Al Shelosha Devarim - Three Ways to be an Ancestor
Last night I spoke about the difference between being a descendant and being an ancestor.
It was a look into the heart of the meaning of the term – Masorti.
Limsor is the Hebrew word for passing something down from one generation to another.
So that’s who we are – who we should be – wandering along a bridge that stretches back into history, and stretches forward into a future forged of our actions and commitments – vchotem yad kola dam bo – and the signature of every person will be in it – as we davened earlier today.
Last night I suggested two ways of being an ancestor for a vibrant Jewish future. I suggested we take Shabbat more seriously. And I suggested we take being members of this very special community more seriously. I suggested everyone come and join us for our fundraiser at Abbey Road Studios in November.
OK, you are now up to speed.
I want to return to this idea of being an ancestor of a Jewish future. And I want to suggest three other ways to be engaged as an ancestor for a Jewish future. Three very easy calls that could transform even the most descendant focussed Jew into an ancestor of a Jewish future.
I grew up here, attended New London’s Cheder and prepared for my Bar Mitzvah – at which, at least as far as my grandmother told anyone who would listen, I did brilliantly. And then, more or less I stopped Jewish learning. These things happened. But it meant that while my French comprehension moved from 13+ to O Level, while my understanding of economics grew to a mighty A level, and while I studied Law at University, my Jewish knowledge remained that of a 13 year old; a little short of data, and significant short of sophistication. No wonder I didn’t send much time engaging Jewishly as a young adult, I had, as I now realise, perilously little understanding of what engaging as a Jewish adult might actually mean. At the heart of an engagement with being a Jewish ancestor is Jewish understanding, Jewish knowledge. Being an ancestor of a Jewish future means having a sophisticated understanding of what one is trying to pass on. So here’s a suggestion. A book club. Not to read Jew-ish books, not about chicken soup, but books that get to the heart of what it means to be engaged Jewishly in our day to day adult lives.
First up is a short one. 118 pages. Can you get 118 pages read by 15th November? Sure.
It’s The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel.
One of my favourite books. Written to try and explain Shabbat to a world-weary, overstressed American Jewry in the 1960s. Not so much has changed.
It’s broadly available and we’ll take some time after services on 15th November to come together and unpick the ancestor-appropriate wisdom a wonderful writer and thinker extracted from an engagement with the single most important idea in Judaism.
I urge you to find a copy, read it, and to come along in six weeks or so.
Actually I urge you to read it even if you can’t come along.
We’ll start with Heschel’s The Sabbath and I’ve got some great books to follow. I’ll have the list on my blog and there will be more on the subject in weekly emails to follow. I hope you will join me.
A first way to be a Jewish ancestor, read Heschel’s the Sabbath by the 15th of November and come to shul to discuss it.
Secondly – turn up.
We are busy enough right now, thank God, but let me paint a picture for you. It happens at 8:59am on any given Sunday, or 9:14 on a Shabbat morning, or 6:29 on a Friday evening. It can even happen, God help us, on Second Day Yom Tov. There are a few of us dotted around the sanctuary and we are looking towards the doors at the back of sanctuary in hope. We are waiting for someone to arrive to allow us to come together in prayer.
Here’s how someone who thinks like a descendant approaches communal prayer – when you want to come you come. You arrive twenty minutes later than you planned because life just gets like that. You expect the carpets to be cleaned, the Cantor to be in fine voice and the congregation neatly arrayed just so.
And here’s how someone who thinks like an ancestor approaches communal prayer – you come even when you don’t feel particularly in the mood. And you come early enough so you can facilitate a need which is broader than your own. And if something isn’t quite right you see how you can be part of a solution that makes things better for others.
Turning up early, turning up more regularly is a training in how to cultivate a certain kind of generosity. It’s a training in meeting needs that begin with your contribution and expand outwards, rather than elevating our own needs to be the end-point of everyone else’s commitment.
Let me say that again, because it’s the single most important difference between an ancestor focussed Jew and a descendant focussed Jew. An ancestor focussed Jew sees my commitment as a means to meet the needs of others, both today and tomorrow. But a descendant focussed Jew sees everything else’s commitment as means to meet my own needs. And the difference between one and the other is turning up, earlier than your own needs mandate, and more regularly than your own needs necessitate.
Come on time for Shabbat morning, come on Sunday morning, Friday evening, come for Succot, second Day Succot even. If you really can’t get away during the week come in the evening. Let me be as concrete as I can. Come this Wednesday night – 6:29pm. Come this Thursday night – 6:29pm. Come this Friday at ... 6:29pm.
It will help us, as a Shul community be stronger and better able to foster a Jewish future for all our members, it will also make you a better person. Or your money back.
Firstly, read Heschel’s the Sabbath
Secondly, turn up, on time and more regularly to Shul.
And thirdly – be nice.
There’s an old story of the famous Professor of Ethics who was famous, most of all, for being brusque and a grouch. One day a bold student raised their hand in class to ask the famous professor, ‘Professor, how it is possible that you teach ethics, and yet behave so badly,’
‘What,’ harrumphed the professor, ‘if I taught geometry, you want I should be a triangle?’
I love the story because it perfectly illustrates the difference between an intellectual knowledge and what it means to be a Jew. Specifically a Jew orientated towards their Jewish life today and into the future.
You can’t be a good not-nice Jew.
Or let me be a bit more specific. You can be perfectly adept at being a Jewish descendant and behave poorly to your fellow human beings – you can have a Jewish identity predicated on chicken soup and evocations of a past and behave however you like.
But you can’t be a Jewish ancestor and be not-nice.
The reverse also applies. The nicer you become the more you create possibilities of other people becoming infected by your decency. Be nice and watch how people become nicer around you. Be nice as a Jew and you will create and foster a Jewish future for anyone fortunate enough to be around you.
This is the Rambam, in Hilchot Teshuvah, the first great instruction manual about the central work of this day now coming to a close.
Assur leadam lehiyot achzari - We are forbidden to be cruel, forbidden to be slow to forgive. Rather [demands the Rambam] we should be gentle, willing and slow to anger. And when one who has sinned against us requests our forgiveness, we should forgive with a levav shalem – a full heart a willing spirit. And even if the person has distressed us greatly, or many times, don’t be vengeful, don’t bear a grudge – vzehu darcham shel zera yisrael.
This is the way of the true Israelite.
Gentle, willing, slow to anger, quick to forgive blevav shalem - with a full heart. That’s what it means to be a Jew. Oh, I don’t think I need to be more specific than that, we all know what it would mean to be nice, even if we don’t always make it all the way there in every moment. I just want to urge us to reflect on how we react to not-nice behaviour, how it pushes us away and closes others down. We should strive to be not-that because it opens others up, towards the future, towards caring enough about this whole Jewish thing to strive to become an ancestor themselves.
Firstly, read Heschel’s the Sabbath
Secondly, turn up, on time and more regularly to Shul.
Third – be nice.
Test your Jewish commitment and engagement from this perspective. Do you always find yourself reliant on the commitment of others as a means to facilitate your needs, as Jew? That’s the marker of someone who thinks and behaves as a descendant.
Or, as a Jew, are you at least trying to meet the needs of others, both today and tomorrow. If you are doing that then we all have a bright Jewish future.
If you are doing that, to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, ‘Then yours is the world, and everything in it, and what is more you’ll be a Mentsch, my fellow Jew.’
We’ve been on a tremendous journey this past 24 hours. As the gates close it’s time to take one last opportunity to reflect on how this journey might have changed us. One last opportunity to commit ourselves to our future, one last opportunity to come together in prayer. May we do it well.
In so doing may we all be blessed for a year of health, strength and peace,
Gemar Chatimah Tovah – a good year to us all,