high holy days · liturgy · sermon

It is on us.

What are we doing here tonight, beating our chests and chanting our sins? Haven’t we been through enough?

We have spent most of this year, from Purim onwards, sitting in our houses, staring at screens as nothing but bad news floods in. Coronavirus. Climate catastrophe. Police brutality. Rising inequality. Economic collapse.

Frankly, shouldn’t we able to take a night off? You might think we should get to the High Holy Days and only hear reassuring pleasantries. But Judaism never lets us off that easily. If that is what you want, Selichot is the wrong service. It’s very meaning is apologies, penitences, petitions. Its whole purpose is to summon us to ethical action and force us to examine our deeds.

At this service, we have to be confronted with Hillel’s maxim:

 אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו אֵימָתָי

If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am for my own self [only], what am I? And if not now, when?[1]

This saying from the Mishnah is often rendered in the more memorable format: if not you, who? Yes, life would be much easier if we could look to others to resolve our problems. If only the government would do a better job… if only the European Union would sort things out… if only Jeff Bezos would spread his wealth around a bit… if only God would stop Coronavirus… if only God would send Moshiach to us today and sort the whole thing out! If only.

But your religion isn’t asking you to look at what others should be doing. It is calling on you to consider what you should be doing. Every time we pray, we recite the immortal words of Aleinu: “t is our duty to praise the Ruler of all, to recognise the greatness of the Creator of first things, who has chosen us from all people by giving us Torah.”[2]

Aleinu. It is on us. The power and responsibility for what happens in this world rests with us. To be a Jew is to be singled out, directly and personally, by God. You, as an individual have been called upon by God and tasked with Torah, with the moral welfare and social responsibility for all humanity. You are asked to take action.

And what does Aleinu say we must do? To cut off the worship of material things. To destroy prejudice and superstition. To speak out against oppression. To unite the whole world. To bring goodness and truth and justice to this world.[3]

That is our calling. That is what we must answer. According to folklore, this prayer was introduced into the daily liturgy in the 12th Century, when a group of Jewish men and women were burned at the stake for refusing conversion. As the flames piled up around them, they sang these lyrics to a haunting melody, refusing to give up even unto death.

Faced even with being burned alive, these martyrs’ first recourse was to recall their own moral duties. They used their last moments to remember why they were placed on earth. Why, in this time of Coronavirus, should we be any different? We must see this season as a time to take up the yoke of responsibility Judaism has bestowed.

As we recite our selichot, challenge yourself. Ask: have I been as generous as I should? Have I done enough to reach out to vulnerable people?  Have I prayed? Have I built community? Have I supported my loved ones? Have I been kind?[4]

And, if, on any point, you find yourself deficient, now is the time to correct your ways. If not you, who? If not now, when?

I gave this sermon on Saturday 12th September 2020 at Glasgow Reform Synagogue for Selichot.

[1] Pirkei Avot, 1:14

[2] Forms of Prayer 2008, p. 310

[3] Forms of Prayer 2008, p. 311

[4] Based on Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 127a