Friday, 31 October 2014

On Swamping Migrants - A Lech Lecha Sermon


I wonder if Abraham should count as an economic migrant.

Actually, I don’t wonder, it’s abundantly clear that he’s an economic migrant.


Vayehi ra-av baaretz vayered avram mitzrayima lagur sham, ki caved hara’av baretz.


Rashi, our greatest commentator, alive in the 12th Century brings a teaching that dates to the first two centuries of the common era; ra’av bair, pazer raglecha – a famine in the city, makes your feet go wandering.

Famines will do that to a person.

No food, no possibility of sustenance, of life persisting for you, for your family.

Pazer raglecha – off you go in search of pastures greener.

It’s hard wired into the human condition since, I suspect, before there was such a creature as homo sapiens.


Jacob, Isaac’s grandson, flees persecution.

Behold, his mother tells Jacob,

Esav achicha mitchatein lecha, lehargecha

Esau, your brother is plotting to kill you.

And off goes Jacob. He flees to Padan Aram.

Who wouldn’t?

I wonder if Jacob would be classified as an asylum seeker in this country if he turned up today pleading a real and immediate threat of his life being ended.

Actually I don’t wonder – I know he wouldn’t have a chance.


I had an interesting Kiddush conversation with a group of French new members of the community.

Et beinvenue mes amis francaises

I was commiserating about the rise of antisemitisim in France and asking about if this ascending threat accounted for their decision to come to England.

No, they responded, it’s the tax system.

Mes amis francaises had come to Britain in search of the opportunity to make what they can of their lives in an open, fair, democracy that in its imperfect way, values those who get on their bike.

How fortunate for our new French friends, that Paris is only a train ride away, and they need no visa.

I suspect my great great grandparents chose this mighty isle for much the same reasons.

Was there oppression in Odessa and the like? Yes, but they came to Britain because the horizons were brighter and the possibilities of life greater. Good on them. Thankfully for me.

I wonder for how many of us that is the case.


This wandering off, escaping deprivations and persecutions is a familiar enough trop.

I could tell the same story on the week we read of the destruction of Sodom and Gemorah for the horrendous failure to allow the new arrival Lot safe passage.

I could tell of Joseph’s brothers, sustained during famine in Egypt.

I could tell of the Israelites who so discomforted Pharaoh that he embarked on a programme of mass murder.

Oy mah hayah lanu – as we sing on the 9th of Av – what has befallen us, time after time after time we have been victims of programmes of mass murder for the sin of being strangers in a strange land.


Our identity is formed in wandering and in dislocation. Even before Egypt and the oft repeated Biblical instruction to do right by the stranger because ‘you were strangers in the land of Egypt,’ even before the centuries of exile and displacement, we were a dislocated people.


And here’s an interesting, and very old truth, about economic migrants, asylum seekers and the rest of us dislocated folk who can so destabilise an indigenous population.

We don’t know what we are doing at first. We are very liable to do things that the host community find deeply odd

Let me take Abraham as an example.

He arrives in Egypt and thinks the locals are going to take a fancy to his wife.

So he tells Sarah to tell everyone she meets that she is his sister.

Indeed Pharaoh does take a fancy to Sarah and showers Abraham with gifts.

Until that is, he realises he is wooing a married woman.

Mah zot asitah li, lama lo higadatah li ishtecha hi

What have you done to me, why didn’t you tell me she’s your wife?

I wonder how the Daily Mail would have reported that story of an immigrant’s deceit in search of pecuniary advantage.

Actually I don’t wonder.


And here’s another interesting, and very old, truth about economic migrants, asylum seekers and the rest of us.

We make quite a contribution, eventually. All the think-tanks and peer review articles tell us so.

Here’s my theory as to why there are so many Jews in the arts, in business, in science and the rest of it.

We are used to seeing things ever so slightly from the outside.

We aren’t accustomed to assuming that what has always been will always be, because we know that life changes and one generation’s well-established Jewish community become, all too soon the Fiddler on the Roof, precarious and hopping along the rooftops in search of another place to call home.

And that lightness of foot, that perspective that brings another viewpoint, that has experience is just a bit broader.

All those things make for success.


And here’s another very old truth about economic migrants, asylum seekers and the rest of us.

Narrow protectionism is always unsustainable in the long term.

When Jews were first allowed back into England, in the seventeenth century; we were kept out of the guilds, not allowed to own land, train as Drs all those kinds of things.

There were quotas for Jews at the public schools when I was growing up.

Quota for Jews!

Today, thank God, quite rightly, the kinds of institutionalised formalised racism that was such a marker of Jewish life in this country in the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries is criminalised.

But we have such a long way to go.


Because this is the most important truth about economic migrants, asylum seekers and the rest of us dislocated folk.

The test of the decency of a society is how it treats the stranger.

That’s why the command to love the stranger, or not oppress the stranger, or open your heart to the stranger is the most repeated verse in the Torah.

The test of our decency isn’t how we treat people who look like us, speak like us and make us feel cosy in our familiatude.

The test of our decency is how we deal with people we don’t understand, don’t like the look of, don’t really trust.

This is the great teaching of the Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas; how do you treat the Other in their otherness, without forcing them to be just like us, without, as Levinas would say, depriving them of their difference from us.

The test of our decency comes when we feel discomforted, challenged, provoked. Being decent isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to require a certain bravery, a certain integrity.


Do I mean that anyone arriving on these shores should be given a council house and income support and ushered straight to the head of the queue to our health service and education service? No, of course there needs to be a more sophisticated approach.

But this, this is not good enough.


This week our government, my government, announced it was withdrawing financial support for search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea – those penniless bedraggled dislocated folk attempting to get to Europe on overcrowded rafts.


Here’s what the Guardian columnist, Suzanne Moore has to say of the decision.

‘The flood of anxiety about immigration is about fear. [she wrote] The current hysteria is about fear of losing elections and now, predictably enough, there is so much fear that we will let these people drown. They will die trying to get here. That will show them. This is what [Moore continues] Theresa May reckons saving the lives of those drowning was a “pull factor” in illegal immigration. Yeah, that will show them, Theresa, [concludes Moore] Drowning.’


Moore diagnoses an epidemic of othering, where it is becoming acceptable to speak of immigrants as a problem, a threat. I’m sure she’s right, it’s felt, this last week, that it’s only borderline unacceptable to speak of immigrants as a swamp.

There is, in all of this, the discourse of Pharaoh, whose fear of the Israelites was entirely predicated on our swarming through his land.

And look where that ended up.


I know there are hard decisions to be made; to preserve a sense of identity in communities, to fairly allocate resources among those with very different relationships to what Rousseau called the social contract.

But it is not right that we slam our doors tight shut in the face of the desperation of others.

It is not right that the fear of a nascent political party can be allowed to spook our political leaders into acts immoral; acts that would spell death for generations of our people dating from Abraham to my own most direct ancestors.

It cannot be right.


Let me conclude with a long extract from Suzanne Moore’s coruscating piece this week. It’s as religious as I could ever be.



In her brilliant book Purity and Danger, the anthropologist Mary Douglas talked about how we classify dirt as “matter out of place” and construct taboos around it. Immigrants now, many of them displaced people, are referred to en masse as less than dirt. We can see pictures of them clinging on to fences or trains for dear life, arriving in only the clothes they stand up in. We see these desperate people as a threat.

Some individuals, of course, may be. Some have come illegally. Trafficking humans is the slave trade reworked for the 21st century. There is money to be made in selling the glimpse of a life to someone in a camp in Jordan.

Sure, I understand it is hard to make the case to those who feel abandoned in Thanet. They feel disconnected from London, never mind Eritrea. But it is a downright lie to tell them that the flow of human capital can stop without changing our entire economic system.

Thus we are in a politics of denial, where those who speak the truth, from Nick Boles to Ken Clarke, appear oddly heroic. The “stop the world I want to get off and have a pint” appeal of Farage has spooked our leaders, who have followed him down an ever more shady path.

Denial and cowardice have resulted in talking about actual people as vermin, as dirt, as not worth saving.

This is truly disgusting and, if we like to think of ourselves as a fair people, we will not look away when someone is dying in the water. If we do not fight this dangerous talk, we will all go under.[1]



As a Jew, as a citizen of this great country, and as a human being, I can only add ‘Amen’

Shabbat shalom,



Sunday, 26 October 2014

Why I Support Gay Marriage

[This article was originally commissioned by the Jewish Chronicle, but run in a much shorter version]


Since my own wedding, ten years ago, I’ve had the honour of celebrating, as Rabbi, almost 200 weddings. I’ve seen babies be welcomed into the Jewish covenant and Bar Mitzvah kids become adults, I’ve celebrated long marriages, and sat on religious courts witnessing divorce. It’s given me a certain insight into why and how people seek out a life partner – and what happens next. I’ve celebrated and commiserated with an entire range of those who come from strong nuclear families and also broken families and families full of anger. This web of experience has made me believe every more strongly in the holiness and beauty of married life.

I believe the desire to stand before God, families and friends and, in the name of a shared Jewish tradition, commit to a particular kind of loving commitment is rooted very deeply – certainly I feel it myself. This is why I support creating and supporting Jewish same-sex marriage ceremonies. This is why I am delighted the movement I serve, Masorti Judaism, is supporting its Rabbis and member Synagogues in choosing whether to perform such ceremonies both as religious ceremonies and also as civilly recognised marriages. As a Rabbi, a husband and a fellow Jew, I can’t turn to a gay or lesbian Jew and deny them, in the name of the tradition I love, the strength I find in the ceremonies and rituals of hetrosexual marriage.

I’m know the Halachah, but the answer to the need gay and lesbian couples feel for committed loving companionship cannot come from a bare statement of Jewish law. Lesbian sexual activity is categorised in Halachah as an issur lav, that’s the same categorisation as applies to married women who uncover their hair – but I officiate for brides who won’t forevermore cover their hair. One form of gay sexual activity is prohibited by direct Torah mandate, that’s the same categorisation as applies to couples who engage in intercourse at certain points in the menstrual cycle – but I don’t extract sworn promises from straight couples that they will always follow rules of taharat hamishpacha – family purity.

I also know many of the non-legal Rabbinic commentaries on same-sex and hetrosexual coupling. One Midrash suggests Sodom was destroyed because its inhabitants wrote marriage contracts for gay couples. Maybe, but to my eyes the great sin of Sodom was of violent hatred, not committed love. Another Rabbinic text teaches ‘no man without woman and no woman without man.’ I have some empathy for those who claim hetrosexual coupling is ‘more natural,’ and also for those who claim children are best supported by having both male and female parents. But having a male and a female parent is no guarantee of a loving supported environment for children. More than that many of the same-sex families I know seem so attuned to the complex challenges of gendered parenting that these kinds of argument don’t move me to seek to deny same-sex couples or families the blessings of a religious ceremony.

Same-sex ceremonies can’t follow word-for-word the traditional hetrosexual model, based as it is, on kinyan, literally the acquisition of a woman by a man. But they should look like and sound like a Jewish wedding. It may feel odd at first, but comfort is not the goal by which all Jewish practice should be judged. The goal, for me, is to support Jews in finding a life-partner to love and with whom they can create a beit neeman b’yisrael – a faithful home in Israel. As the Torah teaches, ‘it’s not good for a person to be alone.’


Friday, 24 October 2014

My Responsum on Women Reading from the Torah

This was written when I was the Rabbi at St Albans Masorti Synagogue (SAMS).

Since then I have been succeeded by Rabbi Rafi Kaiserblueth who I know shares a very similar approach.

But he is the legal authority for practice at SAMS, not I.


All Go Up To Make Up the Quorum of Seven


This paper serves as a statement of the Halachic position of St Albans Masorti Synagogue on the issue of women receiving aliyot and reading from the Torah.



SAMS calls women up to read from the Torah and accepts women as readers of the Torah for themselves or others. We claim there is no loss to cavod hatzibur _ the honour of the community – when we do this; in fact the reverse is the case. We are honoured, both the men and the women in the community, by offering aliyot to women and having women read in public from the Torah.


Other Presentations Relied Upon

This article began life as a handout for teaching at synagogue. It lacks the full treatment of a more systematic presentation and there are some important issues I do not treat at all. Anyone interested in a fuller more technical presentation is directed to the responsa of Rabbi David Golinkin available at

An English summary of this responsa is available at (Vol. Three).

I also rely on the 1955 responsa of Rabbi Aaron Blumenthal, published by the CJLS (sadly not available on-line).

The fullest web-available English language treatment of the subject is that of Rabbi Mendel Shapiro (an orthodox Rabbi) and can be viewed at


The Paper

This is a paper based on religious texts. Texts are the wellspring of how we find our way as Jews and any attempt to understand the will of God in our lives and the lives of our community must be through our texts.


Almost the very oldest text we have, as Rabbinic Jews, is the Tosefta, redacted around 1800 years ago. Our journey begins with the text specifying how many aliyot are called on different days on which we read Torah.


Tosefta Megillah


On yom tov five

On yom hakipurim six

On Shabbat seven …

All go up to make up the quorum of seven, even a minor and even a woman, don’t bring a woman to read before the masses.


Before deepening our understanding of this text I think it important that we look at the very next line of the Tosefta. It will help us understand how law has evolved and continues to evolve and will also help us understand some key concepts in some later texts.



In a synagogue which only has one person who can read. That person stands and reads and sits, and stands and reads and sits … even seven times.


The fierceness of the insistence that the Torah, or the community, is slighted by bad reading is in evidence even into the seventeenth century where the central legal text – the Shulhan Arukh holds;


Shulchan Arukh: OH 139:2

One needs to protest against one who doesn’t know how to read so they do not go up to read from the sefer torah. And if you need one who doesn’t know how to read (if he is a Cohen or a Levi and there is no-one else save him), if when the reader reads for him word after word, he knows how to repeat it and read it from the written text he can go up. And if not, he should not go up.


Not something we do today! The notion, in ancient times, was that a person called to the Torah would read their own portion, probably without advance warning. A long way from current practice across the Jewish world today where we have baalei koreh – specified ‘masters of reading’ – who read on behalf of everyone who has an aliyah.


In fact the current practice was already known by the 17th century. The Rosh is one of the key writings that Joseph Caro, composer of the Shulchan Arukh, had to hand in his work, but decided not to rely on in this case.


Rosh: Megillah, 21a 3:2

The thing we do now – where the messenger of the congregation reads – that is so as not to embarrass people who can’t read.


This text is important, not only because it serves to show how an issue has evolved over time from a strong prohibition in the time of the Tosefta over the years since, but also because it shows the importance of embarrassment, honour and decent behaviour regarding Torah reading. In many ways this evolution in Halachah can be seen in terms of a tension surrounding the desire to respect Torah and the desire to respect individual humans. Both Torah and human beings are vitally important; both Torah and human beings are manifestations of the Divine Presence on earth. Neither is to be disregarded, but how is the balance between respect of Torah and respect of individuals who might want an aliyah but are unable to read themselves to be balanced?


In its earliest articulations the Rabbis inclined towards the respect of Torah. In later articulations, people become more the centre of gravity.


We return to the matter of aliyot for women. The Tosefta, despite its age, is not considered an entirely authoritative text. We prefer, as Rabbinic Jews, to rely on the Babylonian Talmud, still some 1500 years old. Much of the Tosefta, occasionally reworded, has made its way into the Talmud. And this is how our text makes its way into our most foundational document.


Talmud Bavli, Megillah 23a

Our teachers taught: All go up to make up the quorum of seven, even a minor and even a woman.

But the Wise said don’t call a woman to read from the Torah because of cavod hatzibur - the honour of the congregation.


There are two key questions to ask about this text:

i) What is the relationship between the first part – which states that a woman CAN go up (lit. olin from the same Hebrew root as aliyah) – and the second part – which states that The Wise said ‘don’t’?

ii) What is the meaning of cavod hatzibur? Does it function as a technical absolute, or is it a description of a social reality? In other words, if a particular community would not feel dishonoured, or if in contemporary times no loss of honour would reasonably been seen to result from calling a woman to the Torah, does the statement of The Wise still hold?


For answers we again turn to text. Two texts give a sense of the relationship between the admissable and the refusal. The first deals with the situation where, of at least ten men in a community, all are priests – cohanim. In this case it is not possible to call even a second aliyah from among the cohanim: that would be an affront to the second called Cohen; one might think there is a fault with his lineage. One option would be to call one Cohen seven times in a row, but this is not universally acceptable.


Bet Yosef, OH 135 13 D’HM Katav HaKol

Rabenu Yerucham disagrees with [the Halachic authority.] The Rokeach who wrote that in a city where everyone was a Cohen, one Cohen would read repeatedly. He wrote that women would read, since ‘all go up to the make up the quorum of seven, even … a woman.’


The second deals with a case where there are not enough expert male readers – again the consideration of the importance of reading properly is to the fore.


Hagahot vHidushim MeHaRaivetz on Tosefta Megillah 3:11, DH’M Aval Amru

It seems that that is possible [to call a woman] and the first part is talking about a time when there are not seven men who are expert readers and there is an expert woman and they can’t do it without her.


It seems that we can say that where there is no other possibility other than to call a woman, one can and should.


But what happens when there is no need? Can one call a woman when when we are able to read the Torah effectively by only calling men? To understand this issue we need to understand what the Talmud means by cavod hatzibur. The term appears five times in the Talmud.


Talmud Megillah 24b

Why is someone dressed in rags not allowed [to read from the Torah]? Because of the honour of the congregation.


[Note that the Rabbis consider it the responsibility of the community to ensure all are well clothed; this is not an abrogation of that responsibility.]


Talmud Sotah 39b

The shaliach tzibur is not allowed to take the dressings off the ark in front of the community because of the honour of the community.


Talmud Yoma 70a

It is not permitted to roll the sefer torah [from one reading to another] in front of the community because of the honour of the congregation.


Talmud Gittin 60a

The Galileans asked Rabbi Helbo, ‘Is it possible to read separate humashin [of each book of the Torah] in the synagogue in public? He did not know what to answer, so he asked in the Beth Hamidrash. They [said] that a scroll of torah which is missing of one flap cannot be read from. But this is not conclusive: in that case something was lacking, here nothing essential is lacking. Rabbah and Rabbi Joseph both agreed that separate humashin should not be read from out of respect for the congregation.


The breadth of these references, and their commonality, suggest that cavod hatzibur is just that, the sort of things that would make a community frustrated, embarrassed or would impose an unnecessary strain – tirchah­ ­– on the community. It is a description of a societal norm, not a technical absolute.


Our next source, from a contemporary orthodox legal authority seems to settle the matter. It discusses the possibility of calling a woman NOT when it would be impossible to read without her, but when, because of the make-up of a particular community, it would not be an affront to anyone’s honour to do so.


R. Ben Zion Abba-Shaul, Sefer Or le-Tsion, Teshuvot II, Hilkhot Pesuqot – Orah Hayyim I (Jerusalem 5753), p. 86.

If women never went up, what would be the purpose of saying ‘all go up to make up the quorum of seven?’ Therefore it seems that in a place where there is no worry about the honour of the community – for example in a place where the people are all members of one family and the woman is the head of the house, and all the rest of the men are her sons and grandsons - in that case there is no lessening of the honour of the community were she to go up, and it would be fine to include her to go up to the Torah … but the thing needs investigation.


Note the caution with which the Rabbi expresses himself. This is clearly not a full ‘go for it’, and in any event it is applied to a very narrow circumstance. Nonetheless the discussion is only conceivable if one agrees that cavod hatzibur is the definition of a social reality.


The origin of suggesting that, as a matter of a social reality, calling a woman to read would be an affront to honour is clear. At a time when women were educationally and socially second-class citizens, to call a woman would be seen as a clear sign that men could not do the job themselves, thereby shaming the community. But this is plainly an inapplicable notion in contemporary times.


Moreover in the light of the shift in how we read the Torah, using an expert shaliach tzibur rather than expecting all those called to read their own portion, how should we relate to this issue today? It is not at all apparent that a change must happen, or should happen. The important commentator Rabbi Joel Sirkus is clear that individual feelings or contemporary realities are irrelevant in this discussion.


Rabbi Joel Sirkus Bet Hadash, OH 53

The matter is simple, when The Wise make an alteration, and worry about the honour of the congregation, it is not in the hands of the congregation to forgo [their honour]. If this wasn’t so every alteration made by The Wise … [would be lost] and that would be horrid … And moreover it would split Israel into factions, this congregation would forgo, this wouldn’t. For sure they cannot forgo and uproot the alterations of the Wise.


Even Sirkus acknowledges there is a social reality at the heart of any decision to forgo cavod hatzibur: he might think it is impossible to forgo this honour, but his reasons for arguing this way are not based on cavod hatzibur itself, but other social realities. However he has two very good social-reality reasons for thinking that cavod hatzibur cannot be waived. The slippery slope argument and the argument that making a change in some communities would create factions in the broader community of Israel are both valid and important concerns. I will address them later.


On the matter of the permissibility of waiving cavod hatzibur Sirkus is in the minority. Rabbi Yosef Caro, the redactor of the Shulchan Arukh, thinks it CAN be waived and he is supported by the Pri Hadash, the Radbaz and the contemporary authority, Ovadiah Yosef (see Yeviah Omer Vol 6. OH: 23 on a related issue for full citations and discussion). Other authorities including the Magen Avraham, the Rema, the Mishnah Brurah and the Arukh Ha-Shulkhan all feel it MAY be waived (see the responsa of Rabbi Shapiro, footnotes 198-204). The Masorti authority, David Golinkin, embarks on an encyclopedic discussion of the sources and concludes:


Golinkin, Summaries of Teshuvot of the Vaad Halakhah (Masorti Movement)

If a woman is only excluded from reading the Torah because of kevod tzibbur, may the congregation ’relinquish its honor‘ and allow a woman to read? Some authorities say that a congregation can relinquish its honor while others say no, but in most of the cases we have found, most of the authorities rule that a congregation may ’relinquish its honor‘. This would therefore hold true in our case as well.


I follow Rabbi Golinkin. Cavod hatzibur can be waived by our community.


Golinkin goes on:


However, even if we were to rule the opposite, there is no need in this case for the congregation to relinquish its honor. In the [late Talmudic] period the disgrace to the congregation stemmed from the fact that men learned how to read the Torah and women did not and thus it would disgrace the men to have a woman read in public. Today, of course, this is no longer the case.


This returns to the issue of whether the term cavod hatzibur is technical or descriptive, whether it is an absolute or a social reality. In Golinkin’s mind it is purely descriptive and in any environment where loss of honour is not felt and could not reasonably be seen to accrue there is no reason not to call women.


I would even take the matter a little further. The voice of the Talmud assumes that cavod hatzibur involves the honour of men. The collective is understood as the male collective. The notion that women might feel their honour is slighted by being refused aliyot is not something that the exclusively male club of Rabbis of the ancient period even considered. The implications for a woman’s honour are, in the Rabbinic period, not taken as seriously as those of a man. This, for me, is no longer acceptable. I am as concerned about honour due to women as I am about honour due to men.


Let me say a few, SAMS specific, words about the two arguments of the Bach, namely that calling women to the Torah puts communities on a slippery slope to ‘worse’ abuses of communities’ honour and secondly that doing this causes factions to occur within Israel.


The fact that SAMS has always called women to the Torah seems important. This is not, for our community, about making a change; we have always been on the slippery slope the Bach wishes us to avoid. We have never been the sort of community that has sought to establish hard and fast barriers between permitted and impermissible. Instead we make our delicate way around complex issues by treating each case and each person on an individual basis. This is an approach I acknowledge can cause difficulties, but it is part of the reality of our community.  Moreover I believe that this has always been the Jewish way. From both theological and historical perspectives I do not agree with the view (perpetuated by certain elements within orthodoxy) that Judaism has existed for thousands of years by making no changes and always staying far away from ‘slippery slopes.’ This view is both radically new and, frankly, wrong.


We have, as Jews, always made changes sensitive to the honour we owe to God, to Torah and to our fellow human beings – also images of divine creativity. This is the lesson of the change in the way the Torah is read, from a person reading their own aliyah to having a dedicated baal koreh. We cannot hide from the slippery slope; no one can, not even in Bnei Barak and Stamford Hill. Instead we should seek to live well on the perilous incline.


As for the issue of splitting Israel I have mixed feelings. On the one hand I care deeply about klal yisrael – the family of Israel – and would not want to be part of splitting the community on such a potentially divisive issue; but on the other hand I am not willing to subject 50% of that family to a hidden existence. When we say to our women that they are not capable of honouring us publicly by receiving an aliyah we say to our daughters that they matter less than our sons. While I acknowledge that in Talmudic times this might have been true, and while I also acknowledge that in Talmudic times the Rabbis took great steps to improve the lot of women, to hold such a position today seems theologically and religiously untenable.


I believe the future of our synagogue and the Masorti Movement more generally lies in taking the difficult decisions that allow more of our members to have more opportunities to celebrate their Jewish identity, publicly and privately, in synagogue and in the home. We have the opportunity to change the way our sons and daughters grow up as full members of the community. We have the opportunity to provide an access into Judaism that is both sensitive to the demands of our past and of our future. It is an opportunity we dare not shirk.



At SAMS we call women to the Torah because we are honoured by both the men and women who tend and grow our community.


We call women to the Torah because we are a community of both men and women and care for the honour of all of our members.


We call women to the Torah because we know it is no slight on our community for us to acknowledge that women are no less well educated or capable than men.


We call women to the Torah because we believe that God too is honoured by opening the possibility of an aliyah to 50% of our members – women who are created, just as the men, in the image of God.



Tuesday, 14 October 2014

This is how the story ends


Finally, we come to the end of this glorious run of Moed – sacred time.


Depending on how you’ve been counting we started at the beginning of Succot. Or maybe we started at Rosh Hashanah, or maybe Slichot – the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah, or maybe seven weeks ago on the New Moon of the month of Elul, when we first started to blow the Shofar. Personally Tisha B’Av is always an important moment when my thinking around the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons steps up a gear – that was ten weeks ago. Tisha B’Av is, of course, the end of its own mini cycle, that begins with the fast of Tammuz and certainly there is a run of Haftorot that began thirteen weeks ago.


Then, of course, Sukkot really marks the end of the harvest cycle, that’s a cycle that began with Pesach, over half a year ago. Finally, Simchat Torah itself marks the end of a yearly cycle that began, exactly a year ago. And as bring this journey to a conclusion we start off again, we will be reading Bereishit this Friday morning, and on Shabbat. I always feel touched by the etymology of the word we use to describe the prayerbook we use on Festivals – Machzor. The root comes from the Hebrew word to return, to be cyclical, to be in the moment of recycling.


But there are two special moments in the coming days when this rolling, recycling wave comes to a pause, and they both deserve observance.

The first is this Wednesday night Thursday morning when we mark Shmini Atzeret – Atzeret literally means an end. It is a festival without Lulavim or Matzah or even cheesecake. It is a moment of pause, perhaps it’s fitting that Shmini Atzeret’s most notable liturgy is Yizkor, emptiness also that deserves its moment. It’s always a special day, it feels mature, unforced and genuine.

Then on Friday morning comes the pause in our journey through the Torah cycle. We come to the end of Deuteronomy, symbolically turn the Torah over, and then begin again. In that turning over there is a pause, a reset of the clock our spiritual lives. We bury Moses and meet, again, Adam and Eve and the possibilities of our future open before us once again.


May we finish this journey well, and start anew our next journey with even more purpose and energy,

Moadim L’Simchah

Chag Sameach and
Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Jeremy


Wednesday, 8 October 2014

It's autumn, so sudden, it must be that Yom Kippur is behind us.


To everyone who supported our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in any way, from children’s services to security, to choir and on the list goes – my grateful thanks.

It was a very special time to be part of the community. If you have any feedback, please do let me know, it’s always good to look for ways to do better.


A number have asked for copies of my sermons, they are all on-line;


And so Succot beckons.

The irony of preparing to go outside just as the weather turns is actually the very heart of the festival. We are supposed to encounter the real-world, as well as shelter ourselves from it. We are supposed to feel the dip in temperature, as well as turn on the central heating. Succot as a Festival and as a physical object holds both the fragility and the promise of comfort together, as the Mishnah teaches, we are supposed to ‘make our temporary permanent and our permanent temporary.’ The Halachic stipulation is that that a roof of a Succah must provide more shade than light is let in, but also advises that the roof should not be so thick as to make seeing the stars impossible.

It’s a Festival about the balance between the secure and the insecure, the comfort and the discomfort, the temporary and the dwelling. I think that’s why I love it so.


I look forward to celebrating it with you,

Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Jeremy


Posting Some Chassidic Drashot on Succot

Rabbi Naftali Zvi Horowitz,

Zera Kodesh, Ropczycer Rebbe, d. 1827


In Succot the Children of Israel dwelt

So we find that our teachers read that the shade of the Succah is the shade of faith [tsela dhimanuta], and we are forced to say that the word tzel only applies to one who doesn't sit right under the shady thing but rather at a little distance from it. One who sits right next to a tree and the shade of the tree is spread out over him; it's not the same as one who sits under a tree. So too here as one says, 'underneath the Succah' and this is to teach us something based on what our teachers said 'God is your tzel' just as every action of a person is also acted out by his tzel,it also appears that every action of a person awakens something Above.


And this is the idea of the Succah we make; it is a paradigm of the upper Succah. And this is the idea of the upper Succah of the very, very Upper Aboveness; the Upper nezTZELet mimaTZIL, May God's Name Be Blessed. And there is no screen distinguishing between that and the maTZIL of the light of the Blessed Ain Sof. For there is nothing between the Creator and the Created.


And the light which comes from the aspect of the Upper Succah which is only a little different from the light of the Ain Sof, as mentioned above, which can be seen from underneath that Succah. And in this way we make a Succah and it is like the tzel from the Upper Succah which is roofed with a schach which is not entirely thick like the ceiling of a house, and it's not a screen which entirely separates off from the air of the heavens like the ceiling of a house. Rather it's like a screen that makes a partial separation so the stars and the air of the heavens can be seen from it. And the remez that the stars should be visible through the schach is that star [כוכב] has the same Gematria as 26 + 22, for the Name is the inner aspect of the letters through which revelation occurs.




Sefat Emet

Yehudah Aryeh Leib, the Second Gerer Rebbe (1847 – 1905)


The Sukkah is like a Chuppah, marking the marriage of man and wife, 'For I caused Israel to dwell in sukkot when I took them out of the Land of Egypt' [Lev 23:43]. At the Exodus from Egypt Israel were mekudeshet to God as it says, I am the Lord who sanctifies [nikdashti] you, who brought you forth from the Land of Egypt to be your God.' [Lev 22:32]

There is a claim to be made against this: why should Israel be selected from among all creatures to be God's own possession? 'For all his possessions he made succot' [Gen 33:17, referring to Jacob]. It is also written 'who spreads out [pores] a sukkah of peace' [Liturgy]. The word pores also means 'to divide' or to 'choose a portion.'

God is wholeness itself. Why then did He choose a fragment of something? Scripture answers, 'I dwell with the lowly and those of humble spirit' [Isaiah 57:15]. The Zohar adds that a person with a broken heart is indeed whole [shalem]. This in fact is to be said in God's praise, wherever He dwells there is wholeness, He makes a whole out of a half.

This is the real meaning of 'who spreads a sukkah of peace.' The inner point that is everywhere wholeness, Israel represents this among God's creatures. On Sukkot 70 bullocks are offered for the seventy nations. The water libations are also interpreted by the Talmud to mean that Israel should pray for God's Kingdom to spread over all Creation. This is the meaning of 'Do not be life a servant who serves the Master only to receive a reward.' [Pirkei Avot].




Mei HaShiloach,

Mordechai Yosef Leiner, The Ishbitzer Rebbe, d. 1854


Deuteronomy 30:10

And Moses commanded them, saying, At the end of every seven years, in the time of the year of release, in the Feast of Booths, when all Israel has come to appear before the Lord your God in the place which he shall choose, you shall read this Torah before all Israel in their hearing.


It is said in the Gemara, RH 12b, 'What does the festival of Succot have to do with the Shmitta year? Succot, following Rosh Hashanah is already in the eighth year?! Yet all the produce that has grown during the seventh year, you treat it the same way in the eighth as you would have in the seventh.' [i.e. you have to tithe in the eighth year according the size of the harvest in the eighth year, you can't knock off some of the tithing because you weren't farming the crop in the Shmitta year.]
This is according to the verse, 'The heavens are the heavens of God and the earth was given to bnei adam.' This is just the way it seems. But it is well-known that all the actions of a person, even though the power of choice was given to humanity, are as insignificant as a peel of garlic. This is why we say on the first day of the week 'the earth is God's and its fullness' [Psalm for the day on Sunday]. The point of the Sabbath is to know that humanity has no real power, for the 39 forms of work created in the world, with which a person can do what they want are prohibited on Shabbat. But when the weekdays start, and work is again permitted, God forbid that a person say, 'my strength and the power of my hands have got me this wealth' (Deut 8:17). Therefore our sages established that say immediately after Shabbat, 'the earth is God's and its fullness.'

So too with Shmitta, the Torah commands that the earth is God's and all its fullness. Then when the eighth year comes, ploughing and sowing again becomes permitted. In order that we can reap from the land without saying, God forbid, 'my strength and the power of my hands have gained me this wealth,' the produce that was not brought as a tithe in the seventh year, 'you treat it also in the eighth year as you would have in the seventh,' in order to remember that, 'the earth is God's and it's fullness.'


Friday, 3 October 2014

Kol Nidrei 5775 - Ancestry and Les Temps Perdu

Ancestors, Descendants and the Search for Temps Perdu
I blame Proust. It was Marcel Proust who made such a great case for the romantic appeal of memory. Proust's greatest memory is of little biscuits dunked in tea. Ah - on a fast day, remembering food - I hope you aren't feeling hungry yet - a long way to go.
For Proust this taste had a power to evoke that, I'm pretty sure, isn’t a power we, as Jews, should rely on.
In fact even the title grates on me, somewhat, tonight of all other nights.
A la recherche du temps perdu.
Seeking that lost and gone.
It grates because, I think, this is how too many of us see our Judaism; a temps perdu. They are gone, those times, capable of evoking warm memories but definitely not coming back. It's not that I mind seeking out familiar evocations of a past, but I'm more interested in how I live today. I get nervous when engaging with a Judaism that is overly reliant on warm fuzzy memories of long ago. It replaces the true call of Judaism – to do what is right – with a call to do what is cozy.
Chicken soup is cozy. There's a tune or two that evokes in our souls a memory of our ancestors in ancient times - Kol Nidrei and all that jazz. There's a slightly morbid fascination with those of our co-religionists who dress like the Polish nobility of 200 years ago, but we gaze in on the black-coats, and sup the soup, secure in the knowledge that neither has anything to teach us about how we live our lives today. We look in on the frummers with our head cocked slightly to one side; they don't really believe all that do they? Meanwhile we congratulate ourselves on an intellectual sophistication that boils Judaism down to chicken soup.
Judaism in search of temps perdu becomes an exercise in the mathematical function of derivatives. What one generation did because they believed their Jewish commitment mattered, the next did even though they didn't, and the next did to remember the past, and the next relied on the occasional evocation - a nice bowel of chicken soup, and in a generation to come we will sup on minestrone.
So here comes my Kol Nidrei appeal, an appeal to all of us who consider this extraordinary multi-millennial narrative of ours passé and perdu.
The appeal is this – it’s not enough to be a descendent of a Jewish past, please become an ancestor of a Jewish future. Be a Jewish ancestor because the journey towards a Jewish future is necessary, holy and vibrant. Be a Jewish ancestor because our great history is not perdu, it's not even past.
Let me give you an example of what I mean by being a Jewish ancestor – actually it’s more than any old example, it’s the ur-example. This is the single thing that more than anything else awakens within us the possibility of being a Jewish ancestor. It was Ahad Ha-Am, the great poet of 19th C Zionism who said that more than the Jews kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.
Here's why you should take Shabbat seriously - and it has nothing to do with an evocation of the past.
Mohamed El-Erian was the CEO of a multi-billion dollar investment fund until January this year. Then he found himself trying to persuade his young daughter to brush her teeth - multiple times. He reminded his daughter that she should know from the tone of his voice that he was being serious. His daughter, El-Erian subsequently wrote, 'asked me to wait a minute, went to her room and came back with a piece of paper. It was a list that she had compiled of [22] important events and activities that I had missed due to work commitments. I felt awful' he continued, 'I got defensive, I had a good excuse for each missed event! Travel, important meetings, an urgent phone call. But it dawned on me that I was missing an infinitely more important point.' El-Erian quit his job and is trying to find more of a work-life balance. Aren't we all? The point is that balancing priorities, relationships and obligations is hard work, regardless of your professional or domestic situation, frankly regardless of your religion.
I think we need two counter-weights to stop us being run ragged and emptied out by the competing tugs on our waking hours, our wallet and our emotional energy. We need a centre to ground us and we need to practice.
This is where Shabbat comes in. It's a perfect storm of a reset, a centering and an escape. It’s a reminder that we have responsibilities, a reminder that there are ultimate loyalties and then there is everything else.
25 hours without telephones, computer screens, or televisions. No shopping; 25 hours to cease to be a consumer - a data point. 25 hours to be human; a son a daughter, a spouse or parent - if we are so blessed, a grandparent even. 25 hours to remind ourselves of our humanity and our place in the universe. Have you never tried it, seriously I mean, more seriously than serving chicken soup? You should.
When we abstain from col melachtecha - all the work of the week - we plug ourselves into the core of our Jewish identity. It's not searching for a lost past, but rather in living our way into a Jewish future - we are doing the thing itself, we are not evoking a memory. By celebrating Shabbat, especially if we celebrate Shabbat with friends, family members, and strangers too, we take our place in a chain of tradition that stretches both back into history, and forward with every weekly engagement with the most vibrant, most timely and most powerful part of what it means to live as a Jewish Ancestor.
I should be honest on a night like tonight. Trying Shabbat is fine, but Shabbat only really works when it becomes both regular and central. Like any good thing in life it requires practice and commitment, it needs to be defended. Try making the lighting of Shabbat candles on a Friday inviolable. Turn down the party invite because you are doing Shabbat. If Shabbat is just another thing on the to-do list, taking its place among all those other tugs on our time and energies it won't work; it will disappear between your fingers like so much sand. Shabbat only works as a regular commitment but give it three weeks, three weeks of turning off the chatter and turning on the commitment to being part of a Jewish future, and let me know how it goes.
That's part One of why and that's how to be a Jewish ancestor - keep Shabbat.
Part Two - Synagogue, actually, what I really mean is this Synagogue.
We are fifty years old this Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur season. The Yad on the picture on your ticket points at the phrase the 'fiftieth year' as it appears in our Torah. I was hoping someone would notice, but sometimes you have to tell people about the sort of details that can so easily get lost. Let me share some other lost moments, overlooked, especially by some of us who weren’t here 50 years ago.
I've been re-reading the stories of the foundation of this community. As many of you will know this building had been sold to be turned into flats, and the demolition team were just about to move in when it was sold again - to become my Jewish home, our Jewish home. In an early edition of the New Londoner: Magazine of the New London Synagogue, Oscar B. Davis's address to our first Annual General Meeting is reproduced in full; here he is telling the story of moving into 33 Abbey Road.
"What we took over had been neglected for years, the roof leaked, the dirt was indescribable and even the Minister's Seat had been wantonly destroyed. [But] our members surpassed themselves, young and old [they] turned themselves into a brigade of handymen and Mrs Mopps."
I've flicked through the photos of our founder members on their hands and knees, sanding the floor. I've reread Shula Jacobs, zichronah l'vracha, sharing how she cried when she came into the Synagogue finally ready to welcome a community. I've read Rabbi Louis Jacobs, zichrono l'vracha, sharing, in his autobiography, 'It really did look as if this was an instance of direct divine providence, though, I encouraged my supporters [said Rabbi Jacobs] to be skeptical of any too close a theological interpretation.' Glorious times.
But I'm not saying any of this in an attempt to evoke a warm memory of temps perdu. If you were there I salute you and I'm grateful for everything you did back then, but I want to make a different point. New London Synagogue was not built to evoke a past long gone. It was built to create a home for a Jewish future, both for our own Jewish minds Jewish hearts and Jewish bodies, but also with focus on something bigger and broader – we wanted to change Anglo-Jewry, world Jewry. That was the job then, that’s the job now – even if you were a founding member – we are not there yet. Even the name is forward looking. New London isn't about being impressed with a bisel of yiddish, we are not, I am not, interested in offering an ersatz recreation of Reb Tevye's shteibel. New London cannot and must not be primarily concerned with the temps perdu.
New London is, and has always been about, an open Judaism, afraid of nothing, drawing together the very best of our tradition and testing it, again and again, in the crucible of contemporary experience and understanding. Is that why you are here, to feel the dynamic energy that bubbles up as Jewish tradition and secular modernity dance alongside one another? Are you here not just because of your own personal proclivity to do Jewish this way, but because you believe that in this dance there is something important, other, Godly even, not just for Anglo-Jewry, world Jewry, even all humanity? That's why I’m here – that’s the Torah I aspire to teach. That’s what I was trying to do over Rosh Hashanah. I'm trying to be a Jewish ancestor and I hope you are too.
Of course I'm a Jewish descendent, we all are. We all sit here today as descendants of the founders of this special community. And this space is beautiful enough, though the paintwork needs redoing, some of the plaster is coming away, the brickwork's a mess. We are in need of ancestors to vouchsafe our future. We've a big fundraiser coming up, at Abbey Road Studios no less. It's going to be a fabulous evening. The wine will be better than that served at New London Synagogue's first fundraising dinner when the menu suggests Palwyns was served to accompany the melon. Here's the reason to come to the fundraiser - come to pledge your commitment to being a Jewish ancestor of this very special community.
Oh, I know there are lots of other ways to be a Jewish ancestor that have nothing to do attending a fundraiser, nothing even to do with New London Synagogue. For example there's a big glossy £50m building just 2 miles from here - and I wish them every success - but they are in the business of chicken soup; evocations of a temps perdu. It's not bad, actually the restaurant is terrific. But it's not about being an ancestor. At New London we are doing something very different.
A couple of weeks ago I stood up here and watched as a member over there sobbed one kind of tears for their recently deceased mother and another member over there sobbed very different tears as their newborn baby received a first blessing. In ten days time we will, please God, celebrate Simhat Torah. And as we finish the last lines of Deuteronomy we will turn the Torah over and go right on with the first lines of Genesis. When we cry, at New London, we do it as both descendants and ancestors. When we dance we dance as both descendants and ancestors. It’s not an evocation of a temps perdu – it’s the thing itself, being lived out day by day, week by week on a bridge that connects the past to the future.
This is my call tonight, and I’ll have more to say on the matter tomorrow;
Be unsatisfied with a Judaism that is driven by a nothing other than the evocation of temps perdu. Be unsatisfied with a Judaism that is driven by nothing other than a sense of being a descendant. Be a Jewish ancestor. Embody your creation of a Jewish future through your engagement with Shabbat. And embody your commitment to a Jewish future by committing to the future of this very special community. In that way, please God, we will be blessed with wonderful tomorrows, and a wonderful year to come.
Gemar Chatimah Tovah,
A good year to one and all,

Yizkor YK 5775 - Three Ways to Face the Angel of Death

Rav Ashi saw the Angel of Death in the Shuk. He said ‘Give me thirty days and I will revise my studies’
The angel came again on the thirtieth day. Rav Ashi said, ‘What’s the rush?’
He replied, Rav Huna is close on your heels, he is to be the next head of the Academy, and no sovereignty encroaches on another by even a hair's breadth.’

This tale is one of three, from right at the end of the Talmudic tractate on bereavement. They all feature Rabbis from antiquity negotiating their relationship with the Angel of Death.

Oh, let me reassure anyone feeling too bothered by rationality to open their souls to tales about the Angel of Death – I don’t think there is a real angel with a scythe and a cowl – any more than you do. These tales are opportunities to look in the sort of places we usually turn away from. They are opportunities for our hearts to see that which our visual cortexes will never register.

So, here we are, with a tale of the head of the great Talmudic academy of Sura, Rav Ashi - who passed away in the year 427 of the common era, succeeded by his student, Rav Huna.

Rav Ashi is in the market when he sees the Angel of Death. He feels his mortality, no more than that, he feels his end coming with speed. He’s a man walking home after a particularly raw encounter with a physician in the knowledge that his full, active, purposive life is over, and all there is left to do is prepare for his end.
Remarkably he knows what he wishes for with the time he has left. He – a man who has dedicated his life to his learning – pleads for the opportunity to order his learning one last time. He’s the novelist pleading for the time to complete their last manuscript, the matriarch, who’s dedicated their life to raising a family, pleading for the time to attend one last wedding. He knows the values by which he has lived his life, he knows what will still matter when so much else has faded and the rest will just as surely fade now.

Is he like you, or me? Do you, do I, know what we would do with 30 days? What’s our unfinished project that, if only we could finish it, would allow us to feel a sense of completion in our life?

The pleading works. Thirty days are, indeed, given to Rav Ashi.

Ah, my dear rationalist friends, don’t you believe, haven’t you seen? Sure, sometimes death comes with no regard for our desperate desires to complete an unfinished piece of work. But so many times I’ve seen the other thing. A candle that continues to flicker until … just long enough to …
Maybe you’ve seen it too. So here’s my first question, on this awesome day on which we are asked to encounter our own mortality.

What would we do with the time we have left? What’s stopping us from doing that now, tomorrow. Don’t wait.

Don’t wait because the angel of death doesn’t have infinite patience. After all, we are all fading flowers, withering grass, dreams in flight.

The angel came again on the thirtieth day. Rav Ashi said, ‘What’s the rush?’
The angel replied, Rav Huna is close on your heels, he is to be the next head of the Academy, and no sovereignty encroaches on another by even a hair's breadth.

Oh I’ve seen this too. My grandmother of blessed memory, wanted nothing more than to be at my Bar Mitzvah, and she was. And the moment that was passed she announced she wanted nothing more than to be at my younger brother’s Bar Mitzvah, and she was. Then she wanted nothing more than to be at my youngest brother’s Bar Mitzvah, and she was. Then – having run out of Bnei Mitzvah celebrations – she wanted nothing more than to be at my wedding. Sadly she wasn’t.

What would we do with the time we have left? What’s stopping us from doing that now, tomorrow. Don’t wait.

Another tale.

Rav Hisda? The Angel of Death could never take Rav Hisda for he never ceased reciting his learning by rote. So the Angel went and sat on the cedar tree by the House of the Rabbis. The bough cracked. Rav Hisda stopped. The Angel took him.

Another encounter, another end, another head of the great academy of Sura. Rav Hisda died in the year 320 of the common era. And such a technique he had for avoiding the clutches of the Angel of Death.

Maybe he is the vitamin pill junkie who believes as long as we take multi zinc amino acid biofillus whatever we will escape death.
Maybe he is even the sort of person who believes giving Tzedakah, praying humbly and mastering Teshuvah will vouchsafe a year of health and vitality.
It’s not that mutli zinc amino acids or Teshuvah or Tzedakah aren’t good for us. They are. They are wonderful. But they guarantee nothing.

The problem is two-fold, firstly we are mortal, and none of us will live forever no matter how many pills we take. And secondly Death doesn’t play fair. Death plays cruel tricks, death is deceitful and foul. Death disregards poverty and wealth, death pays no attention to who is decent and who is cruel.

Rav Hisda’s encounter, for me, is about how we construct lives doing whatever we can not to have to encounter death. This Rav Hisda – who never ceased reciting his learning by rote - I’m not so sure it’s the greatest use of a life. I mean I love to learn but I’m not so sure about the utter immersion in recitation to the exclusion of all else. What about other people? What about life? My teacher, Rabbi Eliezer Diamond has written on this encounter. He suggests the Angel of Death sits outside the Yeshiva to draw Rav Hisda’s attention to the world, out there. Left to his own devices Rav Hisda immerses himself utterly in a hermetically sealed bubble of Yeshivah scholarship, but ultimately it is of no use. “Youhoo, have you noticed, Rav Hisda, outside there is autumn, the leaves are falling, winter is coming.” And Rav Hisda stops and the death takes him.

Maybe Rav Hisda is the person who works all day and all night, all week and all weekend just to …. just to do what exactly? Maybe he’s the person who works all day and all night because work is more controllable than the world outside with its annoying tendency to entropy. Maybe we all are this man, this woman, trying to control what we can, in the hope that we can stay alive without having to deal with the complexities of mortality. But to live well we need to engage with the vast breadth of everything life lays before us. To live well we can’t immerse ourselves only in that we can control. That is to confuse being busy with being fully engaged in life. That is to confuse staying alive with being alive.

So here is my next question on this holy and awesome day when we encounter our mortality.
Are we so busy staying alive that we forget to live?

This is the Torah of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes; there is a time to work, a time to learn, a time to love and a time to cry, a time to dance and a time to stare out of the window and watch the leaves become touched with the colours of autumn. To live well we need to live broadly. The opposite of this is to immerse only in those parts of life that seem under our control. Ultimately even the focus on what we think we can control will prove futile, but how much of our time is wasted on turning over the wheel, as opposed to focusing on life itself; our lives and the lives of our loved ones? How much of our time is focused on the sort of encounters that make our life richer – as opposed to our bank balance?

Are we so busy staying alive that we forget to live?

One last extract from the Talmud.

The Angel of Death could never overcome Rav Hiyya. So one day he adopted the guise of a poor man and came and knocked at his gate, saying, ‘Bring me out some bread.’ The Rabbi’s students brought out some bread to him. And the angel called out to Rav Hiyya: “Sir, don't you have compassion on the poor yourself? Why not have compassion on me?”
Rav Hiya opened the door to him. The Angel of Death revealed himself showing him a fiery sword, and Rav Hiyya yielded to him.

Death is playing trickster again, this time pretending to be a beggar. So the beggar’s needs are met by the Rabbi’s students, but it isn’t enough. Death wants more. Death always wants more. The beggar calls out the Rabbi personally, and when the Rabbi comes to show his caring for a fellow human being, the deception becomes apparent. My teacher, Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, sees the momentary threat of a face-off, death draws its sword. But the Rabbi yields.

There is something of our previous story here – the story of the Rabbi who kept death at bay by permanently reciting Torah. But here it doesn’t feel as though the Rav Hiyya is insulating himself from the world. He’s a busy man with students who seek to keep distractions away from their master, but he responds to the call of poverty. He is prepared to show compassion to the poor.
But death is such a slippery foe and when the Rabbi comes to the door to perform a sacred  act of charity – he meets only his own end.

I spoke on Rosh Hashanah of what Victor Frankl called the last of all human freedoms, the freedom “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” And this is what Rav Hiyya does in the face of the angel’s revealed sword. Of course it’s good to fight to stay alive, but not always, not in every moment. Here the Rabbi sees the drawn sword and knows there is only the one choice – to yield or to engage in the sort of bluff and counter-bluff of Rav Hisda or Rav Ashi. Faced with this choice Rav Hiyya yields.

This is the strength to accept the call to mortality once it has been received. Sure fighting for life is good. But here we are asked to acknowledge Rav Hiyya’s acceptance of death.

Here’s one last question.

Will we be ready when our time comes to yield? How will we exercise this last human freedom to meet the only end that awaits us all?

We can make fools of ourselves if we choose to pick a fight with death. Sometimes strength, courage and beauty are most manifest in a certain kind of yielding.
This is an extract from a recently published poem of Clive James, who has fought cancer bravely and is now facing his own mortality with a different kind of strength.

He wrote recently of a Maple Tree, and his own passing.

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:
Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
On that small tree?
A final flood of colors will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

This, I think, is what it means to yield before the unsheathed sword of the Angel of Death.

Will we be ready when our time comes to yield? How will we exercise this last human freedom to meet the only end that awaits us all?

Three questions,
What would we do with the time we have left? What’s stopping us from doing that now, tomorrow?

Are we so busy staying alive that we forget to live?

Will we be ready when our time comes to yield? How will we exercise this last human freedom to meet the only end that awaits us all?

These are my questions on this day, at this sacred moment when we face what death has taken from us all, and reflect on that which we will surely lose ourselves to a deceitful, never satisfied foe.

What would we do with the time we have left? What’s stopping us from doing that now, tomorrow?

Are we so busy staying alive that we forget to live?

Will we be ready when our time comes to yield? How will we exercise this last human freedom to meet the only end that awaits us all?

May we answer them well, and be gifted much time before we are called to account for our answers.

Chatimah Tovah – A good year

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