high holy days · sermon

God has decided to let you off this year

At Yom Kippur, we stand trial. The Heavenly Court convenes and charges the Jewish people with its sins. 

The Accuser lays out the prosecution. They have sinned. They have betrayed. They have been two-faced. The people have been angry, cruel, violent, hypocritical, dishonest and corrupt. All the evidence is laid out before the Holy One, who presides over the case as its Judge. 

The evidence is pretty compelling. We have been everything that the Accuser says we have, and more. We cannot pretend to have been perfect. In fact, we have fallen pretty far short of decent. 

The Angel of Mercy steps forward to plead in our defence. True, the Jews have been callous and unkind, but they have also been charitable, supportive, participated in mutual aid groups, called up vulnerable people, tried to make peace with their friends and neighbours. They have done their best.

The Accuser laughs out scornfully. “I challenge you,” says the avenging angel, “to weigh up this people’s good deeds against its pad. Set their mitzvot on the scales of justice and see how they manage against all their malice. Let’s see whether their good even comes close to counter-balancing their bad.”

The Angel of Mercy is nervous. Of course, they won’t win. The good deeds aren’t nearly numerous enough. Every one has been kept and held tight over the year. This is a sure way for the Jews to lose.

Perhaps the compassionate Angel can plead extenuating circumstances. After all, we’ve been through a pandemic. There has been so much uncertainty. The Jews have had to work from home with screaming children. They have been cut off from all their usual support systems. They have dealt with unimaginable stress. 

Surely, God understands that they can’t be expected to have been on their best behaviour. Not this year. This has been the hardest year yet. And, yes, to be fair, the Angel of Mercy did make the same excuse last year, but this year really was even worse. It really was.

God interjects; raises a single finger. “Enough evidence,” God says. “This year, I have decided just to let it slide.”

Now, both prosecution and defence look confused. They glance at each other, the assembled Heavenly Court room, and we defendants here gathered in our witness box. Perhaps the Holy One has made a mistake?

“It is true,” says God “that this people Israel has done much evil, and it is true that they have done some good. Their good does not amount to much and their evil is pretty damning. Yes, there are extenuating circumstances, but they are not very convincing. I did, after all, give this Torah to all times and places, including to Covid-stricken Britain. So there is no good reason to forgive the Jews. But, having weighed up all the evidence, I’ve decided I’m just going to forgive anyway. I’m just going to pardon them. Court adjourned.”

And that’s it. That’s the end of Yom Kippur on high for another year. 

It was over quickly. But it went exactly as it did last year. And the year before that. And every year going back to when humanity was first created. 

This is the story told by Pesikta Rabbati, a great collection of stories and sermons from Jews in the 9th Century CE. According to this midrash, when Yom Kippur comes around, the Accusing Angel charges the Jews with all its sins before God.

This Angel heaps all of our sins on top of the scales of justice. They weigh down heavily, and it’s clear that the sins outnumber the good deeds.

God then gives greater value to the good deeds so that they can override the evil, but the Accuser has many more sins to submit in evidence.

So, says our midrash, God hides our sins. God wears a long purple cloak and shoves all the sins under it. God sneaks the sins off the scales, and determines to find us innocent anyway.

Our sins are removed and hidden away.

“Yom Kippur” is often translated as “The Day of Atonement,” but the literal meaning of “kippur” is “cover,” “curtail,” “tuck away.” This is the day when our sins are submerged under the great cover of God’s forgiveness. 

They don’t disappear, but God is able to hide them away and forget them. For the sake of love of humanity, God just lets us off.

Lo ‘al tzidkateinu – not because of our righteousness do we pray for God’s forgiveness, but because of God’s unending love. Only on account of God’s infinite compassion do we get to carry on. God’s forgiveness is infinite and instant. 

But if we already knew God would forgive us, why do we bother? Why turn up here for Kol Nidrei, and afflict ourselves, and spend 25 hours in prayer? What’s all this for? 

Well, it might take God only a short while to forgive, but for us it takes a bit more work. We have to go through some effort to get to a fraction of that clemency. So, we take our time to look within, examine our imperfections, and release the guilt we have been feeling. Now is the time for us to forgive.

This year may seem like it requires more forgiveness than usual. This is an unprecedented time for conflict between friends and family, personal struggles, grief, job losses and frustration. It is hardly surprising that people feel so much resentment. 

I speak to people angry about how much they have lost. Time. Money. Strength. Health. Joy. Socialising. All these things that we have been robbed of. We have struggled in ways never experienced before.

Understandably, people want to place the blame elsewhere. They project their anger onto others who they imagine haven’t followed the rules enough, or who have taken it all too seriously, or who don’t think the same way as they do. 

All that anger does is sit inside of the people who hold onto it. It won’t help get back what has been lost. The weight of holding onto slights without forgiving just pulls us down. It just holds us back from growth. The only way to move forward is to let go.

That is why we have forgiveness. We acknowledge our hurt. We take stock of the injuries. And then, although it may be painful, we let go. We accept the way things are and make peace with what can’t be undone.

So, I urge you to forgive.

You might not get closure. You might not get apologies. You might not get reconciliation. Try to forgive anyway. 

The people who have hurt you probably did much wrong. And they probably didn’t do enough to make up for it. And all the dire circumstances will not feel like enough to excuse their behaviour. If you can, excuse it anyway.

The people who you forgive might not be big enough to forgive you back. Still, consider forgiveness.

In the build up to Yom Kippur, we were supposed to apologise to everyone we wronged. You did apologise, didn’t you? Me neither. Not enough. Not completely. Not to everyone. Not for everything. 

And I know my own reasons. I have been so tired and preoccupied and overworked and anxious. I have been too busy getting by to be trusting or vulnerable. The right time to apologise just never came up. 

But I still want to be forgiven. And I know God has already found a way to be merciful towards me. So I will have to reciprocate. 

At Yom Kippur, we stand trial, and God finds us not guilty. Not because we deserve it, but because God has decided to put trust in us. Our task over Yom Kippur is to validate that trust. 

So, we will try to forgive. It is not easy. It may well feel incomplete, and some things may be beyond pardon. Nevertheless, let us try to leave some of the pain of the previous year behind. 

Let us endeavour to accept people, including ourselves, flawed as we are, and move on.

Gmar chatimah tovah.

This is my Kol Nidrei sermon for South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue

high holy days · sermon

A life without regrets

If today were your last day, what would you make of the time you have had? Would you be satisfied that you’d lived your life right? Would you feel like you had left much undone or unresolved?

If today was your last day, would you feel confident in your end? Would you know for certain what had made your life worthwhile?

These are the uncomfortable questions Yom Kippur pushes us to consider. And they are indeed uncomfortable questions. Without even mentioning God, morality, or religion, I know that some will feel affronted by the line of questioning. I know that if I were the one being asked, I would feel affronted. I would be raising objections to the questions. 

But everything about the rituals of Yom Kippur forces us into that way of thinking. 

We dress in the clothes in which we will be buried. A kittle, or cassock, for Ashkenazim. A simple tallit for Sephardim. No jewellery, no perfumes, no fancy shoes. We are dressed not too differently from how we expect to leave this world.

We pray.  We pray that we will be allowed to live. We recount the many ways in which we might die: by fire, water, beast, sickness, ordeal. We recite vidui: the final words we expect to say on our deathbed.

We fast, afflict, and deprive ourselves. All of this is supposed to make us reckon with our mortality. It is a death rehearsal. Yom Kippur asks us whether or not we are ready for death.

Today is Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat midway between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. While some of our readings are special to the occasion, the Torah continues where we last left it before the High Holy Days, with Moses proclaiming his last speeches of Deuteronomy. 

At this stage, Moses knows that he will die, and he contemplates his coming end. His life is over, and so is his mission. He will not reach the Promised Land to which he has travelled, and he must handover power. God tells Moses: “The time is coming close for you to die. You will soon lie down with your ancestors.”

God offers Moses no reassurance that he has succeeded in his life’s task. Quite the opposite, God tells Moses that the people will now chase after false gods, neglect the holy laws, and forget their covenant with God.

After all that. Plagues and miracles in Egypt. Signs and wonders and an outstretched hand to deliver them. They had seen the sea part and bread fall from the sky. They had received the commandments from a thunderous mountain. Now, God tells Moses, they will forget it all and ignore what they learned.

Moses must have wondered in that moment if his life had been worth living at all. His projects may not be continued. His beliefs might not be upheld. Everything he did may have been for nought. 

Yet, somehow, Moses seems to have achieved a kind of calm. He no longer protests against his Creator. He does not challenge the decree. He hands over to Joshua and lets him take the reins.

Perhaps, by this stage, Moses has learned that what matters in life isn’t whether your work succeeds, but whether you perform it with integrity. What matters isn’t whether you find out all the answers, but that you seek to learn. And what matters isn’t whether you perfect the world, but that you treat the world as if it can be improved. In short, what matters is that you do your best.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Rava tells us that, upon dying, Heaven will ask of us six questions:

  • Did you have integrity in your work?
  • Did you make time to study Torah?
  • Did you care for your family?
  • Did you try to make the world better?
  • Did you welcome new ideas?
  • And did you have reverence for your Maker?

Our task on earth is not to be wealthy or famous or powerful. It is to be honest, studious, caring, supportive, optimistic, inquisitive and loving. It doesn’t matter so much what we do with life, but how we do it.

Heaven doesn’t ask what our job was. It asks if we did it faithfully. Did we conduct our working lives in ways that we could be proud to give account of ourselves before God? Did we act as if how we treated others in business mattered for the sake of our own souls?

Heaven doesn’t ask if you can recite the whole of the Mishnah by heart. It doesn’t ask whether you mastered some sacred texts. It doesn’t even ask if you learnt your aleph-bet. Did you try? Did you take an interest in your traditions and heritage? Did you actually look to the past to see if it had any bearing on your own life?

Heaven doesn’t expect you to have had only one marriage of the right kind. It asks whether you actually looked after people. Did you care for those around you? According to palliative nurses, the most common regret among the dying is that they did not spend enough time with those they loved. At the end of life, God also challenges you with the same question. 

Heaven does not ask if you brought about salvation of all humanity. It asks tzafita lishua? Were you on the look out for redemption? Did you search for chances to make the world better? Did you hold onto hope that the world could be changed?

And Heaven does not ask if you arrived at the right answers. It asks whether you asked wise questions. Were you curious? Were you inquisitive? Were you interested in what others have to say?

Above all else, the question we are asked is whether we had yirat Hashem, awe of God. Without this, all the other questions are irrelevant. The Talmud compares someone without reverence for Heaven to someone who only has the keys to the door inside the house, but can’t actually get into the house.

Ultimately, what matters is that we treat our lives like they have meaning. You have to actually care about how you live, and believe that it really matters.

When Moses reaches the end of life, he doesn’t wonder whether it was worth it. He is faced with the far more fundamental question of whether he really lived right. 

Integrity. Curiosity. Kindness. Justice. Effort. Love.

These are the things that really matter in the end. We will get to the end and our only regrets will be the attitude we took towards life itself. 

Yom Kippur is, indeed, a preparation for death. But above all else it is a calling to live. It demands of us that we look at our lives and resolve to conduct them better, with fewer regrets.

Shabbat Shalom

high holy days · sermon

The changing face of the Jewish family

Imagine a Jewish family. Go on, close your eyes and envisage what a Jewish family looks like. 

How many of them are there? Where are they? What do they look like? What are they wearing? 

OK, you can open your eyes again. 

Perhaps you pictured one of the families from Shtisel. You’ve conjured up Haredim in black hats and long coats and white socks. You might be picturing women with covered heads, racing around a dinner table, providing food and clearing away dishes, while a bearded patriarch at the head of the table murmurs prayers from a benscher. Yes, that is a Jewish family. 

Or maybe you imagined the family from Gogglebox. A husband and a wife. Two children, a boy and a girl. They sit on the sofa in front of the TV. They eat their meals on their laps. They light the shabbes candles and sing together the brachah, then go back to watching X Factor.

Yes, that’s a Jewish family too.

Or maybe you’re remembering your own family, from your own childhood, at some festival or simchah, and seeing yourself in your own family make-up. 

You might reminisce on siblings, cousins, single mother, married parents, step-parents, step-siblings, uncles, aunties, grandparents, great-grandparents, step-great-grandparents, neighbours, babies, babysitters, cats, dogs, goldfish. You can scratch out and fill in whatever applies. You’ve got a Jewish family. 

If you’ve got a family and there are Jews in it, that’s a Jewish family.

The truth is there is no one way to have a Jewish family. We come in so many shapes and sizes. We are too diverse even for a single stereotype. 

Still, people often have an idealised vision of what a Jewish family should be and how it should look. Take today’s Torah reading. 

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read of Sarah’s anguish at having one too many children. 

In our parashah, Sarah knows she must provide an heir to Abraham. At first, she offers up her handmaid, Hagar, as a surrogate so that Abraham might sire a child. This is successful, and leads to the birth of Ishmael. Later, God blesses her with her own child, Isaac. 

But this is where things get really complicated. Sarah wanted Hagar to have Ishmael when she thought he’d be the only one. She liked the idea when she was providing her heir for her husband. But now Ishmael looked like a competitor for her son Isaac’s birthright. 

Sarah had an image in her head of what her family was supposed to look like. When her surrogate son plays with the child that she gave birth to, Sarah decides only one of them can last. Sarah instructs Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness. Now, the Jewish family of five gets swiftly reduced down to two. 

Sarah had an image in her head of how her Jewish family was meant to look. But it didn’t match up with reality. Rather than adjust her expectations to her reality, Sarah decided to make reality conform with the fantasy. Even if it meant making people destitute and homeless. Even if it meant cutting up the family she had.

Unfortunately, this desire to force reality to fit the fantasy still permeates Jewish life centuries later. In our communities, people still want to police what a Jewish family should look like. 

The result can only be disappointing for everyone. Families that don’t fit the mould find themselves excluded and cast out from communal life. The people who are “on the inside” get increasingly frustrated that nobody is coming along to synagogue who matches up with their idealised vision of the Jewish family. Eventually, synagogue leaders find themselves exasperated that their membership is dwindling and short on children. 

Rather than fighting reality by clinging onto a fantasy, successful synagogues find ways of embracing change. The best and most active shuls make sure they celebrate diversity, rejoicing in how manifold their membership can be. 

So, let’s take stock of what Jewish families really look like today.

Today, a Jewish family may only have one Jew in it. According to research, a quarter of Jews are in mixed relationships with people from other religions and none. 

In the 90s, moral panic about Jews “marrying out” meant a lot of community resources were spent trying to get Jews into relationships with each other by any means possible. After decades of bemoaning mixed families and complaining that these Jewish groupings don’t look right, there are more mixed families than ever. That number is set to grow.

Contrary to Orthodox and establishment Jewry, Reform Jews made it our mission that we would celebrate families in all their diversity. People could know that, no matter who they loved, the synagogue would be here for them and support them through every step of their life’s journey.

Because the family has changed, conversion has changed too. Decades ago, you could reasonably assume that, if somebody was converting, it was for marriage. That is no longer the case. 

The vast majority of Jewish converts over the last few years have been “spiritual seekers”: people looking for God who have found something meaningful in our traditions. Last year, over 80% of candidates at the Reform Beit Din were lesbian, gay, bi and trans. They are people who looked for a religion of integrity that celebrated them as they are, and found it with us. 

Like the rest of the country, our families reflect the choice that people have over how they want to live. Our families are sometimes one dad with three children and sometimes two mums with a baby; they are cousins and grandparents living under one roof; and they are friends raising children together as neighbours. 

So, imagine your Jewish family again. And again. And again. Keep picturing them until, as in Abraham’s promise, you have as many configurations of families as there are stars in the sky.

Yes, now we know what a Jewish family looks like.

And now we can welcome and encourage them in all their diversity. We can find ways to bring everyone into the synagogue and feel like this is a home where they are loved and encouraged. We can make sure that nobody is turned away.

Imagine the possibilities.

Shana tova. 

I gave this sermon on Second Day Rosh Hashanah at South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue

climate change · high holy days

Another trip around our fragile planet

 

This year, Richard Branson saw the planet from a completely different angle. The owner of Virgin was on board a rocket and saw the Earth as it appears from space.

It must have been incredible. The globe with its big blue oceans and grey-green continents, set against the great dark expanse of our solar system. 

I have always associated that image with Rosh Hashanah. I remember being in cheder as a child, drawing out the world like this in crayon.

“This festival is the birthday of the world,” I learned. 

We celebrate the world’s creation and another trip around the sun. According to rabbinic tradition, the Earth is now approaching the ripe old age of 5782. Mazal tov!

Our ancestors may not have known that the world was, in fact, billions of years old. They probably did not even realise that it is, as Branson would have seen, spherical and rotating on its own axis. 

But they understood something deeply important. This planet is a gift from God. It is a sacred place, existing in an improbable balance that allows the perfect conditions for life. It is filled with more animals and plants than we will ever be able to name. As the Psalmist declared: “How manifold are your works, Eternal One!” 

At the Jewish New Year, we celebrate creation and our place within it. We thank God for the bees that made us honey and the trees that bore us apples. We count another year when God placed human beings in a perfect garden and charged us with caring for it.

What Richard Branson might not have seen from all the way up there was how delicate this planet really is. Once again, we experienced our hottest summer on record, where wildfires spread across the western coast of North America. Some congregants at my synagogue in Essex lost their homes to flooding, as sudden thunderstorms struck. 

Our climate is rapidly changing. We have witnessed snowstorms in Texas and flash floods in China and Germany. Whole swathes of the Amazon rainforest have been destroyed. Parts of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia have died from sun bleaching, leaving ocean graveyards behind.

Experts warn that melting polar ice caps and close contact with cattle will mean even more deadly pandemics.

The midrash on Genesis teaches that God took Adam and Eve around Eden, showing them every living thing . “Look after this world and care for it,” said the Holy One. “For if you destroy this world, there will be nobody after you to repair it.”

Now look at this world. Are we not in danger of ruining it? As it stands, the planet is being consumed by a few, while the many are exploited, in a way that could destroy us all.

We cannot separate Richard Branson’s trip into space from the unfolding ecological disaster. Every rocket launch emits one hundred times more greenhouse gases than a single flight on an aeroplane. 

Right now, Branson is engaged in a battle with other billionaires for who can most colonise the atmosphere. Other heads of corporations, including Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are engaged in a space race. They want to project themselves furthest away from this planet and create an entire industry charging others for the same privilege. 

I do not want to see the world from space if I cannot live in it. I certainly do not want only a covetous few to explore space if it means they leave a burning planet behind for the rest of us.

This earth cannot have been given by God only so that a wealthy few could enjoy seeing it, but that every one of us could live in it and marvel at its wonders.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The last year has shown us how fragile the planet is. But it has also shown us how adaptable human beings are. 

We know how caring and supportive people have been to each other throughout the last year’s difficulties. The Jewish community has shown the very best of itself in its mutual aid and compassion for our most vulnerable members. 

Incredibly, we have also seen a vaccine developed, approved, and distributed in record time. Everyone across the community has rallied to take up the offer of protecting themselves and others. 

We have the power to send people into space and cure diseases. Through hard work, cooperation, and creativity, humanity has already shown it can face off its greatest challenges.  

As Progressive Jews, we talk often about the importance of “tikkun olam”: healing the world. We have a sacred duty to preserve and perfect the planet. 

The energy and investment that has gone into space programmes could support the development of new green technologies and a just transition to a sustainable future. 

Across the country and the world, campaigners are pushing us to rethink our entire economy. They urge governments of the world to invest in jobs, resources and renewable energy. It is not too late to defeat climate change, even as it arrives on our own doorstep.

We can have clean air and clean waters; a flourishing planet for our children to grow up.

If it is possible to see the world from space, it must also be possible to save it.

This year, let us rise to the challenge.

Shanah tovah.

sermon · social justice

It could be you

A woman passes her baby over the fence to an American soldier. She does not know the soldier. She does not know if the baby will be safe. She does not know whether she will ever see the baby again. But she knows that she must give the baby to someone, anyone, so that he doesn’t grow up there.

A sixteen year old boy with a promising career as a footballer grabs on to the side of a plane. He begs. He hopes the plane will take him too. The plane takes off, flinging him to the ground. He dies instantly.

An elderly woman with nothing to her name takes off on a long journey across desert mountains by foot. If she is lucky, she will arrive in a squalid refugee camp and spend the rest of her days living in white tents managed by the UN. She probably will not be so lucky.

Today those people are Afghans. 

Only a few generations ago, they might have been you. 

Most of the people here have ancestors who fled just as these refugees do today.

The great migration of Jews into England came at the end of the 19th Century. They had been living in the Pale of Settlement in Russia and Eastern Europe for centuries. Under Tsarist persecution, Jews were confined only to certain parts of the Russian Empire. They worked as peasants and in menial jobs, building their own communities in the shtetls.

When the Tsar’s power was threatened and the Russian Empire began to crumble, his supporters blamed the Jews. For decades, state-backed mobs rampaged through the villages. They torched houses, massacred people, stole property and made life unbearable. We call these waves of antisemitic violence pogroms.

So, our forebearers fled. Most did not make it. Some arrived in England. When they did, they were met by hostility, racism, cramped housing and sweatshop jobs. 

Not long ago, the hordes of fleeing refugees were you. You know what it meant to be a stranger. Even if you do not remember. 

The Torah asks you to remember. According to our narrative, thousands of years ago, we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We were refugees from a famine in Canaan. We were wandering migrants with no home. We were enslaved and confined to one part of the Nile and worked hard labour building garrisons for the Pharaoh. We were mistreated and judged with prejudice. We are instructed by Scripture to remember how that felt.

This week’s parashah sets out the rights of migrants. Never abuse them. Do not exploit them. Pay them upfront. Don’t hold their property hostage. Give them dignity. Don’t mess them around. Make sure they have food and shelter. Look after them.

Why? Over and over again, Deuteronomy repeats: “Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt. That is why God enjoins you to observe this commandment.”

You have to support strangers because they are you. When you look at migrants and refugees, you are not allowed to see them as different. You have to look at them as you. It is the most-repeated commandment in the whole of Torah: to know what it is like to be a foreigner in a foreign land. Remember what this means.

Not everyone remembers. 

Last week, Danny Finkelstein wrote in The Times praising border controls. He took his family story of fleeing as refugees from the Nazis to advocate for keeping some foreigners out.

He wrote, and I quote here: “strongly believe in immigration control. And I am not in the slightest bit put off by the suggestion that this would have prevented my grandfather from becoming a British citizen […] yes, I would deny immigration to some very deserving and worthy people I would be quite happy to live next door to. Even people I would be happy to be related to. Just because I favour immigration for someone, that doesn’t mean I favour it for everyone.”

Personally, I cannot share Mr. Finklestein’s flippant disregard for immigrants, or join him in championing border controls. Like his, my family also fled the Nazis. Most did not make it out. Only a few, who were children, or who could prove they would be useful as nurses, were permitted entry. Under the current system, I doubt they would have been allowed. If I were a refugee today, I would not fare so well as my grandfather did.

But the reason I object to Danny Finkelstein so strongly is not selfish pragmatism. It is religious. It is because I truly believe what the Torah teaches about the rights of strangers. Those refugees are my ancestors who fled persecution. They are my progenitors from millennia ago who were strangers in the land of Egypt. Those Afghans, gripping onto planes and handing their babies to soldiers and walking for miles in the sun… they are me.

And they could be me again.

The only thing that stands between a comfortable citizen today and a desperate refugee tomorrow is luck. 

We in this room do not have to think about what we would do if our corner of the world was faced with famine or war. We do not have to imagine where we would go when faced with our own version of the Taliban.

But if ever I did have to think about this, I would pray that somebody, somewhere, had taken to heart the message of the Torah. I would want somebody to say that no number is too many, that their homes were open, and that my life mattered, no matter what I could provide.

Thankfully, there are people in Britain today, making precisely this case. 

The Jewish Council for Race Equality has put together a Jewish community response to the Afghan refugee crisis. It sets out clear actions the government must undertake to meet its moral obligations.

It must scrap its anti-asylum seeker legislation. It must stop deporting Afghans back to certain danger. It must allow more refugees into this country. 

I urge you all to sign this petition in support of these very reasonable demands.

These are really the minimum standards we must meet. The Torah never even thinks to introduce border controls or to police citizenship. Our Scripture assumes that migration is natural and inevitable. God’s instruction is that, once strangers are with you, you give them all the rights and compassion you would show to someone you have known all your life.

Torah repeats itself so many times to drill home this message.

Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt. That is why God enjoins you to observe this commandment.

Shabbat shalom. 

I delivered this sermon at South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue on 21st August 2021 for Parashat Ki Teitzei.

climate change · story · torah

Who built the ark

A boat is coming to carry people away from the flood.

You do not have a ticket.

You do not have the money to get a ticket. 

You cannot forge a ticket.

You fumble in your pocket anyway, despite knowing you will find nothing.

If you are wondering whether you know anyone who might be able to get you the money or the paperwork, you do not. You do not even know anyone who knows anyone.

The flood is coming. It has been coming for a while. It has reached others. You have heard reports. You have seen it yourself. You have met victims. 

You didn’t think it would come for you. At least, you didn’t think it would come for you to begin with. Now it is nearly here. 

So is the boat. But you are not allowed on the boat.

The boat is reserved for one man and his family. His name is Noah. He and his sons and their partners and their grandchildren will be rescued. You will not. You will not even be allowed on the ship even to serve them and clean up after them. You cannot stowaway.

Many said that floods were coming. They saw the weather signs. They felt the ground dry up. They knew the trees had stopped bearing leaves. They saw the black clouds and felt the stormy winds. 

You did not laugh at people who said the floods were coming. You did not join in with alarmist panic either. 

You did not commission people to make sure you would be insulated against environmental catastrophe because you didn’t have that kind of money. You knew you were powerless either way when the warnings came. 

You just kept working. What else could you do? You worked and raised your children and made sure you had shelter and a roof over your head. You had fun times with your friends and family. You tried to enjoy life. You tried not to think about it.

You got on with your job. 

And this is the kicker: your job is building boats. 

You are a skilled carpenter. You sand down wood and hammer nails and apply coats of varnish. You breathe in sawdust and work twelve hours a day and learn how to make the dimensions exactly right so that a ship of any size will float. 

You know the boat is coming because you are building it.

You were among the people commissioned to build the ark that is going to take that man and his family away.

You have never been able to afford to go on any of the boats you have made before. This will be no exception. 

Even with the floods already here and the rains rising all around you, you have no choice but to watch.

Noah will float away to safety on the boat that you are building, because he has the wealth to commission you. And the power to leave you behind. 

He has his wealth because his father, Lamech, had wealth. And his father before him had wealth; Methusaleh said he was so rich he could defy time. 

The family gained their wealth through placing indentured servants in long-term debt bondage. Their slaves would work the land without pay and Noah’s family would cream off the profits from their work. In that sense, Noah is no different from any other man who has wealth and power.

But he is different, because he will have a boat. People call him a visionary and a genius. People say he is a prophet because he knew that it was the right time to build a boat when he realised that floods were coming. Some of them stand on and watch in awe as you saw planks for him. 

In years to come, children will ask who built the ark. They will not say your name. They will chant back the name of the man who commissioned you to build it.

You are not building this boat alone. You are building it with hundreds of others. There are people who chop the wood, who transport it to you, who treat it, who clean it, who keep you fed, who watch the children, who make sure everyone is clothed, who design the ships, who furnish the insides, who create the infrastructure to make sure boats can be built. 

You are among many.

There would be enough room for all of you on this ark. Noah is taking his collection of exotic pets.

Nobody is impressed by your ability to make boats. They are impressed by Noah’s ability to commission you to make them. 

Many people do not share such reverence. They fight over the last scraps of food and clean water. They scramble to reach the highest perches, and push others out of them, even though it will ultimately be pointless because the floods will drown everyone. 

Everyone except the people on that ark.

They know that. People fight to reach the ship so that they can get a place on it. They will not get one.

Noah has hired the strongest people to prevent the others from fighting with each other. They form a solid ring to stop anyone reaching the boat. They control the food and water rations. The floods will drown them too.

The man they think is a genius because he has money will sail away on a boat you cannot afford to get on and leave the whole of humanity to drown.

Afterwards, he will tell the story from his perspective. He will say that everyone else was violent. He will say that you deserved to drown.

He will say that he was the only righteous person throughout the entirety of his generation. He will say that the flood was God’s will.

He will say that, if anything, he saved humanity. He will take the credit for the survival of the animals.

And you will be washed away.

So, why do you keep building?

Ark

I wrote this in response to unfolding environmental catastrophe. I will likely preach it in October for Parashat Noach.

judaism · sermon · social justice

How much should I give away?

In 2013, a survey revealed that Jews were the second biggest charitable donors in the UK. 

Muslims were first. 

Ever since, I’ve been trying to recruit Jews into competition so that next time a survey is run, we will win.

Coming second is fine, I guess. But if we’re going to be a light unto the nations and take moral responsibility for the world, we should be coming first no problem. 

They didn’t win because there are more of them than us. That wouldn’t be a fair comparison. Muslims outdid us on both how much each person gave on average, and how much they gave as a proportion of their income.

I’m not really advocating getting into a competition between the religions. There’s enough of that going on in the world.

But I do think there is something important we can learn from Muslims. One of the reasons they do so well on charitable giving is because of how seriously they take the messsage from this week’s parashah. 

Here, we read Reeh. This part of Torah introduces the concept of tithing. Tithing is an old English word, meaning ‘taking a tenth.’ And that is exactly what is prescribed here. Every Israelite must take a tenth of their produce and give it to the priests for redistribution. 

The priests then use some of it for upkeep of the community; some for orphans and widows; some for the poor; and some for supporting migrants passing through. 

This is the basis of Ancient Israelite society. The world of the Bible was very unequal, and living conditions were particularly harsh, so they truly saw the importance of a basic welfare system. 

In the Ancient Near East, almost everyone was a subsistence farmer. Each extended family had a small plot of land, which they would use for harvesting crops, rearing animals, and general living. One bad year on the farm could render an entire family destitute.

The Torah introduced social provision, so that everyone contributed and anyone who needed it could benefit. Richer people did pay additional levies on their crops, so that a tenth was the minimum, but some could give much more. The earliest tzedakah was probably much more like modern taxes for the welfare state than charity. 

But that should not excuse us taking seriously our obligation to give to charity. I’m sure we all agree that the welfare state is a wonderful thing, and that it is impressive that it has a biblical basis. I don’t need to tell you to pay your taxes. You don’t have much choice in that.

What you do have control over is your tzedakah. Your charitable giving. It is a mitzvah doraita, a commandment from Torah, that we are supposed to give 10% of our take-home income to charity. 

Now, who actually gives 10% of their income to charity? Anyone here? I am embarrassed to admit that I don’t. I have regular standing orders that go out to causes I care about, but when I look back on the year, I never actually make it to a tenth of my income.

I feel especially ashamed to admit this, because that tenth is supposed to be the bare minimum. Maimonides teaches that people should give more if they can, as long as they are not consequently rendering themselves in need of charity. 

But my motto is never to lead perfect be the enemy of good. All of us can start by taking charitable giving seriously as a spiritual practice and building it into our daily lives.

Muslims do this with what they call “zakat.” At the end of every week, they give at least 2.5% of their earnings to charity. They’re big donors because they make this a consistent practice and see it as a fundamental part of their religion.

It is also a fundamental part of Judaism. Charitable giving is supposed to be essential for us all. Some older members may remember that, not long ago, every home had a pushke, or tzedaka box, which would collect whatever spare change a person had. Giving has been heavily integrated into some people’s Jewish lives, and it should be again.

Elul is coming. It is the last month of the Jewish year. It is our time for reflection. We use this time to look inward and assess our deeds. 

In Hebrew, this process of introspection is called “cheshbon hanefesh” – auditing the soul. We weigh up our good deeds with our bad, and put our own morals on the scales of judgement. A part of this must surely mean re-examining our giving. A cheshbon is a bill, a record of how much you owe. We owe many things: deeds, love, kindness and study. But we also do literally owe money to those who need it more than we do. 

Now is the time to redouble our efforts at donating and to make sure we do fulfil our sacred requirements. The synagogue will be sending round its High Holy Day appeal soon, and I encourage you to give it a good look.

Giving to others is good for us. It strengthens our soul and sense of self-worth. It is good for others. It means people less fortunate get the support they need. It means great causes can continue to thrive.

And, of course, giving is good for the Jews. Especially if it might mean we win a competition. 

Shabbat shalom.

judaism · liturgy · sermon

Pray for the right kind of rain

Every day, we pray for the right kind of rain. 

The Amidah praises God’s holiness and dominion over the natural world. 

We change how we address God in rhythm with the seasons. In the summer, we thank God for making dew descend. in the winter, for bringing on heavy rains. 

For us living in cities, we can feel quite disconnected from how important this water cycle is. I only catch snippets of how it causes concern. A radio broadcast says British farmers are worried that there hasn’t been enough frost in January. In a supermarket, a cashier tells me there is a shortage of aubergines because there wasn’t enough rain in Portugal this year. 

The cycle of the right rains affects whether we have enough to eat. It can mean the difference between living safely and losing everything. There is a reason the greatest catastrophe our ancestors could imagine was a flood.

This week, we gained a sense of how important and delicate the rain cycle is. 

At the start of the week, I was heading back from a holiday in the Lake District. It was searing hot. The hottest summer we’ve ever had, people kept saying. As I climbed mountains, normally soft moss felt like dry straw under my hands. The shops had stopped selling barbecues and matches. 

Everyone said that the slightest spark could set the whole forest on fire. We would wind up like California or the Amazon, with acres burnt to a crisp. Thankfully, it didn’t happen, but I left with an awareness of the forests’ fragility and a deep concern that England was not ready for climate catastrophe. 

Only days later, I came back to intense flooding. The rains fell intensely, relentlessly. I thanked God that I was safe inside as the skies turned black and stayed that way for what seemed like days. The area around our synagogue was drenched. Charlie Brown’s roundabout flooded again. Some in this community saw damage to their property. Members of our synagogue were displaced: moved initially to the higher floor of the care home, then relocated. 

I was taken aback by how well our care team took to handling the crisis. Claire, Sue, Debz and others made sure everyone who might be affected received calls, and that anyone who needed help got it. They showed the very best of what this synagogue is for. 

But I was most impressed by the bnei mitzvah students I met this week. Jacob and Layla, twins, are preparing to come of age around Pesach, at the time when we stop praying for heavy winter rains and start celebrating the gentle dew. I asked them what they want to be when they grow up. Jacob wants to be a primary school teacher. Layla says she wants to be an environmental activist.

I have to be honest. When I was Layla’s age, I had no idea campaigning could be a job. It is a testament to her curiosity and sense of justice that she has found this out.

But it is also a wake-up call of how dire things are with our environment that Layla has to think of this job. The problems we saw this week had many causes. We have a rapidly changing climate. Companies have over-consumed fossil fuels and spoiled the ecosystem. Developers have built on flood plains. Much of the development after the Olympics destroyed natural wetlands, worsening the situation. But all of these factors share a common problem: we have taken nature for granted.

In this week’s parashah, we read: 

If you listen, if you truly pay attention, the Eternal One your God will grant the right rains at the right times: autumn rain for autumn and spring rain for spring. You will be able to eat and so will your cattle. 

But you must guard yourself against a straying heart. If you serve other gods and bow down to them, God’s anger will blaze out against you. God will shut up the sky. There will be no rain.

This text might feel familiar. It is the second paragraph of the Shema, found on page 214 in your siddur for the Shabbat morning service. You may have read it before, but it’s unlikely you’ll have heard it read aloud in any service. 

It is the custom of this synagogue, and of all Reform synagogues, to read these verses in silence. So, why do we whisper it? 

One reason is that we are very uncomfortable with what is implied theologically here. It suggests that good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people. We know this isn’t true. The righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Our rabbis knew long ago that there is no individual reward for good deeds in this life. So we won’t say it out loud when we have doubts about it.

But what if it is true? The warnings in these verses are not about how God might deal with individuals, but the impact of actions on entire groups of people. If you don’t pay attention to the ethics of Torah, you all can be destroyed. If you worship gods other than the Source of all creation, you will find yourself helpless before the forces of nature. Cause and effect. Action and consequence. 

In the biblical world, worshipping other gods meant turning to material things. Whereas the idol-worshippers bowed down to wood and stone, what marked out the ancient Israelites was that they only prayed to the transcendental God, who held all of nature in balance.

And that is what is happening in our world today. We are disregarding our ethical obligations to care for the planet, and we are seeing what happens. People have substituted the Eternal God for the material elilim of oil and gas. We have traded humility before nature for the arrogant belief that we can control and manipulate our environment without consequences. 

Now we are living the impact. We are dealing with the wrong rains. We are witnessing floods here, in China, in Germany, in New York, and in India. 

The Torah warns us: “Do not believe you have made all this with your own hands!”

We may have built cities and roads and bombs and planes, but we didn’t make the grass grow. We haven’t made the sun shine. It’s not us that makes the rains fall. 

All that is in the hands of a supreme Creator, who has charged us with protecting and sustaining this planet. We must hear, and truly pay attention, to that God, whose Word calls to us today. We must take up the challenge of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy; of rebuilding our world in harmony with nature, rather than against it; of tackling carbon emissions and climate disaster. We must enable Layla to inherit a living planet so that she actually has something to protect.

We must act now. 

Shabbat shalom.

This sermon is for South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue, 31 July, Parashat Eikev

judaism · ritual · spirituality

Wrap your body in prayers

Most of the time, when I’m experiencing something emotional, I feel it in my body before I can even process it. 

I’ll feel a sinking in my stomach and know I’m dealing with dread. I’ll wake up grinding my teeth and realise I must be anxious. I go to bed feeling full of life and visceral feel my joy.

Every emotion is a physical experience. It is not just something we can rationally understand.

In Biblical Hebrew, if you want to say that you are angry, you say that your nose flares. If you are compassionate, you are womb-ful. If you are sad, you rip your hair. If you are lustful, you are big-balled. If you feel respect and awe, that’s in your liver.

In the biblical imagination, the body is a map of all the emotions we might feel. Each limb and organ corresponds to the full range of affective experience. 

We must bear this in mind when we come to read this week’s parashah and its resultant commandments:

Put these words that I command you today on your heart… Wrap them as signs on your arms. Bind them in front of your eyes. 

The words are recited daily by the most observant Jews. They form part of the first paragraph of the Shema, Judaism’s central prayer. 

The Shema begins with an instruction to listen; to pay attention. Hear, O Israel, the Eternal One is our God. The Eternal God is One. 

It then tells us the embodied experiences we must have to make sense of what we are hearing. Heart. Arms. Eyes. 

Of course, these carry metaphorical meanings. For the ancient Israelites, the heart was the seat of thinking, much in the same way as we consider the brain in the modern West. When Torah tells us to keep it on our hearts, it means that it should be part of our whole intellectual being.

The arm is the site of action. It is synonymous with power. The arm is what gives to charity and shields the vulnerable. It is also the body part that raises swords and strikes stones. With an outstretched arm, God redeemed the Israelites from Egypt. The instruction to keep God’s word on our arms is a call to use our power for God.

Eyes, for the Hebrews, are for desiring. Your eyes can wander after foreign gods. They can delight at the wonders of nature. They can covet things that aren’t yours. They can favour children. The Eternal’s eye is always on those who have hope and mercy. If the commandments are frontlets before your eyes, enacting them as all you want to do. You are singularly focused on doing good deeds. 

Over time, our ancestors came to see these words as more than just symbols. Rabbi Akiva, the Mishnah’s great thinker on metaphor and interpretation, is credited with codifying the rules for tefillin.

Tefillin are compartmentalised boxes affixed to leather straps. You can see people wear them wrapped around their heads and arms in weekday morning prayers. 

These prayer aides were invented so that observant Jews could literally enact the commandment of binding the words on the body. Inside the boxes are the words of the Shema. Cheder children tell me they look like Go-Pros.

Carefully, we tie them to our arms, close by our heart. We wrap the leather straps around our arms, seven times. We place them as a crown around our heads, settled between our eyes. We finish up by plotting the straps around our fingers and palms in a set pattern.

If ever you come to Leo Baeck College’s shacharit services, you will see a bunch of students and teachers adorned in them. 

If the founders of the College and its movements could see us, they would be aghast. For many of the originators of our movement, such embodied practices were strange and arcane. 

Progressive Judaism was a response to the Enlightenment. Across Europe, people heralded the triumph of science and reason. Ideas, not feelings, were paramount. Rational thought, not embodied emotion, would be what guided humanity to greatness. 

Reforming rabbis of the past called the practice of bending knees in prayer “bowing and scraping.” They saw their Orthodox contemporaries’ kissing the scroll as a form of idolatry. Above all, they certainly never wore tefillin. 

When, in my early 20s, I asked my dad for a tefillin set for an upcoming birthday, he raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that an Orthodox thing?” he asked. We didn’t talk much about the theology, but I told him I liked the idea of it, and he got me a beautiful pair.

In a way, he was right. Tefillin were an Orthodox thing. But, over time, progressive Jews have reclaimed them and made them our own. 

Reason is still deeply important. We still hold to the importance of modern scientific inquiry and rational debate. It’s just that we can no longer isolate what goes on in our bodies from what goes on in our brains. 

Living with chronic pain, I see daily how intertwined are my spine and my spirit. Every part of my mental and physical health is connected. I would struggle to draw a line between my body and my ‘self,’ and can’t really comprehend their separateness. 

This is just as true in prayer. So I wrap tefillin. I feel my religious inclinations before I can process them. 

I’ll stick a box on my left bicep and know that my body is part of the miracle of creation. I wrap it around my arms and I am bound by God, submitting to the commandments. I set the straps over my head and feel the weight of responsibility. I rest the box before my eyes and see what I have to do. I tangle the knots around my fingers as if I am being married and I am overwhelmed by the loving gift of a new day.

I wrap my body in prayers. I can work out what they mean later. 

I wrote this sermon for Leo Baeck College’s newsletter, Parashat Vaetchanan

sermon · social justice · theology

What do we stand for?

Five years ago, I interviewed to start rabbinic training. Over four days, I went into different rooms, where rabbis, academics and lay leaders quizzed me about why I wanted to be a rabbi. 

It was intense. In one interview, one of the rabbis asked me: “what do you think you most want to learn while you are here?”

I said: “I’d like to learn what we stand for.” 

My interviewers scrunched up their faces. I imagined them thinking, “are you sure you’re in the right place?”

How could I not know what we believe? We are Progressive Jews; we stand for Progressive Judaism. Perplexed, she pushed me: “can you think of any principles of Progressive Judaism?” 

I thought, and said: “informed choice.” We do what we like, in conversation with Jewish tradition.

The rabbi sat back and took notes. I wasn’t sure whether I had given a correct answer, and she was confused how I could say I didn’t know what we stood for if I had that grounding, or if I’d missed something more important.

What I was trying to ask was: surely we don’t just choose whatever we like? A Progressive Jew can’t make the informed choice to commit murder. We don’t look at that central commandment and think: ‘ah, but it was for its time.’ We have a shared assumption that the prohibition on killing applies to every time. So how do we make these informed choices? What decides for us which choices are right and wrong?

Permissiveness is not really a value. It’s something you do out of indifference. There must be something stronger than that motivating our congregants to get out of bed and labour for the welfare of their community. 

Apparently, I am not alone. Throughout my time as a student, going to congregations across the country, people have asked me that very same question in different ways. 

What are the values of Reform Judaism? What does living by Progressive Jewish values actually mean?

After 4 years of study, well… I still don’t have the answer. But I feel much closer to it than I did when I started. And the answer begins with this week’s parashah.

At the end of Masei, we hear the story of the daughters of Tzelafchad. They come forward before Moses and assert their rights to inheritance. Their father, they say, was a good man who had no sons. As it stands, his property will be passed on to nobody, and these women will be left destitute. They argue that they should be the ones to inherit his estate. Moses talks to God. God agrees.

This is a big deal in Torah terms. It shows that a law can change. Decisions are not fixed in stone but can adapt with the times. It fits exactly with the Progressive mindset. We look at the laws again, and work out if they are still relevant. Moses looked at inheritance law, saw that it wasn’t working, and decided it was time to set a new precedent.

This is at the heart of Progressive Judaism. We progress. We treat the Torah and our traditions as our basis, but we are always willing to review it, and find new ways that better suit our reality.

The case of the daughters of Tzelafchad is a great example. It fits with our intuitions about what is right and wrong. Of course these women should inherit.

But does that mean every time a law changes, it’s an improvement? In the course of the Torah, laws also change to take rights away from people. Laws can change that make people’s lives worse. 

The reason why we consider this legal change so praiseworthy is because it makes life better for people. In particular, because it makes life better for women. 

It fits with the feminist lesson we have learnt from history. Through the last century of the women’s liberation movement, our religion learned the importance of giving everyone their full rights and abilities to participate in Jewish life.

We have our own hashkafah: our own way of looking at the world. We see progress in terms of what gives people the most equality, dignity, and justice. 

Other strands of Judaism may give priority to tradition, nationalism, or conservatism. We say that what matters is equity. 

We did not decide to pursue this egalitarian cause because we thought it would make things easier. Quite on the contrary: it made things harder for many people. At the start of our movement, people were disowned by their families and ridiculed by the religious establishment because of their conviction that equality mattered. They took the more difficult course because it was the right one.

Since the early days of Reform Judaism, we have prioritised gender equality. This week, I met with one of the founder members of SWESRS, who said that in their very first days, the community discussed what they wanted from a synagogue. Even in the 1950s, they insisted that equality between men and women would be of the utmost importance.  

This synagogue has gone on to create a legendary legacy. The UK’s first woman rabbi, Jackie Tabick, was raised here. This is a place with a proud history of putting forward that great principle of Reform Judaism: that equality matters.

That is how we approach the question of whether and when to change a law. We are not beholden to tradition, forced to do everything today and tomorrow, just because we did it that way yesterday. Nor will we go along with every change, just because it feels fashionable or convenient. 

At every stage, the question we ask ourselves is: is this right? Is this just?

We seek to make changes that will make people more equal, more empowered, and more dignified. 

So, now, if I am asked what we stand for, I have a much clearer answer.

We stand for equality.

We stand for the emancipation of all of humanity.

We stand up for the oppressed and stand beside the marginalised.

We stand in the footsteps of Moses, who changed laws because he could see that justice mattered.

We stand before God, proud to inherit a tradition; and courageous enough to change that tradition for the better. 

That is where we stand.

Shabbat shalom. 

This sermon is for South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue, Parashat Matot-Masei, 10th July 2021