Thursday, 2 October 2008

Judaism in the First Person Plural

A sermon for the first day of Rosh Hashanah


Let me take an analogy from the world of theatre.

Suppose you don’t like Shakespeare,

Suppose you find Shakespeare difficult to follow, old-fashioned, overly melodramatic. Besides you’ve seen them already, a number of times.

But from somewhere inside you feel you ought to give Hamlet another go.

So you arrive in time for the end, you don’t want to have to stay too long.

You might be feeling a little awkward shuffling into place.

But, more likely, as you sit down you are already congratulating yourself that you were right, this whole Shakespeare thing isn’t really for you,

Maybe you are deciding to pop into the Macbeth playing next week – the bit at the beginning with the witches isn’t bad – and then give the whole thing a rest for another year.

And you’ll wait for the curtain to fall and head home.

Undisturbed by the cauldron of emotions unfolded on the stage before you.


It’s one of the great frustrations of this time of year that so many of us treat our faith, our community, like this soulless theatre excursion.


And if this is the way in which we attend shul on this day, it doesn’t matter what I say in this sermon.

It doesn’t matter how movingly Chazan Costen and the choir lead us through this magnificent liturgy.

No sermon, no prayer, no tune will make any difference to the way we live our lives, the way we treat those around us, the way we relate to our Creator in the year ahead.

If we come to Shul with our minds made up, determined to find what we expect to see.

If we come to Shul already decided, there is, it is true, no need to prostrate ourselves before God right up to the very last moments of Neilah, we don’t need to wait for God to seal the books in which our fate is written.

Because we arrived on the first day of Rosh Hashanah with our books closed already; our little lives already neatly sealed up for the year ahead.

So today, tomorrow, next week, this year.

I ask this of all us.

Open the books.

Open yourself.

Allow yourself to enter into these ten days of awe,

Allow these ten days into you.

Allow yourselves to be broken in upon.


This is the essence of what I want to address, not only today, but throughout this holy period.

I want to talk about being broken in upon.

I want to talk about that which is currently around and about me –us – that instead needs to become inside us, part of me.

What needs to be added to the me, the ego, the private book of my life I carried to Shul this morning, tucked under my arm.


I want, today, to look at how this community – New London Synagogue – can, and must break in on us.

Tomorrow I’ll turn to the world out there – the world of the credit crunch  – for that world is knocking mightily this year.

And on kol nidrei I’ll be looking at a breaking in on the world in here [head] and here [heart].

You’ll get the picture.


I want to begin with a piece of Hebrew grammar.

The most important piece of grammar in the Hebrew language is the verbal suffix nu; the verbal suffix that denotes the first person plural.


Nu means us, we, ours.

Avinu Malcheinu – our father our king

Ashamnu Bagadnu – WE have erred, WE have sinned

Al cheit shchatanu lephanecha – for the sin WE have sinned before you.


Because the greatest truth of Judaism is precisely this.

Judaism must be lived in the first person plural.

The reason why we, as Jews, pray in the first person plural is because Judaism demands that we live in the first person plural. In community.


This is the my central message today;

We must live our Judaism in the first person plural, in community.


As a child I used to love a record of jokes titled ‘You Don’t Have to Be Jewish.’ I played it until the grooves bled.

One joke sticks in my mind to this day.

It’s the end of some trial, for some crime or other, the jury shuffles back into court. I won’t attempt the accent.


Foreman of the jury, have you reached your verdict.

We have your honour.

And what, foreman of the jury, is your verdict.

Well, your honour. We’ve talked and talked, and debated and debated and, you know what, at the end of the day…

Foreman – your verdict please

Your honour, we’ve decided not to mix in.


It’s the saddest joke I know because not mixing in,

Turning away from the nu-ness of Jewish life, the first person plural demand on our souls is a failure.

When we close ourselves off, sealing our self off from being broken in on

Preferring, instead, to hide behind a mixture of our own private concerns, laziness and embarrassment.

We demean our inheritance as Jews.


Kol Yisrael arayvim zeh lazeh


Says the Talmud,

‘All Israel is responsible for one another,’ say most translations.

But the translation ‘responsible’ falls some way short of carrying the entire meaning of the word. Arayvim

Ayin reish vet – erev – means to mixed in, we have all been thrown into a giant mixing bowel, you and I.

We were thrown together at Sinai, my destiny wrapped up in yours.

‘Not mixing in’ is an abdication of this truth, an abdication of my heritage as a Jew and a failure of the spark of humanity folded within me.


I know this most intimately from my experiences with a newborn child, this year.

Every time my glorious wonderful son cries in the dark recesses of the night and I roll away, considering it someone else’s problem – who am I kidding, hoping my wife will drag herself out of bed so I can remain feigning sleep -

I know I fail, I’ve closed myself up, sealed my book all by myself. What about her sleep, what about my son!


But this isn’t a sermon about allowing our family, or even our friends to break in on us. That is somehow too self-serving, too obvious.

This is a sermon about allowing us as a community, allowing New London Synagogue to break in on us more often, more profoundly.


This is, as you know well, my first year as Rabbi of this august community.

And such stories I have heard this year.

Looking out over faces I know and don’t know I’m struck by the brokenness the

tzores – the pain.

Medical tzores, professional tzores, personal tzores


I spoke to one member recently, I introduced myself, it’s taken me seven months to get round to calling. Failing again.

And asked if there was anything we, as a Synagogue could do for her.,

‘There’s nothing now,’ she responded, ‘but you should have called a couple of years ago when …’ and she launched into a story of medical tzores, an illness, ­an operation that had gone wrong, and an extended period of convalesce, all of which she had done void of any support from anyone at the Synagogue.

And I wished, indeed, that I, or my predecessor, had known.

We should have been more open, more ready to be impacted by her suffering.

But then again, this woman hadn’t let us know. She hadn’t told anyone. She hadn’t thought, or didn’t feel we would want to know, or didn’t want to open to us.

So here we both were, this Rabbi and this congregant, alone.

With the books of our lives shut to one another.

Un-mixed in.

What a waste.

A waste of humanity, a waste of community, religious community especially.


We sit here today like too many strangers.

Too many ‘I’s, not enough ‘we’s.

Too much first person singular, not enough first person plural.

Too many closed books.

Look around you, look five seats away, how many names of those five seats away from you do you know.

How many stories?

It’s all too bitty, we are foreigners to one another.

If we are not careful we will be giving a lie to the claim that we are doing this whole Rosh Hashanah thing together – avinu malkeinu¸al chet shchatanu.

This Rosh Hashanah it doesn’t really feel that this is a big reunion of the time we all stood together at the foothills of Sinai, you and I.

We’ve lost out on the greatest gift of what it means to belong, to belong to a religious community most especially.

The gift is this. Belonging to a religious community – this religious community, or any other – grants us a first circle of people to break in on us.

My wife, children, my family and the friends I have chosen because they make feel better, they don’t count.

The real test is my kehillah, my community, the people with whom I have chosen to stand before God on this most important day in the Jewish year.

It is the community – the faith community – that provides the first ripple away from our own selves, our own selfishness.

It is this set of relationships that provide the greatest test of my quality as a Jew, a human.


Indeed this is our story, here at New London, the shul founded by and for Rabbi Louis Jacobs of blessed memory. As a Synagogue community we were created and sustained for decades on the basis of a willingness to allow ourselves to be moved by a fellow’s story – a Rabbi’s tzores. We allowed ourselves to share in Rabbi Jacobs’ story and it brought us together, it made us strong.

As a child, as an adult as a Rabbi I have always been inspired by Rabbi Jacobs’ story. That story will always be our history, but it can’t be our future, it’s not even our present.

This shul is no longer a shul about one person’s story – no matter how great the man, no matter how stirring the story. New London is, and must strive to become ever more about all of us; a congregation of a thousand interconnected stories, a thousand interwoven lives.


It’s not just the tzores, it’s the joys too, the babynamings, the weddings, the successes. And perhaps above all it’s the sharing of the humdrum, the seemingly unremarkable – where I went on holiday, how’s the new job, how are the children?

A synagogue which exists in the first person plural is a synagogue full of simple acts of connection,

Acts of turning strangers in fellows,

Opening up to the strangers sitting five seats away begin to make tiny credits in a communal account that binds us into the fate of each other, like a spiders web, with every moment of connection contributing more strength, more meaning, more power to our lives as Jews.

The desperate hope is that by the time something awful happens – for indeed it is only a matter of time – there will be enough in this account, enough strength in the web, that we can be held, lifted even, even in the most difficult of times.

Every time we come to Shul and bring ourselves – opening up a bit, week on week – we make a credit in our communal account.

This is the purpose of Synagogue membership –our subscriptions allow us to open this communal account, the cosmically important account, the account which measures the quality of our commitment to our fellows, our willingness to be open the experience of strangers.


I’m not, today, going to suggest that we, now, all to turn to the strangers sitting around us, to introduce yourselves, to begin this process.

Because today isn’t the day when we can undo this stranger-ness.

Undoing this stranger-ness, allowing our lives to become mixed in with one another is the work of a year, maybe even more than a year.

It’s the work of fifty shabbatot of introducing ourselves to one another, gently prising open the clasps on the books of our life we are so used to holding tightly shut.

It’s fabulous here, at New London, on the shabbatot of the year.

It’s warm, bright, vibrant, alive.

Don’t be a stranger.


Don’t be a stranger.

It’s a common enough plea for a Rosh Hashanah address, but when I ask each and everyone of us here today not to be a stranger I mean it deeply seriously.

Don’t just come more often, but go as far as to bring yourself with you when you come.

And one week pick up a few names, and the next a bit of biography, and the next a chance to learn something important about someone, a fellow traveller in this kehillah kedushah, this holy community.

And share of yourself too. Share your name, your own narrative, what brings you here.

Why you have chosen to throw your lot in with this particular and let’s face it peculiar slice of the Jewish world.

Allow yourself some credits in your communal account, allow yourself to celebrate this gift of belonging and meaning.

Because it is a tremendous gift.


This is my big ask on this big day.

In the year ahead, don’t be strangers.

Bring yourself.

Allow yourself to be broken in on.

Allow your own vulnerability to become part of our collective narrative as a community.

Take your own steps to allow us to become a real community, existing in the first person plural, void of strangers, able to pray the avinu malkeinu in the first person plural.

Sharing in the triumphs and disasters of the fragile lives we all need.

If we can do that then, indeed, we have far less to fear from the decrees made against our own small lives in this year to come.

If we can do that then, indeed, we become far more worthy of decrees of life, of health, of love and of happiness.

May they come to us all.

L'Shanah Tovah.

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