Trying to become a better person, is a good thing.
Most of the time.
There was once a man, a stonecutter, and he wasn’t happy being a stonecutter. Every time the foreman would shout and harangue him and he felt this jealousness, so he closed his eyes, for just a moment and says to himself, ‘I wish, I just wish I could be a foreman.’
Poof – just like that, he becomes the foreman, and this is great. Now he is doing the bossing around, not for him the hard graft of cutting the stones.
But then the King arrives and demands the profits from the quarry and now our foreman is feeling miserable again, ‘Oh this is terrible, all my hard work, for nothing. And so he closes eyes, ‘I wish, I wish I could be a King,’ and poof, again. The King.
And this really is terrific, robes, jewels, a crown; servants to carry me through the streets of the city.
But it is hot under this crown. Goodness, I’m really starting to sweat. If only I were the sun, then I could solve all these problems.’ And so he shuts his eyes, ‘I wish, I wish’ and poof, again. Now he is the sun.
And that is great until the cloud comes and blocks out the sun. So he wishes to be a cloud, which is wonderful floaty fun until the wind blows the cloud.
So he wishes to be the wind, whistling through the trees, and that is fantastic until he comes up against a mountain, blocking the way of the wind.
‘I wish, I just wish I could be a mountain.’
Poof – and now, here he stands, a mountain, been here forever will be here forever, strong and sturdy and immovable.
Until, down in a quarry at the foothills he hears the chip, chip chip of stonecutter, cutting away at the mountain.
Over Rosh Hashanah I shared, in my sermons, an idea and tried to unpack how it influences both our internal psychological, or spiritual state, our relationship with Judaism and, taking a broader perspective, should be influencing the world.
On first day RH I spoke about alterity.
On second day RH I spoke about truth.
Today I want to speak about an idea that is, perhaps, more important than either.
Here’s the problem;
We don’t know how to stop.
Going after more things seems to be the wiring of our souls.
Or maybe it’s not our souls’ fault.
Maybe it’s that we all live in a society where we are continually told acquiring more stuff will make us a better person, or a happier person, or a person of more value.
And those voices call us to gauge our success by the extent to which we hunger for more.
And, unless we police the borders of our soul we can get swept up in chasing after vanity.
Or maybe it’s the fault of the other voice that seems to crow ever more incessant in contemporary society; the voice of fear; fear of missing out, or fear of not measuring up to standards that are simply unreasonable.
24/7 no longer seems sufficient to detail the extent to which so many of us are expected to be ‘on,’ to be reactive.
I’m part of a FB group of Conservative Rabbis. One of my colleagues queried as to whether it was appropriate for a Rabbi to have an auto-response on their emails apologizing for not responding rapidly to emails at this time of year or whether that just looks like we are wasting time that could otherwise be productive.
And I’m more than aware that if that’s true for Rabbis, for those of you with jobs in the real world, the insistence that you are available and responsive 24/7 are even more demanding.
There are many things to blame for our working ourselves into spirals of dis-satisfaction and fear.
But this is Yom Kippur - it’s a day for us to take responsibility for our own decisions, no matter how much others might have enticed us.
It’s as if we think that at the end of our lives we are to be judged by the amount of stuff we have accumulated or the amount of busy-ness we affect.
Actually the Talmud tells us how we are to be judged in the heavenly tribunal when our time does indeed come.
We can expect to be asked if we had fear of heaven, if we pursued wisdom - those sorts of things. But we aren’t going to be asked if we accumulated enough stuff. We aren’t going to be asked if we were busy enough.
Actually you don’t even need to know the Talmud’s lack of interest in the amount of stuff we accumulate to know the amount of stuff we accumulate is only so very rarely important at the end of a person’s life.
You don’t need to know that the Talmud has nothing to say about how much we accumulate or how many hours we work to know that these issues matter only very rarely at the end of a life.
You just need to spend time with people at the end of their lives.
People regret spending time with their family.
People regret not being able to do more with the people they love.
Those who have lived really great lives - and I’ve had the sad blessing of burying too many this past year - don’t regret anything, they just wish they could be around to spend more time doing the things they know are truly important.
The grander perspective on this relentlessness is the ecological disaster we are bequeathing on generations to come. March was so cold the army were called into help. The summer broke all records for heat.
There are two tales of creation at the beginning of the Torah. One tells us we are placed on this earth to impose ourselves on it, it tells us that the world and everything in it is our plaything - here for us.
But we’ve forgotten the other tale. The other tale tells our life’s work is to work and protect the earth - lovdah ulshomrah.
At the time that God created Adam, God led him past every tree in Gan Eden and said to him, “See how beautiful and praiseworthy are My creations. Everything that I created, I created for you. Be careful not to damage or destroy My world, for if you damage it, there will be no one to fix it up after you.”
So much for working and protecting the earth - we are sucking out its resources and destabilizing the carefully balanced ecology that protects life on earth.
But we are, you and I, extraordinarily blessed to have a way out of this cycle of danger.
Because, as Jews, we have a gift that has kept our people for thousands of years.
It has allowed us to rise higher than being ever more busy.
It is called Shabbat.
This is a sermon about Shabbat.
On Shabbat we free ourselves from the tasks of subsistence, we become free.
We step back from the day-to-day tasks of the week and instead get to become, in the words of Bible, a little less than angels.
In the Creation Narrative we find that on the seventh day, God vayinafash. It is usually translated as God rested. It is a poor translation.
Vayinafash – can mean ‘breath’ and on the seventh Day, God put the breath into the world. Now that is a more radical notion than rest, as we would normally understand the word.
But Nefesh means something else as well as ‘rest’ and ‘breath.’ Nefesh is a soul.
Vayinafash – And God put the soul in the world on that first Shabbat and we can still hear that echo,
Or at least we would be able to if only we could still our lives, still the ever-spinning hamster wheels.
Shabbat can even help up find that stillness.
The radical notion of the laws around Shabbat is that our lives become more special when we abstain from stuff.
Shabbat serves as correction to the human search for that which is beyond what we really need to celebrate our humanity, and our Jewish identities.
Shabbat is the antidote to our addiction to getting more and more.
It can teach us that it’s not only possible to step back from always chasing after more. It’s actually vital.
We humans need a sabbatical day – a day in seven to be ourselves, to recover our own resources, a time to be with our families, with God, and to celebrate the joys of a simpler kind of life; a life of friendship, of community, of holiness.
As a Rabbi I feel that the Shabbat is the single greatest weapon in our arsenal as Jews, as human beings that will allow us to become better, stronger and more compassionate people.
How is it possible to make change in our lives– Keep Shabbat
How is it possible to respond adequately to the incredible gift of simply being alive – Keep Shabbat
How is it possible to keep things in perspective when life gets so cluttered and stressed and busy – Keep Shabbat
How is it possible to keep a balance between work life and home life – Keep Shabbat
It is difficult to explain how these glorious collections of rules and rituals carry so much power. In fact I guess that their mystery is part of the efficacy.
Shabbat can’t really be explained, it has to be lived.
So I want to offer two very concrete tools, techniques and approaches to Shabbat.
One for Friday night, one for Saturday during the day. Both radically simple.
On the Friday night I want to suggest to us all that we become bolder in claiming the sanctity of Erev Shabbat.
I want to suggest, to us all, that we feel more confident in declining the invitations to shows and parties and the like.
Let them go. I know we are all so well connected and so many of us get so many invitations to attend so many wonderful and interesting places.
But there will be enough invitations even if we decline ones on a Friday night.
Friday nights are for protecting a Jewish time.
Come to shul - our Friday night services are lovely - short!, shorter than this journey, you can sing, we’d love you to sing. You can connect to being part of a Jewish journey. And you can leave the rest of the world to get on with its lunacy.
And you should eat - of course you should eat. At its heart Shabbat is about meals, made unique in the week by the ritual that accompanies them. If you are blessed with a family - eat with your family. Invite others to share a Jewish meal with you. If you don’t have regular invites - make a point of booking for our dinners at New London - next one is on 9th November.
Just protect Friday nights from a slow slide away into just another weekend evening.
For Saturday during the day I want to commend to you all the observance of an issur d’oraita – a prohibition straight out of the Bible. We are commanded not to carry, on Shabbat, in a public place.
I spend my week laid down. Even if I am not shlepping computer around, my pockets are always full of wallet and phone and jangling keys and scraps of paper reminding me of who knows what.
For one day a week they can all be left at home.
Especially the wallet.
Especially the phone.
If you really need to carry – take the one key, not the whole bunch.
Do you really need that handbag? If you really do, what can you empty out, what can you let go of?
What can you leave behind today?
It is a wonderful way to realise how little stuff we actually need to get through our days.
On Saturday day, don’t carry, Keep Shabbat.
I know there is plenty to do.
I know there is plenty to campaign for and campaign against.
And I know that we are all worried about the financial and corporate pressures of this world in which we live.
But it doesn’t help to chase after more forever.
It’s so easy to lose track of what we are actually searching for.
Keep Shabbat and we may soon start to find it.
May we do that, and in so doing find a wonderful, peaceful and healthy year to come.
Gemar Chatimah Tovah