Monday, 29 September 2008

It's Not Yours

For many of us our relationship, as Jews, with the world in which we live, has been one-way traffic.

The more we have engaged with the world in which we live

The more we have allowed that world to shape and colour the way we live our Jewish lives.

That's OK.

But today I want to make the case for a movement in the opposite direction.

I want to make the case for shaping and colouring the world out there by the way we understand our Jewish identity.

I want to talk about something that can make a difference beyond the walls of this Synagogue.

 

As Jews we have always made an impact on that world, out there.

 

As Jews we celebrate the three thousand year old claim of Genesis - that every human being is created in the image of God.

And this year marks the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, a declaration drafted by a Jew, a declaration based on this most central Jewish claim.

 

As Jews we celebrate the three thousand year old claim of Exodus - that slavery is vile and will always be overthrown.

And this great truth has been at the heart of every liberation narrative since, well since the time of Moses.

 

And now we need another great claim of our faith.

And it will need to be a great claim, for the challenges faced in the world out there are terribly terribly serious.

 

Let me take one verse.

Leviticus 25:23

Ki li haaretz, ci gerim v'toshavim atem imadi[1]

For the earth is Mine [says God] and you are dwellers and sojourners with me.

 

This, perhaps, is the most needed Biblical message of our age.

We need it to break in on what I believe to be the greatest problem of our contemporary existence.

The greatest problem is that when we look at the world and its many material things and we think that we – in some meaningful way – can own them.

From a religious perspective this is simply wrong.

Ki li haaretz.

 

The credit crunch, the banking collapse, the stock market devaluations are scary.

Many of us – myself included – have seen the value of our property drop we've lost savings, pensions.

There will be others amongst us who have been rendered unemployed, even threatened by bankruptcy, destitution – those things are awful. And I don't want to downplay the horror of poverty.

But for the rest of us, those of us for whom the collapse of sub-prime mortgage bonds means not destitution, but rather a gnawing fear about our financial security and an ill-wished for need to tighten the belt,

For the rest of us I have this clear message.

Ki li haaretz,

It was never really our money in the first place.

We were its steward, its guardian, we looked after it as an act of grace and favour.

 

And now, well, we just davenned this in the Amidah led so beautifully by our Chazan

מָשׁוּל כְּחֶרֶס הַנִּשְׁבָּר
כְּחָצִיר יָבֵשׁ וּכְצִיץ נובֵל
כְּצֵל עובֵר

 as withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shadow,[2]

Those material possessions are gone, or threatened.

 

You do look my son in a mov'd sort.

As if you were dismay'd: be cheerful sir.

The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself.

Yea, all which it inherit shall dissolve,

Leave not a rack behind.[3]

 

That, of course, is Shakepeare's Propero

The Bible is more direct.

 

Ki li haaretz

It's not yours.

 

It is time to let our Judaism impact on our relationship with the world out there, and in particular with the way we treat the material nature of that world.

We need to step back from the drive to measure our life by the ebbs and flow of the stockmarket, for the problem is not that the FTSE is higher or lower, but that we think these kinds of numbers are a true measure of our value.

 

Let me share something else in the world out there that scares me far more even than this financial mess we are all in – the remorseless destruction of the natural resources of our planet.

It shouldn't need an ex-United States Vice-President or a United Nations Commission on Climate Change.

It certainly doesn't need a Rabbi to rehearse what we know.

We are ripping the very guts out of this planet.
And we are doing so in a profoundly un-Jewish way.

 

One day [says the Talmud] Honi ha-maagal - was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree.

'How long before it produces fruit?' He asks

'Seventy years' Comes the reply

'Right,' says Honi – 'and you are going to live seventy years?!'

The man responds 'I found ready planted carob trees and as my ancestors planted these for me, I will plant for my children.'[4]

 

And as for us -

At this rate, melting icecaps and all that - our grandchildren won't know polar bears.

 

Ki li haaretz

It's not yours.

 

Or as the Rabbis put it in a blunt Midrash

 

When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: "Look at my works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent… See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.[5]

 

Or here is another Midrash, this one based on the story of Noah.

In the Rabbis' mind Noah prophesied the coming catastrophe and was bluntly ignored, year in year out, right up to the point where the waters came rising from the deep. And then

 

Seven hundred thousand people gathered around the ark and implored Noah to grant them protection. With a loud voice he replied, 'Aren't you the rebellious ones? Haven't I prophesised for 120 years and you didn't listen to the word of God? And now you want to be kept alive?'

And the sinners cried out, 'So be it. We are ready to do teshuvah now, if only you will open the door of your ark to receive us.'

The crowd of sinners tried to take the entrance to the ark by force, but the wild beast keeping watch around the ark set upon them and many were slain, while the rest escaped, only to meet death in the waters of the flood.[6]

 

This Midrash appeals to me even in its gloom.

It resonates with both the impending ecological catastrophe and the current financial collapse with equal prescience.

And now we are all trying to escape the flood.

 

Ki li haretz.

So how can we let this attitude to our material possessions 'break in' on us?

So how can we find another way,

To measure the value of our lives

To live lives that do not cause such distress to our battered planet?

 

Another verse.

ששת ימים תעבד ועשית כל מלאכתך:

(ט) ויום השביעי שבת ליקוק אלהיך

Six days work, do all your acts of labour,

But the Seventh day is a day of Shabbat to God.

 

This is the great gift of the Shabbat.

It allows, those of us who allow it to break in,

It allows us to recalibrate our attitude towards the material.

Six days we run, like hamsters on a wheel, to put food on our plates and to earn the necessary crust with which to pay for the car, the new clothes, the mobile telephony, the broadband exchange router.

For six days we are allowed to consider ourselves Masters of the Universe.

We are allowed to throw ourselves into in our financial, material lives.

Uvayom hashvii shvat vayinafash

But on the seventh day we are re-ensouled

 

On the Seventh day we bid 'stop, breathe.'

It is demanded that we remind ourselves that there are things in life that are more important than money.

We are commanded to commit to ways of valuing a life that cannot be measured in terms of bank balances and stock market indicators.

The seventh day is a spiritual practice in reminding ourselves that we have it all on grace and favour.

Ki li haaretz.

 

Actually, it isn't just Sabbath, though Sabbath is crucial, it is the whole apparatus of Jewish ritual practice.

All of Judaism serves as a training, a practice, a spiritual practice in realising

Ki li haaretz

 

'Judaism,' said Abraham Joshua Heschel,

'Is a candle to the soul.

It teaches us to hold on to the melody in the cacophony of life.

It teaches us to listen for the miraculous pulse of life which beats though the veins of the universe.[7]

 

It's a sound that is heard most brightly on a day like today, a day like Shabbat, when we have stepped back from the pursuit of the material, we have allowed the world to get along without us.

We commit ourselves to be better humans, kinder, in particular we turn our attention to the relationships with those around us, our family, our partners, our colleagues, our friends.

On a day like today commit ourselves to acts of Tzedakah – justice, charity, equity.

We create a space in which to hear more clearly 'the miraculous pulse of life which beats though the veins of the universe.'

 

If a notion of a miraculous pulse beating through the veins of the universe sounds a little highfaluting and abstract, let me make things simpler.

For one day a week; leave the wallet at home.

For one day a week; pull out the intravenous cable that connects us to the internet, turn off the blackberry, don't pick up the phone.

For one day a week put down the credit card that promises we could buy happiness, and not have to pay.

 

For one day a week treat yourself to an escape from the loadstones of materiality.

And instead converse with your fellow human beings face-to-face, 'off-line' as we now have to call it.

Take time to listen to silence,

Take time to have the conversations that were always too rushed during the week.

Take time to celebrate being alive.

 

And protect this day with great dedication.

Fence this day off with candles and Kiddush.

Protect this day and let it protect you.

Strengthen it and it will strengthen you.

Because if ever there were religious claims whose time has come then these are those claims.

Ki li haaretz – It's not yours.

Uvayom hashevii, shavat vayinaafash – and the seventh day shall be a Shabbat and you shall be re-ensouled.

 

This is about more than our own state of spiritual fulfilment and richness.

These are calls, approaches, insights that the entire fragile and battered world needs, we need to share these insights, affirm their importance not just among Jews, but more broadly in the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic worlds in which we all live.

But the first step in helping the world out there to realise this most paramount truth is our own personal commitment  to this more spiritual and spirited way of living in the world.

 

Our greatest strengths, as Jews, have always shone out, eventually.

Those insights, approaches and passions we, as Jews, have tended in our own scriptures, lives and communities have eventually overturned the follies and failures of the world.

This is the greatest achievement of the Jews.

 

But before we can rely on anyone else understanding that possession doesn't really mean ownership,

Before this, we need to affirm our own commitment to the verse ki li haaretz we need to affirm our own commitment to the Sabbath as a way of ensuring we, our children and our children's children have a more balanced world in which to live.

 

I don't make a guarantee that being a better Jew will make you richer.

I don't pretend that observing Shabbat will increase the value of your share portfolio.

But I do offer this guarantee.

Know that the material things in this world are not our own – we have them as an act of grace.

Know that taking a day in seven to recalibrate our relationship with the material world is vital

And we will feel richer.

And we will be better for it

And we might even save the world.

 

My prayer and my blessing is this.

If we can do this,

If we change the way we view and treat the material world in which we live

Then, regardless of the decrees we will face in the year to come, this year, our new year, our new life, will be the sweeter and richer for it.

 

L'Shannah Tovah.



[1] Lev 25:23

[2] Liturgy, Una Taneh Tokef

[3] Tempest IV.1

[4] Taanit 23a

[5] Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 1 on 7:13

[6] Cited from Ginsburg, Legends of the Jews Vol I p. 158 see also sources Vol V p. 177

[7] Moral Grandeur & Spiritual Audacity p. 57

1 comment:

arnie draiman said...

very very nice. you briefly mention tzedakah, well, the same applies there too!

look at "al tigzol dal kee dal hu" - mishlei 22:22 and the various comments on it, particularly bamidbar rabba 5:2. i think it is clear that tzedakah money was never yours to begin with!

shana tova.

arnie draiman
www.draimanconsulting.com

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