Thursday, 1 October 2009

Feeling and Doing

A Neilah Sermon from Yom Kippur 5770

The gates are closing.

How are we feeling?

We’ve spent, I’ve spent, a lot of time over the last ten days talking about feelings, believings, internalities.

And that’s fine, but it’s not enough.


A story.

A colleague, a very successful Rabbi in New York, received a call from his long-since retired father, who had gone to live in Florida.

Avi, he said, I’m phoning to tell you I’m coming up to New York for Shabbas.’

‘Oh Abba,’ responds Avi, ‘That’s terrific, you know how much I love to see you.

I’ll arrange a cab to pick you up at the airport and bring you home and I’ll see you when I get back from the…

‘Avi’ the father interrupts, ‘I said I’m coming up to New York for Shabbas.’

‘I heard Abba, and you know how much I’ld love to come and pick you up from the airport, but, you see …

‘Avi, I said I’m coming up to New York for Shabbas.’

‘Abba, I love you, but I’ve got meetings and things I need to do and …’

‘Avi,’ the voice gets serious, ‘Avi, do me a favour, love me a little less, and pick me up from the airport.’


One of the great secrets of Jewish survival is our commitment to action.

Too much emphasis on feelings, emotions and intellectualisation is not our way.

Or at least has not been our way, until these past decades, a blink in the eye of Jewish time.

Something is happening, something is changing.

There are still many many of us who are proud enough to say that we ‘feel Jewish.’

That’s good. That’s a start.

But then, when one tests this emotion out, what does it mean, for this person – too often there is little there.

Too many of us think that Judaism can be achieved by feeling alone.

And it’s not true. Very little is accomplished by feeling alone.


A funny person who never tells jokes isn’t really funny.

A well-read person who never opens a book isn’t really well-read.

A charitable person who never gives away money isn’t really charitable.

And a Jewish person who does little more than feel Jewish, isn’t really Jewish.


There’s been a lot of press attention, this last year, on the admissions policy of JFS, the largest Jewish secondary school in the country and among the most successful of all secondary schools in the country. And my feelings on the old admissions policy at JFS are, I hope, well known. But the new policy is pretty good.

The new admissions policy for JFS does exactly what I would wish it to.


If you want to send your child to JFS, and if JFS is oversubscribed – and it’s always over-subscribed – admission will be made according to the number of points an applicant racks up. And you score points for coming to Synagogue, you score points for being involved in Jewish education and you score points for being involved in social action or charitable projects.

Now it makes more work for shuls that have to administer the policy and it’s a little simplistic, but I’ll forgive all that because the heart of the policy is sound, tremendously sound.

Because the test of Jewishness really should be more about our Jewish doing than our Jewish feeling.


I’m going to make three calls on our Jewish doing this evening.

I’m going to be even better behaved than that.

It’s party conference season, and before Rosh Hashanah 5771 there’s going to be a general election.

I’m going to start my campaigning here, for the New London Party.

And in this ‘party-political-broadcast-in-favour-of-more-Jewish-doing’ I’m presenting a budgetary surplus; a surplus of time and a surplus of money.

Vote for me, vote for us.

I’m putting three things on our manifesto – the first one is going to take up some of your time, but I’ll make it up to you, you can trust me, I’m a Rabbi.


We are launching a new series of adult education programmes this autumn, on Prayer. We offering classes on two levels.

The first is for those who look at the siddur and see an impenetrable mess; if you can’t understand the Hebrew and reading the English doesn’t help, if you feel you could do with sorting out the difference between Kiddush, kaddish and kedushah, if you’re continually having to check which page number you should be on – we have the perfect course for you. It’s called Siddur Sat-Nav and it does what it says on tin. It’s being taught by a wonderful educator; Rina Wolfson.

I know, because so many people have mentioned it to me, that it can be hard, that it can feel off-putting, but it’s not hard to come inside – and this is the course to do if you have ever wanted to do that.


And if you feel at home in the services, and understand their waft and weave; come to the other series; Chazan Stephen Cotsen, Chazan Jacky Chernett and I will be offering classes on some of our favourite prayers, we’ll be looking at meaning, history and music.

I promise these classes will transform your experience of prayer, of being part of a prayer community, of being part of this prayer community.

It will give you the tools to use the liturgy to do precisely what I was talking about on the second day of Rosh Hashanah – use the liturgy to experience real prayer.

There will be a five part series starting in November and another in January.

I’m asking for your time; to be here.


And I’ve promised a budgetary surplus, so let me suggest where you can get the time back.

Watch less television.

I’m not opposed to television, it’s not wrong or evil of anything like that.

There are, I know perfectly good and important things that happen on television

And we use it to pacify our kids when they are a little whiny, but that’s the point.

Television is the nation’s pacifier, our dummy.

As a nation we watch too much television. As a community we watch too much television, I am sure.

And in case you might be feeling that not watching television is insufficiently Jewish, I’ll grant extra points for not watching television over Shabbat – Yom Tov, the next two weekends for starters.

So, in the year to come I am asking this Jewish ‘do’


Spend less time watching and more time studying.

Spend less time being the consumer of pacifying, intellectual bubble-gum and more time being an engaged partner in our fabulously rich tradition.

Turn off the television and come to a class at the Synagogue.


Those are my first two calls.


And the second one is even better. It starts by saving you money.

I want to suggest that we use no money for the period of the Shabbat.

I’m not opposed to money.

It’s just, for the 25 hours between sun down Friday and stars out Saturday, I want to ask us all not to touch it.

Not to do cash, not to do cards, cheques, paypal, switch, maestro, nothing.

Just don’t buy anything for one day in the week – the Sabbath day.


Jews are not scared of money.

We are scared of poverty. Poverty is, says the Talmud, like death.[1]

Money, like television, isn’t bad, it isn’t the root of all evil.

Money’s necessary and can be a source of tremendous good.

But money, the ultimate material possession, can also blind us, it can confuse us.


A story – with a Jonah theme, for this early evening.

It was a hot day at the beach, Bessie Cohen was there with her three year old grandson.

She had bought him a cute little bathing costume with a cute little hat and she watched in delight as he played at the edge of the water.

Suddenly a great wave came up and swept onto the shore and before Bessie could move, it had swept the boy out to sea.

Bessie was frantic, ‘I know I’ve never been religious,’ she pleads, ‘but God, I’ll do anything, save my grandson.’

The child goes under the water for the first time.

Bessie cries become even sharper, ‘Dear God, save the boy, I’ll never ask anything of you again.’

The child goes under the water for a second time, Bessie is wailing and screaming for mercy.

Then suddenly a wave, another wave, and this one deposits the child on the shore.

The boy is shaken, but fine.

Bessie rushes over, picks him up, wraps him in a blanket, and carries him away from the sea. And then notices something.

She turns her head to the heavens and cries out again, ‘He had a hat’


This is the problem with money.

It blocks our engagement with the majesty of creation.

It colours our ability to see our own blessings.

If we think we are as rich, or as poor, as the value of those things money can buy, we have forgotten what is important to count in this world.


The promise of money, the promise of acquisition is that they will make our lives better.

The sorrow is that money seems, so often, only to trap us in a cycle of chasing after shadows and vanities.


So, how are we to get this balance right?

How are we to appreciate money, acquisition correctly, without it sucking the soul from our lives?


Sheshet yamim taavod vasitah kol malachtecha,

V’yom hashvii Shabbat ladonai eloheicha     

For six days you shall work and the seventh is a day of Sabbath to Adonai your God.


Shabbat is the immunisation against the ways that money and acquisition can take over our lives.

For six days we should be involved in the real world of commerce and commercialisation.

And for one day we should step back, step away, step above – reach for a world of meaning.


If this is part of your weekly journey through life you get this already.

If you’ve never tried it, try it. Allow yourself to arrive at Saturday evening with only the things you had on Friday afternoon – you will feel freer, I promise.

And you will be richer.


There, a budgetary surplus.

Come to a class at New London.

Watch less television

Spend no money on Shabbat.


It’s a manifesto for those of us who feel the need for something a little concrete on a day like today.

And even for those of us who feel comfortable in ‘feeling Jewish’ without allowing our lived lives to reflect our emotions.

Watch less television – take a class at New London

Stop spending money on Shabbat.


And in this way may our sealing be for a year better, brighter, richer and sweeter than any we have known -

Gmar Hatimah Tovah

[1] Nedarim 7b

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