Thursday, 15 December 2016

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Judaism, But Were Afraid To Ask

I am, I admit, done with 2016, but excited for the year to come.

In January I will begin teaching The Aleph Course. It’s a six part course where each week the subject is one of the most important aspects of Jewish identity; Shabbat, History, Prayer, Theology, Israel ...

Six consecutive Wednesdays, 8pm at the Shul, beginning 11th January. Each class is self-contained.

I’m doing the bulk of the teaching, Cantor Jason and David-Yehuda will be pitching in with a class each. More information here.

It’s a chance to get the grounding and context so many members tell me they never had, or have forgotten, or would simply want again.

It’s material that has been hugely appreciated in previous outings at New London and elsewhere and I’m delighted to be able to return to teach it at our Shul. If this is something you, or anyone you know, might be interested, please let me know, and make a note of the dates and other info.

It’s very definitely open to non-members and members alike - though we make a charge for non-members. It is a chance to feel comfortable in our Jewish identity and hugely recommended.

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Jeremy

Thursday, 8 December 2016

And Jacob left for Haran - A Kiss Isn't Just a Kiss

This week’s Torah reading begins with Jacob fleeing his furious brother and deceived father. He heads for Haran, dwelling place of his uncle Lavan. Lavan’s first encounter with this family of Hebrews came when he met Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, who came bearing gold to persuade Lavan to let his sister, Rebecca, marry Isaac. The penniless Jacob arrives - already having met his wife to be, Rachel.

[And Lavan] ran towards Jacob and embraced him and kissed him and brought him into his house.

The Rabbis of Bereishit Rabba take the opportunity to paint Lavan as a deceiving moneygrabber. Lavan ran towards Jacob thinking he had come bearing gold. He embraced him, taking the opportunity to check if there was any gold in Jacob’s pockets. He kissed him, taking the opportunity to check if there was any gold secreted in his mouth.

It’s a terrific playful interjection, sensitive and sceptical to Lavan’s eagerness and prefiguring Martin Buber by around 1500 years. Lavan’s relationship with his nephew is precisely what Buber had in mind in his analysis of the ‘I-It’ relationship. The relationship based on the single question - what’s in it for me? Relationships founded on self-service are never going to be profound. At their best they are reciprocal. Reciprocity isn’t evil, but it’s a long way from love. The ‘I-Thou’ relationship, where one seeks to serve another without regard for self-interest is of an entirely different, deeper, sort.

So this is the challenge, when we encounter others do we interact on the basis of what is in it for us, or without regard to our own self interest? Can we crank up the number of interactions we have with others that are based on wilful acts of generosity of deed? How much sweeter, and more surprising, could we make this world if we led with a desire to do things for others, freed of the need to be assured of precise predictable payback. It’s a way of encountering others that will work for nieces, other family members, work colleagues, friends and strangers alike. I commend it.

Shabbat shalom

Friday, 2 December 2016

Parashat Toledot - The Children are Revolting

Ve’eleh toledot.
And these are the generations.
Interesting week for Cheder Shabbat.

If last week I spoke about Abraham Zaken - being old.
This week want to talk about being young.
Being a Yeled

Key moment re Isaac
dug again the wells of water, which they had dug in the days of Abraham his father; and he called their names after the names by which his father had called them.

Been filled in, and dutifully, as a good son should, redigs them.
Re-endows the wells of his father as his father’s wells.
Sounds good. This is, is it not, what children should do to honour the name and the triumphs of their parents.
I speak of this, of course, as a parent.

But something feels slightly remiss.
Remiss in Isaac - sense of own narrative disappeared.
Couple of weeks ago he was bound.
Last week, a wife was found for him.
This week redigs the wells of his father.
And he is deceived by his own sons.
Passive existence.
He’s not the hero of his own existence.
Slips betweens the cracks between Avraham Avinu - our patriarch Abraham and his son known as Yisrael - for we are all Bnei Yisrael.

Wonder if a piece of it - and you can’t tell my children I said this - is that just redigging the wells of your parents is not enough.
Recreating the actions of a previous generation, by definition, is a recipe not for bright innovation and hope, but a gentle slide into obsolescence.

I was flicking through Rabbi Jacob’s autobiography when I came across one of his fav stories, a story I last shared on this Bimah ten years ago this week, when I interviewed for the position of Rabbi here. Taken from the section of the autobiography where Rabbi Jacobs is getting ready for his first Yom Kippur at the prestigious New West End Synagogue, and just as he is preparing to go into the service sees one of the enobled members of the community, also just outside the sanctuary.

Time was pressing and I suggested that we go into the synagogue for Kol Nidre.
The Lord replied that he did not want to enter the synagogue for a while and that he would explain why after the service.
His explanation was that his grandfather, the first Lord, although a very observant Jew, did not hold with the Kol Nidre formula and used to wait patiently in the foyer until this part of the service was over.
His son, the second Lord, less observant and a little indifferent to the whole question would still wait outside because his father had done so.
The third Lord explained he personally didn’t understand what it was all about, but felt obliged to carry on the family tradition.

It’s redigging the wells, it’s humble, but it’s not vibrant. It’s not enough for a child. It shouldn’t be what we expect from our children.
Whisper it, but sometimes, in the words of Tim Minchin’s musical Mathilda, children have to be a little bit naughty.

Of course, certainly in my own house, I’m not such a fan.
Quite like kids to do precisely the things I tell them to do, and promptly, and with a smile on their faces.
And on a superficial level I really like the idea that after I’m gone they’ll do precisely the same things I did in precisely the way I did them, but ....

It’s an old problem.
This is God’s principal experience with the problem - also known as the problem of Free Will.
God puts the first human beings in the Garden and tells them they can have everything they want, apart from the opportunity to want one thing; the opportunity to understand for themselves what good and bad actually mean.
What do you expect happened?
Of course the children wanted to understand things themselves, even if it meant making their own mistakes.
Even if it meant being more than a little bit naughty.
Adam and Eve wanted to be - and indeed became - the paradigms for humanity.

The world turns.
The lives of our children will be unrecognisably transformed from the lives of our parents and they will have to be prepared for challenges so radically different from those of 40 years ago that training our children to redig our wells is simply not good advice..
Not just talking about the transformatory nature of contemporary technological innovation - it’s never been possible to step into the same river twice.
Life is always transforming and the deeper thing to wish for our children is a transformed future.

Here’s another encounter between God and children, dating to the mid Talmudic period, say around the year 300.

Talmudic tale of the oven of Achnai
The Rabbis are arguing. One rabbi starts to call on God to support his claims and God starts to intervene, causing trees to be uprooted, water to flow upstream and even the walls of the Bet Midrash to cave in, until the other rabbis banish God from the argument pointing out ‘Lo bshamayaim hi.’ That the Torah is not in heaven, but rather given to each and every generation to decide it as they - not God, our father in heaven - best see fit.

And the tale continues - nitzchuni banai­ - usually translated, my children have defeated me, ut literally - my chidren have outlasted me.
Irony is that we last longest by ceding to the generations to come, rather than imposing our own take on their futures upon them.
Scary thought - as I said, you can’t tell my children I said this.

Meaning of Yichus
Actually two things - one is the sense of pride taken in those in whose triumphs I see my own triumphs.
But also - and perhaps even more importantly, a sense of wonder as those who are coming after me supercede that which I could have imagined - nitchuni banai

I used to be a huge fan of the George Berard Shaw quote,
When I was 14 I knew my parents knew nothing, by the time I was 21 I was amazed by how much they had learnt in 7 years.
But I think, in honesty, I’m not sure even that is enough.
My hope for my children is that they outdo, out-think and transform any expectation I could have for them.
Because - on this Cheder Shabbat - it’s probably necessary that kids should be revolting

Shabbat shalom

Thursday, 1 December 2016

The Fires in Israel - Kehillat Moriah

Many will have read about the fires that caused such devastation in Israel last week. We send our best wishes to everyone affected. In particular I wanted to draw our members’ attention to the devastation caused at the Masorti Synagogue of Haifa, Kehilat Moriah, one of the oldest and largest Masorti communities in Israel.
I know Rav Dubi, the spiritual leader of the community, well. Flames caught hold of a pine tree behind and above the building and led to destruction of the upper floors, including the Noam youthg group rooms, the library and study hall and much else. Haaretz has a full story which you can read either [here -], or if you don’t have a Haaretz subscription you can access the article by googling  ‘the true extent of the wreckage here at Moriah, the oldest active Conservative congregation in Israel, only becomes evident when a visitor sets foot inside.’ The community has embarked on a fundraiser to save their building and repair the damage. I commend it to all. More information [here -].
Tomorrow we will celebrate Shabbat with our Cheder and youngest members. It’s a tremendous pleasure and I’m delighted we have such a dynamic programme for our younger members. We will also be joined by our Noam Movement Worker, Amiel who is introducing himself to the community below.
Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Jeremy

Thursday, 24 November 2016

‘Abraham was Old’

Old age, the Rabbis suggest, began with Abraham. It’s a typically rabbinic observation. The word, ‘Zaken’ appears for the first time only in this week’s parasha, and so ...

Perhaps the more historical observation would be that ageing used to be so much rarer than it is today. We are, notes Noah Yuval Harari, the first humans to face age as the greatest threat to our mortality. In generations past violence, pestilence and famine accounted for so many more of us. Now what?

In Bereishit Rabba Abraham asks God for a sign of ageing so everyone will know who deserves more respect when ‘a father and a son go to a place,’ indeed the word Zaken, means both ‘aged’ and ‘wise.’ Zaken also means ‘beard’ - a sign of age? Certainly. A sign of wisdom? Well as long as it’s a reasonably neat goatee, I think so.

The great American teacher Reb Zalman taught much about ‘saging’ a process where the aged are duly celebrated for their wisdom, not only the real depths of insight that come with age, but also the wisdom of declining intellectual perspicuity. And there is the rub.

In ancient times death, in times of peace and plenty, would usually be preceded by illness, untreatable and therefore brief. Nowadays we survive, physically, longer and longer, perhaps outlasting our mental strength, perhaps outlasting financial sums put aside, perhaps outlasting the reservoir of care and love that we imagine our due. The absolute connection between age and wisdom is severely threatened. Indeed this may be the single greatest challenge of our age.

Two thoughts to share, neither renders the work of caring for the aged easy or alters the stark physical challenges so many face, but hopefully thoughts that can ease a spiritual burden.

Firstly when the Talmud discusses the obligation to honour one’s parents - one of the Ten Commandments - the examples cited are without exception about aged parents; perhaps senile and certainly no longer at the height of their power. A jeweller forgoes a significant sale since his father is asleep using his keybox as a pillow. A man watches his mother fan money off the back of a ship without attempting to stop her. When the Rabbis suggested honouring one’s parents to be the heaviest of the obligations they knew the challenges posed by ageing. Acknowledging the gift of our parents is something that takes place not when our parents are at the height of their powers, but afterwards.

Secondly, there is this notion of the creation of the human in the image of the Divine; every human, at every stage in that person’s life. It is the greatest challenge in our faith and it applies equally to the young, the old, the fit, the infirm, the perspicacious and the demented. To bear witness to the divine nature in a person, no matter how challenging they might be, no matter how much a shadow they might be of their former selves, is, I believe, the key to understanding how we should care for our most aged and sage-ed. It is certainly how we should all wished to be cared for ourselves.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy

Friday, 18 November 2016

Same Thing Over Again

Every once in a while hope for a progressive orthodoxy in this country bubbles up. Learned, committed self-defined orthodox Jews start talking about changing women’s roles, an openness towards critical scholarship and the like, and a new dawn is heralded. For those - our founder Rabbi among them - who waited for decades for Orthodox leadership to emerge from intellectual culs-de-sac these flickers of hope seem to offer so much. But then pressure is brought to bear from extremists, the so-called middle-ground buckles - not so much from being persuaded of the justification of the right-wingers, but simply from threats of exclusion. And the leaders of any new progressive development are whipped back into place, or cast adrift.
I’ve been reflecting on this pattern, centuries old at this point, this week as I’ve read two very similar stories. One regarding one of the most highly regarded educators operating - or attempting to operate - on this seam. Elie Jesner has found himself banned from the notionally modern-Orthodox, London School of Jewish Studies for the ‘sins’ of teaching at the pluralist Jewish day-school JCoSS and as part of a series organised by the Friends of Louis Jacobs. He’s written about it here.

Miriam Lorie found her invitation to speak with Bat Mitzvah students at Elstree and Borehamwood United Synagogue rescinded for the ‘sin’ of being involved in Borehamwood Partnership Minyan. More here.…/im-on-my-shuls-blacklist-and-it-…/

In a world with plenty of big problems these tiny vignettes can seem petty, but they raise the most important questions about the nature of the religious quest. 
On whose side do we stand? 
Are we prepared to give support to organisations whose intolerant fundamentalist beliefs we do not share and who practice the gentle art of persuasion with threats (and acts) of excommunication?

I fail to understand why the great masses of Anglo-Jewry continue to allow their commitment, their memberships and their money to be attached to a denomination that behaves this way. It’s unacceptable. Since Louis was treated similarly it has happened time and time again and the position of orthodoxy at the ‘top-table’ of both Anglo-Jewry and national religious engagement seems poisoned by such behaviour.

It’s an honour to serve a community founded because of a refusal to tolerate such orthodox bullying. It’s an honour to wear, proudly, the badge of being Masorti and non-orthodox. The badge stands for a willingness to engage with truths from wherever they may be found and a desire to celebrate, within our communities, the broadest range of diversities on issues of gender, sexuality, belief and even commitment. Yes, I believe we are a stronger community because we value ‘even’ those Jews who don’t believe full observance is the only goal of a Jewish life.

If you have friends who affiliate Orthodox, please pass this note on to them. Tell ‘em they are welcome here. Or I can put them in touch with communities more local. And if you share in my fortune of being a member of New London, support us; come more often, give more generously, be more committed to making our future brighter so the ‘other’ option - a Judaism of open-minds and open-hearts can prove ever more tempting to those who no longer wish to affiliate as Orthodox.

Shabbat shalom

Thursday, 3 November 2016

What does success look like?

The glorious month of Tishrei is over, Rosh Hashanah is a long forgotten memory and even the succah and the flayed willows are tidied up and gone for another year.
What is left?

Measuring the success of the Rosh Hashanah season is a strange business. Did more people come? Did they have more fun? Did they pay more money? Did we finish on time? All important, but drastically incomplete scales of measurement. Maybe better markers of success can be found in these sorts of question; Did more people come the Shabbat after all the festive decorations are dismantled? 
Will we be, as a community, stronger next year than we were last year? 

I never know how to answer the question, ‘are you ready?’ put to me with remarkable regularity in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The answer I usually give is that I have no idea. I’m wholly persuaded by the sagacity of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai who, when asked in 1972, what he thought of the eighteenth century French Revolution, reportedly responded, ‘It’s too soon to tell.’

But here are a few observations that interest me.
We had visiting grandparents. One of the most savage markers of the decline of a Jewish community is when grandparents leave to be closer to their children and grandchildren. It’s something I’ve seen in a number of provincial communities in particular. For some years we were that community. Our youth went elsewhere and a number of grandparents followed. But now we are experiencing the reverse, visiting grandparents, often, interestingly spending time with us rather than their home orthodox communities because of the welcome we have provided their children, in-laws and next generations.

The new Machzor went down very well. I had only excellent feedback on the new Sacks/Koren Machzor we debuted this year. Well one member raised a concern that the commentary was too interesting and distracted them from prayer, therefore proving that you really can’t please everyone. A development like this is a huge challenge, and the fact that it didn’t feel that way is a testament to the openness of the community (and in particular Ed’s sterling work on page number duty). We know there were a few periods where it was very difficult to follow Cantor Jason’s Routledge-led service in the Koren, and that will have attention over the year. Please do let me have any other feedback.

Some people listened to my sermons. I had a correspondent share they were writing stuff down, in the context of my Yizkor sermon. I found someone using the image of the Port Jew I had shared on Rosh Hashanah. I even had someone share their best advice on how to treat an invasion of drosophila. Most touchingly my sermon on refugee and in particular the work of the Separated Child Foundation and the Asylum Drop-In Centre (which launches this week) seems to have struck a chord. Many of you have been generous with your funds, your clothes and other gifts and your time. I salute your generosity and feel very humbled by the impact the services have made. For more information on ways to support these important projects - in particular for more information on how to volunteer, please be in touch.

There is plenty to do; to continue our open-hearted and open-minded approach to Judaism. We remain utterly dependent on people coming, taking part and supporting the community financially as well as physically and spiritually. To everyone who supported us in this last month in any way, I am deeply grateful.

So normality returns. We need your support on dark Friday evenings, at the start of Shabbat morning prayers, the Cheder is back, we’ve a communal Friday night dinner to look forward to and I hope all this, and so much more, will have your support.
Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Jeremy

Friday, 21 October 2016

The Scrolls of New London Synagogue - Come and Dance with Us & Them

It appears that the Antiques Roadshow is filming a special edition of the show featuring relics from the Holocaust. My mind went straight to the two Torah Scrolls we hold on behalf of the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust.
In the midst of the Holocaust, Czech Jews worked to bring their most treasured sacred inheritance to the relative security of Prague. Some 130,000 Jews, around 2/3rds of the community, were murdered by the Nazis, but some 1600 Torah scrolls survived. They sat, often in terrible conditions, until the 1960s when they were brought to England. Many have been restored and shared with communities not just back in the Czech Republic, but right around the world. You can read more about the history and work of the Trust [here -]. The two scrolls held by New London are both remarkable. One, from the town of Lipnik, contains all kinds of Kabbalistic scribal notions, strange curlicues on letters and unusual layouts. We don’t know the origin of our other Czech Scroll, but it is one of the most exquisite examples of the scribal art I have seen. You can read a wonderful short talk about Lipnik (given by our member Julian Futter in 2010) [here -].

But if you really want to understand these scrolls and the duty of care we accept for them, clicking won’t do. Instead you have to dance.

This Monday night at 6:30pm (with a tea for Reception-Year 3 from 6pm), we begin our celebration of celebrate Simhat Torah. On Tuesday morning we mark the moment where we finish and begin again our annual journey through our magnificent Torah. And, yes, there will be dancing. We dance because it’s an enormous honour to accept the guardianship of these scrolls and everything they stand for.

We’ll dance with the Czech scrolls.
We’ll dance with the [Kosmin scroll -] - given to the community in 2010, an immaculate piece of work commemorating the memory of Ronnie, a dearly beloved member.
We’ll dance with the Levinkind scroll sent by [Nathan Levinkind -], grandfather of our former member Julius, in 1891 from his home in Lithuania to ensure there would be a Torah scroll in Colesberg, South Africa, where his daughter was to set up her life.

And there are other scrolls we hold, and love and accept as trustees for not only for our members but also on behalf of our people through centuries and across continents. Throughout everything we are a people who have accepted the obligation of being bearers of scrolls that represent so much more than vellum and ink.

To hold these scrolls, to dance with these scrolls, to know what it means to reach the end of the marathon journey through the Five Books of Moses and begin again because you are physically there is an extra-ordinary honour. To anyone who has never experienced it, especially to those who have not experienced Simhat Torah New London style, I urge you to join us. If you have children bring the children (especially if they are on half-term!), they need to understand, to hold and to dance with their greatest spiritual inheritance also.

These scrolls are our most precious physical objects for they are so much more than physical objects. They are our spiritual inheritance, our history as a people and the bridge that connects us to the Divine.

To all our Torah Readers, and especially Lester, who have brought us to the brink of this extraordinary moment, thank you. To our wonderful honourees for the day, Stephen Lerman and Ann Rau-Dawes, thank you for all your support of this community. To us all,

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Jeremy

Sunday, 16 October 2016

The Stolen Lulav - Jews and Honesty - Mitzvah HaBa B'Aveirah

I've put a full-ish sourcesheet up on Sefaria. But this is the key text, and really interesting, especially for anyone who thinks it might be smart not to pay taxes.

Mishnah Sukkah 3:1
(1) A lulav which was stolen or dried out is invalid.

Gemarah 29b-30a

It teaches this clearly - there is no difference between the first day and the second day of Yom Tov.

Well that makes sense for the dry; we need a beautiful one, and it's not.
What about a stolen one?

Well it does makes sense for the first day, as it says 'to you' i.e. your own. However what about the second day?

Rabbi Yochanan in the name of Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai 
because you can't fulfill a Mitzvah that comes through sin. As it says, "You brought stolen, lame and ill [animals as sacrifices], I [God] am not going to accept that]' (Malachi 1:13)."
Stolen is similar to lame. Just as a lame offering can't be fixed, so too a stolen offering can't be fixed.

It does not matter whether it is before yeiush, or after he despaired.
Well, it makes sense, to say before the owner's despair: "A person, when he brings from his," said the Merciful one, and it (the stolen animal) is not his. But after the owner's despair- hasn't he taken ownership when the owner despaired?
Rather, it is for the reason that it is for him a Mitzvah fulfilled through sin, and Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon the son of Yochai, "What does the verse, 'For I am God, who loves justice and hates thievery greatly' (Isaiah 61:8) mean?

It is compared to an allegory of a flesh-and-blood king, who was passing by a tollbooth and said to his servants, 'Give the tax to the collectors.' They said to him, 'And is not the whole tax yours?' He said to them, 'From me should all the travelers learn, and not distance themselves from the tax.' So too the Holy Blessed One, says, I am God, who loves justice and hates thievery greatly.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

This is what I am interested in - 5777

A word cloud of my RH/YK sermons from this year.
For the full texts, click here.

Of the making of books there is no end

I was asked to share the titles of some of the books I referred to over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - for those unable to take a note on Yom Tov!

The Hidden Pleasures of Life - Theodore Zeldin
I came across the idea of Fort and Port here. It’s also a wonderful argument for the value of encountering other people.

The Sabbath and Moral Grandeur & Spiritual Audacity - Abraham Joshua Heschel
The Sabbath is the first book I would recommend to anyone wanting to know the point of any of the Jewish stuff. The attempts to articulate the purpose of a human life shared at Yizkor are taken from the last two chapters of Moral Grandeur.

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives - David Eagleman
This made an appearance in my Yizkor sermon and at the Q&A. It’s a series of imaginings of the afterlife, fabulously thought-provoking and warmly recommended.

- me
Ahem. Well it came up several times in the Q&A, specifically the chapters on the military ethics of the IDF, the nature of God in a world of suffering experiences of the supernatural.

A Rumour of Angels - Peter Berger
To my embarrassment I mis-remembered the author of this on Yom Kippur. It's a sort of sociology of religion for intelligent people. I haven't read it for well over a decade, but it made a significant impression.

Sacred Trash - Adina Hoffman & Peter Cole
I mentioned this book in the Q&A. It’s a history of the discovery of the Cairo Geniza, telling both the tale of its contents and its discovery. It’s a beautifully written book which will give so much understanding of Jewish history.

Ben Gurion: A Political Life - Shimon Peres
I referred to this on Shabbat Shuvah; fascinating not only for the insight into the founding father of the modern state of Israel, but also into the life of its author, so recently deceased.

Home Deus - Yuval Noah Harari
Part of this I love. Everything he has to say about religion, however (and it’s a lot of the book) is unrecognisable to me as some who has spent a bit of time trying to understand the subject. (That’s a polite way of saying I think it’s nonsense, a point I expand on here).

And on the subject of books, I’m newly published. I am part of a cycle of presenters on Radio 2’s Pause for Thought series and one of my scripts was selected for inclusion in a collection of contributions due to be published later this month. More information here.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Groundhog Day All Over Again - Kol Nidrei Yom Kippur 5777

I had some time off over the summer, and did what every good Rabbi should do with some time off, and checked myself into Yeshiva. Astonishingly it's been 18 years since I studied at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

Hang on, something’s not quite right here. Anyone else notice? A sense of déjà vu perhaps, been here before, heard it before? I’ve just reread the opening of the Kol Nidrei sermon I gave last year. Let me try again.

I had some time off over the summer, and did what every good Rabbi should do with some time off, and checked myself into Yeshiva.

No this definitely isn’t right.

Or maybe it is. Maybe the way this loop is wrong is somehow right - Kol Nidrei as a loop. The tunes are the same. And then there’s me. I’m the same me again. What about you? It’s harder than it looks not to be the same as we were last time we gathered here.

I had some time off over the summer, and did what every good Rabbi should do with some time off, and checked myself into Yeshiva.

I went to see the new Tim Minchin musical earlier in the summer, based on the movie Groundhog Day. Warning this sermon contains spoilers.

Groundhog Day is the story of a weatherman sent to Punxsutawney Pennsylvania to report on a rodent related weather phenomenon - which he can’t stand doing. He hates everything about the experience - from the coffee to the inane chatter to the way the police announce closure of the highways - and wakes up the next morning trapped, forced to live exactly the same day again - the same coffee, the same inane chatter, the same announcement about the highways.

And then again, and again, and again - that’s the show and exactly how or why this loop keeps spinning never gets explained.

But the movie, or the musical, never struck me as being about some weird supernatural phenomenon. It feels instead about real life, the loops, the patterns of repeat, the patterns of repeat, the patterns of repeat.

Because I don’t think I can be the only person who feels like they have been here before.

I think there are two quite wonderful lessons in Groundhog Day for those of us who feel a little trapped in a loop. Forgive the spoiler, but the way you escape a loop of you never reaching a different tomorrow is worry less about yourself and worry less about tomorrow.

Our weatherman is a narcissist. He sees everything in terms of what it allows him to do. When he realises that his days are in a permanent loop his first thought is whether he can use this freak occurrence to get the attractive blond who caught his eye into bed. Then he plots the perfect burglary. The test of whether anything is, or is not worth doing, is how it helps him.

It had me thinking of the end of the Book of Jonah. The big fish is a distant memory and Jonah looks out over the City of Nineveh, forgiven its sins and still standing. And Jonah is aggrieved. Histrionically he announces he would rather die than have to put up with the scene. The classic Rabbinic understanding of this outbreak of grumpiness is that Jonah is overly pre-occupied with his own standing as a prophet of truth. He prophesised the city would be destroyed, and now that it’s not, he’s cross.

Jonah’s missed the point. The point of the book of Jonah is not Jonah. It’s everyone else. Jonah’s pre-occupation with his own self-regard blinds him from realising what is really going on all around.

The problem of all this focus on ‘me, me, me’ is that it re-entrenches what is already there. Spend too much time chasing what you think you want and all you will do is re-create ever more precisely the surroundings that got you to yesterday. It’s engaging with other people that opens new horizons. Helping other people, making space for other people to do their other thing right in the way of anything we might have planned for ourselves, is the paradoxical but essential element that allows something different to happen tomorrow.

So this is the first tip, if you are feeling a little looped, repeating the same patterns as last year. Spend more time looking after other people and other people’s needs. And less worrying about your own.

Eventually our weatherman realises this - or at least he gives up on the narcissism and tries helping out others. He’s on caught the glass before it falls from the tray. He spends the day frantically fixing stuff for other people. Delivering babies, catching small boys falling from trees, fixing punctured car tyres for a bunch of little old ladies and the like, until by some cosmic oddity he’s set free from his loop. Our weatherman reaches tomorrow by looking after others.

It’s at once the biggest counter-intuitive insight and the most obvious truth about a life lived well. We become fulfilled through fulfilling the needs of others. We become as rich as that which we give away. Generosity of spirit unlocks for us a different future.

The way to get to a different tomorrow is worrying less about our own needs and worrying more about other people.

The second way to get to a different tomorrow is related. Care less about tomorrow and bring your focus to today.

The most macabre moment in Groundhog Day - the musical and the movie - comes when our weatherman gives up, he’s so frustrated he drives a car over the cliff. It doesn’t work. It’s Groundhog Day all over again. So he tries again. It’s bleak. Feeling trapped can feel that dark. But pinning all our hopes and aspirations on reaching a different future, counter-intuitively, can be the biggest loadstone preventing us reaching that goal.

I guess it is now 15 years ago that I travelled to a wedding in Leeds with Rabbi Pini Dunner, the charismatic founder Rabbi of the Saatchi Synagogue. The train pulled in at Doncaster. He checked his watch, and waved his finger sagely in my direction. “There is clearly,” he said, “a great cosmic need for us to be in Doncaster at precisely 10:42 on this precise day.” It was the sort of thing he would say, one part nurishkeit, one part completely like a worm that lodges deep in the mind and refuses to budge. Maybe the idea wormed its way into my mind because I would need it for a sermon some decade and a half later. What if we all paid attention to the great cosmic significance of every moment. Frankly any moment? Even this moment. What if we lived as if there was a great cosmic need for us to be here, at New London, right now, this Kol Nidrei night?

It’s a Jewish idea expressed most clearly in the ritual of the Hineini Muchan. There are a number of Mitzvot that are preceded with a formula where you say Hineini Muchan UMezuman - here I am, ready and present to perform the sacred obligation of shaking the Lulav or  Counting the Omer. As if to do one of these sacred obligations we need to arrest ourselves into the moment of their performance.

It’s one of the greatest challenge of our time. Arresting ourselves to the moment, rather than running forward to the next thing. We do it so poorly in our lives. But here we are today with nothing else to do but sit in the place in which we find ourselves, making ourselves present before our Creator, allowing ourselves the space to encounter the reality of our failures and achievements in this last year - a Cheshbon Nefesh - literally an account of the soul.

It’s not a skill that is to be practiced only once a year.

It’s the skill of Shabbat. This is Abraham Joshua Heschel in what is still the most important book I could recommend to any Jew wanting an insight into what Judaism offers. In The Sabbath Heschel says,

To set apart one day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily tuned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day in which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day in which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature - is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man's progress than the Sabbath.

It’s not even a skill to be practiced once a week. It’s there for us at every moment.

Spiritual teachers call it mindfulness, therapists call it living in the here and now. For me it’s the moment we acknowledge Hineni - here I am, in this moment with no thought for the next.

There’s a fun parenting blog called Hands-free-mama. The idea is that if you want to parent, put the phone down. Don’t try and parent and do anything else at the same time. It’s not just an idea for mamas, it’s not just an idea for parents. It’s for all of us, all the time. If we skip through the work of this very moment, it will still be there waiting for us tomorrow. But if we give ourselves truly to this moment we fulfil the task facing us and be freed for another tomorrow.

That’s what happens on Groundhog Day. Our weather eventually gives up trying to race through today in search of tomorrow. And instead brings all his efforts to this one day. He attempts to get today right and stops worrying about tomorrow and finds tomorrow sorts itself out.

So try this. Pick one task, it can be as holy as saying the first line of the Shema or as mundane as brushing your teeth, or simply taking a breath in and then out. And mean it. Bring yourself to the present task of accomplishing it without distraction. Try that for a while. And see just how much it might open new pathways for tomorrow.

Hineni Muchan U’mezuman - behold I am ready to do this one thing.

If you want a different tomorrow for yourself, focus less on yourself and less on tomorrow. And more on other people and more on this very moment - each moment in turn.

And who knows we might wake up in a different tomorrow.

I’m going to give the last word to Tim Minchin, the lyricist behind the musical version of Groundhog Day. In the last scene - I did say there would be spoilers - our weatherman wakes up and it is genuinely a different tomorrow and the last lines of the musical are his reflection on the journey that has brought him to this point.

I thought the only way to better days was through tomorrow. But now I know that
I’m here.
And I’m fine.
And I’m seeing you for the first time.
I’m alright.

That would do, it would do for me. I hope it would do for you.
And may the year of tomorrow be one in which we are all here, and all seeing each other as if for the first time.
And all alright.

Hatimah Tovah

Yizkor Yom Kippur 5777 - Meditations on the Lifecyle of a Fruit Fly

To call it a plague would be unnecessarily biblical. But we’ve a minor outbreak of drosophila - fruit flies - at home.

Tiny things half the size of a sesame seed. Too small to buzz. They orbit flowers that arrived for Rosh Hashanah, hover around the compost and seem particularly attracted to toothpaste.
Once upon a time I studied a bit of genetics. Geneticists love drosophila for the brevity of their life cycle. Four days to pupate, two days to reach maturity, then they are ready to mate. Funny how things like the lifecycle of a fruit-fly can remain in the mind. Having mated, of course, the flies die. And it all feels so brief.

Mi Yichiye uMi Yamut - who shall live and who shall die.
Mi b’kitzo uMi lo b’kitzo - who in the fullness of days, and who not at the fullness of days.

And it all feels so brief.
A flash of a moment. We last longer than a fruit fly. But really, what are we capable of achieving? Even our very best efforts. Even the brightest of us. Life a vanishing dream - cchalom yauf.
Yom Kippur can do that to you. So raw an encounter with our mortality that it can become hard to see beyond our terminal state.

Actually Yom Kippur isn’t the worst of it. On the Shabbat of Succot we read the Book of Ecclesiastes; things get bleaker still.

Before the silver chord snaps and golden bowl crashes. The jar is shattered at the spring and the jug is smashed at the cistern. And the dust returns to the earth as it was.
Hevel hevelim amar kohelet - everything is vanity.

That’s an irony, I suppose. A book about the absolute futility of our attempts at immortality, written some three thousand years ago, is still re-read today. The book bears the name of its author Kohelet, and the author lives on through his work.
Despite its antiquity, it’s holding up pretty well.

I have observed, [says Kohelet,] that the race is not won by the swift, nor the battle by the brave, nor is bread won by the wise, nor wealth by the intelligent, no favour by the learned. For the moment of death comes to us all. And no-one knows their time. As fishes are enmeshed in a fatal net and birds in a snare, so is humanity caught by death when it comes without warning.

Sartre would have been happy with that. Kohelet has survived; achieving, if not immortality, then surely a life beyond mortal grasp of its author. That’s a neat paradox. The bleakest, most honest encounter the Bible gives us with the mortal condition reads today as possibly the most contemporary book in the entire Torah.

Here’s another irony. On a day for considering our mortal predicament here we are at, possibly, the most cherished moment in the day, remembering those loved and lost. Giving them, through our memories, a life beyond the grave. The day on which we consider the brevity and fragility of our existence is the day on which those we have loved and lost live on in our reflections on them.

The neuroscientist David Eagleman imagined forty different versions of the afterlife. It’s a great book, called Sum. In one of his essays he imagines an afterlife where the dead gather to live on only as long as there are those who remember them, only to experience a second sort-of-death when there remains no-one who tells stories of their life. He’s right that there is a kind of immortality in stories told about us, even after we have gone.

Woody Allen once said he didn’t want to achieve immortality through his work. He wanted to achieve immortality through not dying. But I’m not sure it works like that. I’m back engaging with Yuval Noah Harari and his new book Homo Deus. This time approvingly.

Harari notes we aren’t dying like we used to. We used to die of pestilence or poverty or violence. Now we get propped up by medicine and prosperity and, as a race, we aren’t even as violent as we used to be. We are living longer and pushing harder at the edges of science to live longer still. We are heading for not quite immortality, but, says Harari, a-mortality.

Future superhumans could still die in some war or accident and nothing could bring them back, but unlike us mere mortals, their life would have no expiry date. So long as no bomb shreds them to pieces or no truck runs them over, they could go on indefinitely.

And here comes a sensational observation.

Which will probably make them the most anxious people in history. We mortals daily take chances with our lives because we know they are going to end anyhow. So we go on treks in the Himalayas, swim in the sea and do many other dangerous things like crossing the road or eating out. But if you believe you can live for ever, you would be crazy to gamble on infinity like that.

His point is that living longer isn’t the same as living better. In fact one might be at odds with the other. Last night I suggested that if we live for tomorrow we are destined never to reach it. Today I’m suggesting that if we worry too much about living for ever we can end up not living at all.

We are mortal.
So we should get on with living.
None of us know how much longer we have.

In the unataneh tokef we read of books, one book for each of us written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed today - v’chotem yad kol adam bo - with the signature of each person in them. We are all writing books. You, me, each of us. And each of our books contains an image of our life. Our values, our efforts, our kindnesses.

And those of us here remembering today, at Yizkor, we are leafing through the books left for us. bo.

We are all writing books and reading books.
So here are a couple of ideas about the books we leave for others to read.

First, make it good.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great American Rabbi of the last century, warned, that the greatest problem is not how to continue, but how to exalt our existence. The cry for a life beyond the grave [he taught] is presumptuous if there is no cry for a great life prior to the grave.’ [2]
What exactly do we want to achieve in this world? We are all too busy running to keep abreast of the speed with which this world turns to pause to think about what we are actually running for.

This, Heschel wrote, is the meaning of existence, ‘to reconcile liberty with service, the passing with the lasting, to weave the threads of temporality into the fabric of eternity.’
Or if that sounds a little too high-falutin, in an interview given just months before he passed away in 1972 Heschel suggested this,

‘remember there is meaning beyond absurdity. Be sure that every little deed counts, that every little word has power and that we can, everyone, do our share to redeem the world in spite of all frustrations and disappointments.’
‘Above all,’ he continued, ‘remember that the meaning of life is to build a life as if it were a work of art. You are not a machine. Start working on this great work of art called your own existence.

For each of us, with our different lives at our different points in life, that answer will look different.
But how much more glorious would all our lives be if we constructed them as works of art. Not just factors off a production line.

My favourite moment in the story of Ester comes when Mordechai attempts to get Ester to protest the upcoming destruction of the Jewish people. She’s declines the invitation, lacking courage, or perhaps distracted by the trinkets of court life. Mordechai is having none of it.

Mi yodeah im leayt hazot higat lemalchut.
Who knows, perhaps it was for this moment that you became queen?

Who knows, perhaps it was for this moment that you are here.
It’s so precious this life. And the brevity of its existence enhances its beauty. If we knew we would life forever it wouldn’t be so important. Here, today, in touch with our mortality because of the themes of this day, and reminded of our own mortality by this service of Yizkor, we have a chance to pledge our lives to the creation of something beautiful, powerful, meaningful.
Something that justifies our existence and allows the flicker of our flame to burn beyond our years.

So that’s the first piece of advice - live bigger. Live for a purpose. Make your life a work of art.

The second piece of advice is - record it, write it down.

Theodore Zeldin, the academic whose responsible for the idea about Forts and Ports so many of you have responded to since Rosh Hashanah has an obsession for autobiographies. He loves them. Each chapter of his book, The Hidden Pleasures of Life, engages with a different one; Lao She the nineteenth century Chinese humourist, the seventeenth century Earl of Shaftesbury, Haimabati Sen, born in Bengal in 1866. He loves autobiographies because they contain the insights into otherness he feels is so vital for human progress. Write it down, he urges, record stuff. Leave a trace.

There is a lovely tradition of the Tzavah - the ethical will. Through Jewish history the great, and the not so great, have passed on their ethical inheritance in documents, many of which have survived to this day. Judah Ibn Tibbon died in France in 1180 leaving this instruction;

Examine your Hebrew books at every New Moon, the Arabic volumes once in two months, and the bound codices once every quarter.  Arrange your library in fair orders so as to avoid wearying yourself in searching for the book you need. A good plan would be to set in each compartment a written list of the books therein contained. If, then, you are looking for a book, you can see from the list the exact shelf it occupies without disarranging all the books in the search for one. [3]

This is al, of course, pre-Google. But I wonder if the good Reb Judah spotted something in his son that led him to pass on this rather different instruction.

My son! I command your to honour your wife to your utmost capacity. Remember her assiduous attendance on you in your illness, though she had been brought up in elegance and luxury. If you would acquire my love, honour her with all your might; do not exercise too severe an authority over her; our Sages [Gittin 6b] expressly warned men against this. If you give reprove, it is enough if your displeasure is visible in your look; let it not be vented in actual rage.

Most of us are blessed with material goods to pass on to our inheritors. But what about the non-tangible gifts; the really important gifts. Write them down.

Leave a record for those who come later. It needn’t, I suppose, be a physical book, but leave a record.

The pre-funeral visit comes with the job. And I’m always fascinated by how a family reflect, admittedly at such a raw moment. Sometimes I arrive and the photos are out and the letters. And there are stories being told and retold. And sometimes there are emotions, but only scarce specific recollections. If we want to be remembered we should make sure there is something to remember us by. Write it down.

It’s a way to live beyond our years.

Live well and leave a record.
And the proof that it works is our very experience here at Yizkor. Remembering, recalling, giving life to those who have passed and celebrating their achievement not necessarily in the public realm, but in the personal, private realms in which their lives have touched and lifted us.

Live well and leave a record.
And in the fullness of time, we pray, there will be those who will remember us.

Hatimah Tovah


[1] Haimabati
[2] Moral Grandeur p.378
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