Friday, 30 May 2008

Between Numbers and the Wilderness

Two contradictory themes permeate the Book of Torah we begin reading this Shabbat. On the one hand the Book of Numbers (sefer hapikudim) contains lists, census records, details of who stands where and which bit of the sanctuary which sub-section of which tribe are responsible for carrying and guarding. On the one hand the book of Numbers is about order.

On the other hand sefer bemidbar – literally Book of Wilderness - is about the encounter with dislocation, wandering, raw elemental nature. It is an experience of chaos.


This narrow bridge connecting the ordered and the chaotic it is a well worn Jewish path through life and faith. The Succah – the sheltered dwelling designed to remind us of the time, says Rabbi Akiva, when we were wrapped up in clouds of glory, so secure were we in the experience of God’s love, is also the experience of encountering the nature – rain, cold …


There are times in our lives when we need order, security and comfort. We want to know where everything is and we want to feel sure in our role and our surroundings.

And then there are times when we need some chaos, we need to be bounced out of our insularity, challenged to do better, forced to confront our weaknesses and our failings. The great skill, in life, is recognising when we need one and when we need the other. The great task in life, be it as a friend, a relative, a Rabbi or a passing stranger is to know when to offer comfort or chaos to those we meet, whether, in the words of the Chicago based humorist and journalist Finley Peter Dunne (d. 1936) we should be seeking to ‘comfort th' afflicted [or] afflict th' comfortable.’


Shabbat shalom

Friday, 23 May 2008

Learn More Do More

Im bechokotai teilechu v’et mitzvotai tishmoru

If you go in the way of my ordinances and observe the commandments …

Says Rashi what is the difference between these two parts of the verse?

It cannot be that going in the way of ordinances is equated with observing commandments for the Torah does not repeat itself.

Rather it must mean that going in the way of the ordinances is study of Torah, immersing oneself in the texts of our tradition.

Im bechokotai teilechu v’et mitzvotai tishmoru

You shall study Torah and you shall observe mitzvot

My sermon today is very simple

Study more Torah,

Keep more mitzvot.

As a Masorti rabbi I don’t tend to lose arguments about theology.

As a Masorti rabbi I don’t tend to lose arguments about Biblical history

Rather it is tests of sociology which make me shuffle uneasily.

Let me share the sorts of questions to which I don’t have good answers

How many of the children of our founding families of this community have drifted away from Jewish involvement?

How many Masorti Jews are capable of being not just descendants, inheritors of a great tradition, but ancestors, people able to begat a Jewish future.

From this pulpit, for many years, week in week out we heard about philosophical integrity and theological truth.

But I don’t know how often we were told to keep Shabbat, keep Kashrut.

Learn to read Hebrew, learn to lead a service.

This community allowed us to feel comfortable , intellectually, with our Judaism, it didn’t, sufficiently, drive us to engage practically – bchol levavcha, bchol nafshecah, bchol moadecha.

It is not good enough to claim that our intellectual sophistication frees us from having to deal with issues as prosaic as separating between milk and meat.

Not good enough to claim elitist perfection.

When our actions are not consistent with our claims we discredit ourselves.

We give lie to our claims to be true followers in the path of our great teachers.

Tale: The Greatest epicorus in the world.

There are, of course, many tests of the strength of a community,

And according to some tests we do really very well – how much o we care about our shul.

How many of us are here, even today, Shabbat Bank Holiday.

How warm are we, etc. etc.

These are tests we pass.

But let me share some other tests

How many of us can read a Mishnah in Hebrew.

How many of us observe and care for a Shabbat that lasts from sun down to stars out.

How many of us can lead a prayer service.

How many of us make space for the rhythms and beauty of Jewish life to impact on our soul.

We need to

Study more Torah,

Keep more mitzvot.

I’m aware that this might feel like a somewhat unusual New London kind of a sermon.

It’s not about theology.

It’s not about an integration of modernity and tradition.

It’s about evangelising the heart of what it means to be Jewish.



Let me take an example – driving on Shabbat.

I don’t believe in driving on Shabbat.

I believe that Shabbat is a time to pull the key out of the ignition.

It is a time to realise that the natural resources that go into our combustion engines are not ours to do with as we please.

They are sacred and while we may use them for six days, on the seventh we should abstain from treating the world and everything in it as if it is ours. For the earth is mine, ki li haaretz umleoah ­– sayeth the Lord.

One day week we should walk, one day a week we should allow our feet to touch the ground, to pound the pavement, to encounter a world free from air-conditioning and sliding windows that protect us from the elements at the flick of a switch.

It’s not enough to think about how clever the Rabbis were to come up with an idea like Shabbat.

It doesn’t work unless we live it.

Without a lived context Jewish observance is a fairy story that owes whatever ‘truth’ it can muster to a story about Sinai that none of us believes.

However once we start to live Jewishly, once we start to allow Shabbat into our lives not as a mere form of words, but as an organising principle, as a protection mechanism that holds back our hand when we see something and want to grab at it.

Once we allow Shabbat in, then we become capable of feeling the power of our faith, a power that has nothing to do with whether or not this sentence of that sentence came from Sinai or later or earlier moments of revelation.

There are two canards, perhaps, which serve as barriers to our allowing Shabbat in, allowing Jewish life in.

They both need addressing and rebutting.

The first is the idea that Jewish observance is an all or nothing relationship and that a person exploring, seeking, playing at observance is therefore a hypocrite.

This idea, as often as I have heard it, is nonsense.

No-one has ever successfully completed even a moment’s life being fully observant. Just the demand that we should love our neighbour as we love ourselves is or should be enough to elevate observance away from such a narrow ‘box-checking’ approach.

Don’t ever let that hobgoblin of little minds – an appeal for consistency – rob you of the possibility of journey, of development, of exploring, of growing.

The second canard is the notion that we don’t believe that observance, particularly the uniquely Jewish forms of observance, could possibly matter, to God, to this world, to anyone.

How could it be, we imagine that God cares about the way we put on our tefilin, or whether or not we light candles, make Kiddush or havdalah?

It’s a particularly non-Jewish view of the role and nature of the human.

Contemporary society may well tell us most clearly that we are merely one tiny cog and that therefore nothing we do matters so much.

But religion teaches an entirely different message.

Judaism teaches that everything matters.

This, indeed is the very essence of faith – we do indeed believe that God counts. We believe that everything we do, every word we utter, every item of clothing we put on, it all counts.

The anthropologist Loren Eisley tells a story about a man walking on the beach one morning when he notices another person picking up a starfish stranded by the retreating tide. He went up to him and asked why he was doing it. The person replied that the starfish would die if left out in the morning sun. ‘But’ the man replied, ‘this is a long beach, there must be hundreds of starfish, you can’t save them all, how can your effort make a difference.’

‘To this one,’ the person responded, ‘it makes a difference.’

Whether or not our actions count or not depends on our perspective. We can, if we wish, instil in our souls a lack of significance. We can teach ourselves that nothing we do matters that much really.

But I have no idea why we would ever do such a thing.

Why would we ever give up on an appeal to eternity.

What is man that you are mindful of him?

We ask at the beginning of the Yizkor service – yet you have made him only a little lower than angels.

By believing that our actions count, that everything counts we being to invest our lives with significance, meaning, dignity – we become worth the gift of our souls.

Ah, this is getting a little airy fairy again – an appeal to the intellect, to reason.

It’s getting a little distant from my very clear message this morning.



Let me instead make two very concrete suggestions.

One – watch the skies.

Tonight, between eleven and twelve minutes past 10 o’clock you might be able to see three stars emerge into the night sky.

This, of course marks the departure of Shabbat.

Celebrate this with something. If you want to light a candle, smell some spices, say a bracha or four, by all means.

But do something. Do something to mark a return to normality, find some way to make your late Saturday evening different from these powerful moments of Shabbat we now share together.

And the second is this.

Next week – try not to carry.

Carrying on Shabbat is perhaps the single most overlooked command regarding the Shabbat day and, at least in my own experience, the single greatest marker of this special day.

During the week I jangle; my keys, my wallet, my phone, my backpack, my computer.

On Shabbat I don’t.


It’s such a relief.

They aren’t needed, let them go.

I want to offer this.

Next week unpack your pockets before Shabbat.

Don’t bring your phone, don’t bring the wallet, don’t bring the detritus of a week’s accumulation in your handbag. If there really is something that you just can’t do without, OK.

But challenge yourself to see how much schlepping around you really need to do.

It will be less than you think and you will feel freer for it.

Allow these echoes of eternity an opportunity to resonate against your soul.

Allow these observances to do their work, to make you more observant, allow them to give you a clearer insight into who you are and what really is important in your life.

The Shabbat, indeed the entire system of Jewish life is method of finding meaning in life, in our relationship in our God, our fellows and our people.

It is also the answer to the greatest challenges that can be applied to us, as members of the New London family.

It is our answer to the greatest epicorus in the world.

It saves us from becoming dislocated from the truth of our tradition, a truth that not only needs to be philosophically grasped, but performed and learnt.

Im bechokotai teilechu v’et mitzvotai tishmoru

Shabbat shalom

And the Waters Mastered the Land for 150 Days (Gen 7:24)

I wonder how CNN and the like would have covered Noah’s Flood. Forty days and forty nights of rain and then another 150 days of the water just hanging around, ebbing slowly away, revealing a scene of devastation and destruction. How many pictures of rotting corpses could we expect to see before the ‘news cycle’ rolled onto something else?

This Shabbat will mark three weeks since Cyclone Nargis struck. The story has all but disappeared from our screens and papers. This is despite the estimated million who have lost their homes and the millions who have lost crops – their only source of income and then there are the dead. In the words of a contact of the American Jewish World Service;

Flooding has created extremely hazardous conditions as diseases that already overwhelmingly afflict the people of Burma (Myanmar), particularly malaria, continue to spread rapidly with the influx of mosquitoes… Corpses all over the streets have created filthy, highly unsanitary conditions and are havens for parasites and infectious diseases. Clean water sources, as well as all food reserves, are now virtually nonexistent in the affected areas. Civilians have lost their life savings, their homes, and countless friends and family members. The already impoverished people of Burma (Myanmar) have nowhere to take refuge and nowhere to seek treatment for injuries and illness.

In the approach to this Shabbat I would like to ask New London members and friends to support World Jewish Relief’s Cyclone Appeal. WJR is of course well known to many members at New London. In the immediate aftermath of the cyclone WJR reached out to fellow development agencies already working in Burma and, by buying plastic sheeting for temporary shelter, medicines, water purification tablets and rice ‘in-country,’ WJR have been able to reach almost 200,000 cyclone survivors immediately, without having to wait for bureaucratic channels to be prised open. This is enormously important work. As Jews we have an obligation to ‘feed the poor of non-Jews as well as the poor of Israel’ and, and this is perhaps the most telling of commands, an obligation to ‘bury the dead of the non-Jews as well as the dead of Israel for such are the ways of peace’ (Rambam MT H. Avel 14:12).

It would, of course, been far easier if the Myanmar Junta had been easier partners; if the cyclone had struck a less remote and fragile area and certainly it would have been easier if there had not been a cyclone at all. But we are not allowed to chose what kind of disaster we would like to respond to, we are only given the opportunity to respond to the disasters placed before us. The test is more challenging since the initial flurry of media interest subsides far faster than the flood waters. We dare not, however, fail.

For more information and an opportunity to donate please call 020 8736 1250 or log-on to

Shabbat shalom

Monday, 19 May 2008

On Being Inducted At New London Synagogue

The following is the significant part of my address to New London Synagogue on the occasion of my induction.
Actually the thank yous were also very significant, but you know what I mean.

To the task ahead.

What is my job – as your Rabbi, as the Rabbi of this community?

I found, on-line – where else – the results of a survey on what makes the perfect Rabbi.

Those of you who were at my last induction will have to forgive me for reprising it here. But I don't intend doing this whole induction thing again.


The Perfect Rabbi.
The results of an international survey indicate the perfect Rabbi preaches for exactly fourteen minutes.

They condemn sins but never upset anyone. They work from 8:00 AM until midnight and are also dedicated to spending quality time with their family.

The Perfect Rabbi makes £100 a week, wears nice clothes, spends lots of money on books, drives a decent car, and gives about £100 weekly to the poor.

The Perfect Rabbi is 28 years old and has preached 30 for years.

The Perfect Rabbi has a burning desire to work with teenagers and spends all of his time with senior citizens.

The perfect Rabbi smiles all the time with a straight face because The Perfect Rabbi has a sense of humour that keeps him seriously dedicated to his work.

The Perfect Rabbi makes 15 calls daily on congregation families, shut-ins and the hospitalized, and is always in his office when needed.

And the report goes on to suggest
If your Rabbi does not measure up, simply send this e-mail to six other synagogues that are tired of their Rabbi, too. Then bundle up your Rabbi and send him to the synagogue on the top of the list. In one week, you will receive 1,643 Rabbis and one of them will be perfect. Have faith in this procedure. One congregation broke the chain and got its old Rabbi back in less than three weeks.


The bad news is that I might not be a perfect Rabbi.

But there is something in this survey that bears closer scrutiny.


The very first text the small child would learn in the Yeshivot of Eastern Europe went like this.

שניים אוחזין בטלית--, זה אומר כולה שלי, וזה אומר כולה שלי

Two people come before the court holding onto a tallit, a prayer cloth.

One says – it's all mine.

The other says – it's all mine.


And this is how we begin to train a Rabbinic mind.

Solving problems, dealing with different tugs in different directions.

שניים אוחזין בטלית

Two have hold of a tallit.


I want to suggest what might be thought of as a more Chassidic notion.

I want to suggest that this tallit is us, the New London Synagogue.


And that the two forces tugging at this tallit are our past and our future.

On the one hand we are a shul about our past; our great founding Rabbi of blessed memory, the Jacobs Affair, the appalling way that Louis was treated again and again by the United Synagogue, we are inheritors of a great tradition.

On the other hand we are a shul about our future – today most especially we are celebrating what it is to look forward and play our part in creating a better future.

And this presents a challenge, for me and for all of us.

How do we stay true to our past, to the passion and the commitment that begat the New London, while orientating ourselves for new challenges that face us as a community, as a people, as citizens of a still new century?

Im eshkachech – if we forget our heritage as Louis' shul we abandon a spiritual heirloom almost without price.

But we cannot become hidebound, fossilized, atrophied.


I have reread, these past days, Rabbi Louis Jacob's speech on the occasion of his induction, at the New West End – 1954.

And this is what Rabbi Jacobs had to say about this particular dynamic – the tug between past and the future.


The analogy of the heirloom must not be pressed to far [taught Rabbi Jacobs. An heirloom] is set on its pedestal, admired from afar and only taken down and examined at close quarters at certain well-defined periods. This must never be the fate of the living Torah of Israel. It is not sufficient only to admire Judaism, to pay it homage two or three times a year and to feel somewhat uncomfortable in its presence during the rest of the year.


For a while, it has to be said, this shul felt a little like this heirloom on a pedestal; accumulating dust and gradually withering. But in more recent times our gaze has swung round. We believe in our future, we are living our future and we are working for our future. There is a new lick of paint, we've had a spit and polish. We are ready to play again.


There have been changes, there will be more to come, but we are moving forward tugged by our past, inspired by our past, inspired by our founding narrative, inspired by what it means to be members of Louis' shul.

Between our past and our future

שניים אוחזין בטלית


Another way of looking at this Synagogue as the tallit of that first Rabbinic text.

Between tradition and modernity

Between faith and reason.


On the one hand we are a traditional shul, committed to the liturgical foundation of our ancestors, committed to the traditional observance of Shabbat, of Kashrut, of Torah and Mitzvot.

On the other hand we are a progressive shul, committed to modernity and engagement with the real world; we want to integrate what know from the world of the Academy into our commitment to our Jewish faith.

God created the world in six days – of course we believe in the Creation Story as a foundational part of our Jewish experience, but we also know about quantum mechanics, about astral physics, evolution, genetics.

God gave the Torah to Moses – of course we believe in the Sinai Story as a foundational part of our Jewish experience, but we also know about Higher Biblical Criticism, Lower Biblical Criticism, we know about Biblical Archaeology, anthropology we know about the Ancient Near East.


If, God forbid, we let go of our commitment to understanding science – we let go of our commitment to understand how the world works – we can quickly look foolish, like a pathetic King Canute railing against the oncoming tide.

But if, God forbid, we let go of our commitment to our faith – then we let go of what it means to treat every human being as a creation in the image of the Divine, we let go of the power and beauty of the Shabbat – if we do that we can quickly forget why we are here, we can forget the purpose of existence, we can lose our souls.

So we must hold onto both

Between tradition and modernity

Between faith and reason.

 שניים אוחזין בטלית


So we, here today, a tallit tugged between the past and the future

We are a tallit tugged between faith and reason between tradition and modernity.


Let me do one more tug.

Inward looking and Externally focused.

Being Jewish takes up a lot of time, it consumes a lot of our attention. We are called to rise up early in the morning, to run around like crazy people on a Friday afternoon, to schlep our pots and pans around every Pesach, the list goes on. On the one hand being a Jew is about our own journey as Jews, proud of what we have, perfectly content to see other people pursue other paths, but we tend to our needs. On the one hand we are internally focused.


But on the other hand we believe we have a role in the world out there – in contemporary society ltaken olam bmalchut shadai – to heal the world under the kingdom of heaven.


This is the shul where the Dalai Lama spoke, back in 1972, fresh from his own experience of exile.

This is the shul that begat the Newlon Housing Trust, a charity set up to provide reasonably priced housing for those living in what it's founder, Philip Blairman, called situations 'reminiscent of the worst aspects of nineteenth century slumdom.' The Newlon Housing Trust now provides housing in 7,000 properties.

That is our heritage.


The world is desperately in need of voices able to articulate a compassionate, contemporary religious voice, able to engage with the most dangerous and important issues of our day; from how we treat this planet to how we treat the people who live on it, from matters of ecology to asylum seekers, from Darfur to the Middle East.


Internally focused and externally focused.

Hillel hayah omer im ain ani li mi li,

Uchshani latzmi mah ani[1]

Hillel would say, if I am not for myself who will be for me? But when I am only for myself, what am I?


My inclination, for what it is worth, is to be a little more externally focused. We shall, as shul look to develop a voice that speaks to the most important issues of our day from a place grounded in faith and a commitment to chesed v'tzedek loving kindness and justice.

שניים אוחזין בטלית


There is a tension here, as we held by the various tugs.

Some people don't like this kind of tension; some seem to find this tugged place a little lacking in clarity perhaps, a little inconsistent, nishta here, nishta hair – neither one thing nor another. We are easy to mock.

And instead of holding both sides of the Tallit some of our critics drop one side or the other.

They give in to the call of those who say that the Tallit should be owned solely by one party of the two competing voices.

זה אומר כולה שלי, וזה אומר כולה שלי


And these competing voices are loud and attractive. The fist voice is the voice of religious fundamentalism.

We live in a world where the siren call of fundamentalism beckons both Jew and non Jew.

But those who fall pray to the appeal of blinkered theological certainty are not doing God's will, they are rather shuffling backwards into self-deception and a self-imposed ghetto.

And while it might be more comfortable in such a place, life in a ghetto comes at a cost.

Once inside their ideological hidey-hole these refugees from the real world find themselves under increasing threat from modernity.

The response, and we have seen it time and time again, is to build thicker and thicker walls, to create ever greater distance between their desire for a simple theology and the real all-too-complex world.

That's when religion hurts people;

when Rabbis get treated badly,

when good simple Jews get treated badly,

We've seen it so many times.

It is also when Prime Ministers get shot,

And it is also when planes get flown into towers.

Yielding to the call of fundamentalism, letting go of one tug on the Tallit might appear superficially attractive, but it is intellectually dishonest and worse – it is terribly, terribly dangerous.

We must pledge ourselves to disagree with the first claimant who says

כולה שלי

It's all mine.


And then there is the second claimant who also wants us to let go of being tugged.

The second siren voice is the voice of unbridled consumerism.

We live in a world driven by consumerism.

You are what you can purchase.


We tend the ticker of the stock market with more care than the ticker which is our heart.

We monitor the ebb and flow of our bank balance with greater diligence than the ebb and flow of our relationships to our creator and our fellow human beings.

Yielding to this claimant on our tallit gives us something to measure, but we lose our souls.

We must pledge ourselves also to resist the voice that claims, in their own way

כולה שלי

It's all mine.




Standing at this pulpit is a bit like trying to stand on a tugged tallit, walking across a narrow bridge.

But I am emboldened by this self-evident truth.

There is no better way to live.

More than that this life – balancing on a tugged tallit, navigating this narrow bridge has a vibrancy, it has nuance, it's beautiful, meaningful, bold, passionate, compassionate. Everything that I would want a life to be.




And this is the Shul for this kind of religious life.

This is the community who know, in their very bones, what it means to live with this holy tension.

And that is why I am so excited to be here, to throw my weight behind the sheer importance of this message.

The tallit must always be tugged.

When I stood just there on the occasion of my barmitzvah some years ago Rabbi Jacobs gave me a charge – verses from my portion.


Stretch out the site of your tent [he taught me]

Extend the size of your dwelling.

Lengthen the ropes, drive the pegs firm.[2]


The guideropes of our tent, here at New London, and elsewhere in our lives, must be pulled tight, they must be stretched for in that tug is our greatest strength.

We must never sag, no droop, never let go.

And for my part I commit myself to this holy work.


We must refuse to let go of either side of this Tallit.

We must become evangelists for an approach to religious life that is more nuanced, more complex than that.


This is the path.

This is my kind of Rabbinate. This is the leadership I hope to provide here, at New London Synagogue, my new congregational home.

This is the path of our past and our future.

I hope you will join me on it.


I want to conclude with words from our founder Rabbi's 1954 induction address, because even half a century later I don't think anyone has ever put it better.

I don't expect anyone ever will.


Said Rabbi Jacobs then, and say I now;

I hope that the Judaism I preach from this pulpit will be a courageous Judaism. To the best of my ability I shall see to it that no shallow, spineless Judaism, one demanding no challenge and presenting no sacrifice, shall be preached here. But I hope that I shall also see to it that no harsh, unsympathetic, inhuman interpretation of Judaism is voiced here [either].


'O my Creator, give me understanding that I may transmit your inheritance;

Strengthen and uphold me that I may be far from weakness and fear'.[3]

May You bless all the members of this holy congregation, prosper the work of their hands and bring joy into their lives, and may You always be with us as we continue to labour to do your will in sincerity and in truth.

[And let us say]

[1] M. Avot 1:14

[2] Is 54:2

[3] From the reishut of the shaliach tzibur, Rosh Hashanah

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

God, Israel and I - on the 60th Birthday of the State of Israel

At the heart of so much of our faith is this relationship between God and humanity; we are, created in the image of the Divine and we are commanded to be like the Divine.

Imitateo Dei

It's probably the single most important religious idea I know.

And it sounds, certainly at first listen, absolutely great.

I am like God, like a god, I'll lob down some thunderbolts. I'll swoop out of the heavens, like Superman and rescue some poor mite from being swept over the raging waterfall.

Hodu Ladonai Ki Tov – Praise be to God for God is good.

Ki Lolam Hasdo – For God's kindness is eternal

But it doesn't always work like that.

Of course it doesn't.

A life lived in the image of God is a good deal more complicated than that.

And today I want to look, more deeply, more darkly, at what the image of God might really be about.

On this Shabbat, sandwiched between Yom HaShoah – a Day of Encountering the Holocaust and Yom Haatzmaut – the Day of Israel's independence.


The creation of the human being in God's image.

The heart of every great truth in our tradition.

My predecessor at New London Synagogue, Rabbi Reuven Hammer, included a rarely cited Midrash in his introduction to the Megillat HaShoah we read on Yom HaShoah.

It is a comment on the first human horror, Cain and Abel fight and Cain kills his brother.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai said, 'It's hard to utter such a thing, and it can't be expressed directly, but this is like two gladiators wrestling before the King. And had the King wished he could have separated them. But the King didn't want to separate them. And one triumphed over the other and killed him. As the man was dieing he called out, 'Let my case be pleaded before the King!' And this is the meaning of the Biblical verse – kol damei achicha tzoakim alay – the voice of the blood of your brother calls out to me.[1]

The King watches at the human struggles and doesn't intervene.

And the seemingly innocent man dies.

And the scream of how, good King, could you allow this to happen! Roars up from the earth.

And the King, of course, should be understood as God.

We are not told, of course, why God didn't intervene.

Who knows? Maybe God wanted us to learn our own lessons. Maybe God was too busy with other things.

It's hard to utter such a thing, and were it not for the fact of the text,

were it not for the fact of the murder,

not just of Abel but of the millions who perished in Auschwitz and Majdanek and before and since,

who could possible form such an opinion of God?

But the blood does cry out.

This is a religiously acceptable scream.

kol damei achicha tzoakim alay

In the language of Psalm 44

עוּרָה לָמָּה תִישַׁן אֲדנָי הָקִיצָה אַל-תִּזְנַח לָנֶצַח

לָמָּה-פָנֶיךָ תַסְתִּיר תִּשְׁכַּח עָנְיֵנוּ וְלַחֲצֵנוּ.

Awake, why do you sleep, O Lord? Arise, do not cast us off for ever.

Why do you hide your face, and forget our affliction and our oppression?

It's hard to utter such a thing.

It's hard to handle theological images of God this far from the thunderbolt lobbing, small baby saving Superhero.

It's hard to handle images of God that feel so … and there really is no other term for it … images that feel so human.

This King, looking over the gladiatorial arena.

Maybe there is some good reason for desisting, but at first glance, it doesn't feel that way. It feels wrong, it feels – if it is even possible to say such a thing - like a failure

Perhaps he's got a bit overexcited at the spilling of blood, like some onlooker at a bare-knuckle boxing match.

Perhaps he hasn't realised quite how much brokenness one moment's refusal to intervene would wreck on the history of humanity.

Perhaps he too worried about appearing properly Kingly to leap, Mercutio-like, into the fray.

Perhaps there was something else on the television that distracted his attention at the crucial moment.

It's just all so damned human that it gets difficult to work out which bits are really Divine and which bits are human.

After all we create the images to describe God who, we tell ourselves, actually created us in God's image.

This image of God created by an image of God to explain a God in our image.

Theology isn't a tidy science.

And while it might be cosy to have a safe, wholly beneficent God, a God of perfect Shalom, devoid of failure, free of human foible, this is not what the texts of our tradition teach us about HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy Blessed one who, in the language of Ezekiel, travels with a sword sharpened and polished.

It's not what the Rabbis, authors of Midrashim like the one we just encountered, thought.

The Rabbis and certainly the Psalmists created image after image of a passionate, emotional, jealous, occasionally violent God modelled after – well modelled after us.


Hodu Ladonai ki tov, ki lolam hasdo feels very different on the day after Yom Hashoah.

But I've made my peace with this all too human version of God.

God and I, we are in a relationship.

There is a story told about the great chassdic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Bereditchev, that he sent his students to interrogate a simple tailor in the days immediately before Yom Kippur.

You see, said the tailor, gesturing to a ledger book, I have a list of all my sins and errors of the last year. The time I overcharge for a simple alteration, the time I kept back the off-cuts of a bolt of cloth to make my son a shirt.

And here, he gestured to a much weightier tome, I have the sins of God; the babies taken from parents, the parents taken from children, and I said, 'I'll make you a deal God, you pardon me and I'll pardon you.

We don't really deal in Superheroes, as Jews, we are instead experts in human failings, human emotions, human relationships.

Even when everything seems so wonderful, we distrust the fairytale.

We break a glass at a wedding.

We say, at least we do when in Israel, Yizkor on Simchat Torah.

We are, as Jews, experts at taking our rough with our smooth.

We are trained, over thousands of years in dealing with the world as find it, even while dreaming of a far simpler, kinder planet.

Ani mamamin, af al pi – I believe, even though it is long delayed

We sung that at Yom HaShoah too.

And there is so much I need to look past.

I love God not so much with a perfect heart, but with a broken heart.

I believe in the powers of goodness and kindness and, God, if you are listening, I'll be here, throwing my energy, prayers and hopes on the side of loving kindness and hope and goodness as we stumble forward, You and I.

And this brings me to Israel.

Happy Birthday Israel.

I go through life with two versions of Israel. Two sets of images.

The first image begins with weary stragglers pouring off the boats into British Mandate Palestine, the last remnant the Nazis couldn't get to.

And they not only survive, they flourish in a dessert land, wringing milk and honey from the rocks.

The first image of Israel is replete with tembel wearing kibbutznikim, draining the Hula valley of its malaria infested waters.

As Aliyah after Aliyah makes their way to the miracle of the Middle East, my heart lifts – the Yemenites on their Magic Carpet. The Ethiopians on Eagles' Wings.

And the country is wrapped in a cocoon of the most expert security information and military might.

Israel can pick off a Nazi War Criminal at three thousand miles, or destroy a nuclear weapon installation before the Syrians even know its gone.

Nobel Prize winning laureates Eurovision song context winning Halleluyahs and Hi-Tech entrepreneurs all untied under the banner of the one true democracy in the Middle East.

Israel as superhero, defender of the world, indestructible and dazzling.

And then there is the other set of images.

A country shot through with tensions; charedi and secular, Ashkenaz and Sepharad, not to mention the Russians.

A country whose youngest and brightest have lost their way and are so wearied by the experience of compulsory military service that they skulk off to Thailand or Dharamasala and smoke pot till they can forget about it all.

A country where you can find whore-houses, economic slaves, even people prepared to murder Prime Ministers.

And then there are the images drawn from this hellish matzav – the situation as we can euphemistically call it.

On Tuesday the Ambassador told us that as Chief of Staff of one cabinet office or another he had been in rooms where decisions were made NOT to pursue one kind of military action or another for fear of causing civilian causalities.

And I know how to complain about the BBC, or the Independent or any of the rest of them.

And I know the Hamas have no compunction about using human shields to protect their own grubby lives while threatening maximum political embarrassment if the Israelis were to attack.

But dear God, dear Prime Minister, did fifty really have to die in one attack last week.

Is it really necessary to squeeze quite so hard?

I know I know, it's the Middle East and Western rules might not apply, but it's hard for me to look the other way, and as I Jew I don't think I should.

Israel, dear Israel

So here I am, with my relationship with Israel looking a lot like my relationship with God.

It's all very human.

We are all very fallible, given to over-reaction, trying to do the best we can but put under pressure that makes it hard for any of us to respond always with hesed, loving kindness, and tzedek, justice.

This is an uncomfortable message to give,

But then the Judaism I believe in is a faith for grown ups. We have been asked, many times, to be able to handle uncomfortable truths because they are just this – true.

And so we find ourselves this week caught between the woes of Yom HaShoah and the miracle that is the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel in relationship not only with a broken God, but also a broken homeland.

No longer the wistful paradise we could sing about in exile, or sat around a Youth Group bonfire, but the very concrete, bloodied, political reality that greets us every time we turn on the nightly news.

But I cannot walk way.

No of us are permitted to walk away.

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel commented, "When the Jews were

driven out and no longer dwelled in the Holy Land, the land continued to dwell in them."[2]

This country is part of my soul.

As the contemporary singer Ehud Manoar sings

Ain li aretz acheret gam im admati boeret

I have no other land, even if my land is aflame

Rak milah bivrit choderet

Only Hebrew can seep into my blood,

Can hu beiti this is my home.

We are taught in the Book of Psalms,

Walk about Zion, and go around her; count her towers.

Mark her bulwarks, consider her palaces; that you may tell it to the

Generations to come,[3]

The successes and failures. They are all part of the story

We should dance and sing on Yom Hatzmaut as we dance and sing at any wedding, broken glass and all.

Indeed this is the greatest wedding song of all

Od Yishama' Barei Yehuda Uvchutrot yerushalayim

There shall still be heard in the cities of Yehuda and the coutyards of Jerusalem

Kol Sasson vkol Simchah, kol chatan vkol kallah

The voice of joy and happiness, the voice of groom and bride.[4]

We have to learn to celebrate with our brokenness, allow our God, our relationships, our selves and certainly our homeland to be little battered and bruised.

And we still have to love.

And we still have to hope.

And we still have to sing.

I want to end with a remarkable poem from the greatest (almost contemporary) poet of Jerusalem, Yehudah AMichai.

This comes from his magisterial collection, Open, Closed Open.

The Jewish Time Bomb

On my desk is a stone with "Amen" carved upon it, one survivor fragment

of the thousands upon thousands of bits of broken tombstones

in Jewish graveyards, I know all these broken pieces

now fill the great Jewish time bomb

along with the other fragments and shrapnel, broken Tablets of the Law

broken altars broken crosses broken rusty crucifixion nails

broken houseware holyware and broken bones

eyeglasses shoes prostheses false teeth

empty cans of lethal poison. All these broken pieces

fill the Jewish time bomb until the end of days.

And thought I know about all this, and about the end of days,

the stone on my desk gives me peace.

It is the touchstone no one touches, more philosophical

than any philosopher's stone, broken stone from a broken tomb

more whole [shalem] than any wholeness,

a stone of witness to what has always been

and what will always be, a stone of amen and love

Amen, amen, and may it come to pass.

Happy birthday Israel

[1] Genesis Rabbi 22:9 citing Genesis 4:10

[2] Israel, Echo of Eternity

[3] Psalm 48 15

[4] Jer 33:11

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