Sunday, 16 September 2012

Second Day Rosh Hashanah Sermon - Opening Ceremony

An Opening Ceremony

If you were put in charge, how would you open the Games of the Hebrew Year 5773?

What would be in your Jewish version of the trampolining hospital beds, the mighty towers bursting from a Green and Pleasant Land? What would be the Jewish version of Propsero’s Isles of Wonder speech? I didn’t get to see the Olympics’ Opening Ceremony and wasn’t going to catch it until a slew of people told me I had missed something about more than fun. The Opening ceremony, casting our minds back that far, shaped a narrative, it wanted to define what it means to be British today and largely succeeded. It was a ceremony built on our past, but in such a way as to shape our future. And those are all things, from a Jewish perspective, that are on my mind today.

Some bits come easily to mind, we have a Torch lighting moment in the Torah – Elijah taunts the prophets of Baal before calling on the Divine to torch a sopping wet pyre. I’d certainly book Elijah, preferably to abseil down from the very heavens.

And a Jewish do without food – whoever heard of such a thing? Forget about flashing pixels, I imagine a Stadium where, secreted under each chair, would be a nice hot bowel of chicken soup or a falafel in pita.

I’m being facetious. But the questions are still good. If you were alone on a bimha, with 18 minutes and only words with which to paint pictures and touch souls, how would you frame who we are, what we have been and what we must strive to become.

My version of a Jewish Opening ceremony would come in three acts.

My first act would feature mirrors, or maybe one of those fancy photographic montages where a vast image turns out, on close inspection, to be made of thousands of tiny photos. It would be entitled – btzelem - image. Torah teaches that Adam, the first human being was created btzelem elohim – in the image of God. And the Rabbis understand every human ever since minted from that same cast, imprinted with that same image. That is to say that every human being ever created is created in the image of God. Or to put the same idea the other way round – you want to know what God looks like, imagine a collage of every face that ever was and ever will be and somewhere just beyond all of that, will be the Divine.

It’s a powerful idea. Male and female, black skinned and white skinned, paralympically classified or olympically classified, we all contain within ourselves an imprint of the Divine. In the Ancient Near East all sorts of ancient peoples and religions felt certain people could be godly, but godliness was always the exclusive right of a King, a Pharaoh – never something for a mere commoner. Rich and poor, healthy and sick.

This Torah verse, this idea, is at the heart of a religious conception of human rights – how could we mistreat a person created in the image of God, it’s at the heart of a religious conception of democracy – how could we deny a say to someone created in the image of the Divine?

But more, even than that, this idea is at the heart of a Jewish morality. It determines how we should treat our fellow human beings. How can we say something or do something that hurts or wounds another human being created, just like us, in the image of God. One of the wisest things I’ve ever heard came from a therapist who suggested that when a 70 year old man comes into his consulting rooms complaining of being pregnant his job is not to tell the man that he is not pregnant, but to work out the way in which he is pregnant.

The Jewish version of the same idea runs like this. When a person annoys you, frustrates or hurts you, your job is to work out the way in which the image of God is annoying you and respond from that place. When you find yourself responding to another human being in a way that fails to recognise that they, like you, are quite that special, you’ve failed to act appropriately and a piece of Teshuvah may well be called for.

A moral task for us, for this year just starting. When you are annoyed, frustrated or hurt by someone, before you respond remind yourself that they are created in the image of God. Meditate on that idea for 5 seconds, and then respond.

The first act – Btzelem – in the image of God and the heart of a Jewish morality.

The second act would feature a gigantic hamster wheel. It would be called Shabbat. ‘For six days serve, do all your work, but on the seventh day rest and be re-ensouled.’ Goodness we need it. The pace at which modern life is lived, the pressures to be permanently available, yoked to the millstone.

We live in a world where we are continually squeezed. It’s the rare employer who says, ‘you know, that’s fine for now, go home and celebrate the fact that you are not a hamster on the wheel.’ Where do we find protected places that allow our souls to flourish, our sense of who we are to be celebrated, where do we find the encouragement to spend time with our families, across generations, having proper conversations free of the background noise of television and celebrity chitter-chatter? How do we learn to be happy with what we have, how do we learn to be less tied to consumerist enticements to spend more and more on things we need less and less? It’s astounding to me that the most anciently rooted observance in all of Judaism is quite so contemporary in its importance and power.

‘For six days serve, do all your work, but on the seventh day rest and be re-ensouled.’ Shabbat is the protection we, as Jews, erect around these essential bedrocks of our lives. It’s how we ensure that, at least once a week, we have time to celebrate as a human being. Shabbat is the way we prove to ourselves that, as hard as we work, no-one owns us, it’s how we prove we are free, it’s how we demonstrate that we have enough.

So a call to make on our ever more hectic lives - on Friday evenings, pick a time, if you can make it sundown, great, but don’t give up just because you can’t. And turn off the wi-fi, the rooter, the TV, the Radio, the phone, everything. Light candles and enjoy life off the hamster wheel.

Act One – Btzelem – the creation of the human being in the image of God.

Act Two – Shabbat

Act Three – Tzedek

The big prop in the middle of my Act three would be a pushke – a charity collection box. I looked up, for the first time, the other day, the etymology of charity – turns out it is caritatem, meaning affection. I was stunned, it’s so non-Jewish. The Jewish conception of Tzedakah has nothing to do with feeling affection for those who are needy. It’s not a sort of patronising beneficence. Tzedek is the Hebrew word for justice. Justice demands that those who ‘have’ to help those who ‘have not.’ Incidentally justice also demands those who think they ‘have not’ to give to support others. No-one escapes the responsibility to make the world a just place. And it’s not just about money. Do not favour a poor person or a rich person, the Torah teaches – don’t be dissuaded from doing what is right by material considerations. At the heart of a Jewish perception of Tzedakah are two ideas. One is empathy the other is sensitivity towards those who are disenfranchised – the unvoiced.

Ger lo toneh ci gerim hayitem beretz mitzrayim – don’t oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. It’s a command that appears over thirty times, in one way or another in the Torah.

You’ve been there, you know what it is to be mistreated, insulted, picked on and abused, let your experience of oppression inure you from ever becoming an oppressor make you a liberator. Let empathy inspire your commitment to justice.

Arur mateh mishpat yitom v’almanah – cursed be one who perverts the justice of the widow and the orphan. In ancient times, without a pater-familias, a widow or an orphan would be at the whim of anyone more powerful than themselves. There are people, today, in our contemporary communities who are at the whim of power they cannot hope to wield themselves; refugees perhaps most clearly among them – a single class who deserve our support both because of our empathy, for we have certainly been refugees, and also because of their status, at the whim of forces they cannot control.

A call, in the next ten days do something for the sake of justice. Do it with your credit card, do it with your time, do it with a simple act of kindness and decency, but show empathy and show an awareness of the plight of those who are powerless.

Btzelem – Image – The next time someone does something that annoys you, provokes you, remind yourself that this is an image of God you are about to respond to.

Shabbat – this Friday stop, turn off the chitter-chatter and light two candles.

Tzedek – Justice – do something just, do something to make this world a fairer and better place for us all to live in.

The Opening Ceremony of the Olympics captured something wonderful about what it means to be British. The Olympic Games fulfilled on that promise. Let our Opening Ceremony, this Rosh Hashanah inspire and motivate us to fulfil our promise as Jews in this New Year,


Shannah Tovah Umetukah – A sweet and happy year to all,


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