us in peace. GOD BLESS YOU ALL” Wrote the Rabbi of Highgate Synagogue, in 1939. This miserable virus, it’s nothing new. But we’ve been here before – dark days, plague-afflicted days. And we have had to dig deep to find the courage and the optimism that brighter days are waiting for us. And the models and the inspirations that we can do this and that it’s worth doing this are there right through our faith and our history and our sense of who we are. Way, way back, in the face of the existential threat presented by that Pharaoh, way back then, when Pharaoh came and decreed that every male child should be thrown in the rivers, it was the Meyaldot HaIvriyot the Hebrew midwives who modelled this sense of courage and optimism. They stood up against oppression and darkness and midwived the generation who travelled from bondage to freedom, from darkness to light. Courage and optimism, a willingness to commit and care and midwife a brighter future, even in the darkest of times is the very marker of faith, certainly of this faith. This miserable virus, it’s nothing new. But we’ve been here before. It will take courage and the optimism, but the models are here for us – not far away at all. As I’ve been winding my way through these past months, I’ve kept one of my favourite stories close to my heart. It’s the story of King Solomon and his brave and faithful servant, Benaiah who is sent by the King to find a ring with magic powers. I’m sharing the language of Judith Ish-Kishor. Said the King. “If a happy man looks at the ring he at once becomes downcast and gloomy. But if the person in misery or morning beholds it, hope rises their heart, and they are comforted.” And Benaia searches for the ring from Babylon to Damascus, and from Tyre, to Beer Sheva and from Egypt to Yemen, And no-one has even heard of such a ring. It is only when Benaia returns to Jerusalem, and he is walking along a poor street with small shabby houses that he sees a man, with a mat spread before him with baskets of trinkets and beads, such as people without much money could afford. “Shall I ask here?” Thought Benaia, “What use! Still, it will only mean another no.” But here, of course, there is such a ring. Carved inside are the three Hebrew letters; Gimel Zion, Yud – Gam Zo Yaavor - This too shall pass. This too shall pass. Gam Zo Yaavor Gam Zo Yaavor is a training in seeing our lives from beyond our immediacy. That’s very fitting for today. We arrive at Yom Kippur all weighed down by our present situations and our present preoccupations. And all this is fine. But there is a grander time scale, and broader perspective into which our temporary concerns, as pressing as we feel them to be, are not ultimate concerns for the world, for the Universe, from the perspective of its Creator. And it’s no bad thing to be reminded that our pressing concerns, viewed from a grander perspective, will be less dramatic than they feel in this very moment. We shouldn’t disappear into our own private cocoons of self-absorption. Gam Zo Yaavor. And also this Gam Zo Yaavor, especially in a time of pandemic, is a reminder to live forwards. It’s miserable now. I know, but it will pass. There will be something on the other side, and it’s worth living in that direction. Yes we have to live our lives in the moment, and in the moment bad things are just … well bad. But we don’t have to live our lives in the direction of where we are. Gam Zo Yaavor. We need to live our lives in the direction of our future. We can live with our spirit on the other side of where we are now. That’s a leap of faith. It’s also an acknowledgement of the change that comes to us all for Gam Zo Yaavor – this too shall pass. And there will come a time when we, and our descendants, and our descendants’ descendants will tell stories of this time, and our adaptation and our resilience, and our acts of kindness and our attempts to hold together when we are being dragged apart. This will pass. And the way these stories will reflect to our credit is if we live in the direction of the future we seek. I know it’s dark right now. But I know we have been here before, and this shall pass. And I know it’s hard to hold onto an optimism that things will get better. Well, here’s the bad news. Trying to hold onto an optimism that things will get better isn’t going to cut it. Holding on and hoping isn’t going to be enough this time. In fact, I’m not sure holding on and hoping has ever been enough. We get through these times with courage and with optimism. That’s the message. Don’t stop with trying to hold on, push through. Be part of building beyond. I think this is the message of all faith, don’t just hope. We are called to live our lives with courage and optimism. I think this is the very nature and the very role of religious community. We exist to pool this sense of courage and optimism, these energies of care and a willingness to believe in futures that are brighter. We take all our stories and all our histories and we use them to inspire us through the times when we are tender, and bruised and nervous. At our best, that’s us, this religious community, an incubator for courage and optimism in a time of fear. And tonight, that’s you, In some ways the very act of coming to a Zoomed Kol Nidrei on this very day, when the fast of Yom Kippur hasn’t even started yet, is an incubation of this sense of courage and optimism that is so desperately needed. I’m doing my best to nurture these previous sparks in me, by standing here with you. And I know, and I feel, despite the distance-thing, you are doing the same. It’s an honour and a privilege. Together we deepen our communal reservoirs of courage. Together we lift each of us towards the future we not only hope for, but actively build. There is inspiration in our own faith journey, certainly, but let me conclude by stepping beyond our own faith, and even beyond my own gender, to share the words of American Sikh activist, Valerie Kaur. Kaur spoke of the brokenness of this time this way. “What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb. What if our society is not dead, but waiting to be born. What if we just need to listen to the midwife whispering in our ears, You are brave, breath, then push.” Well I’ve never had to breath and push like a birthing mother. But I know so many of you have, and that as crazy as it sounds it’s worth believing in that possibilities of newness, even when it feels so impossible to breath and push. I believe. I hope you do to. After all this, all this will pass. And in its place will come a future we will build together. All of us. We can build that future with heart and our hands, even behind our locked doors. We can pour out enough kindness into this battered world, that the forces of anger and distrust are pushed back. We can create communities of decency and compassion that are so strong, it will be clear to all, that human beings thrive this way, in community, and not as individuals. That’s our task at New London, to be part of that, to foster those redemptive sparks in each of us; I’m up for the challenge, I hope you are too. May we build it well, Gemar Chatimah Tovah

The Hand and the Window - A Sermon for Yizkor

Reaching Out of Windows The LORD hurled a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken. And the mariners were afraid, and cried every person unto their god; and they cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it unto them. But Jonah was gone down into the innermost parts of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep. I feel like Jonah, fairly often, at the moment. With the storm breaking around me and threatening to break me, fairly often, I just want to pull the duvet over my head. Jonah, in this moment, isn’t an embodiment of the triumph of human possibility in the face of challenge. I’ll get back to that. Here’s a Talmudic tale, imagining the experience of Adam after expulsion from the Garden of Eden “Eat the fruit in the garden, God tells Adam, Mot Tamut. You will surely die.” But instead of death, Adam is exiled. And also this. Let’s suppose the world was indeed created on Rosh Hashanah, that would have exile starting just around about now, in the calendar-year, as the leaves begin to turn And it was as Adam saw the days getting shorter and shorter he said, woe, maybe the world is getting darker and darker because of my sin, and this is headed back to the chaos and disorder of the universe before creation. And this is the sentence that was decreed by heaven. But, of course, the world eventually stops getting darker and darker, and the days start to get longer and longer. And that’s when Adam holds an eight-day festival of lighting candles – a sort of precursor of not only Chanukah but the mid-winter celebrations of so many peoples around the world. Better than Jonah, facing up to the despair and eager to mark its passing, but unable to transform the ever encroaching darkness. One more story; Noah is on the ark, in the midst of a devastation that has wiped out kol hayakum – humans, cattle, insect and fowl of the heavens; really, Covid pales in comparison. And as Genesis Chapter 7 comes to an end, Noah is sealed in, the ark is lined with pitch inside and out with only one window for light and the waters rage for 150 days. This of course is pre-Zoom, or Netflix and the rest of it. And when Genesis Chapter 8 opens, it opens with the words ‘And God remembered Noah.’ Did God forget about his hero? Or is it just that Noah felt forgotten, lost, alone. And this is Noah’s response. Vayiftach Noach et HaChalon Vayishlach et HaArev Noah opens the widow and sends out the raven. He sticks his arm out of the ark and begins the process of re-establishing human possibility in this world. It’s possible, of course, to look at these tales, of Jonah of Adam and of Noah from a psychological perspective. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, in her book, On Death and Dying, set out five stages of grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. That’s a good place to start. And for our Covid-addled times you can add to the list this nagging ennui, maybe a bit of despair and well – there is one other thing. The one thing that perhaps above all might help us get through this time with our souls intact – for that surely has to be the task. What about the moment when Noah opens the window and reaches out his hand? My friend Rabbi Marc Wolf asks the question – what strength must it have taken; to reach out of the darkness and take – what should we call it – a leap of faith, a stretching out a hand from the darkness into the light, an act of spiritual heroism? I want to share the work of Professor Melissa Raphael. She writes, in The Female Face of God in Auschwitz of a desire to try and find something to say to her daughter about the bleakness of the Holocaust. She wants to “wring from her own unease, a respite which conviction and hope moves them to transmit to others.” Raphael collects, from the wreckage of the Holocaust, moments of love and care demonstrated and shared even in times far darker than we – in our rather middling pandemic – have any right to compare to our own existential concerns this year. During roll-call – often lasting a day and a night without interruption – Lucie Adelsberger remembers how the women stood still, in rags, in all weathers, beaten whipped and lashed with pistols if they fell, with empty stomachs, often with diarrhoea and unable to move. And yet here too; ‘furtively and inconspicuously they pressed up against one another to keep warm, and thus they began to support their comrades when they began to reel.’ Charlotte Delbo too remembers how, at roll-call, each woman would both support and be warmed by another by placing her hands in the armpits of the woman in front of her. And when the legs of women in her work detail became too swollen for them to walk the other would try to carry them, terminally weak as they themselves were. One girl,” Raphael continues, “Adele, fling into the trucks turns to help those behind her … She is not afraid. Her arm encircles a weaker girl whose knees are failing her.” Raphael’s point is theological. Not the sort of theology most of us think of when we think of theology – if we think of theology at all. She writes, “The father God, the Monarchal Man of War was of little or no consolation or relevance to these women.” Rather, she writes, these women are embodying a godliness which is made manifest in acts of comfort and care of others. Raphael cites the Talmudic passage where we are called upon to behave like God and the examples of what it means, to behave like God, are examples of simple, yet powerful, acts of Hesed – kindness; clothe the naked, visit the sick, offer comfort to the bereaved. The godliness Raphael is interested in is neither the theoretical postulates of Maimonides or the sectarian claims that demarcate on denomination from the other, but actions that simultaneously bind all humanity towards the existential possibilities of what is greater than all humanity. In our treatment of what is other than us, writes Raphael, we are sustained by a godliness that is more profound than the prototypically masculine models of classic theology that lie broken and wrecked by the Holocaust. Etty Hillesum was a young Dutch Jew, murdered in Auschwitz. Her last recorded words were scribbled on a postcard which she threw out the window of the train that took her to her death. I know what will happen to us next (…) [Hillesum wrote on this remarkable artefact from the midst of that awful terror] The latest news is that all the Jews will be deported from Holland to Poland, through camps in the province of Drenthe, and the English radio said that since last year 700,000 Jews have perished in Germany and the occupied territories. If we do survive than we will have that many wounds to carry for the rest of our lives. And still life makes sense to me, my God, I cannot help it. I have already died a thousand deaths in a thousand camps. I know it all and I do no longer get upset over new information. And still I find this life beautiful and full of meaning, every minute of it. I get Jonah, I know sometimes all I want to do is run away, and pull the duvet over my head. I get Adam, I know it can feel desperately dark and helpless. But more than that, I know I am called, by Noah, and by Hillesum, and those countless myriads of women, and men, who have reached their hands out of the prisons of arks and carriages and lock-downed homes in compassion and love. Reading Hillesum’s postcard both, heart-breaking and heart affirming, is so powerful. It’s about a resistance that survives even death, it’s about holiness, courage and the very nature of life. We’re all doing. This is our spiritual inheritance. This is what has been handed down to us today. This is the job – to keep reaching out the windows, in compassion and love, despite our ennui, and despite the gloom. For what it’s worth, it’s always been the job, the very role of humanity, the very expression of what it means to be human; to keep reaching out the windows. May we always be so emboldened. One last thing. I want to share. A bit of a vision. In my mind, in this strange tangled web of our contemporary Covid-ed existence, our awful history and our very humanity, the hand of Ettie Hillesum reaching out the window of that train meets the hand of Noah, reaching out the window of that ark. And those fingers, in some echo of Michelangelo, touch. Maybe that’s my deepest dream this holy evening. That as we reach out, in these glorious acts of humanity, we touch, and we find someone else reaching out towards us. Chatimah Tovah, May it come to us all in sweetness and in health.

Twist or Stick - A Neilah Sermon

Twist or Stick Here’s a sermon brought to you by the card game blackjack, or vingt-et-un, or twenty-one or Esrim V’Achat. Oh and Covid. I’ll get back to the Covid thing. Let me do the card game first. In the card game, you get dealt two cards and the aim is to get near to, but not over, 21. The key question is ‘stick or twist?’ Do you want another card – it will give you more points, but you could go bust? Now, if you have a great hand, I don’t know, 19, 20 or that magical 21 already in your hand, you stick, of course you stick. But what if the score’s lower? Not really low, I mean, you have two cards in your hand and you’ve a score of four or five, that’s easy too. But what if your score is 13, 14, 15 something pretty poor, by the standards of the game, but there’s a risk in turning over another card. If you have 13, then any 9, 10, J, Q or K will bust you out of the round. That’s a lot of cards to dodge. Just in case you are concerned, I’m not much of a card player, certainly not for cash, so here’s the same story from a more Jewish perspective. The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Gittin, tells the story of the Romans at the walls of Jerusalem. The Biriyonim who are defending the city are fighting off the Romans and, in bid to raise the spirits of the defenders, announce that anyone seeking any kind of compromise with the Romans will be killed. That’s sticking. Our hand may not look so great right now, but we’re not twisting. We’re sticking with what we know, we’re sticking with what we have. And one rabbi, trapped inside the besieged city, Yochanan Ben Zakkai, looks at the starving masses in the city and he looks at the mighty Roman garrisons arrayed beyond the walls, and he twists. He pretends to be dead, gets himself smuggled out of the city and brough before the Roman General and starts negotiating for a future for Jerusalem that will look very different from the cards he began the round holding. This twist or stick thing cuts right to the central moment Rabbinic Judaism. The first Temple, home of the Priestly system of worship and singular centre of the Jewish people, was destroyed and the children of Israel went into exile until, some 70 years later they were allowed to return. And then they returned, and rebuilt a Second Temple, on the model of the first, with the same system of Priestly worship and the same centrality in Jewish life. That’s sticking. But when the Second Temple was destroyed, Judaism transformed. The priestly thing went from being the very essence of Jewish worship to a few small pieces here and there. And instead of Jerusalem being a singular centre of Jewish life – here we are, in a shul – or watching on line – while a Rabbi and a Chazan pray about Teshuvah with not a sacrificial animal in sight. And the paragon of this ability to twist, and to transform and survive, and thrive, is this Rabbi who smuggled himself out of the doomed city. In one of the tellings of the story of Yohanan Ben Zakkai’s escape, the Midrash continues with a story of him walking through the rubble of the destroyed Temple with a colleague, Rabbi Yehoshua. Yehoshua looks at the Temple lying in ruins and says despairingly, “The place that brought Teshuvah for the sins of the people Israel is destroyed!” Yehoshua thinks we’ve gone bust. But Yohannan ben Zakkai replies, 'We can still gain atonement through deeds of loving-kindness. The world” [he continued, citing the verse from Psalms,] “is built upon mercy," Olam Hesed Yibanei. No, we’ve not gone bust, we’re still in the game, we twisted and we are still playing. Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai is prepared to see a wholesale transformation of religious life from a pre-occupation with sacrifices; a religious formalism, going through the motions, to a religious life centred on acts of kindness and Teshuvah affected through an internal process of reflection and questing for personal improvement. And here we are. Getting on for two thousand years later. Let me turn to Covid. While the rates are as high today as they were back in those early days, it’s Yom Kippur, a time to reflect on where we want to be when we can get back out again; specifically, is this a time to stick or twist? What were the cards we were carrying before … all this? I reread something I handed out on the seats this time last year – when everything was still normal, or a whole lot more normal than all this. It’s from the essayist Jia Tolentino; [My local] fast-casual chopped-salad chain feels less like a place to eat and more like a refuelling station: a line of 40 people can be processed in 10 minutes, as customer after customer orders a kale caesar as if their purpose in life is to send emails for 16 hours a day with a brief break to snort down a bowl of nutrients. The neatness of this process obscures its circularity. The ideal chopped-salad customer needs to eat his $12 salad in 10 minutes because he needs the extra time to keep functioning within the job that allows him to afford a $12 salad in the first place. So, as we get out of this, when we get a chance, are we going back to that? Or whatever version it was we had of chopped salad. That’s the question. It’s not really a question about cards, For some great – and all we want to do is return to how it was before; a bit like the Children of Israel after the destruction of the first Temple. For some of us, we’ve been kept away from what they knew, given the chance they were back rebuilding exactly what they had lost. For some it was a complete shambolic mess before all this, and we’ve been trying to twist into something new for a while. But, I suspect, for most of us there was something middling going on. Let me play with the card-game analogy a bit. Let’s make it a bit more like poker. Suppose instead of just adding to the cards in our hand, we get to decide which ones we want to keep and which we want to trade in; which to hold and which to twist. And now imagine a hand of many cards, imagine one card for each facet of our lives. And now imagine that each card isn’t a bearer of a score out of ten – life’s too complex for that. Imagine instead each card portrays our reality in one particular area of our lives. How am I as a father? One card. As a professional colleague? Another card. As a custodian of the resources of the planet? Another card. What would the cards say about my emotional state – the times I anger, the times I lack courage? What would they say about my ability to work for justice, the things I did, and the things I didn’t do? That’s a pretty big deck of cards. But suppose as you shuffle through them, a couple really stand out, there are a couple you really want to trade in. What would be those cards? If our states of existence really permitted us to shuffle through our deck and find a couple of cards to trade in, which ones would you get rid of? What does your Jewish card look like? Have you given this magisterial tradition that is your inheritance a chance, this last year, this last decade? Do you want to twist that? It might help with a bunch of other stuff – that, at least is how it’s supposed to work. It might make you a better descendant, a better ancestor, a person more resilient to the ebbs and flows of lockdown. But if you are going to stick with the Judaism card, that’s OK too. Just take two cards, I’ll give you a maximum of three. And look at them in your mind’s eye. And twist. As you turn these cards in, what are you going to do to make their replacements better, brighter and stronger. That’s the question for the next hour or so. We’re about to go into Neilah and as we prepare to close the gates on this extraordinary Yom Kippur, I encourage you to ponder your two cards, three at the maximum. You can twist. We can all twist. Change is possible. It’s just going to take a little pondering and courage and commitment. But it’s worth it. After all our very lives are at stake. May this year be sealed, for us all, for good.

Friday, 18 September 2020

Rosh Hashanah Sermon - Tomorrow's Troubles and What We Should Do Today

How we all doing? So strange, I know. But I feel a deep sense of privilege to be here with those of you who are in this room. Thank you. And equally, I’m so touched to know there are hundreds of members – and guests and wanderers - taking this opportunity to join us on-line. Hello, thank you. I hope in these storm-tossed times, these services have been a moment of healing and beauty and inspiration for you. So what are we supposed to do? For Rosh Hashanah, for life? That’s been the big question; for the parents of tiny babies who’ve been trying to work out how to arrange Brit Milah, to the wedding couples working out whether to postpone or reconfigure, to our oldest members – working out whether it’s safe to leave the house. Here’s what I’m hoping for, aiming for, in these sermons, and my Jewish engagement, in this year to come. I am looking to share insights from our remarkable tradition – a tradition that has seen plagues and pandemics worse than this, come and go. I’m looking for the insights that can help us reconfigure our lives right now, and into our future. I’m looking for the insights that can help us live better and be stronger in the face of all this. I’m going to start, today, with the most famous triplet of our Rosh Hashanah liturgy Teshuva, tefilah and tzedakah usually translated as penitence, prayer and charity. First the bad news, these things won’t save you. You can do a ton of all kinds of good stuff and still suffer horribly, and that’s sad and frustrating, And I’m sorry. But that line in the Unataneh Tokef that seems to suggest we can change our decrees by doing these things, just doesn’t say that. The decree, the prayer says, is going to be the decree. Who shall live, who shall die? Not in my hands, not in yours either. Mi baEish, mi beMagefah Who by forest fire, who by viral plague, Mi Yanua uMi Yanuach who in distress, and who in rest. Those decrees will be what they will be. Maavirin Et Roah HaGezeirah just doesn’t mean annul the evil decree, that would be a different Hebrew phrase. Rather the Hebrew means take away the pain of the decree. It’s worth doing good things not to change what is happening to us, but to change how we respond to our circumstances, regardless of what we face. I’m aware, this idea might not sound so cheery in a pandemic, But bear with me. It gets better. The Talmud teaches “al tatzar tzarat machar - Don’t suffer from tomorrow’s suffering [today].” It’s so easy to obsess over with tomorrow’s trouble. What if this, what if that? “Ki lo taedah ma yalid yom – you don’t know what tomorrow brings.” There’s a kind of evil we bring into our own lives by an over-preoccupation in ‘what if?’ And in so many ways it’s a fools’ errand to disappear into the concern about decrees we cannot know and cannot alter. It’s not worth worrying greatly about dyes that are cast. Al tatzar tzarat machar - Don’t suffer from tomorrow’s trouble [today]. Those decrees, who by fire and who by virus, I mean stay safe, wash your hands, eat your greens, but don’t get consumed worried about futures that we cannot control and cannot know. Instead why not try this, why not worry about Teshuvah, Tefilah and Tzedakah? Maybe these are the things that can expand our consciousness, our sense of possibility and allow to find a sweetness, even if the decrees are not what everything we wish them to be. For none of us is getting the decrees we wish for this year. Maybe rather than relentlessly updating our news feeds to learn just how the R-number has ebbed or flowed, we would be better of considering Teshuvah; our relationships with our fellows, and our creator. Maybe we would be better off apologising for our errors and striving to transform our behaviour so we engage in the world with the best of ourselves? Improving our relationships with our fellows and our creator is how to find a sweetness in our encounters with the others who populate our existence; our lovers, our family, our friends, colleagues, strangers and even before God. This isn’t a good thing to do because of some kind existential deal-making in the hope of a change in decree, but because improving our relationships with our fellows and our creator is how we face what comes with dignity and decency. Maybe we should spend more time worrying about Teshuvah today than worrying about the worry of tomorrow. Maybe rather than getting swallowed into an ennui driven by yet another day of miserable news, we would be better off considering Tefilah; our ability to pray. The Hebrew word has the same root as the word Peleh ¬– wonder. To pray is to stand in wonder at the world. In that slightly old-fashioned, but lovely phrase, to pray is called to, “count our blessings.” My, this food that sustains me, this breath that moves in and out of me unbidden, this ability to wake another day – how exquisite, how precious, how grateful I should be. And how often do I stop to express this gratitude for what I have already? The rabbis say a person should make 100 blessings a day. Or maybe it would be enough to pause one day a week from the seeking, to express wonderment in prayer. Or maybe even that is too frequently, in which case let this be the day to allow our gratitude and amazement that we are here at all to move us to prayer. And if the language of the prayers of this book feels alienating, don’t be distracted, these prayers are really just a framework for our ability to share the prayers of our heart. And the prayer of the heart can be shared in any language – the prayer of the heart just needs to contain an expression of gratitude and an awareness of a grace visited on us. How would that kind of prayer change us? Would it change our decrees? Who knows, I suspect not, but it would, I am sure, transform us into more gracious and happier and sweeter human beings, regardless of the decrees we face. Maybe we should spend more time worrying about Tefilah today than worrying about the worry of tomorrow. Maybe rather than be beaten down by this gnawing sense that everything going to hell in a handcart – and goodness it’s easy to feel everything is going to hell in a handcart – we would be better of performing acts of Tzedakah; doing things to make this world a more just place. There are as many ways to do Tzedakah as there are experiences of injustice in the world. Giving money is good, so is capacity building, simple acts of kindness, political organising, reducing/reusing/recycling. We speak on Rosh Hashanah of a Heshbon HaNefesh – an account of the soul – the image is a weighing scale. The call to pursue justice – Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof - asks us to do enough to balance out our gifts with our contribution to the rectification of the injustices of the world. The best way, for what it’s worth, to feel less weighed down by our own sorrows, is to do something for someone else. The best way to feel less bowed down by the mess we are all in, is to be engaged in mending and lifting and healing and forging a brighter future. Making other people’s life better is a wonderful way to feel less aggrieved by the evils of our own decrees. And any of us can do it. I know many of you do it all the time – you tend to be happiest members of this community I know. Maybe we should spend more time worrying about Tzedakah today than worrying about the worry of tomorrow. The delight we take in our lives needn’t be contingent on the decrees we face. The quality of our existence needn’t be determined by the regulations that govern life in a time of coronavirus. Our worth as human beings isn’t a factor of how much we have or who we can and can’t sit next to. That’s not to say that this time is easy. It’s not. It’s a miserable time and a lonely time and I hate all of that. But we can still find joy and still find power and still prove worthy of the gifts of our lives through acts of Teshuvah, Tefilah and Tzedakah. And in that, this year is no different from all those years that have gone before when we’ve stood as Jews, on this sacred day, to work on ourselves, using the insights and the gifts of our tradition to be worthy of the year we seek. It’s not supposed to be easy, it’s never been supposed to be easy. But it is holy, and it is of tremendous value. Our very lives are on the line. Shabbat Shalom Shannah Tovah

Monday, 17 August 2020

What Aliyah and How To Call Up the Daughter of a Cohen

 I wrote this a long time ago, and I'm aware the current Mara D'Atra of the Shul for which it was written takes a different positions (as is entirely their privilege), but this is my take on this.

Policy on Bat Cohen



As a community that gives first aliyah to cohanim and (otherwise) gives aliyot equally to men and women, which aliyot should the daughters of cohanim receive?

Also, does the marriage of a daughter of a cohen to a non-cohen, or the marriage of a yisraelit to a cohen, change matters regarding the aliyot that she should receive?

Also, what appellation should be given to a woman who is the daughter/wife of a cohen?

Finally, is there any difference between the law as applies for the daughters of cohanim and those of leviim?



This is an untidy issue for Masorti jurisprudence. We are caught, as a movement, between one ancient tradition that gives special honour to a select few and the desire to honour all, a tradition that has ancient roots, but is also shaped particularly by a contemporary understanding of the role of women. Moreover, we are standing on thin ice in the search for Rabbinic authority on which to rely, the tradition not having dealt systematically with the issue of giving women aliyot until 1955.


The two leading treatments are by Rabbi Joel Roth in a paper accepted by the American CJLS[1] (which suggests that women should receive first aliyot) and a paper by Rabbi Raphael Harris accepted by the Israeli Vaad Halacha (which suggests they should not).[2]


The Cohen and the First Aliyah (As Applied to Males)

Mishnah Gittin 5:8 reads,


The cohen reads first, the levi after him and the yisrael after him, because of the ways of peace [mipnei darkei shalom].


By the time of the Shulchan Arukh it is settled that, ‘even if the cohen is an ignoramus, they still read first, even before the wisest scholar in Israel’ (OH 135:4). It is also settled halachah that one cannot call a cohen to anything other than the first aliyah, maftir or extra hosafot aliyot. The exception to this is in the case:


Where there is no levi in the Synagogue. Then the cohen who read first, blesses a second time in place of [bimkom] the levi. But you don’t call a different cohen, lest people say the first is flawed [pagum]. (SA OH 135:8)


This concern not to suggest that a cohen is flawed, or pagum, is an important feature in the laws relating to distribution of aliyot. The concern is so strong that the Mishnah Brurah even prohibits calling the son of the first cohen to read bimkom levi since one might think that the father married a divorcee or otherwise made profane the priestly standing of his own son (OH 135:29). There is, throughout the relevant material in the Shulchan Arukh and Mishneh Brurah, a concern not to embarrass anyone with genuine cohen lineage by giving them, or anyone else, an aliyah that might suggest otherwise.


The Rabbis use a number of verses to find scriptural authority for this claim. The most satisfactory claim is based on Leviticus 21:8, as understood by the Talmud Gittin 59b.[3]


And you shall make [the Priest] kodesh.

The school of Yishmael taught ‘make kodesh’ in all matters connected to kedushah. To open first [receive the first aliyah], to bless first [lead birkat hamazon] and to get first choice on the best portions.


Holiness, in a post-Temple Jewish world, becomes ‘going first’. This explanation stresses the connection between getting the first aliyah and avodat hakodesh – the work of the Priest in the Temple. The first aliyah, therefore, is some kind of zecher l’mikdash – a memory of the time of the Temple; however the extent to which this is the case will be addressed in more detail below.


The Status, Rights and Obligations of the Daughter of a Cohen

The child of any kosher marriage takes the status of the father, and this applies equally to sons and daughters. Mishnah Kiddushin 3:12 states:


Whenever there is kiddushin and there is no sin [in the coupling of father and mother], the child follows [the status] of the male [the father].

And who is this? This is a female Cohen, Levite or Israelite to a male Cohen, Levite or Israel.[4]


Therefore the daughters of a male cohen and a parent allowed to marry a cohen are considered cohanot (a Rabbinic term used, as we will see below, in the Mishnah).


But what does this mean in terms of the religious rights and responsibilities of the Priesthood? Rabbi Harris suggests there are no implications; that wherever the Rabbis discuss matters of cultic or ritual significance only the males are addressed. In doing so, he claims, they develop the androcentricity of verses regarding the Priesthood in the Bible. Numbers 3:15, for example, states:


Count the bnei Levi, according to their tribe and their family, count all the males from one month upwards.


It is clear that both sons and daughters of a male cohen are permitted to eat Terumah – special foods made available to the cohen and, as Leviticus 22:11 states, anyone born in his house. However, Rabbi Harris dismisses that this can teach us anything about aliyot since the right to eat terumah is entirely ‘relational’, i.e. dependent on her relation to her father and does not vest in the daughter in her own right. Certainly the way in which the Mishnah treats the daughter of a cohen’s right to eat other foods made available for the Priesthood doesn’t suggest her ability to eat them is in any way a special right that is her own.


The Thanksgiving offering and the Shlamim offering are light offerings … and they are eaten in any part of the city… The cuts which are raised up as a heave offering are eaten by Priests, their women, their children and their slaves. (Mishnayot Zevachim 5:5 & 6 conflated for ease of presentation)


Notice the classic Mishnaic triplet of women, kids and slaves. It leads one to consider that the religious idea driving the Mishnah is looking after those who cannot look after themselves (in the eyes of the Mishnah) rather than recognising any inherent holiness in the wife or daughter of a priest.


Mishnah Sotah 3.7 – while recognising the daughters of cohanim as ‘cohanot’ – nonetheless makes clear that daughters of cohanim have very different (and fewer) rights and obligations than their brothers.


What is the difference between a cohen and cohanot? …

Cohanot can profane their status [by marrying converts or divorcees], a cohen can not.

Cohanot is allowed to become unclean through attending the dead, a cohen can not.

Cohanot cannot eat kodshim [one category of foods given to the priestly class], a cohen can.


These texts and those like them leave Rabbi Harris inclining against upsetting the ancient primacy of the male-cohen in the context of receiving the first aliyah. Since, Rabbi Harris claims, the first aliyah is intimately related to Priestly service and since women didn’t do Priestly service, and especially since change might be perceived as controversial, he recommends shav v’al toseh – sit tight and don’t do anything.


How Close is the Relationship Between Temple Priestly Service and the First Aliyah?

Rabbi Roth suggests that if the contemporary rights and obligations of the Cohen were entirely contingent on being able to do Priestly service in Temple times one would expect that baalei mumin – those with certain physical blemishes who were prohibited from Temple service – would also be prohibited from the rights, and exempt from the obligations, of the contemporary cohen. But this is not the case. Baalei mumin are allowed to eat of the holiest sacrifices, they may officiate at the ceremony of the egel arufah, bless the people and must not defile themselves by attending on the dead.[5] This opens the possibility of the cohen having rights and obligations that are not contingent on their ability to do Temple service, but rather solely a function of their birth into the family of the sons of Aaron. This raises the question of whether the right to the first aliyah should be seen as such a right, or as a right contingent on the ability to do Priestly service.


Rabbi Roth has discovered a fascinating, and tragic, case which casts some light on this issue. A cohen, the victim of Nazi persecution, has been castrated. Can he get the first aliyah? Rav Oshri held that if there is no other cohen around, the man can since:


The elements of the priestly prerogative [including the right to receive the first aliyah] are not contingent on his serving at the altar at all, and even where a priest is not entitled to serve at the alter, as a baal mum, he nonetheless retains the sanctity of the priesthood and [he should be permitted to receive the first aliyah].[6]


All of which suggests that the right to the first aliyah is not as closely connected to Priestly service (and therefore is not as androcentric) as we might have thought.


When the Daughter of a Priest Marries a Non-Priest

Leviticus 22:12 states:


The daughter of a Priest - when she [marries a non-Priest] - should no longer eat the holy trumah.


We see a similar sentiment in the Talmud, Yevamot 87a, commenting on Numbers 18:19:


I have given you all these holy trumot, to you, your sons and daughters while they are with you.

Rava stated ‘with you’ only when they are with you [i.e. not ‘with’ anyone else].


This is very significant authority for the notion that a significant part of priestly rights, gained by the daughter of a cohen on birth, is lost on her marriage to a non-cohen. But it is too much to say that all the rights of the daughter of a priest pass on marriage. Some quasi-priestly rights persist.


Firstly we should consider the case of pidiyon haben – redemption of the firstborn. The ‘opening of the womb’ of a yisraelit woman must be redeemed by a cohen. However, if the mother was herself a daughter of a cohen (or levi) the child is exempt, regardless of the status of the father. Even the Talmud professes surprise at this.

But doesn’t the Bible say [we should consider the child] according to their families, their father’s house [a very common phrase, especially at the beginning of Numbers]. However Mar, son of Rav Yosef says the matter depends on the [status of the woman with the] womb. (Bekorot 47a) [7]


Secondly, there is the case of eating trumah bshogeg. If a non-cohen mistakenly eats trumah they have to repay to the Priest what they have eaten with a 20% additional fine (see Leviticus 22:14). But if the accidental trumah nosher is a Priest’s daughter who has married a non-cohen, she is exempt from the surcharge (Mishnah Terumot 7:2).[8] 


Matanot Cehunah – gifts to the Priests of the shoulders, cheeks and stomach – can also be given to daughters of cohanim even when married to non-cohanim. Ulla, one of the great Rabbis of the Talmud, specifically understood the relevant verse he should give them to the priest (Deut 18:3) to include women married to non-cohamin.[9]


The same is true of the first shearing of a sheep, also a priestly gift. As Rambam points out:


The first shearing is ordinary [hol] in every regard. Therefore I say that one gives it to the daughter of the cohen even though she is married to an Israelite, like animal gifts. It seems to me that one rule applies to both. (MT Bikurim 10:17)


When Rambam considers the first shearing ‘ordinary’ he makes a key point – namely that the right to these gifts is NOT connected to the ‘holy’ Priestly service (performed exclusively by males). This makes clear that there are some rights of the priest that can be considered ‘holy’ – i.e. intimately connected to Priestly service (and only open to men) while other rights can be considered ‘ordinary’, i.e. based on being born into a special family and, as such, a right that might apply equally to men and women. The question is whether the right of the first aliyah is a ‘holy’ or an ‘ordinary’ right accruing to the priestly line.


Rabbi Roth makes the claim that the right is ordinary; he claims that the collection of instances where the special treatment of a daughter of a cohen persists even post-marriage:


Makes it reasonable and proper for the Law Committee to decide that daughters of priests and levites be accorded the same aliyot that are normally accorded to priests and levites. This should be the case whether they are single or married. Their status regarding being called to the Torah should not be determined by the lineage of their husbands, but by their own paternal lineage.


The Teshuvot of Rabbis Roth and Harris

Rabbi Roth makes two claims: firstly that the right of first aliyah is ‘ordinary’ and not directly connected to temple service and secondly that there are enough priestly rights in the daughter of a Priest to allow us to consider that she should receive the first aliyah even after she has married a non-cohen.

With a certain amount of trepidation I am not entirely unconvinced by my teacher’s analysis, particularly as applied to a married woman.


On the connection between Temple service and the first aliyah, while the case of a baal mum is of interest, it does not, for me, trump the connection between Priestly service in Temple times and the notion of ‘going first’. (See the statement of the School of Yishmael, Gittin 59b discussed above.)


Moreover, while some vestiges of priestly rights do remain with the daughter of a cohen after her marriage, the examples cited above should be read narrowly and not as a general case. It is no surprise to see the focus on the ‘womb’ (mother) in the case of pidiyon ha-ben, particularly given other applications of this rule. The case of the accidental trumah nosher can be explained simply in terms of a concession to a reality – she used to be able to eat terumah, so if she makes a mistake in her married state there ought to be some understanding here. This leaves the issue of Priestly gifts, which is hardly a crushing precedent, certainly when compared to the far more general notion that a daughter of a priest who marries a non-priest is considered to have left the house of her father to join that of her husband.


I also have serious misgivings with the approach of Rabbi Harris. His claim that, in matters relating to religious ritual, there is no kedushah applied to the daughter of the priest goes too far, particularly in the case of the unmarried daughter. Furthermore, Harris’s recommendation, shav v’al toseh – sit tight and don’t do anything – is not a workable principle for a community where you have to make some decision about what aliyot to give women. It is wrong to claim that these women are not cohanot (at least until marriage) and therefore giving her a later aliyah is an affront and suggests a p’gamah or flaw in her priestly lineage, which I am unwilling to do. One could duck the issue by only giving such women maftir or hosafot (rarely distributed) aliyot, but this seems cowardly and is frankly unfair (might one even say an affront to darkei shalom – the ways of peace). That said, I consider Harris correct in claiming that the wife of a cohen has only a relationship to the cehuna and should not be considered a cohen in her own right.



None of this has any impact on the name by which a woman is called to the Torah. The daughter of a cohen is to be called X bat Y Ha-Cohen, regardless of who she subsequently marries. The reason for retaining the marker ‘ha-cohen’ has nothing to do with the status of the woman; rather it is a reference to the father. We can learn this principle from laws relating to the writing of legal documents, such as bills of divorce.


In our lands [when putting the names of a husband into a get] we write X ben Y ha-cohen, or ha-levi. This is also the standard regarding the father of the woman, we write [X bat Y] ha-cohen, or ha-levi even if [the woman’s father] has become an apostate. (Kav Naki, Seder Ha-Get par. 24)[10]


The fact that this statement appears in discussion of a woman who has been married makes it clear that the daughter of a cohen retains the honorific in her name regardless of who she marries. We can also learn, from this focus on the father of the person, that a yisraelit who marries a cohen does not pick up an honorific on marriage.



I would like to chart a middle path between Rabbis Roth and Harris. Daughters of a cohen do have some personal connection to the kedushah of their fathers and they should therefore receive the first aliyah while they are ‘with their fathers’, i.e. not married. However, if they marry a non-cohen they should be considered to have left the house of their father and entered that of their husband. The wife of a cohen has only a relationship to the priesthood and her marriage should not impact on the aliyot that she should receive. I should also state that I have seen nothing applicable to the matter at hand that suggests that the wives or daughters of leviim should be treated differently to cohanim.



Halachah L’Maseh – Practical Matters

  • The unmarried daughter of a cohen should be eligible only for first aliyah (as cohen), maftir and hosafot.
  • The daughter of a cohen who marries a non-cohen shall be eligible for the same aliyot as her husband, [11] though she shall still be called to the Torah X bat Y Ha-Cohen.
  • The daughter of a yisrael who marries a cohen shall continue to be only eligible for shlishi and subsequent aliyot.
  • The same rules shall apply to the daughter of a levi. With the exception that the daughter of a levi who marries a cohen does not become eligible for the first aliyah; rather she should continue to receive second aliyah, maftir and hosafot.


Rabbi Jeremy Gordon

St Albans Masorti Synagogue

[3] The other attempts are based on Deut 31:9, 21:5 and I Chron 23:13, but they need not delay us at this time.

[4] This explains why the child of a female cohen and a yisrael is considered a yisrael

[5] See Zevahim 101b, Sifra Deut piska 208, Megillah 24b and Sifra to Lev 21:1 & 6 respectively.

[6] Responsa Mi ma-amikim 2:7, p.41. My emphasis.

[7] See Bekhorot 47a tosafot DHM Mar, MT Bikkurim 11:10, SA YD 301.18. My emphasis.

[8] See also Emor 6:2, 97d, which explains the reason being that the daughter of a Priest is not to be considered a ‘stranger’ to terumah even after her marriage to a stranger.

[9] Hulin 131b; see also Rashi.

[10] I am grateful to Rabbi Charles Kraus for providing me with this source.

[11] This would also apply in the case of daughter of a cohen who married a levi. She would be able to receive the second aliyah even though the daughter of a yisrael who marries a levi remains a yisrael. Cohanim should correctly be seen as a subset of leviim, not a different grouping. Therefore such a woman leaves the particular (the cehunah) and enters the general category of her husband (in this case the family of levi) in the same way that the daughter of a cohen who marries a yisrael leaves the particular (the cehunah) and enters the general category of her husband (the family of yisrael).

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

The Torah of Cycling - Two Kinds of Obligation (A Rosh Hashanah Sermon From Long Ago)

I saw a post about the Torah and bicycles on FB and remembered I once upon a time gave this sermon, now up on the blog.


I am, as many of you know, a cyclist.

You learn many things on two wheels.

Most of all you learn how fragile a life is.

Every time I snap on my bicycle helmet my mind flashes back to an intensive care cubicle I visited as a Hospital Chaplain.

The patient was Jewish. As was his wife and two small kids. He had fallen off his bicycle, cracked his skull and was in a coma.

He died.

I think of that fragility when I click my helmet over my kippah.

It’s a good thing to remember on Yom Hazikaron – this day of memory.


Some time ago I read an article on why people drive Hummers – Hummers are the massive half tank/half-cars that you sometimes see, rarely it has to be said, in St Albans.

‘I like my Hummer,’ this woman was saying, ‘because it makes me feel safe. I’m up high and protected.’

But she is fragile, that Hummer driver.

Just as fragile as I am, you are, we all are.

We are all cyclists here,

We are all cyclists, with our fragile souls protected by fragile bones and maintained by fragile systems.


Back to the bicycle.

Matt Seaton writes on cycling for the Guardian.

He’s been cycling all his life, but several months ago he took the cycling proficiency road test and wrote about what he learnt.

Mostly, it was what he expected, and knew.

But there was one thing.

“I learnt,” Seaton wrote, “how important it is to look over one’s shoulder when cycling.”

To look at the cars behind.

What was so interested Seaton about this instruction was not the notion that cyclists need to know if there are cars behind them.

For indeed us cyclists can hear the cars.

What was interested Seaton was that the reason given for looking behind, as one cycles along, is to make sure that the drives see you.


The idea being, of course, that when a car driver sees your face, they encounter your fragility, and then he or she can’t run you over.

They can’t forget you.

And all of a sudden they are obligated to give you just a little more space, between you and the gutter.

If a driver sees my face, sweaty and short of breath,

He, or she, starts to shift a little uneasily, even in their Hummer.

They are forced to recognise a fetter on their freedom, a call on their actions, an obligation, a Mitzvah.


I want to talk, today, about Mitzvah.

It’s a notion that we are in danger of forgetting, in these times.

Earlier this year I was invited to go class to class at Clore Shalom, a local Jewish school where a number of our members attend.

It was Purim time, I volunteered to speak about the mitzvot of Purim.

I started by asking, in class after class, for a definition of mitzvot.

Hands went up in the air and class after class

I was told mitzvah meant a nice thing to do for someone.

I was told mitzvah meant being kind.

It doesn’t, of course.

Mitzvah means obligation.

Two types of obligation – obligations between ourselves and our fellows – mitzvot ben adam lchavero

And obligations between ourselves and our world, between ourselves and our God – mitzvot ben adam lmakom.



The word threatens to make us stutter over its harshness, in our oh so modern age.

Who wants to be obligated?

I want to be free.

Or, to give it a more posh-term, ‘I want to be autonomous.’

I want to drive around in my Hummer, so high and so gently cushioned by expensive suspension, that I can forget what is crushed underneath my comfy tires.

By the way, I’m not specifically interested in people who drive big 4x4s today. We all like our metaphorical Hummers – our escape capsules from the world.

Our metaphorical Hummers might be i-pod headphones used to block out the noise of the street, or the selective deafness we all conveniently develop in order not to hear those voices that distract us from our own private self-interest.

Selective amnesia

We all want to drive around in Hummers – immune to everyone and everything.

And yet we are all cyclists – desperately hoping those who have the power to run us into the gutter will see our face, recognise our fragility and feel a sense of obligation towards us.


See my face,

Feel an obligation.

Be dragged out of your Hummer.

The great Jewish philosopher, Emanuel Levinas made a career out of writing about the impact of seeing another face, of engaging with the mortality of the soul in your line of sight.

‘The first word of the face’ says Levinas, ‘is the ‘Thou shall not Kill.’ It is an order. There is a commandment in the appearance of the face, as if a master spoke to me.’[1]


But there is more than a mere obligation not to kill.

There is more than the mitzvah- lo tirtzach  ‘Thou Shall Not Kill’

When one becomes aware of the other, it calls many things into question.

Says Levinas

‘One has to respond to one’s right to be because of one’s fear for the Other. My being in the world, or my place in the sun, my being at home, have these not also been the [taking’ of spaces belonging to the other man whom I have already oppressed or starved or driven out into a third world; are they not acts of repulsing, excluding, exiling, stripping kidnapping?’


If that language is a little high-falutin’ how about this.

‘My entire philosophy,’ wrote Levinas, can be summed up in the phrase, après vous monsieur

I put your needs before my own.


Everything we do in our life results in us picking up obligations.

Indeed in choosing to speak, today, about mitzvah, I am responding to a call, made by the new Chancellor of my Seminary in New York, Professor Arnie Eisen.

Chancellor Eisen has called on every ordained Rabbi of the Jewish Theological Seminary, to speak about this most important subject, on this most important day.

 An obligation.


Everywhere we go, everyone we meet, imposes obligations upon us.

How about these obligations, from Robert Fulghum’s charming book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten?


1. Share everything.
2. Play fair.
3. Don't hit people.
4 .Put things back where you found them.
5. Clean up your own mess.
6. Don't take things that aren't yours.
7. Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.
8. Wash your hands before you eat.
9. Flush.


Mitzvot ben adam lchavero – obligations between a person and their fellow come in so many shapes and forms.

There are so many things to protect, so many people to take care of.

We live in a web of connections, all the different aspects on our existence jostling one another, making claims on our selective amnesia.

Every time we try to disappear in our metaphorical Hummers, all our history and biography and experience reminds us that there are cyclists on the road, fragilities and responsibilities that weigh upon us even as we go to sleep and certainly when we go on our way.

And the quality of a life can be measured by how we respond to these obligations.

To live well in this world means accepting these obligations with all our heart, all our soul and all our might.


And you shall repeat these words to your children and speak of them, when you lie down in your homes and when you go on your way.


For among the jostling identities we all share, in this very special community, on this very special day, is our identity as a Jew.

And this is what brings us to our obligations before God – the mitzvot ben adam lmakom

To live well, in this skin, with this soul granted to us, we need to respond to this call too.

We need to remember our identity; call it to mind and allow it to tug us out of our metaphorical Hummers.

We need to remember the day God promised Abraham that his offspring shall be as numerous as the stars of the heavens.

We need to remember the moment we were freed from Egypt.

We need to remember the day we stood on the foothills of Mount Sinai and heard the words ‘I am the Lord Your God.’


These are desperately important things to remember for two reasons,

Firstly because this chain of memory is stretched thin in this day and age, and for many of us, sat here today, it is in danger of snapping, of disappearing into nothing more than a vague appreciation of chicken soup and klezmer.

This keeps me awake at night, but, of course, it’s no reason, in itself for sticking with this 5000 year old tradition.

No the real reason it is important to give Mitzvot time and space in our lives is that they connect us to the deeper part of our selves. They connect us to our past and they allow us to find a way to stand in the face of the Universe.

Our Mitzvot give us a way to respond to the extraordinary gift of our own creation.

How does a Jew say thank you? When we wake in the morning we are obliged to say modeh ani lephanecha – and we claim that this works.

How does a Jew respond to the extraordinary contemporary abundance of food that means, radically, that starvation is simply an unknown in our community? We eat Kosher and when we have eaten and been sated we bless. As it says in the Torah – vachalta v’savata uverachta – and we claim that this works.

How does a Jew respond to simply being alive and being able to live free of the trials of  slavery?

We eat Matzah and, and this is the greatest and most powerful insight in our glorious faith, we keep Shabbat – and we claim that this works.


As the Good Book says

Remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and with a stretched out arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.


It is the Shabbat that is at the heart of everything, for us as Jews.

A response to the miracle of our freedom.

A response to the miracle of our creation.

Remember the Sabbath day; six days you shall do all your work, and the seventh day is a day of Sabbath and re-ensoulment.

Uva yom hashvii shavat vayniafash - the seventh day is a day of Sabbath and re-ensoulment


Six days you shall run, like a hamster on a wheel, putting food on our plates and earning the necessary crust with which to pay for the car, the new clothes, the mobile telephony and the broadband exchange router.

But on the seventh day you shall be re-ensouled.

You shall stop, breathe, and take in the company of your fellow human beings face-to-face.

On the seventh day you shall stop, and thank God.

And we claim that this works.


Don’t do it because you want to, or because you enjoy it, or because your parents or kids expect you to.

Do it because it is a Mitzvah, an obligation.

Do it because, as a Jew you are prepared to claim God demands this Mitzvah of you.

Do it because you are obliged, you owe it to your past and to your future, to your ancestors and your descendants and to God.

Do it because you are prepared to claim that this works.

And in so doing you will lift the Shabbat far far away from being a day off.

You will turn a normal day into a day of re-ensoulment.

You will turn it into a moment to stand before your creator with pride.


Many years ago, when I was just starting to think about my own Jewish journey I was davening with some friends on a Friday night, it was summer time.

We were all singing away,

Singing these wonderful tunes, rocking away.

And I realised that there was a twig that I was brushing again, it was catching my sleeve as I sung and rocked back and forward.

How annoying.

I went to break it

And then I remembered that there is a Halacha – a law – against breaking twigs on Shabbat.

And I paused.

And I remembered that on Shabbat I don’t get to boss the Universe around the same way I would the other six days of the week.

And I took a step away, and left the twig where it was.

It was a tiny moment.

But it has stayed with me as a moment when I let my ego - my desire for instant gratification – go a little.

And, as I did so, this moment of stepping back from breaking the twig, I felt myself folding into the tradition of my parents and my ancestors, back through my great grandparents in London’s East End, back through their ancestors in the Shtetls and cities of Eastern Europe and back still further, back to Sinai.

A little thing like not breaking a twig can have that power.

More power even than a Hummer.

That is the power of the Shabbat.

That is the power of a day of re-soulment.


So homework.

Yes there is homework.

Two pieces of homework.

The first is about cycling. It is about mitzvot ben adam lchavero – obligations between people.

The first piece of homework is to look at someone and be moved by what happens when you see their fragility.

Allow yourself to be moved, to feel obliged.

And respond.

It could be a photo of a bedraggled stranger in the papers, allow yourself to be obliged to send some money. For you shall not wrong the stranger for you were strangers in a strange land.

It could be a work colleague, a lover, a friend.

Anyone who needs a hand, a hug, a gesture of support.

As Robert Fulghum would put it; do something to meet the obligations we learnt in kindergarden

1. Share everything.
2. Put things back where you found them.
3. Flush

I’m not so serious about the ‘flush part’

But place another person’s needs before your own.

Know that they are fragile and you have the power and therefore the obligation to support them.


‘My entire philosophy,’ wrote our philosophe de jour Emmanuel Levinas, can be summed up in the phrase, après vous monsieur

I put your needs before my own.

This is the first piece of homework.


The second piece of homework is about mitzvot ben adam lmakom – obligations between a person and cosmos.

Looking back over my sermons these past four years I have had the merit to serve this special community I see I have talked about Shabbat from this pulpit many times. But I have no greater message to offer than this.

Keep Shabbat and save your life.

Save it from being swallowed by the humdrum and the profane.

We all need saving.

Light a candle, light two.

Leave the wallet behind.

Don’t answer e-mail.

Anything to rescue this most special of days.

Anything to respond to the mitzvah, the obligation, to shomer et yom hashabbat – observe the Sabbath day.


First - Apres vous monsieur - I put your needs before my own.

Second - Shomer et yom hashabbat – observe the Sabbath day

Because this is how we respond to the obligations of our life.

Because this is what is means to acknowledge that we are bound, obliged, by our Mitzvot.

Because this is how we come to deserve and even how we earn the sweet, healthy and happy year for which we pray.


Shannah Tovah

[1] ‘Ethics as First Philosophy,’ in The Levinas Reader, ed. Sean Hand pp75-88.

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