Thursday, 4 October 2018

Fackenhiem and Kristallnacht - Talk Given at the opening of the Weiner Library Exhibition 'Shattered'


I was invited to speak at the opening of the new Weiner Library exhibition - Shattered - on Kristallnacht.
Following some initial remarks, this is the body of my talk.

I want to talk about the survivor of Kristallnacht who has had the most powerful impact on how I think about the Holocaust - actually how I think about pretty well everything.

Emil Fackenheim was a post-doctoral student in philosophy in Halle at the time - Halle - the birthplace of Hayden - he writes in his memoirs - also the birthplace of Heydrich - the architect of the Final Solution.

In the afterword to a Festschrift in his honour - published in the 1990s he writes -

On 9th November, 1938 synagogues were set on fire all over Germany. Among the thousands of Jews carried off to concentration camps were my father, my younger brought and I: [Emil was taken to Sachenhausen for three months until he was released and managed to escape first to Scotland, then Canada]: in the big house in Halle, my mother was alone. Our family’s best friends, the Lewins, suggested that she move in with them, and this she did. Why, alone of all Halle’s Jewish males, aged 16 and over, was Curt Lewin untouched? He was protected by his neighbour, none other than [Rudolf] Heydrich, so that for several weeks, my mother lived under the same roof with the coldest, most ruthless, most systematic of all the destroyers.’[1]

I wanted to know more about  Fackenheim’s memories of that fateful night - and where better to come than the Weiner Library. Happily, you have a copy of his memoir - An Epitaph for German Judaism - on your catalogue. Rather unhappily the copy seems to have been lost. In a sad way, it’s a little typical. Fackenheim is remembered - if remembered at all for only one idea, in a book published in 1978. He felt that a book published 16 years later, about a much more powerful idea was the true distillation of over 50 years grappling with the thought-challenge of the Holocaust.

Here’s the problem.

Millions were brutally murdered, babies were thrown, alive, into burning pits. Kristallnacht, in its awfulness, was merely a taste of things to come. The list of horrors is unremitting and uncompromising in its awfulness, and if we - as human beings reveal ourselves of capable of such awfulness - and we have - what is the point of everything.

In this later and pivotal book, To Mend the World, Fackenheim quotes twice this passage from the great Christian existentialist, Soren Kiekergaard. He uses the same the passage again as the epigram in his reply to the articles published in his honour in the Festschrift.

Should we say, ‘There have elapsed now nearly two thousand years since those days, such a horror the world never saw before and never again will see; we thank God that we live in peace and security, that the screams of anguish from those days reach us only very faintly; we will hope and believe that our days and those of our children may pass in quietness unaffected by the storms of existence? We do not feel strong enough to reflect on such things, but are ready to thank God that we are not subjected to such trials.’ Can anything be imagined more cowardly and more disconsolate than such talk? Is then the inexplicable explained by that that it occurred only once in the world? Or is not this the inexplicable, that it did occur? And has not this fact, that it did occur, the power to make everything inexplicable, even the most explicable events.[2]

This is the problem of the Holocaust. If small babies were thrown, alive, into the furnace - and they were[3]... If the awfulness of Kristallnacht was only the precursor of what was to come - and it was... then what is the point? What is the point of any of it all? What’s the point of a Chanukiyah lit to remind Jews of their triumph in a military campaign some 2000 years earlier. What, frankly, is the point of a library to document quite how bad it was and whether it was Franz or Heinz who died on this day or that. Doesn’t everything, Fackenheim is tormented by the notion, lapse into in-authenticity when facing the Holocaust?

That’s a question to make you swallow hard.

Fackenheim suggests his problem is the ‘brute facticity,’[4] of the Holocaust - ‘A spectre haunts my thoughts [he writes] - the spectre of historicism.’[5]

Over there, in that corner, is a scrap of a report from a clandestine resistance organisation, smuggled out of Germany in a shampoo sachet. Does it matter - it didn’t help?
Over there, are the reports of the JCIO, carefully detailing the testimony of those who were there and personally witnessed the destruction of the Holocaust. Does it matter?

If Fackenheim’s first foray in post-Holocaust thought began with the question;

In the face of the Holocaust what should the authentic Jew do and why?[6]

Over the decades that followed his interests shifted to the more inchoate and more universal problem;

Can there ever be an authentic response, in the face of the Holocaust?[7]

To Mend the World is full of historical excurses into the Holocaust. But Fackenheim finds something truly precious in the rubble of the destruction of European Jewry. He finds the very building blocks of a response. Auschwitz brings us all to a halt. But it is not the end of our tale, rather, its beginning. As Fackenheim says;

It is at this point that our going-to-school-with-life … begins in earnest…And only in [the] context of [engaging with the destruction of the Holocaust] can the “central question” of our whole inquiry be both asked and answered.[8]

History provides not only the ‘Q’, but also the ‘A’.

Central to Fackenheim’s commitment to look to the dark places of history until the darkness becomes its own source of possibility. It brings, if not a downright epiphany, then at least its own reward. We have his record of the moment.

[While studying the story of Pelagia Lewinska[9]] I made what to me was, and still is, a momentous discovery: that while religious thinkers were vainly struggling for a response to Auschwitz, Jews throughout the world had been responding all along … with an unexpected will to live – with under the circumstances, an incredible commitment to Jewish group survival.[10]

The answer, claims Fackenheim, was there all along, waiting in history for someone to come and find it.

The evil of the Holocaust world is philosophically intelligible after Auschwitz in the exact sense in which it was already understood in Auschwitz – and Buchenwald, Lublin and the Warsaw Ghetto – by the resisting victims themselves… No deeper or more ultimate grasp is possible for philosophical thought that comes … after the event. This grasp – their grasp – is epistemologically ultimate.[11]

Lewinska, who discovered that in the face of Nazi de-humanisation she felt commanded never to surrender her humanity, becomes the model for the possibility of choosing a path of ‘faithfulness unto death.’[12] The Buchenwald Hasidim, who swapped FOUR rations of bread for a pair of tefilin, become the paradigm for the possibility of retaining categories of commandedness[13] in a post-Auschwitz world. Shimon Dubnov was the greatest historian of hasidism, at the time of the Holocaust. This is Professor Ismar Schorsch, former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary where I received my Rabbinic education,

No Jewish historian ever had a greater impact on his time than Simon Dubnov. He died at the hands of the Nazis in Riga in December 1941 at the age of 81. Because he was too frail and infirm to deport, they shot him in the ghetto. Those who witnessed the murder reported that Dubnov's last words were, "Jews, write it down." And they did, in Kovno, Warsaw, Lodz and elsewhere. In his spirit, Jews organized collective and clandestine efforts to record the terrifying faces of the Final Solution. Unarmed and unaided, they found solace in assembling the evidence that would one day convict their mass murderers in the court of human history. Dubnov died as he had lived, devoted to the power of historical consciousness.[14]

Fackenheim would say Dubnow - and those unnamed heroes who dedicated their lives, sometimes quite literally, to documenting the Holocaust from within the Holocaust - within the thing itself - did something else, they justified documentation as an authentic response to the brute facticity of the Shoah.

It’s not that these heroes of research and record thought that they could undo the horrors of the Holocaust, and certainly not that they didn’t know exactly what was going on. They knew the futility of their action and were aware of their all-but-certain-death; ‘they knew it, but they did it.’[15] This, claims Fackenheim, was holy, authentic and meaningful. And whereas before this epiphany we feared there could be no authentic response in the face of the rupture of such horror, once an archetypal reaction is discovered to be authentic the path is open for other possible responses. Notwithstanding the futility of life and the failure of piety and the certainty of death in our contemporary existence, we too are capable of achieving holiness, authenticity – even meaning.

My heart was struck by the wonderful testimonies, over there, and collected in that wonderful volume - honour to recognise the work of Ruth Levitt and so many others associated with the Library in its production.

Fackenheim uses a very Jewish term for the category of an authentic response to the utter catastrophe of the Holocaust. The term is Tikkun - it means to mend or repair, but he means it very specifically in the context of Lurianic Kabbalah

Tikkun follows Shvirah.
Brokenness - I wonder - and if you can find the copy of Fackenheims Epitaph to German Jewry, I would love to come back and check - I wonder if the brokenness of that awful night of broken glass close on 80 years ago may be more integral to the thought of this bravest of thinkers on the Holocaust than has been so far realised.

That brings me back to this wonderful Chanukiayh - the point about a flame is that it is fragile. We don’t light a flame at Chanukah - and the family of Helen especially - don’t light a flame because we know it is always going to be OK in the end. We light it, authentically, because we know of the fragility and the brokenness. And we still believe in the light that can be shed. For that authentic refusal to surrender to the awfulness of the darkness, of the darkness of that night - and the darkness of everything that followed - I gain huge succour. So to you all, thank you.





[1] P.254-255
[2] P. 251, attributed to Kierkegaard, Either/Or (1959) II pp 344 ff
[3] Cited in Emil Fackenheim, To Mend the World: Foundations of Future Jewish Thought (New York: Schocken, 1982), hereafter MW, p. 212. Op cit p.340 n. 15 offers a fuller bibliographic citation for this testimony.
[4] F. German Philosophy & Jewish Thought ed Greenspan & Nicholson, A Reply to My Critics p.276
[5] p.274
[6] The driving question of Emil Fackenheim, God’s Presence in History (New York, Harper & Row, 1970), hereafter GPH.
[7] The driving question of MW. This framework is based on Morgan’s “The Central Problem of Fackenheim’s To Mend The World” Journal of Jewish Thought (1996) 5:297-312 at p. 299.
[8] MW 23-24.
[9] Auschwitz survivor and author of Twenty Months At Auschwitz (London, Lyle Stuart Inc., 1968)
[10] Emil Fackenheim, The Quest for Past and Future (Bloomington, IN, Beacon, 1968) pp. 19-20
[11] MW p. 248.
[12] GPH p. 74, see discussion of Lewinska in MW pp25, 217, 219, 223, 229, 248, 302.
[13] Though the notion of commandedness is clearly central for Fackenheim he does not advocate the wholesale importation of pre-Modern Halachic norms into a post-Holocaust world. The notion that the ‘religious Jew who has stayed with his God may be forced into new, possibly revolutionary relationships with Him’ is a central tenant of Fackenheim’s self-claimed canonical statement of the Commanding Voice of Auschwitz, GPH p. 84. See discussion of the Buchenwald Hasidim in MW pp.218, 223, 229, 254 & 303.
[15] MW 266-267.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Yizkor - Philip Roth, Fleshy Existence and Life Everlasting


There are some wonderful people I miss. It’s been a hard year of accompanying members mourning in this community. And to those who have lost loved ones this past year, I offer, again, my wishes for consolation and comfort.

And then there’s Philip Roth. I never met Philip Roth. I don’t know if I would have liked him if I did. But he was - still is - one of the most powerful writers I’ve ever encountered.

Everyman isn’t one of his best-known works, but it’s the one that speaks most clearly today.

Everyman, is the name of a shop owned by the book’s protagonist. It sells diamonds.
We are told the shop’s founder, our hero’s father, chose the name ‘Everyman’ because he wants every man to feel they can buy a diamond, the father believes in diamonds.

‘It’s a big deal for working people to buy a diamond,’ the father tells his son, ‘no matter how small. When the wife wears it, this guy is not just a plumber – he’s a man with a wife with a diamond. Because, beyond the beauty, the diamond is imperishable. A piece of the earth that is imperishable’

Buy a diamond and become imperishable. Buy a diamond and live forever.
Everyone, says the shop-sign, Everyman, can do it.

Roth is, of course, playing with us.
None of us lives forever.
And the real truth of ‘Everyman’ is rather our inevitable mortality.
Just as the contents of the book chart not immortality but the journey of a man into death.
Mortality is the reality of ‘Everyman,’ diamonds or no diamonds.

So on this day, at this time when we stand remembering those who have gone before us, who have passed away.
We bump up against our mortality.
And I ask this question -

Of what purpose is life?

I want to offer two models.
The first is Roth’s prescription for the ‘best of life.’
The second is a more religious, Jewish way of approaching our own inevitable Everyman moment.

Roth is not a man of faith.
He might write like an angel, but when he looks to understand the question, ‘what purpose is life?’ he has nowhere, other than life itself, to go.
Roth’s Everyman thinks that the best that life gets to offer is the memories of the glories of our own temporary existence.
And in the most important moment in the book, Roth’s Everyman looks back on his own youth and speculates that the memories of youthful pleasures are ‘as good as it gets.’
This burst of memory is ultimate for Roth’s Everyman.

I want to share an extended extract from the book, a pivotal extract which expresses what is, for Roth, the very heart of existence.

‘Maybe the best of old age was … the longing for the best of boyhood, for the tubular sprout that was then his body and that rode the waves from way out where they began to build,
rode them with his arms pointed like an arrowhead and the skinny rest of him following behind like the arrow’s shaft,
rode them all the way into where his rib cage scraped against the tiny sharp pebbles and jagged clamshells and pulverized seashells at the edge of the shore
and he hustled to his feet and hurriedly turned and went lurching through the low surf until it was knee high and deep enough for him to plunge in and begin swimming madly out to the rising breakers
– into the advancing green Atlantic, rolling unstoppably toward him like the obstinate face of the future – and,
if he was lucky, make it there in time to catch the next big wave and then the next and the next and the next until, from the low slant of inland sunlight glittering across the water he knew it was time to go.
He ran home barefoot and wet and salty, remembering the mightiness of that immense sea boiling in his own two ears and licking his forearm to taste his skin fresh from the ocean and baked by the sun.
Along with the ecstasy of a whole day being battered silly by the sea, the taste and the smell intoxicated him so that he was driven to the brink of biting down with his teeth to tear out a chunk of himself and savour his fleshy existence.'[1]

The best of life, says Roth, is remembering the times we threw ourselves at the breakers, intoxicated with the ‘ecstasy of a whole day being battered silly by the sea.’ The purpose of life is its own ‘fleshy existence,’

It’s a sensational piece of writing.
But I don’t share the outlook on the best that life can be.
It’s too shallow, too selfish, ultimately too lonely.
I wish I could write even half as well, but I want no part in the theology.
Because I know there is more than this.
For Roth, savouring fleshy existence is ultimate.
And I claim he is wrong.
There is something more.

As many of you know, I practice Yoga.
I enjoy it, it’s good for me. It’s good for my Rabbinate.
But every now and again, I get a little jealous of my Yoga teachers.
Much of Yoga, like much of Roth, brings our consciousness to the ‘this world,’ to the now, to the moment.

And while I am twisted deep into one asana or another and while my teachers are busy instructing me to bring my consciousness to this moment and this world, I keep getting weighed down by all the Jewish stuff.
I reach my hands out towards the sun and feel weighed down by all the mitzvot, and the books, God help me, the books.
And Jewish books are heavy.

And the memories, they weigh even more heavily than the books; memories of ’73 and ’67 and ’39 -’45. And older than those memories, memories of ’92 - 1492 Colombus sailed the ocean blue and the Jews were expelled from Spain, and 70 – not 1970, not 1870, the year seventy – when the temple was destroyed.
And memories of Sinai and Egypt and the binding of Isaac.
My memories are heavier than my books.

And the mitzvot – the obligations – the whole fabric of thou shalts and thou shalt nots.
The more uniquely Jewish obligations of tefilin and kashrut and Shabbat and
The more universal obligations to my family and friends –
You shall honour your father and mother,
I am my beloved and my beloved is mine,
You shall repeat these words to your children,
- And the obligations to the stranger
You shall not wrong the stranger.
The obligations, the mitzvot – weigh heavily.

I’m a Jew.
I don’t travel light; I schlep with me my stories, my memories, my obligations and values.
It gets a little heavy, every now and again.

So after one Yoga class, I was feeling particularly weighed down and my teacher mentioned that their guru was coming into town. He was hosting an evening, would I like to come?
I Googled the guru.
The video clip twinkled into life on my computer screen and a white bearded cheery looking man spoke out
‘Live life moment to moment,’ opined the guru,
‘You need to let go of everything you think you know,’
‘The only way you will be happy and have fun is if you stay in the moment. One tiny thought about the past or future and you are lost.’
It was Roth speak.

I had been invited to an evening dedicated to ‘savouring our fleshy existence.’
And I was tempted.
It was, after all, going to be lighter than another evening with my books, my memories and my obligations.
I was going to go,
I wasn’t planning on giving up the Judaism thing, I just wanted to ease off on all this weight and ‘savour my fleshy existence.’

And then someone died.
A member of this community.
And instead of going to an evening with the Guru of ‘fleshy existence’ I picked up the phone and went to visit, to comfort – just like so many other members of the community – and, being the Rabbi, I prepared for the funeral and the shiva and all the weighty rituals that accompany the end of a life.
But they didn’t feel heavy any more.
They felt desperately valuable. For the family, but also for me.
For there we stood.
At the Cemetery at Cheshunt, this family – of relatives and friends, members of this community and other communities.
And we were joined, standing around the coffin, by all the memories.
And all the obligations; the Jewish obligations and the simple obligations.
There was an ancient Exodus, and a new-born grandchild.
And a husband whose love had stood firm through horrible illness.
And colleagues and friends and members of this Shul, and other shuls, and no shul.
And we stood around the coffin.
We stood around the life that had gone as if we were part of a mould, a cast.
A cast of a life – forming a structure, around the hollow where their life should have been
And together we carried the weight, a little unevenly, it must be admitted, those closest to coffin carrying most - but we carried the weight together.
The life had ended, but the weight was still very present.
As it is today.
And the weight doesn’t feel heavy anymore.
It dances a little, at least sometimes.
It tutt-tutts as we fall short of the values that we should be living up to.
And it smiles when we show each other the sort of kindness that our friend would have wanted.
And it makes me know that life has meaning beyond savouring our fleshy existence.
Reminding me that there is more to life than running after waves.
Reminding me that I am part of a narrative that will outlive me.
For long after the fleshy existence is over, the weight; the responsibilities and values, the stories will live on.

Defying mortality.
Defeating mortality.

And this is the Jewish way.
Our teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote powerfully about death.
‘Our hope for eternity,’ he said, ‘presupposes there is something about [us] that is worthy of eternity.’
I want to put it more strongly.

We get to live forever, we get to transcend death, if we live suitably weighty lives.
When we transcend selfishness, when we allow the needs of others to become our responsibilities.
When we live well in the shadow of responsibilities we inherit from our parents – to whom we owe our lives – and their parents and their parents.
When we fold our stories into the great cosmic journey of our people we get to live beyond our finite fleshy existence.

The way we live with our obligations lifts us beyond mortality.
The way we approach our obligations is our key to eternity.

We don’t need a leap of faith to reject Roth’s case for the supremacy of ‘fleshy existence.’
We need only to turn to the weight we carry with us, today, to this service of loss and memory.
We each arrive here today carrying the weight of memory of parents, friends, family, loved ones. And we are all heartbroken by their loss.
We are saddened, but we are also lifted.
The fleshy existence is no more – and we miss it – of course we do.
But the values live on.
We need only to turn to our own memories of those we have loved and lost to know this to be true. These responsibilities remain alive, in us, for as long we let them dance still.
As long as we live up to their challenge to do better, to care more, to love more deeply.
Our beloved dead live on.
And they challenge us too to live beyond our time on this fragile planet.
They challenge us too, to a life beyond our fleshy existence.

May that time not come for us for many years, but come it will, as it comes for Everyman.
And on that day, when our friends and families stand around our own coffin they will carry the cast of our fleshy existence, the mould made out of the values and responsibilities by which we are to be judged.
And, if we merit it, this weightiness will triumph over mortality.
If we merit it, this weightiness will teach yet again, of that which we know when we think of our own departed loved ones,
It will teach that while fleshy existence rots in the earth, our values and responsibilities will live forever.
And indeed this is the answer to the question of what purpose is there to our lives.

For the memory of our beloved departed is more than a blessing.
It is such stuff as immortality is made on.





[1] Pp 126-7

Kol Nidrei - Shabbat


Trying to become a better person, is a good thing.
Most of the time.

There was once a man, a stonecutter, and he wasn’t happy being a stonecutter. Every time the foreman would shout and harangue him and he felt this jealousness, so he closed his eyes, for just a moment and says to himself, ‘I wish, I just wish I could be a foreman.’
Poof – just like that, he becomes the foreman, and this is great. Now he is doing the bossing around, not for him the hard graft of cutting the stones.
But then the King arrives and demands the profits from the quarry and now our foreman is feeling miserable again, ‘Oh this is terrible, all my hard work, for nothing. And so he closes eyes, ‘I wish, I wish I could be a King,’ and poof, again. The King.
And this really is terrific, robes, jewels, a crown; servants to carry me through the streets of the city.
But it is hot under this crown. Goodness, I’m really starting to sweat. If only I were the sun, then I could solve all these problems.’ And so he shuts his eyes, ‘I wish, I wish’ and poof, again. Now he is the sun.
And that is great until the cloud comes and blocks out the sun. So he wishes to be a cloud, which is wonderful floaty fun until the wind blows the cloud.
So he wishes to be the wind, whistling through the trees, and that is fantastic until he comes up against a mountain, blocking the way of the wind.
‘I wish, I just wish I could be a mountain.’
Poof – and now, here he stands, a mountain, been here forever will be here forever, strong and sturdy and immovable.
Until, down in a quarry at the foothills he hears the chip, chip chip of stonecutter, cutting away at the mountain.[1]

Over Rosh Hashanah I shared, in my sermons, an idea and tried to unpack how it influences both our internal psychological, or spiritual state, our relationship with Judaism and, taking a broader perspective, should be influencing the world.
On first day RH I spoke about alterity.
On second day RH I spoke about truth.
Today I want to speak about an idea that is, perhaps, more important than either.
Here’s the problem;

We don’t know how to stop.
Going after more things seems to be the wiring of our souls.

Or maybe it’s not our souls’ fault.
Maybe it’s that we all live in a society where we are continually told acquiring more stuff will make us a better person, or a happier person, or a person of more value.
And those voices call us to gauge our success by the extent to which we hunger for more.
And, unless we police the borders of our soul we can get swept up in chasing after vanity.

Or maybe it’s the fault of the other voice that seems to crow ever more incessant in contemporary society; the voice of fear; fear of missing out, or fear of not measuring up to standards that are simply unreasonable.
24/7 no longer seems sufficient to detail the extent to which so many of us are expected to be ‘on,’ to be reactive.

I’m part of a FB group of Conservative Rabbis. One of my colleagues queried as to whether it was appropriate for a Rabbi to have an auto-response on their emails apologizing for not responding rapidly to emails at this time of year or whether that just looks like we are wasting time that could otherwise be productive.
And I’m more than aware that if that’s true for Rabbis, for those of you with jobs in the real world, the insistence that you are available and responsive 24/7 are even more demanding.

There are many things to blame for our working ourselves into spirals of dis-satisfaction and fear.

But this is Yom Kippur - it’s a day for us to take responsibility for our own decisions, no matter how much others might have enticed us.
It’s as if we think that at the end of our lives we are to be judged by the amount of stuff we have accumulated or the amount of busy-ness we affect.

Actually the Talmud[2] tells us how we are to be judged in the heavenly tribunal when our time does indeed come.
We can expect to be asked if we had fear of heaven, if we pursued wisdom - those sorts of things. But we aren’t going to be asked if we accumulated enough stuff. We aren’t going to be asked if we were busy enough.
Actually you don’t even need to know the Talmud’s lack of interest in the amount of stuff we accumulate to know the amount of stuff we accumulate is only so very rarely important at the end of a person’s life.
You don’t need to know that the Talmud has nothing to say about how much we accumulate or how many hours we work to know that these issues matter only very rarely at the end of a life.
You just need to spend time with people at the end of their lives.
People regret spending time with their family.
People regret not being able to do more with the people they love.
Those who have lived really great lives - and I’ve had the sad blessing of burying too many this past year - don’t regret anything, they just wish they could be around to spend more time doing the things they know are truly important.

The grander perspective on this relentlessness is the ecological disaster we are bequeathing on generations to come. March was so cold the army were called into help. The summer broke all records for heat.

There are two tales of creation at the beginning of the Torah. One tells us we are placed on this earth to impose ourselves on it, it tells us that the world and everything in it is our plaything - here for us.
But we’ve forgotten the other tale. The other tale tells our life’s work is to work and protect the earth - lovdah ulshomrah.

At the time that God created Adam, God led him past every tree in Gan Eden and said to him, “See how beautiful and praiseworthy are My creations. Everything that I created, I created for you. Be careful not to damage or destroy My world, for if you damage it, there will be no one to fix it up after you.”[3]

So much for working and protecting the earth - we are sucking out its resources and destabilizing the carefully balanced ecology that protects life on earth.

But we are, you and I, extraordinarily blessed to have a way out of this cycle of danger.
Because, as Jews, we have a gift that has kept our people for thousands of years.
It has allowed us to rise higher than being ever more busy.
It is called Shabbat.
This is a sermon about Shabbat.

On Shabbat we free ourselves from the tasks of subsistence, we become free.
We step back from the day-to-day tasks of the week and instead get to become, in the words of Bible, a little less than angels.

In the Creation Narrative we find that on the seventh day, God vayinafash. It is usually translated as God rested. It is a poor translation.
Vayinafash – can mean ‘breath’ and on the seventh Day, God put the breath into the world. Now that is a more radical notion than rest, as we would normally understand the word.

But Nefesh means something else as well as ‘rest’ and ‘breath.’ Nefesh is a soul.
Vayinafash – And God put the soul in the world on that first Shabbat and we can still hear that echo,
Or at least we would be able to if only we could still our lives, still the ever-spinning hamster wheels.

Shabbat can even help up find that stillness.
The radical notion of the laws around Shabbat is that our lives become more special when we abstain from stuff.
Shabbat serves as correction to the human search for that which is beyond what we really need to celebrate our humanity, and our Jewish identities.
Shabbat is the antidote to our addiction to getting more and more.
It can teach us that it’s not only possible to step back from always chasing after more. It’s actually vital.
We humans need a sabbatical day – a day in seven to be ourselves, to recover our own resources, a time to be with our families, with God, and to celebrate the joys of a simpler kind of life; a life of friendship, of community, of holiness.

As a Rabbi I feel that the Shabbat is the single greatest weapon in our arsenal as Jews, as human beings that will allow us to become better, stronger and more compassionate people.
How is it possible to make change in our lives– Keep Shabbat
How is it possible to respond adequately to the incredible gift of simply being alive – Keep Shabbat
How is it possible to keep things in perspective when life gets so cluttered and stressed and busy – Keep Shabbat
How is it possible to keep a balance between work life and home life – Keep Shabbat

It is difficult to explain how these glorious collections of rules and rituals carry so much power. In fact I guess that their mystery is part of the efficacy.
Shabbat can’t really be explained, it has to be lived.

So I want to offer two very concrete tools, techniques and approaches to Shabbat.
One for Friday night, one for Saturday during the day. Both radically simple.

On the Friday night I want to suggest to us all that we become bolder in claiming the sanctity of Erev Shabbat.
I want to suggest, to us all, that we feel more confident in declining the invitations to shows and parties and the like.
Let them go. I know we are all so well connected and so many of us get so many invitations to attend so many wonderful and interesting places.
But there will be enough invitations even if we decline ones on a Friday night.
Friday nights are for protecting a Jewish time.

Come to shul - our Friday night services are lovely - short!, shorter than this journey, you can sing, we’d love you to sing. You can connect to being part of a Jewish journey. And you can leave the rest of the world to get on with its lunacy.
And you should eat - of course you should eat. At its heart Shabbat is about meals, made unique in the week by the ritual that accompanies them. If you are blessed with a family - eat with your family. Invite others to share a Jewish meal with you. If you don’t have regular invites - make a point of booking for our dinners at New London - next one is on 9th November.

Just protect Friday nights from a slow slide away into just another weekend evening.

For Saturday during the day I want to commend to you all the observance of an issur d’oraita – a prohibition straight out of the Bible. We are commanded not to carry, on Shabbat, in a public place.
I spend my week laid down. Even if I am not shlepping computer around, my pockets are always full of wallet and phone and jangling keys and scraps of paper reminding me of who knows what.
For one day a week they can all be left at home.
Especially the wallet.
Especially the phone.
If you really need to carry – take the one key, not the whole bunch.
Do you really need that handbag? If you really do, what can you empty out, what can you let go of?
What can you leave behind today?
It is a wonderful way to realise how little stuff we actually need to get through our days.
On Saturday day, don’t carry, Keep Shabbat.

I know there is plenty to do.
I know there is plenty to campaign for and campaign against.
And I know that we are all worried about the financial and corporate pressures of this world in which we live.
But it doesn’t help to chase after more forever.
It’s so easy to lose track of what we are actually searching for.
Keep Shabbat and we may soon start to find it.
May we do that, and in so doing find a wonderful, peaceful and healthy year to come.

Gemar Chatimah Tovah




[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Stonecutter
[2] Shabbat 21a
[3] Kohelet Rabbah 7:3
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...