Friday, 10 October 2008

A Neilah Sermon - Don't Forget the Horse

Too much thinking can prove problematic.

There is even a problem with too much spiritual investigation.


A parable;

Told in the name of the eighteenth century master Reb Simchah Bunam.[1]

A prince bought a pure-bred stallion and to protect him from thieves, locked him into a stable built of stone.

The stable gate was bolted and guarded by an armed watchman.

One evening the Prince was strolling past the stable and saw the guard was looking perplexed. 'Hey' he called to the guard, 'what's on your mind?'

'There is this question is bothering me,' said the guard, 'when you sink a nail into the wall, where does the mortar go?'

'An important question,' said the prince, 'you do well to think about it.'

And the Prince went to sleep.

But the Prince couldn't sleep and so, some time later, the Prince went out for another stroll and again passed the guard looking perplexed.

'What's on your mind this time?'

'There is another question that is bothering me; when you eat a bagel where does the hole go?'

'Another important question,' said the prince, 'you do well to think about it.'

And the Prince went back to sleep.

But yet again sleep would not come, so yet again, he went out and yet again passed the guard looking perplexed.

'What is on your mind this time?'

'I have another question.' Said the guard, 'I can see the stable and I can see the stone walls and the gate, but the horse - where is the horse?


This is the problem of spending too much time in spiritual retreat and intellectual engagement.

We forget that we are supposed to be looking after a horse.

With too much thinking and sitting around we can forget what we are supposed to do.


So let me offer one simple and concrete request for action, at this time, this time when the simple and the concrete are the messages we should be hearing and the commitments we should be making to ourselves and our God.


I want you to do something before you start to eat this evening.

Doing something before we start eating is a well attested Rabbinic tradition. The medakdekim – the precisely observant amongst us –go home and bang in the first nail of our succah before eating.[2]


But I want to suggest something else.

I want to ask that we go home and write a cheque before we start to eat.

Ach, who does cheques anymore.

Go home, log on, make an on-line donation.

Wait, if you have to, in frustration and hunger for the computer to whirr into life before you allow yourself the luxury of moving on from pull of this day.


I've never, in honesty, understood why we call it a Kol Nidrei Appeal, who carries money around on Kol Nidrei?

And then you have a day of ashamnu and bsefer chayim and achat v'achat and before you know it we are stuffing our stomachs full of all the goodies we have done without these past twenty-something hours and then we fall asleep.

And tomorrow we get up and go to work.

If we only speak about giving on Kol Nidrei we leave ourselves too many opportunities to forget about the horse.


So let me speak about money tonight and ask for action tonight so there is less time to forget, less time to lose the momentary impulse we might feel to support charities facing, this year, the same ferocious economic climate in which we all find ourselves.


We have chosen, this year, our own Shul and the UJIA as the charities we would wish you to support most strongly.

New London Synagogue, your Jewish Community – you can't pull off a day like this without office staff, without a full time Chazan, without a year-round choir. That costs.

We have a conversion programme bursting at the seams, an influx of new young adult members, we've had fifteen baby-naming ceremonies since I have been here; parents and toddlers turning to us to help them find meaningful points of entry into Jewish life and community. We are taking our pastoral responsibilities more seriously.

It all costs.

This autumn we are launching our education programme, we want to return New London to its rightful place as the centre for the most important conversations in Anglo-Jewry, the most important conversations in the global search for a place to stand between the rival poles of rampant secularism and religious fundamentalism.

New London is uniquely placed to be that centre, this is a challenge we must rise to meet. And it is a challenge that costs.


And our second beneficiary

We ask for support for the UJIA with whom we are building a resource centre in the Galil, the north of Israel, a centre which will bear the name of our beloved founder Rabbi.

And aside from honouring the memory of Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs zichrono livracha.

And aside from helping some of our least advantaged brothers and sisters in a troubled land we all treat as home,

Aside from all this, this resource centre is part of a bigger effort to ensure that the Galil becomes a place where young Jews can find education, employment and a future.

For a Galil void of these things threatens the very soul of the State of Israel.

And that costs.


Go home and before you start eating support this. Support us. Support these.


Actually I don't even mind if you find a different charity to support.

I have a folder, in my office, with letters from a vast range of worthy organisations. Each asked me, asked us, to include them in our Kol Nidrei Appeal.

Each includes sometimes harrowing, sometimes moving accounts of the work they do and the even more extraordinary work they wish they could do.

And these letters haunt me. Let them haunt you.


British Friends of Neve-Shalom, Wahat al-Salaam

British Wizo

JAMI – The Jewish Association for the Mentally Ill

JAT, formerly the Jewish Aids Trust

Jewish Women's Aid

New Israel Fund

Nightingale House


One Plus One Association of Immigrant Youth

The Ashdod Emergency Medical Centre

The Bar / Bat Mitzvah programme for Children with Special Needs run by the Masorti Movement in Israel

The Jewish Bereavement Counselling Service

The Jewish Council for Racial Equality


World Jewish Relief

It's not even the full list, I lost some letters.

Al cheit shechatati, for the sin I have committed ….


Hey, you could even give money to an organisation that has nothing to do with Jews at all.

That too would count.

You want to give money to cure cancer, care for the needy in this country or abroad, you want to give money to for any charitable purpose, that is fine.


Just do this.

Go home, write the cheque,

Before you feed your own needs - give.

Begin this Year with an act of generosity.


Before we forget or get distracted or overly satiated.


I know. It doesn't feel like a good time to giving money, we are all feeling a little spooked by the financial collapses out there.

So let me share some Torah to give us strength.


We all have to give, says the Talmud, אפי' עני המתפרנס מן הצדקה יעשה צדקה – even one who survives solely on charitable handouts has an obligation to perform acts of financial giving.[3]

There is no level of financial destitution that absolves us of the need to support others.


And as for those of us in the blessed fortunate position of being a step or more away from destitution, let me offer this.


Rambam, in his laws of gifts to the needy, examines the obligation to leave the corners of the fields for the poor.

How much of a corner do you have to leave? He asks[4]

There is, according to the Bible, no minimal amount.

According to the Bible you could leave a single sheaf and fulfil the obligation, but the Rabbis mandated that we must leave at least one sixtieth of our crop.

ומוסיף על האחד מששים

לפי גודל השדה

ולפי רוב העניים

ולפי ברכת הזרע,

And we add to that 1/60th depending on the size of our field, the scale of poverty and the blessing of our crop's yield.


It's not a bad way to approach how much to give.

Regardless of the size of your field or the bounty of our harvest you have to leave a 60th.

If our field is larger, we have to give more.

And if the needs of the poor are great, we have to give more.

If we are having a good year, we have to give more, maybe we are not having such a good year, but this is only one part of the equation. It must not be allowed to overshadow all else.


I'm going easy on us here. When it comes to tzedakah most Rabbis talk about the obligation to tithe – a tenth, but my sense is that tithing applies in a world free of taxation.

So it's a 1/60th, plus.


For many of us it is not a great year, I'll accept that.

But the needs of the poor are definitely great, and may be increasing at a faster rate than our share portfolios are shrinking.

And for most of us our fields are still pretty large.

It's a 1/60th plus.


Let me share one last text, before the gates close

There are four kinds of person, say the Rabbis of the Mishnah[5]

One is the person who says,

שלי שלי ושלך שלך

 what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours - 


Some of the Rabbis say this is acceptable mediocrity, but yesh omrim – there are those that sheli sheli vshelcha shelcha is the way of Sodom.

There are those who say that the attitude

what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours -

Is the attitude of a city so evil it needed to be wiped from the face of the earth.


The attitude

 what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours - 

is an abdication of the notion that other people, other needs, impact upon me.

It is a sealing myself off from these other needs.

And we are back where we started, ten days ago when we began this magical journey.

Back at the sermon I gave on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the sermon where I asked us to allow ourselves to be broken in upon, affected by those around us.[6]


'What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours' will not do.

Even if we aren't feeling generous, even if we are scared for the value of our portfolio.

It's still 1/60th plus.


We have some last moments of prayer together.

Before the gates close we should let our souls to be touched once more by this glorious liturgy.

We should reflect once more on our failings and our opportunities for improvement.

We should reflect once more on our mortality and the lives of those we have loved and lost.

And then we should go home.

And we should remember the horse.

And we should write out a cheque and only then eat.

And then, please God, we should be blessed to get on with a year of health, sweetness and joy.


Gemar Chatimah Tovah – may it come to us all.

[1] Retold based on Elie Wiesel, Souls  on Fire p. 224

[2] Rema OH 624:5

[3] TB Gittin 7b

[4] MT Matanot Levyanim 1:15

[5] Avot 5:10

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

very very nice. yasher koach. check out the new "my israel" :

i have been involved with it since its inception over a year ago, and danielle franks is running one heck of an organisation. she is spot on!

look carefully and i think you will appreciate the way they are doing tzedakah - knowing where every penny goes.

arnie draiman

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