Tuesday, 14 October 2014

This is how the story ends

 

Finally, we come to the end of this glorious run of Moed – sacred time.

 

Depending on how you’ve been counting we started at the beginning of Succot. Or maybe we started at Rosh Hashanah, or maybe Slichot – the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah, or maybe seven weeks ago on the New Moon of the month of Elul, when we first started to blow the Shofar. Personally Tisha B’Av is always an important moment when my thinking around the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons steps up a gear – that was ten weeks ago. Tisha B’Av is, of course, the end of its own mini cycle, that begins with the fast of Tammuz and certainly there is a run of Haftorot that began thirteen weeks ago.

 

Then, of course, Sukkot really marks the end of the harvest cycle, that’s a cycle that began with Pesach, over half a year ago. Finally, Simchat Torah itself marks the end of a yearly cycle that began, exactly a year ago. And as bring this journey to a conclusion we start off again, we will be reading Bereishit this Friday morning, and on Shabbat. I always feel touched by the etymology of the word we use to describe the prayerbook we use on Festivals – Machzor. The root comes from the Hebrew word to return, to be cyclical, to be in the moment of recycling.

 

But there are two special moments in the coming days when this rolling, recycling wave comes to a pause, and they both deserve observance.

The first is this Wednesday night Thursday morning when we mark Shmini Atzeret – Atzeret literally means an end. It is a festival without Lulavim or Matzah or even cheesecake. It is a moment of pause, perhaps it’s fitting that Shmini Atzeret’s most notable liturgy is Yizkor, emptiness also that deserves its moment. It’s always a special day, it feels mature, unforced and genuine.

Then on Friday morning comes the pause in our journey through the Torah cycle. We come to the end of Deuteronomy, symbolically turn the Torah over, and then begin again. In that turning over there is a pause, a reset of the clock our spiritual lives. We bury Moses and meet, again, Adam and Eve and the possibilities of our future open before us once again.

 

May we finish this journey well, and start anew our next journey with even more purpose and energy,

Moadim L’Simchah

Chag Sameach and
Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Jeremy

 

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

It's autumn, so sudden, it must be that Yom Kippur is behind us.

 

To everyone who supported our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in any way, from children’s services to security, to choir and on the list goes – my grateful thanks.

It was a very special time to be part of the community. If you have any feedback, please do let me know, it’s always good to look for ways to do better.

 

A number have asked for copies of my sermons, they are all on-line; http://rabbionanarrowbridge.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/hhd5775

 

And so Succot beckons.

The irony of preparing to go outside just as the weather turns is actually the very heart of the festival. We are supposed to encounter the real-world, as well as shelter ourselves from it. We are supposed to feel the dip in temperature, as well as turn on the central heating. Succot as a Festival and as a physical object holds both the fragility and the promise of comfort together, as the Mishnah teaches, we are supposed to ‘make our temporary permanent and our permanent temporary.’ The Halachic stipulation is that that a roof of a Succah must provide more shade than light is let in, but also advises that the roof should not be so thick as to make seeing the stars impossible.

It’s a Festival about the balance between the secure and the insecure, the comfort and the discomfort, the temporary and the dwelling. I think that’s why I love it so.

 

I look forward to celebrating it with you,


Chag Sameach,


Rabbi Jeremy

 

Posting Some Chassidic Drashot on Succot

Rabbi Naftali Zvi Horowitz,

Zera Kodesh, Ropczycer Rebbe, d. 1827

 

In Succot the Children of Israel dwelt

So we find that our teachers read that the shade of the Succah is the shade of faith [tsela dhimanuta], and we are forced to say that the word tzel only applies to one who doesn't sit right under the shady thing but rather at a little distance from it. One who sits right next to a tree and the shade of the tree is spread out over him; it's not the same as one who sits under a tree. So too here as one says, 'underneath the Succah' and this is to teach us something based on what our teachers said 'God is your tzel' just as every action of a person is also acted out by his tzel,it also appears that every action of a person awakens something Above.

 

And this is the idea of the Succah we make; it is a paradigm of the upper Succah. And this is the idea of the upper Succah of the very, very Upper Aboveness; the Upper nezTZELet mimaTZIL, May God's Name Be Blessed. And there is no screen distinguishing between that and the maTZIL of the light of the Blessed Ain Sof. For there is nothing between the Creator and the Created.

 

And the light which comes from the aspect of the Upper Succah which is only a little different from the light of the Ain Sof, as mentioned above, which can be seen from underneath that Succah. And in this way we make a Succah and it is like the tzel from the Upper Succah which is roofed with a schach which is not entirely thick like the ceiling of a house, and it's not a screen which entirely separates off from the air of the heavens like the ceiling of a house. Rather it's like a screen that makes a partial separation so the stars and the air of the heavens can be seen from it. And the remez that the stars should be visible through the schach is that star [כוכב] has the same Gematria as 26 + 22, for the Name is the inner aspect of the letters through which revelation occurs.

 

--

 

Sefat Emet

Yehudah Aryeh Leib, the Second Gerer Rebbe (1847 – 1905)

 

The Sukkah is like a Chuppah, marking the marriage of man and wife, 'For I caused Israel to dwell in sukkot when I took them out of the Land of Egypt' [Lev 23:43]. At the Exodus from Egypt Israel were mekudeshet to God as it says, I am the Lord who sanctifies [nikdashti] you, who brought you forth from the Land of Egypt to be your God.' [Lev 22:32]

There is a claim to be made against this: why should Israel be selected from among all creatures to be God's own possession? 'For all his possessions he made succot' [Gen 33:17, referring to Jacob]. It is also written 'who spreads out [pores] a sukkah of peace' [Liturgy]. The word pores also means 'to divide' or to 'choose a portion.'

God is wholeness itself. Why then did He choose a fragment of something? Scripture answers, 'I dwell with the lowly and those of humble spirit' [Isaiah 57:15]. The Zohar adds that a person with a broken heart is indeed whole [shalem]. This in fact is to be said in God's praise, wherever He dwells there is wholeness, He makes a whole out of a half.

This is the real meaning of 'who spreads a sukkah of peace.' The inner point that is everywhere wholeness, Israel represents this among God's creatures. On Sukkot 70 bullocks are offered for the seventy nations. The water libations are also interpreted by the Talmud to mean that Israel should pray for God's Kingdom to spread over all Creation. This is the meaning of 'Do not be life a servant who serves the Master only to receive a reward.' [Pirkei Avot].

 

--

 

Mei HaShiloach,

Mordechai Yosef Leiner, The Ishbitzer Rebbe, d. 1854

 

Deuteronomy 30:10

And Moses commanded them, saying, At the end of every seven years, in the time of the year of release, in the Feast of Booths, when all Israel has come to appear before the Lord your God in the place which he shall choose, you shall read this Torah before all Israel in their hearing.

 

It is said in the Gemara, RH 12b, 'What does the festival of Succot have to do with the Shmitta year? Succot, following Rosh Hashanah is already in the eighth year?! Yet all the produce that has grown during the seventh year, you treat it the same way in the eighth as you would have in the seventh.' [i.e. you have to tithe in the eighth year according the size of the harvest in the eighth year, you can't knock off some of the tithing because you weren't farming the crop in the Shmitta year.]
This is according to the verse, 'The heavens are the heavens of God and the earth was given to bnei adam.' This is just the way it seems. But it is well-known that all the actions of a person, even though the power of choice was given to humanity, are as insignificant as a peel of garlic. This is why we say on the first day of the week 'the earth is God's and its fullness' [Psalm for the day on Sunday]. The point of the Sabbath is to know that humanity has no real power, for the 39 forms of work created in the world, with which a person can do what they want are prohibited on Shabbat. But when the weekdays start, and work is again permitted, God forbid that a person say, 'my strength and the power of my hands have got me this wealth' (Deut 8:17). Therefore our sages established that say immediately after Shabbat, 'the earth is God's and its fullness.'

So too with Shmitta, the Torah commands that the earth is God's and all its fullness. Then when the eighth year comes, ploughing and sowing again becomes permitted. In order that we can reap from the land without saying, God forbid, 'my strength and the power of my hands have gained me this wealth,' the produce that was not brought as a tithe in the seventh year, 'you treat it also in the eighth year as you would have in the seventh,' in order to remember that, 'the earth is God's and it's fullness.'

 

Friday, 3 October 2014

Kol Nidrei 5775 - Ancestry and Les Temps Perdu

Ancestors, Descendants and the Search for Temps Perdu
I blame Proust. It was Marcel Proust who made such a great case for the romantic appeal of memory. Proust's greatest memory is of little biscuits dunked in tea. Ah - on a fast day, remembering food - I hope you aren't feeling hungry yet - a long way to go.
For Proust this taste had a power to evoke that, I'm pretty sure, isn’t a power we, as Jews, should rely on.
In fact even the title grates on me, somewhat, tonight of all other nights.
A la recherche du temps perdu.
Seeking that lost and gone.
It grates because, I think, this is how too many of us see our Judaism; a temps perdu. They are gone, those times, capable of evoking warm memories but definitely not coming back. It's not that I mind seeking out familiar evocations of a past, but I'm more interested in how I live today. I get nervous when engaging with a Judaism that is overly reliant on warm fuzzy memories of long ago. It replaces the true call of Judaism – to do what is right – with a call to do what is cozy.
Chicken soup is cozy. There's a tune or two that evokes in our souls a memory of our ancestors in ancient times - Kol Nidrei and all that jazz. There's a slightly morbid fascination with those of our co-religionists who dress like the Polish nobility of 200 years ago, but we gaze in on the black-coats, and sup the soup, secure in the knowledge that neither has anything to teach us about how we live our lives today. We look in on the frummers with our head cocked slightly to one side; they don't really believe all that do they? Meanwhile we congratulate ourselves on an intellectual sophistication that boils Judaism down to chicken soup.
Judaism in search of temps perdu becomes an exercise in the mathematical function of derivatives. What one generation did because they believed their Jewish commitment mattered, the next did even though they didn't, and the next did to remember the past, and the next relied on the occasional evocation - a nice bowel of chicken soup, and in a generation to come we will sup on minestrone.
So here comes my Kol Nidrei appeal, an appeal to all of us who consider this extraordinary multi-millennial narrative of ours passé and perdu.
The appeal is this – it’s not enough to be a descendent of a Jewish past, please become an ancestor of a Jewish future. Be a Jewish ancestor because the journey towards a Jewish future is necessary, holy and vibrant. Be a Jewish ancestor because our great history is not perdu, it's not even past.
Let me give you an example of what I mean by being a Jewish ancestor – actually it’s more than any old example, it’s the ur-example. This is the single thing that more than anything else awakens within us the possibility of being a Jewish ancestor. It was Ahad Ha-Am, the great poet of 19th C Zionism who said that more than the Jews kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.
Here's why you should take Shabbat seriously - and it has nothing to do with an evocation of the past.
Mohamed El-Erian was the CEO of a multi-billion dollar investment fund until January this year. Then he found himself trying to persuade his young daughter to brush her teeth - multiple times. He reminded his daughter that she should know from the tone of his voice that he was being serious. His daughter, El-Erian subsequently wrote, 'asked me to wait a minute, went to her room and came back with a piece of paper. It was a list that she had compiled of [22] important events and activities that I had missed due to work commitments. I felt awful' he continued, 'I got defensive, I had a good excuse for each missed event! Travel, important meetings, an urgent phone call. But it dawned on me that I was missing an infinitely more important point.' El-Erian quit his job and is trying to find more of a work-life balance. Aren't we all? The point is that balancing priorities, relationships and obligations is hard work, regardless of your professional or domestic situation, frankly regardless of your religion.
I think we need two counter-weights to stop us being run ragged and emptied out by the competing tugs on our waking hours, our wallet and our emotional energy. We need a centre to ground us and we need to practice.
This is where Shabbat comes in. It's a perfect storm of a reset, a centering and an escape. It’s a reminder that we have responsibilities, a reminder that there are ultimate loyalties and then there is everything else.
25 hours without telephones, computer screens, or televisions. No shopping; 25 hours to cease to be a consumer - a data point. 25 hours to be human; a son a daughter, a spouse or parent - if we are so blessed, a grandparent even. 25 hours to remind ourselves of our humanity and our place in the universe. Have you never tried it, seriously I mean, more seriously than serving chicken soup? You should.
When we abstain from col melachtecha - all the work of the week - we plug ourselves into the core of our Jewish identity. It's not searching for a lost past, but rather in living our way into a Jewish future - we are doing the thing itself, we are not evoking a memory. By celebrating Shabbat, especially if we celebrate Shabbat with friends, family members, and strangers too, we take our place in a chain of tradition that stretches both back into history, and forward with every weekly engagement with the most vibrant, most timely and most powerful part of what it means to live as a Jewish Ancestor.
I should be honest on a night like tonight. Trying Shabbat is fine, but Shabbat only really works when it becomes both regular and central. Like any good thing in life it requires practice and commitment, it needs to be defended. Try making the lighting of Shabbat candles on a Friday inviolable. Turn down the party invite because you are doing Shabbat. If Shabbat is just another thing on the to-do list, taking its place among all those other tugs on our time and energies it won't work; it will disappear between your fingers like so much sand. Shabbat only works as a regular commitment but give it three weeks, three weeks of turning off the chatter and turning on the commitment to being part of a Jewish future, and let me know how it goes.
That's part One of why and that's how to be a Jewish ancestor - keep Shabbat.
Part Two - Synagogue, actually, what I really mean is this Synagogue.
We are fifty years old this Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur season. The Yad on the picture on your ticket points at the phrase the 'fiftieth year' as it appears in our Torah. I was hoping someone would notice, but sometimes you have to tell people about the sort of details that can so easily get lost. Let me share some other lost moments, overlooked, especially by some of us who weren’t here 50 years ago.
I've been re-reading the stories of the foundation of this community. As many of you will know this building had been sold to be turned into flats, and the demolition team were just about to move in when it was sold again - to become my Jewish home, our Jewish home. In an early edition of the New Londoner: Magazine of the New London Synagogue, Oscar B. Davis's address to our first Annual General Meeting is reproduced in full; here he is telling the story of moving into 33 Abbey Road.
"What we took over had been neglected for years, the roof leaked, the dirt was indescribable and even the Minister's Seat had been wantonly destroyed. [But] our members surpassed themselves, young and old [they] turned themselves into a brigade of handymen and Mrs Mopps."
I've flicked through the photos of our founder members on their hands and knees, sanding the floor. I've reread Shula Jacobs, zichronah l'vracha, sharing how she cried when she came into the Synagogue finally ready to welcome a community. I've read Rabbi Louis Jacobs, zichrono l'vracha, sharing, in his autobiography, 'It really did look as if this was an instance of direct divine providence, though, I encouraged my supporters [said Rabbi Jacobs] to be skeptical of any too close a theological interpretation.' Glorious times.
But I'm not saying any of this in an attempt to evoke a warm memory of temps perdu. If you were there I salute you and I'm grateful for everything you did back then, but I want to make a different point. New London Synagogue was not built to evoke a past long gone. It was built to create a home for a Jewish future, both for our own Jewish minds Jewish hearts and Jewish bodies, but also with focus on something bigger and broader – we wanted to change Anglo-Jewry, world Jewry. That was the job then, that’s the job now – even if you were a founding member – we are not there yet. Even the name is forward looking. New London isn't about being impressed with a bisel of yiddish, we are not, I am not, interested in offering an ersatz recreation of Reb Tevye's shteibel. New London cannot and must not be primarily concerned with the temps perdu.
New London is, and has always been about, an open Judaism, afraid of nothing, drawing together the very best of our tradition and testing it, again and again, in the crucible of contemporary experience and understanding. Is that why you are here, to feel the dynamic energy that bubbles up as Jewish tradition and secular modernity dance alongside one another? Are you here not just because of your own personal proclivity to do Jewish this way, but because you believe that in this dance there is something important, other, Godly even, not just for Anglo-Jewry, world Jewry, even all humanity? That's why I’m here – that’s the Torah I aspire to teach. That’s what I was trying to do over Rosh Hashanah. I'm trying to be a Jewish ancestor and I hope you are too.
Of course I'm a Jewish descendent, we all are. We all sit here today as descendants of the founders of this special community. And this space is beautiful enough, though the paintwork needs redoing, some of the plaster is coming away, the brickwork's a mess. We are in need of ancestors to vouchsafe our future. We've a big fundraiser coming up, at Abbey Road Studios no less. It's going to be a fabulous evening. The wine will be better than that served at New London Synagogue's first fundraising dinner when the menu suggests Palwyns was served to accompany the melon. Here's the reason to come to the fundraiser - come to pledge your commitment to being a Jewish ancestor of this very special community.
Oh, I know there are lots of other ways to be a Jewish ancestor that have nothing to do attending a fundraiser, nothing even to do with New London Synagogue. For example there's a big glossy £50m building just 2 miles from here - and I wish them every success - but they are in the business of chicken soup; evocations of a temps perdu. It's not bad, actually the restaurant is terrific. But it's not about being an ancestor. At New London we are doing something very different.
A couple of weeks ago I stood up here and watched as a member over there sobbed one kind of tears for their recently deceased mother and another member over there sobbed very different tears as their newborn baby received a first blessing. In ten days time we will, please God, celebrate Simhat Torah. And as we finish the last lines of Deuteronomy we will turn the Torah over and go right on with the first lines of Genesis. When we cry, at New London, we do it as both descendants and ancestors. When we dance we dance as both descendants and ancestors. It’s not an evocation of a temps perdu – it’s the thing itself, being lived out day by day, week by week on a bridge that connects the past to the future.
This is my call tonight, and I’ll have more to say on the matter tomorrow;
Be unsatisfied with a Judaism that is driven by a nothing other than the evocation of temps perdu. Be unsatisfied with a Judaism that is driven by nothing other than a sense of being a descendant. Be a Jewish ancestor. Embody your creation of a Jewish future through your engagement with Shabbat. And embody your commitment to a Jewish future by committing to the future of this very special community. In that way, please God, we will be blessed with wonderful tomorrows, and a wonderful year to come.
Gemar Chatimah Tovah,
A good year to one and all,

Yizkor YK 5775 - Three Ways to Face the Angel of Death


Rav Ashi saw the Angel of Death in the Shuk. He said ‘Give me thirty days and I will revise my studies’
The angel came again on the thirtieth day. Rav Ashi said, ‘What’s the rush?’
He replied, Rav Huna is close on your heels, he is to be the next head of the Academy, and no sovereignty encroaches on another by even a hair's breadth.’

This tale is one of three, from right at the end of the Talmudic tractate on bereavement. They all feature Rabbis from antiquity negotiating their relationship with the Angel of Death.

Oh, let me reassure anyone feeling too bothered by rationality to open their souls to tales about the Angel of Death – I don’t think there is a real angel with a scythe and a cowl – any more than you do. These tales are opportunities to look in the sort of places we usually turn away from. They are opportunities for our hearts to see that which our visual cortexes will never register.

So, here we are, with a tale of the head of the great Talmudic academy of Sura, Rav Ashi - who passed away in the year 427 of the common era, succeeded by his student, Rav Huna.

Rav Ashi is in the market when he sees the Angel of Death. He feels his mortality, no more than that, he feels his end coming with speed. He’s a man walking home after a particularly raw encounter with a physician in the knowledge that his full, active, purposive life is over, and all there is left to do is prepare for his end.
Remarkably he knows what he wishes for with the time he has left. He – a man who has dedicated his life to his learning – pleads for the opportunity to order his learning one last time. He’s the novelist pleading for the time to complete their last manuscript, the matriarch, who’s dedicated their life to raising a family, pleading for the time to attend one last wedding. He knows the values by which he has lived his life, he knows what will still matter when so much else has faded and the rest will just as surely fade now.

Is he like you, or me? Do you, do I, know what we would do with 30 days? What’s our unfinished project that, if only we could finish it, would allow us to feel a sense of completion in our life?

The pleading works. Thirty days are, indeed, given to Rav Ashi.

Ah, my dear rationalist friends, don’t you believe, haven’t you seen? Sure, sometimes death comes with no regard for our desperate desires to complete an unfinished piece of work. But so many times I’ve seen the other thing. A candle that continues to flicker until … just long enough to …
Maybe you’ve seen it too. So here’s my first question, on this awesome day on which we are asked to encounter our own mortality.

What would we do with the time we have left? What’s stopping us from doing that now, tomorrow. Don’t wait.

Don’t wait because the angel of death doesn’t have infinite patience. After all, we are all fading flowers, withering grass, dreams in flight.

The angel came again on the thirtieth day. Rav Ashi said, ‘What’s the rush?’
The angel replied, Rav Huna is close on your heels, he is to be the next head of the Academy, and no sovereignty encroaches on another by even a hair's breadth.

Oh I’ve seen this too. My grandmother of blessed memory, wanted nothing more than to be at my Bar Mitzvah, and she was. And the moment that was passed she announced she wanted nothing more than to be at my younger brother’s Bar Mitzvah, and she was. Then she wanted nothing more than to be at my youngest brother’s Bar Mitzvah, and she was. Then – having run out of Bnei Mitzvah celebrations – she wanted nothing more than to be at my wedding. Sadly she wasn’t.

What would we do with the time we have left? What’s stopping us from doing that now, tomorrow. Don’t wait.

Another tale.

Rav Hisda? The Angel of Death could never take Rav Hisda for he never ceased reciting his learning by rote. So the Angel went and sat on the cedar tree by the House of the Rabbis. The bough cracked. Rav Hisda stopped. The Angel took him.

Another encounter, another end, another head of the great academy of Sura. Rav Hisda died in the year 320 of the common era. And such a technique he had for avoiding the clutches of the Angel of Death.

Maybe he is the vitamin pill junkie who believes as long as we take multi zinc amino acid biofillus whatever we will escape death.
Maybe he is even the sort of person who believes giving Tzedakah, praying humbly and mastering Teshuvah will vouchsafe a year of health and vitality.
It’s not that mutli zinc amino acids or Teshuvah or Tzedakah aren’t good for us. They are. They are wonderful. But they guarantee nothing.

The problem is two-fold, firstly we are mortal, and none of us will live forever no matter how many pills we take. And secondly Death doesn’t play fair. Death plays cruel tricks, death is deceitful and foul. Death disregards poverty and wealth, death pays no attention to who is decent and who is cruel.

Rav Hisda’s encounter, for me, is about how we construct lives doing whatever we can not to have to encounter death. This Rav Hisda – who never ceased reciting his learning by rote - I’m not so sure it’s the greatest use of a life. I mean I love to learn but I’m not so sure about the utter immersion in recitation to the exclusion of all else. What about other people? What about life? My teacher, Rabbi Eliezer Diamond has written on this encounter. He suggests the Angel of Death sits outside the Yeshiva to draw Rav Hisda’s attention to the world, out there. Left to his own devices Rav Hisda immerses himself utterly in a hermetically sealed bubble of Yeshivah scholarship, but ultimately it is of no use. “Youhoo, have you noticed, Rav Hisda, outside there is autumn, the leaves are falling, winter is coming.” And Rav Hisda stops and the death takes him.

Maybe Rav Hisda is the person who works all day and all night, all week and all weekend just to …. just to do what exactly? Maybe he’s the person who works all day and all night because work is more controllable than the world outside with its annoying tendency to entropy. Maybe we all are this man, this woman, trying to control what we can, in the hope that we can stay alive without having to deal with the complexities of mortality. But to live well we need to engage with the vast breadth of everything life lays before us. To live well we can’t immerse ourselves only in that we can control. That is to confuse being busy with being fully engaged in life. That is to confuse staying alive with being alive.

So here is my next question on this holy and awesome day when we encounter our mortality.
Are we so busy staying alive that we forget to live?

This is the Torah of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes; there is a time to work, a time to learn, a time to love and a time to cry, a time to dance and a time to stare out of the window and watch the leaves become touched with the colours of autumn. To live well we need to live broadly. The opposite of this is to immerse only in those parts of life that seem under our control. Ultimately even the focus on what we think we can control will prove futile, but how much of our time is wasted on turning over the wheel, as opposed to focusing on life itself; our lives and the lives of our loved ones? How much of our time is focused on the sort of encounters that make our life richer – as opposed to our bank balance?

Are we so busy staying alive that we forget to live?

One last extract from the Talmud.

The Angel of Death could never overcome Rav Hiyya. So one day he adopted the guise of a poor man and came and knocked at his gate, saying, ‘Bring me out some bread.’ The Rabbi’s students brought out some bread to him. And the angel called out to Rav Hiyya: “Sir, don't you have compassion on the poor yourself? Why not have compassion on me?”
Rav Hiya opened the door to him. The Angel of Death revealed himself showing him a fiery sword, and Rav Hiyya yielded to him.

Death is playing trickster again, this time pretending to be a beggar. So the beggar’s needs are met by the Rabbi’s students, but it isn’t enough. Death wants more. Death always wants more. The beggar calls out the Rabbi personally, and when the Rabbi comes to show his caring for a fellow human being, the deception becomes apparent. My teacher, Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, sees the momentary threat of a face-off, death draws its sword. But the Rabbi yields.

There is something of our previous story here – the story of the Rabbi who kept death at bay by permanently reciting Torah. But here it doesn’t feel as though the Rav Hiyya is insulating himself from the world. He’s a busy man with students who seek to keep distractions away from their master, but he responds to the call of poverty. He is prepared to show compassion to the poor.
But death is such a slippery foe and when the Rabbi comes to the door to perform a sacred  act of charity – he meets only his own end.

I spoke on Rosh Hashanah of what Victor Frankl called the last of all human freedoms, the freedom “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” And this is what Rav Hiyya does in the face of the angel’s revealed sword. Of course it’s good to fight to stay alive, but not always, not in every moment. Here the Rabbi sees the drawn sword and knows there is only the one choice – to yield or to engage in the sort of bluff and counter-bluff of Rav Hisda or Rav Ashi. Faced with this choice Rav Hiyya yields.

This is the strength to accept the call to mortality once it has been received. Sure fighting for life is good. But here we are asked to acknowledge Rav Hiyya’s acceptance of death.

Here’s one last question.

Will we be ready when our time comes to yield? How will we exercise this last human freedom to meet the only end that awaits us all?

We can make fools of ourselves if we choose to pick a fight with death. Sometimes strength, courage and beauty are most manifest in a certain kind of yielding.
This is an extract from a recently published poem of Clive James, who has fought cancer bravely and is now facing his own mortality with a different kind of strength.

He wrote recently of a Maple Tree, and his own passing.

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:
Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
On that small tree?
A final flood of colors will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

This, I think, is what it means to yield before the unsheathed sword of the Angel of Death.

Will we be ready when our time comes to yield? How will we exercise this last human freedom to meet the only end that awaits us all?

Three questions,
What would we do with the time we have left? What’s stopping us from doing that now, tomorrow?

Are we so busy staying alive that we forget to live?

Will we be ready when our time comes to yield? How will we exercise this last human freedom to meet the only end that awaits us all?

These are my questions on this day, at this sacred moment when we face what death has taken from us all, and reflect on that which we will surely lose ourselves to a deceitful, never satisfied foe.

What would we do with the time we have left? What’s stopping us from doing that now, tomorrow?

Are we so busy staying alive that we forget to live?

Will we be ready when our time comes to yield? How will we exercise this last human freedom to meet the only end that awaits us all?

May we answer them well, and be gifted much time before we are called to account for our answers.

Chatimah Tovah – A good year


Neilah 5775 - Three Ways to be a Jewish Ancestor

Al Shelosha Devarim - Three Ways to be an Ancestor

Last night I spoke about the difference between being a descendant and being an ancestor.
It was a look into the heart of the meaning of the term – Masorti.
Limsor is the Hebrew word for passing something down from one generation to another.
So that’s who we are – who we should be – wandering along a bridge that stretches back into history, and stretches forward into a future forged of our actions and commitments – vchotem yad kola dam bo – and the signature of every person will be in it – as we davened earlier today.

Last night I suggested two ways of being an ancestor for a vibrant Jewish future. I suggested we take Shabbat more seriously. And I suggested we take being members of this very special community more seriously. I suggested everyone come and join us for our fundraiser at Abbey Road Studios in November.

OK, you are now up to speed.

I want to return to this idea of being an ancestor of a Jewish future. And I want to suggest three other ways to be engaged as an ancestor for a Jewish future. Three very easy calls that could transform even the most descendant focussed Jew into an ancestor of a Jewish future.

I grew up here, attended New London’s Cheder and prepared for my Bar Mitzvah – at which, at least as far as my grandmother told anyone who would listen, I did brilliantly. And then, more or less I stopped Jewish learning. These things happened. But it meant that while my French comprehension moved from 13+ to O Level, while my understanding of economics grew to a mighty A level, and while I studied Law at University, my Jewish knowledge remained that of a 13 year old; a little short of data, and significant short of sophistication. No wonder I didn’t send much time engaging Jewishly as a young adult, I had, as I now realise, perilously little understanding of what engaging as a Jewish adult might actually mean. At the heart of an engagement with being a Jewish ancestor is Jewish understanding, Jewish knowledge. Being an ancestor of a Jewish future means having a sophisticated understanding of what one is trying to pass on. So here’s a suggestion. A book club. Not to read Jew-ish books, not about chicken soup, but books that get to the heart of what it means to be engaged Jewishly in our day to day adult lives.

First up is a short one. 118 pages. Can you get 118 pages read by 15th November? Sure.
It’s The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel.
One of my favourite books. Written to try and explain Shabbat to a world-weary, overstressed American Jewry in the 1960s. Not so much has changed. 
It’s broadly available and we’ll take some time after services on 15th November to come together and unpick the ancestor-appropriate wisdom a wonderful writer and thinker extracted from an engagement with the single most important idea in Judaism.
I urge you to find a copy, read it, and to come along in six weeks or so.
Actually I urge you to read it even if you can’t come along.
We’ll start with Heschel’s The Sabbath and I’ve got some great books to follow. I’ll have the list on my blog and there will be more on the subject in weekly emails to follow. I hope you will join me.

A first way to be a Jewish ancestor, read Heschel’s the Sabbath by the 15th of November and come to shul to discuss it.

Secondly – turn up.
We are busy enough right now, thank God, but let me paint a picture for you. It happens at 8:59am on any given Sunday, or 9:14 on a Shabbat morning, or 6:29 on a Friday evening. It can even happen, God help us, on Second Day Yom Tov. There are a few of us dotted around the sanctuary and we are looking towards the doors at the back of sanctuary in hope. We are waiting for someone to arrive to allow us to come together in prayer.
Here’s how someone who thinks like a descendant approaches communal prayer – when you want to come you come. You arrive twenty minutes later than you planned because life just gets like that. You expect the carpets to be cleaned, the Cantor to be in fine voice and the congregation neatly arrayed just so.
And here’s how someone who thinks like an ancestor approaches communal prayer – you come even when you don’t feel particularly in the mood. And you come early enough so you can facilitate a need which is broader than your own. And if something isn’t quite right you see how you can be part of a solution that makes things better for others.

Turning up early, turning up more regularly is a training in how to cultivate a certain kind of generosity. It’s a training in meeting needs that begin with your contribution and expand outwards, rather than elevating our own needs to be the end-point of everyone else’s commitment.

Let me say that again, because it’s the single most important difference between an ancestor focussed Jew and a descendant focussed Jew. An ancestor focussed Jew sees my commitment as a means to meet the needs of others, both today and tomorrow. But a descendant focussed Jew sees everything else’s commitment as means to meet my own needs. And the difference between one and the other is turning up, earlier than your own needs mandate, and more regularly than your own needs necessitate.

Come on time for Shabbat morning, come on Sunday morning, Friday evening, come for Succot, second Day Succot even. If you really can’t get away during the week come in the evening. Let me be as concrete as I can. Come this Wednesday night – 6:29pm. Come this Thursday night – 6:29pm. Come this Friday at ... 6:29pm.
It will help us, as a Shul community be stronger and better able to foster a Jewish future for all our members, it will also make you a better person. Or your money back.

Firstly, read Heschel’s the Sabbath
Secondly, turn up, on time and more regularly to Shul.

And thirdly – be nice.
There’s an old story of the famous Professor of Ethics who was famous, most of all, for being brusque and a grouch. One day a bold student raised their hand in class to ask the famous professor, ‘Professor, how it is possible that you teach ethics, and yet behave so badly,’
‘What,’ harrumphed the professor, ‘if I taught geometry, you want I should be a triangle?’

I love the story because it perfectly illustrates the difference between an intellectual knowledge and what it means to be a Jew. Specifically a Jew orientated towards their Jewish life today and into the future.
You can’t be a good not-nice Jew.
Or let me be a bit more specific. You can be perfectly adept at being a Jewish descendant and behave poorly to your fellow human beings – you can have a Jewish identity predicated on chicken soup and evocations of a past and behave however you like.
But you can’t be a Jewish ancestor and be not-nice.
The reverse also applies. The nicer you become the more you create possibilities of other people becoming infected by your decency. Be nice and watch how people become nicer around you. Be nice as a Jew and you will create and foster a Jewish future for anyone fortunate enough to be around you.

This is the Rambam, in Hilchot Teshuvah, the first great instruction manual about the central work of this day now coming to a close.

Assur leadam lehiyot achzari - We are forbidden to be cruel, forbidden to be slow to forgive. Rather [demands the Rambam] we should be gentle, willing and slow to anger. And when one who has sinned against us requests our forgiveness, we should forgive with a levav shalem – a full heart a willing spirit. And even if the person has distressed us greatly, or many times, don’t be vengeful, don’t bear a grudge – vzehu darcham shel zera yisrael.
This is the way of the true Israelite.

Gentle, willing, slow to anger, quick to forgive blevav shalem - with a full heart. That’s what it means to be a Jew. Oh, I don’t think I need to be more specific than that, we all know what it would mean to be nice, even if we don’t always make it all the way there in every moment. I just want to urge us to reflect on how we react to not-nice behaviour, how it pushes us away and closes others down. We should strive to be not-that because it opens others up, towards the future, towards caring enough about this whole Jewish thing to strive to become an ancestor themselves.

Be nice.

Firstly, read Heschel’s the Sabbath
Secondly, turn up, on time and more regularly to Shul.
Third – be nice.

Test your Jewish commitment and engagement from this perspective. Do you always find yourself reliant on the commitment of others as a means to facilitate your needs, as Jew? That’s the marker of someone who thinks and behaves as a descendant.
Or, as a Jew, are you at least trying to meet the needs of others, both today and tomorrow. If you are doing that then we all have a bright Jewish future.
If you are doing that, to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, ‘Then yours is the world, and everything in it, and what is more you’ll be a Mentsch, my fellow Jew.’

We’ve been on a tremendous journey this past 24 hours. As the gates close it’s time to take one last opportunity to reflect on how this journey might have changed us. One last opportunity to commit ourselves to our future, one last opportunity to come together in prayer. May we do it well.

In so doing may we all be blessed for a year of health, strength and peace,
Gemar Chatimah Tovah – a good year to us all,

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Rosh Hashannah 5775 - Stephen Sotloff, the Binding of Isaac, The Last Thing and Adjust

This sermon is offered in the memory of Stephen Sotloff of blessed memory

Stephen Sotloff was murdered in the area under the control of IS, just a few weeks ago. You would have seen that photo, I’m sure, of a man dressed in orange, kneeling at the foot of a murderer. God help you if you saw the video and moving images, as well as still ones, are scorched on your mind.
Sotloff isn’t the only Westerner, and certainly not the only human whose life has been brutally cut short in the name of ISIS, but Stephen Sotloff was a Jew. You might have caught that in the news, and that truth scorched that image a little more deeply in my mind.
Stephen attended a Reform Temple pre-school in a suburb of Miami. You might have picked up a mention of the Synagogue’s Memorial Service attended by 700 friends family and local dignitaries.
You probably didn’t pick up anywhere that Stephen made Aliyah and studied at the IDC in Herzlia. That only made the Israeli papers after his death was confirmed.
Did anyone else pick up that Stephen Sotloff played rugby for a club in Ranaana?
I’ve been a little obsessed, trawling the internet in search of a possibility of shaking a particularly discomforting association from my mind.

Because the association that that photo triggers in my mind is a Second Day Rosh Hashanah association. I see a bound Isaac, kneeling at the foot of Abraham waiting for his fate; waiting for the stretched out knife. And I find nothing redemptive or comforting in that association. It’s not comforting to associate ISIS’s barbaric, pathetic justifications for murder with a story at the heart of my religious faith. It’s not comforting to associate the murderous ‘Jihadi John’ with Avraham Avinu. And there’s nothing comforting in the aftermath the encounter with an outstretched knife. In the Biblical narrative the next thing that happens is that Sara dies. The Rabbis suggest her heart couldn’t cope with the possibility that her son could have been killed.
My heart breaks for Stephen’s parents visited by the greatest nightmare that could ever befall a family. The strength it must take, simply to put one foot in front of another, is a strength I cannot and never want to know.

So this is what I did with the images scorched in my mind, and the discomforting associations that disturb me so. I did some Chavruta. I picked up the phone to speak with the Rabbi of the Reform Temple in the suburb of Miami and asked how he was doing. Rabbi Terry Bookman was gracious and generous with his insights and time.

What had he shared with the family, I wanted to know, ‘was there any contextualisation, and framing of their suffering that had made a difference?’ ‘Not really,’ he told me, ‘I just tried to be present in their suffering and focus on the practical things.’
‘And what about you?’ I asked. Was there any moment of wisdom, any Torah verse or Rabbinic idea that allowed the Rabbi to be present in this most holy and most painful Rabbinic work?
‘Not really,’ he shared again, ‘I’m not that kind of a Rabbi. I just try and offer myself as a rock onto which their tears can fall.’
He shared that the family is starting to think about what to do honour Stephen’s memory. ‘My job is to wait and support them as they think that piece through.’ he added. ‘There’s no body of course.’
‘Of course’ said I.
I’m sure there was nothing higher or more effective Rabbi Bookman could possibly have done for this grieving family. No pre-prepared A-B-C of comforting the bereaved is going to be effective in a situation like this.

But I still hadn’t got anywhere with these scorching images and discomforting associations.
I asked Rabbi Bookman about Isaac and that image. Of course he knows this story and its commentaries as well as I. The Torah never tells us what Isaac is thinking, or even what he understands about what is happening but Rabbinic commentary guides us to understand Isaac accepting he knows that his life is to come to an end and accepting this as his fate. We are called to recognise, in Isaac’s ascent of the mountain together with his father, a heroic strength, an archetypal moment of Gevurah; self-discipline and acceptance. Over Rosh Hashanah and particularly next week, on Yom Kippur, we repeatedly lay claim to the spiritual inheritance of this act. ‘We aren’t much ourselves,’ we intone, ‘but look what Isaac was capable of! Give us a break O’ God. Forgive us in the merit of Yitzhak Avinu.’

It was this poise in the face of the outstretched knife – this powerful encapsulation of Gevurah – that struck me so in the context of that photo of Sotloff’s murder. I’ve never seen a man kneeling stand so tall, head unbowed, undefeated even as he was overpowered, exuding strength and a life-force even as his life was ended. Perhaps a strength that can only be known in face of horrors the like of which most of us, thank God, will never know.

The Talmud[1] tells the story of the death of Rabbi Akiva, murdered by the Romans. He is burnt alive in the sight of his students, and as he burns he smiles. His students cannot understand the smiles and enquire. The Rabbi, from the flames, responds, ‘all my life I wanted to know if I could truly love God, even as my life was coming to an end. And now I know.’ Even at the point of death, perhaps most especially at the point of death, perhaps only at the point where any kind of variance of a severe decree becomes impossible, there is a might that can be displayed; a life-force that can be brought to bear on a moment.

My mind went to Victor Frankl’s extraordinary memoir of his time in Auschwitz, Man’s Search For Meaning. Frankl knew, knew so clearly, the savagery humanity is capable of, but refused to despair. He had this to say of the experience of the death camps, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms” wrote Frankl, “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” And through holding onto this last thing Frankl found a way to survive not just physically, but existentially. He found a way to hold to the possibility of living a life of meaning, even in the midst of murder.

This is the correct meaning of a much misunderstood line at the heart of our Rosh Hashanah liturgy. I know I’ve made the point here before but the line ‘Teshuvah Tefillah UTzedakah Maavirin Et Roah HaGezeirah’ simply does not mean that changing our life for the better, praying and acting justly will change a severe decree. The Hebrew grammar simply cannot be translated to suggest this, frankly, untrue oversimplification. Rather the Hebrew suggests Teshuvah Tefillah UTzedakah take some of the pain away from the decree – whatever the decree might be.
If you are going to die, you are going to die, says this awesome prayer. But
Teshuvah - If you die having healed any fracture in the relationships between you and your fellow and you and God it will hurt less.
U’Tefillah - If you die having stood honestly, and as a Jew, before the One Who Spoke and Created the World, it will hurt less. I will have more to say about Tefillah – prayer - later.
U’Tzedakah – And if you die having performed acts of charity and justice, it will hurt less.
I don’t want to die either. I don’t want the slightly fanciful notion of a severe decree hurting less because I gave some Tzedakah. I want to live, long and healthy and happy.
But Mi Yichiyeh U’Mi Yamut – Who will live and who will die? I don’t get to control that.
The only control I have is how I respond, how I meet the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Whether I stand tall even as I am forced to kneel.
Whether I smile as I understand that, though tested, I can still hold true to the values I hold dear.
Whether I continue to treat myself and those around me as creations in the image of God even as I face barbarity and woe.
Stephen, like Isaac back in the mists of time, never lost the power over the last thing we have to control – the ability to decide to stand tall even in the most horrendous of circumstances, even here there is this last thing.

And for that inspiration, for that charge which I accept when facing the, frankly, paltry challenges that cause me moments of weakness, Stephen Sotloff, of blessed memory, thank you.

And one other thing.
U’Tefillah – And prayer is held to be one of those things that sweeten the decree, even as we experience it.
It seems that Stephen Sotloff prayed, even during the two years of captivity that preceded his murder. The Israeli newspaper Yedidot Aharanot interviewed someone who spent time with Steven during his initial captivity in Syria. “Stephen used to pray secretly in the direction of Jerusalem,” the friend said, “He would see in which direction (his Muslim captors) were praying and adjust the angle.”
I find that an extraordinary line – he would adjust the angle.

Forgive me please, I’m about to unleash two assumptions about how Stephen prayed, one small, one large. In truth I have no idea how Stephen prayed, but go with me.

My small assumption is that Stephen prayed to be released, to be reunited with his loved ones and to carry on with the pursuit of truth that had been the marker of his life till his capture. It’s said there are no atheists in foxholes. Surely we would all pray for redemption if, God forbid, it were us. But you don’t need to ‘adjust the angle’ to pray for a release from captivity. In fact if what you really want is release, the smart thing to do is - nothing out of line, play nice, keep your head down. If God’s minded to release you from captivity God will hear your prayer whether you face Mecca or Melbourne.

If you adjust the angle, and this is my bigger assumption, you are trying to do something else. If you adjust the angle you are trying to hold true to yourself, even as so much is stripped away. If you adjust the angle you are trying to remind yourself of how differently you stand before God when compared to the murderous kidnapping thugs surrounding you. If you adjust the angle you take all the fear you must, surely, have of being discovered to be a Jew, an Israeli even, and nonetheless hold tightly to these most basic parts of your ethnic and ethical identity. If you adjust the angle you do so because you care about Jewish values and the way we, as Jews, understand our part in the world and our responsibilities towards our fellows and our Creator.

In fact, in so many ways, adjusting the angle is the very heart of what it means to be a Jew. When God first called Abraham to ‘Go,’ the first thing Abraham does is cross the river, to stand on the side. Jews have adjusting the angle and standing on the other side of the river for over 3,000 years. It’s interesting to consider the power of adjusting the angle on this Second Day of Rosh Hashanah. It takes that extra bit of commitment to walk away from work, from school, from the life out there. It takes that extra twist to adjust the angle away. As we adjust, we become more particular, more clearly rooted in our Jewishness. And it’s only in this adjustment that we align ourselves to our true selves.

This is a message I hear from Stephen, never heed the call to fall in line with everyone else. Never think that falling in line with everyone else will save us. It wouldn’t have saved Stephen. Instead, it is through adjustment that his integrity, our integrity, can shine through. It’s through our willingness to be different, to align ourselves with our faith and peoplehood, that we come most close to being truly alive.

Adjust the angle.

Remember that ‘everything can be taken from a man but one thing – the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’

And adjust the angle.

Do these insights alleviate my discomfort? No.
Do they bring Stephen back? Of course not.
Do they bring ISIS to their knees? Sadly no again.
But they might make me live better in my life, in Stephen’s memory and in his honour.
And if it might help you, then perhaps all is not lost.

There is always that one last thing, to choose our attitude in any given set of circumstances.
And there is always to opportunity to adjust the angle, so we stand before God on our own terms.

L’Shannah Tovah


[1] Talmud Yerushalmi Brachot 67b and parallels.
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