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

1 comment:

Eva said...

Dear Jeremy
Congratulations on your induction. Your sermon makes a strong statement - at some point I'd like you to explain to me exactly how this stance differs from Orthodoxy or what makes it Masorti.
Btw, what is the story of the epicorus?
Shabbat Shalom, Eva

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