festivals · high holy days · sermon

Is time a cycle or a line?

Do you ever feel like we’re going round in circles?

No, really.

We just spent our evening going round and round. We circled the synagogue seven times; we spun around on the spot. We rotated so much we got dizzy.

Then, having spun and circled and danced with the Torah, we read the very last bit of the story, only to begin it again. No sooner had our narrative ended than we immediately restarted it.

Our storytelling does not begin with creation and end with the death of Moses, because the death of Moses is immediately followed by the story of creation. You cannot hear one without hearing the other. We are locked in a cycle.

How fitting that this celebration of circling is the completion of our High Holy Day festivals. They began with Rosh Hashanah, when, our tradition teaches, the world was first created, and they end with Simchat Torah when, we read, the world was first created. Our festivities began with a new beginning and end by redoing the same beginning all over again.

This makes sense in the context of our festival cycle, where one simchah always follows from the last and leads to the next one. Which one is the beginning, and which one is the end? If you tried to place your finger anywhere in the cycle, you would soon find it slipping away from you, as it made way for the next turn on the same wheel.

Our Torah, our festivals, our planet, and our bodies, all turn with anticipated regularity. So we go on in circles.

This view of time is antithetical to the modern mind. Everything in contemporary thought speaks of progress. We came from a finite beginning, and we are heading to a finite end.

The world began at one point, when it was created, and will end at another, when it will be destroyed. Humanity came into existence around 300,000 years ago, and could last another 8 million, but it will at some point cease to be.

In the intervening period while humans exist, we progress from intelligent apes to hunter-gatherers, to shepherds, to subsistence farmers; through the metallic ages to feudalism, to capitalism.

Yet this view of time, as a progression from one clear point to a closing at another, is a distinctly modern one.

For most of Jewish history, time has not been a journey from beginning to end, but a constant cycle.

The great 20th Century literary critic, John Berger, explained this mentality. For those who work the land, life is precisely a cycle. The work of each day is in a routine with every other. Each year follows the same pattern as the one before.

Autumn, spring, summer, winter. We reap, we sow; we plant, we harvest. We mulch the ground and till it with seeds and water it and take in the yield and repeat the same process again.

Every individual is born into a world where that wheel is already in spin and, when they die, the world carries on turning in just the same way.

When peasants imagine time, therefore, they think only of three stages. The first is our present life of survival, confined as it is to that ongoing cycle. At either end is an identical period of perfection. We began in a paradise and we are heading to a paradise. The ideal world existed long ago in the distant past, and we will return there when the world is set right.

If the distant past and the messianic future are the same place, then time is a cycle. We are only ever heading to the place from which we began.

This is precisely the position of traditional Jewish theology. Our souls began in Eden, dwell temporarily in this life to struggle, and will one day return to that same Eden.

It is the traditional Jewish view of time. Humanity was given a perfect world; we live now in a time of violence and injustice; the world will be returned to its sublime state once more.

When we put the Torah back in the ark, we summon this Jewish view of time: חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם – renew our days as of old. Make our times new, like they were at the beginning.

Within these times, then, says Berger, our only way forward is to trudge the same path. We walk on the same roads as our ancestors did and beat them down again for the next generation.

In Judaism, we call that path “halachah”: the way, the route. These are the rites and customs of our ancestors. We will repeat them and we will pass them on. The cycle continues.

But there is a problem with this view of time. Berger acknowledges that, if life is seen from this standpoint, the only correct moral viewpoint is conservative. We must repeat what we have done before. We cannot deviate from it whatsoever.

That is, effectively, a parody of Orthodox Judaism’s view of history. The religion is the same as it always was and we must endeavour not to let it change. Our ancestors knew more than we did, and we will be in a constant descent of generations until a long-awaited messianic age.

In such a worldview, there is no room for development, innovation, or change.

There is a reason why “going round in circles” is an insult!

However much progress may conflict with the passing of the seasons, it conforms with what we know of what has happened over the centuries.

We are all here as Reform Jews because we have seen something in the past that we wanted to correct: whether it was inequality between the sexes; an inability to watch TV on a Saturday afternoon; or simply a desire to hear the organ in shul. If everything must remain static, our synagogue could not exist.

Reform Judaism is an effort to reconcile the two views of time. It straddles the traditional cycle and modern progress. It says that we can go round and go forwards at the same time.

How is this possible?

I like the analogy of time as a snail shell. Yes, it goes in cycles, but at the end of each turn, it moves forward, just slightly. We go round and we go out. We go back on ourselves in order to advance.

If it feels like we are going round in circles, that’s because we are, but we are not always coming back to exactly the same place.

When we arrive at this new Simchat Torah, we are reliving the old one, but we are here as transformed people. We are slightly different than when we saw it last, so the festival is too.

We go back on ourselves in order to move forwards.

Chag sameach.

festivals · high holy days · sermon

From an open roof to a closed scroll

We are nearing the end of Sukkot and entering Simchat Torah.

We move from fragility to strength, from an open roof to a closed scroll, from the impermanence of life to the eternal truth of God.

What makes a sukkah kosher is its frailty. With its open walls and starlit roof, it stands in for all our wanderings and confusion. It is makeshift and temporary.

In its fragile state, it teaches us about the human condition: that we are vulnerable, at the whim of forces beyond our control. Into this transient home, we bring guests, both living and ancestral, who teach us that we only live by community. 

The sukkah teaches us about the human heart: that it must be open and porous, welcoming to strangers, able to let others in and accept our own emotional helplessness.

But the sukkah also has another feature of what makes it kosher. It must be able to stand for eight days. It must be strong enough to withstand the weather. It cannot be drowned by rain or upended by windstorms. 

This, too, teaches us about the spirit. We must be resilient. We must be confident enough to know our boundaries. We must be strong enough not to let others wave or topple us.

This is the tension we hold in the transition between Sukkot and Simchat Torah: between fragility and strength.

There is a story that Abraham’s tent was open on all sides. 

Wherever Abraham looked, he could see whether strangers were coming to visit him.

If he looked out and saw them coming, he would run to meet them. Abraham was the model of generosity, so full of love for the wayfarer that he would do anything to let them in.

This explains why he greeted the angels who came to visit him at Mamre so enthusiastically, even though he thought they were just human beings. It explains how he was righteous enough to receive God’s blessing, and to become the progenitor of monotheism. 

This is the version of the story that we find in Bereishit Rabbah, and you will find it printed in all sorts of commentaries. It is a beautiful myth that captures our imaginations and features heavily in sermons preaching charity. It teaches us about the importance of welcoming. 

But it is not the only version of the story in rabbinic literature. A few centuries later, Avot deRabbi Natan, a commentary on the same text, explains it slightly differently. Instead of the example of Abraham, this midrash says we should be like Job. 

It teaches:

Your house should have a spacious entrance on the north, south, east, and west, like Job’s, who made four openings to his house. Job opened up every side so that the poor would not be troubled to go all around the house: no matter what direction a stranger came from, they could enter in their stride.

At a glance, it tells the same story, just with a different prophet named. Job was also described as righteous and upright, a man who feared God and turned away from evil. 

But there is a difference. Unlike Abraham’s, Job’s house is actually mentioned as having four sides. How do we know? Because, at the very start of Job’s story a messenger comes to tell Job that his house has blown down. “A mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on the young people and they are dead.”

Job’s house was so open that it was destroyed and killed everyone in it.

Job’s house was open on all sides. No wonder it fell down!

This later midrash is satirising the earlier one. Sure, openness is good, but too much openness leaves you exposed. 

We have to exist, instead, in the tension between fragility and strength; between vulnerability and boundaries.

It may seem strange to preach boundaries from the bimah. Admittedly, it feels strange to me. 

I used to believe that openness was the ultimate religious value. That being hospitable and welcoming were the most important spiritual attributes. And I do still hold them in high regard.

But I am increasingly learning that it is equally important to have structural integrity, and borders, and lines that cannot be crossed. Without them, the entire structure collapses, and the people the structure was established to protect can be destroyed with it.

Sukkot teaches us to live with utmost susceptibility, but only for a short time. We must eat and sleep and live in this shaky fruity shack, exposed to all elements and strangers. It teaches us to put ourselves in harm’s way. 

But not forever.

At some point, the sukkah must come down. At some point, we must return to our own beds and kitchen tables and modern comforts. At some point, we have to hold on to something firm.

As we enter Simchat Torah, we turn to that certainty. That is our Torah, our faith, our belief in God-given moral truths. We grasp it steadfastly, and refuse to waiver from it.

Torah is our foundation. It is our immovable structure. There is some truth that we must hold on to tightly, never allowing it to be permeated or eroded. For us, that is our moral conviction.

The Mishnah instructs us to build a fence around the Torah. This commandment has been abused by some in Orthodoxy to justify always taking the most conservative approach, defending every law against the slightest leniency or adaptation. As such, Reform Jews have often poured scorn on the assertion, seeing it always as a reactionary threat.

But a fence is not the same as a wall. In fact, the word used in the Mishnah is siyag, which is closer to hedge. It is a boundary. It is a line that keeps some things in and some things out. It is a way of protecting the essence. 

That does not mean it has no ways in and no ways out. It just means that some things must be shielded. 

We are nearing the end of Sukkot and entering Simchat Torah.

We move from fragility to strength, from an open roof to a closed scroll, from the impermanence of life to the eternal truth of God.

We have learnt to be vulnerable and precarious. Now, we must learn to protect what we love.

Shabbat shalom.

Shabbat Chol HaMoed 5783, October 15th 2022

festivals · sermon

But Ruth was a Moabite

In the Louvre, there is a towering stele, engraved with glyphs in an ancient language. Cast into the stone are the words purported to come from King Mesha of Moab. It tells of how the kingdom of Israel waged war against the Moabites and subjugated them.

He tells how King Omri decided to destroy the house of Moab forever. How he occupied land and oppressed the people. How the Israelites demanded tribute from the Moabites and forced them to send hundreds of men as captive slaves.

And our sources? Our sources agree. The Bible tells the same story. In the book of Kings, Mesha, king of Moab, is described as a sheep breeder who had to hand over 100,000 lambs and the wool of 100,000 rams. He is treated as a despised servant, mocked for his weakness at being conquered. Our Bible groats that the Moabites were utterly destroyed.

But. But Ruth was a Moabite.

Ruth came from the plains of Moab where there was famine and joined herself to Naomi’s household. She joined with them and was a model of love and kindness. She was strong and noble. Ruth is still the model of decency. And she was a Moabite.

These weeks, we turn to the book of Numbers. Almost the entirety of this chapter is a polemic against the Moabites. It tells of never ending war. It talks about how the Moabites feared the Israelites strength and number; how the Israelites went and crushed them. It triumphantly promises that a scepter shall rise out of Israel and smash the forehead of Moab. Death to Moab. Death to the Moabites.

But… Ruth was a Moabite. Ruth was a Moabite. Could she be included in these celebrations of ethnic cleansing? How could anyone do that to Ruth?

In the Psalms, God jokes that Moab is a washpot. The basin in which God’s feet are cleaned. Ezra laments in disgust that Israelites would ever marry Moabites. Numbers calls the Israelites who married Moabites harlots. Deuteronomy treats this intermarriage as a sin.

But Ruth was a Moabite. And Ruth married Boaz. And their story is the one we turn to when we want to understand true love. Their union is how we imagine all marriages should be. For them, marriage wasn’t a problem. It was a joy. Who could forbid such a thing?

When King David took power in Israel, he set out to conquer and destroy the Moabites. He trapped them in the valley and allowed nobody to leave. He split the Moabite camp in two with a line. On one side, he massacred them. He killed them without exception. On the other side, he enslaved them, and kept them as degraded servants.

But Ruth was a Moabite. And Ruth married Boaz. And they has children. And grand-children and great-grandchildren. And one of those descendants was David. Yes, King David, too, was a Moabite by ancestry. He was a product of one of those forbidden unions.

In so many places, the Bible speaks of destroying and degrading the Moabites. Only a few verses in one solitary book speak of Ruth as a Moabite, and position her as a source of love and the originator of the Israelite nation.

The Bible is not so much a book, but a library in discussion with itself. It is a compendium of different contradicting voices.

Somewhere, at some time, some voice thought it was important to say that Ruth was a Moabite. And she was a model of love and kindness. And she took better care of her family than anyone could. And she was the pinnacle of loyalty and devotion. And she was the grandmother of King David. And she was a Moabite.

You might wonder why anyone would bother. The entire Bible is a torrent of hatred against Moabites. Every word is oppositional. All the history speaks of war and conquest. Why would one lone author put their head above the parapet to suggest something otherwise? Why would it be worthwhile to say that Ruth was a Moabite?

But think about it. There are countless verses of contempt for Moabites, and only one that suggests they are worthy of love. And which one do we remember? Does anyone today feel any animosity towards the ancient tribe east of the Jordan? Does anyone still take pride in Israel’s long-gone military victories against its neighbours?

No. But people remember that Ruth was a Moabite.

Empires rise and empires fall. Nations come in and out of being. The names of kings and warriors are lost to the ages. But one loving word can last a thousand lifetimes.

The voices of hatred and jingoism are fleeting. They cannot be sustained. But the voice of love – the voice of humanity – that speaks out across centuries and spans generations. It lasts long after the malaise has subsided.

Ancient Israel was a great kingdom. It was able to conquer lands and bring neighbouring nations to their knees. It could compel people to erect stone monuments to their own misery. And the thought of it makes us, at best, uncomfortable.

But, now, all we take pride in is love. The love our people have had for their God. The love our leaders have had for their Torah. The love they have had for each other. They love they have had for strangers.

Gentle words. Small memorandums of compassion. Fleeting acts of kindness.

A verse. Ruth was a Moabite. Remember that, Ruth was one of them.

Shabbat shalom. Chag sameach.

festivals · sermon

Will there still be Jews?

A young Talmud scholar moves from Lithuania to London. Years later he returns home to visit his family.

His mother asks: “Yossele but where is your beard?”

“Oh, mama, in London, nobody wears a beard.”

“But do you at least keep Shabbat?”

“No, mama, in London people work all the time. We have to make money.”

“Oy vey. But do you still keep kosher?”

“Mum, I’m sorry, kosher food is expensive and hard to find.”

“Yossele…” she says. “Are you still circumcised?”

Thus joke points to a perennial Jewish anxiety: will people stay Jews? Will Judaism continue?

In every generation, a study is published, fearfully proclaiming that Jewishness is declining, which will be swiftly followed by rabbinic pronouncements about how to save it, philanthropists putting money into projects that engage young Jews, and various pundits proclaiming that this proves exactly what they had always said.

Why, when this problem has been repeatedly highlighted, has Judaism nevertheless continued, and Jewishness never seen the burial it was foretold?

For starters, it turns out that many of the things that people assured us would mark the end of Judaism were not that threatening after all. At the start of the Enlightenment, Orthodox leaders agonised that, if Jews went to universities, they would be needlessly subjected to heretical ideas and turn their backs on religion. In the end, Judaism and academic study proved more than compatible.

The fear about Jews losing their beards turned out not to be so troubling either. After all, half the Jewish people had never been able to grow them! In the 90s, the great moral panic centred on mixed marriages, which, experience has shown, only grew the Jewish population, rather than diminishing it.

So, why all the worry? In fact, these concerns undoubtedly go back to the beginnings of Jewishness. In the book of Ruth, we read a story of a young woman faced with the choice of whether to remain with the Jewish people. Either she could stay with her mother-in-law and run the risk of never marrying; or she could return to her original village and begin her life again.

Being Jewish was the harder option. Being Jewish was riskier and unknown. Ruth’s sister, Orpah, chose to leave the Jews and rebuild. Ruth chose Judaism.

She must have seen something in it that made her want to stay. Perhaps it was the God, or Naomi, or the people, or the way they lived. Judging by what she said, it was a combination of all of these. She chose the harder option, because it was the more beautiful one.

That has always been the way with Judaism. High risk. High reward. Hard to maintain. Worth maintaining.

That is why we feel anxiety about Jewish continuity. We know that it is not the easy option. It takes work. So we look around for people who will do it.

Our rabbis understood this feeling well. They told a story of the revelation at Sinai: that, on the day when God gave the Israelites the commandments, God raised Mount Sinai over their heads and told them to accept them. If they took them on, they would live. If not, the mountain would come crashing down on their heads and make the desert their grave.

“Choose life” wasn’t advice. It was a threat. Of course, they accepted.

But, said the rabbis, there were other times when they took on the commandments too. When there were no threats from God but plenty from the ruling powers. They point to the story of Esther, when the Jews lived under Persian imperial rule and could have been slaughtered for practising their religion. God did not appear to make promises or offer consolation. But they chose Judaism anyway.

This is a narrative of how Judaism has been continued. On an individual level, this is what happens to many of us. As children, we go to synagogue because our parents tell us to. We live their ways and eat their food because we have no other choice. Now, as adults, we turn up because we want to. There is no compulsion to attend. We do it because we have found in it something beautiful and worthwhile.

This is true, too, of our history as a community. There was a time when we had no choice but to be Jewish. Think of the periods when Jewishness was stamped on our passports and our job application papers; when being Jewish determined what jobs we could do and where we could live. We kept up Judaism because we had no other choice.

But now we have reached a time when it is a choice. Nobody is making us be Jewish. We sustain it because we want to. You who have turned up this morning could have gone anywhere. You could have done anything. But you chose to come here. Like Ruth and Esther, you decided that something in Judaism was beautiful and worthwhile.

You decided that this religion and these festivals have meaning. That is why I’m not really worried about Jewish continuity. I know that you are keeping it alive. I know that, in every generation, as long as there are a good few people who think Judaism is worthwhile, it will be.

On Shavuot, we renew our covenant with God. We take on the Torah once more. We decide to keep the flame of Jewish truth burning.

And, because of that, Judaism lives on.

festivals · sermon · theology

A night for finding answers

Tonight is a night for asking questions. Tonight, as we open the haggadah, we will tell the children they are free to ask. We will lay out plates of display foods, including an egg, a bone, and a mushy mixture of fruit and nuts, so that people will ask questions about our exodus from Egypt. 

In “mah nishtana,” the lovely song chanted by the youngest at the table, we hear four questions about why tonight is different from every other. Why do we lean to the left when we drink? Why do we dip things in salt water? Why do we eat that tear-jerking horseradish, maror? And why have we had to substitute delicious bread for mediocre matzah?

So highly valued is questioning at this season that Judaism has been described as a religion of questions. Ask us a question and we’ll answer with another question. A decade ago at this season, the American businessman Edgar Bronfman declared “to be Jewish is to ask questions.” This festival, with all its questioning, he said, proves that Judaism permits plenty of doubt and openness to many answers.

I have a problem with this approach. The trouble is… these questions have answers! They’re not open-ended speculations to which we’ll dedicate the rest of our lives pondering. 

We lean to the left when we drink our wine to show that we are free. We dip parsley in salt water to remind us of the taste of tears that came from enslavement. We eat the bitter herbs in commemoration of the bitterness of slavery. We eat matzah to recall that our ancestors left Egypt in a hurry, because we can waste no time in pursuing freedom.

These are the answers. They tell us what the festival is all about and what Judaism really means. It’s about how freedom tastes good and oppression is painful. It’s about the moral message of a God who saw the difference and decided to redeem the Israelites. These questions have a purpose, to provoke us into contemplating justice.

This idea that Judaism is all about questioning and doubt has taken such a hold that people have hung entire theologies on it. There is a story in the Talmud that the two great founding houses of rabbinic Judaism, Hillel and Shammai, were in a conflict for three years. Eventually, a divine voice announced from the sky: “these and these are the words of the living God.”

It is a beautiful story, but it has been repeatedly cited by Jewish educators to justify a relativism that firmly believes nothing. Everything is true. All views are valid.

These teachers always conveniently omit the subsequent words from that divine voice: that the halachah is in accordance with Beit Hillel. They both may have valid viewpoints, but only one can be implemented. The Talmud asks why it was that Hillel’s house won. It answers that they were עלובין – a word often translated to mean ‘modest’ but which really means ‘wretched’ or ‘poor.’

The House of Hillel really were comprised of the poor. Their judgements consistently advocated for the slaves against the masters and the peasants against the patrician class. They strove to make Judaism more accessible to the downtrodden and more just for the oppressed. In other words, God may be able to speak through many voices, but ultimately the one that champions moral truth is still the correct one.

I do understand why people might want to advocate for doubt and questioning. It is an antidote to dogmatism. It stops people becoming fundamentalists, Imagining that they alone can speak for God. 

But there are real problems with leaving everything open to debate. Surely it is not just an open question whether or not to hurt people. The words of oil barons and indigenous climate activists are surely not equally ‘the words of the living God.’ We can’t give equal weight to every view or only question without seeking answers.

My very favourite philosopher was a British-Jewish woman called Gillian Rose. She wrote with such beauty about things that really matter. She saw the problems of only questioning and allowing every viewpoint quite clearly. She also agreed that we couldn’t just assert answers. If either everyone is correct or only one answer is correct, there is no room for discussion. 

So, Gillian Rose says, you have to pick a side. You have to decide what you think is right. You have to look at what your conscience tells you and aim for meaningful justice. You might be wrong, so you have to keep your mind open to nuance and debate. But you also have to know right from wrong. 

Pesach is indeed a time for asking questions. But it is, above all, a night for seeking answers. 

Pesach invites us to ask about freedom so that we will fight for it. Pesach invites us to ask about oppression so that we will vanquish it.

We must ask these questions because Pharaoh was not just a man who lived a long time ago and the exodus was not a one-time event. These are words of a living God because they speak to struggles that are still very live.

Tonight is a night for asking questions. Tonight is a night for seeking answers.

The great question of Pesach is: what are you doing to bring about justice today?

And now you must give your answer.

article · festivals

What does freedom mean?

This is the season of our freedom. 

To show that we are free, we will lean to the left and drink wine like Roman elites once did on their chaise longues. 

We will perform rituals and eat strange foods and, when our children ask us why, we will answer: “we were slaves in the land of Egypt. We were exploited and degraded there. But with mighty deeds and an outstretched arm, the Almighty redeemed us and delivered us. Now we can be free.”


The idea of freedom means far more this year. For the first time since the pandemic began, we are able to gather for Pesach again. We will actually be able to leave our answers and reconnect with people. We will be able to eat and drink together. We will feel free.

But what does freedom mean? What does it really mean to be free in the context of our Pesach celebrations?

Freedom, for the ancient Israelites, was all about who your master was. Society was divided into people who had masters and people who had land. The people who had masters had debts and had to work them off. They could not leave and, even if they did, they had nowhere to go. 

One of the ways out of this was that a family member would come and redeem you. They would pay off your debts and take you out of the place where you were labouring. Then you would be free: you would no longer belong to your master but to your clan. You would work not for the profits of a landowner but for the common good of your people.

This was what happened to the Israelites in Egypt. They were taken as servants; forced to work for their master, Pharaoh. They did gruelling labour, building militarily garrisons for their oppressors. But who could redeem them? Their entire family was enslaved. Nobody from their clan could come and grant them freedom.

But, all this time, they had a family member they had never met. A parent who loved them unconditionally and grieved their absence. One who desperately wanted them back. That was God.

With mighty deeds and an outstretched arm, God came into Egypt and redeemed them. God declared to the Israelites’ masters: you do not own these people. They are My people. They serve me and they will never serve any human being.

That is what freedom means. We have no masters but God. Our only debts are what we owe society. Our only labour is in service of our Creator. Our only bondage is to Torah.

That is what freedom means. Freedom means responsibility. 

This Pesach festival celebrates our redemption. It calls on us to use that responsibility wisely, in service of our God. 

Chag Pesach kasher vesameach.

festivals · sermon

The four children of Covid

Every seder, we read about the four children. These characters in our Haggadah have come to us from the Palestinian Talmud, and are based on Torah verses. They’ve entered our liturgy as a joyous part of the seder ritual.

It’s a fun annual party game to speculate about which of the four you might be, and even to assign the attributes to other guests at the party.

For what it’s worth, I usually play the wicked child of the Haggadah. I quite like the idea of being the trouble-maker.

But is it really how we want to define people, and their relationship to Judaism? My teacher, Professor Jeremy Schonfield, has pointed out that all the four children are really quite negative stereotypes, and they all get punished for their questions.

The chacham – or wise child – might better be called the know-it-all. She sits at the seder and already knows all the answers. So she comes along and, puffing up her chest, asks: “what are the laws of Passover?” Oh, she thinks she already knows. She’s asked this question every year. She can smugly rattle off to you how well she prepared koshering the house and she has strong opinions on what everyone else should be eating. Yes, you’ve met her.

So how do you respond to her? Tell the wise child the most complicated laws about Pesach, even the one about how you don’t start the second part of the meal until you’ve found the afikomen. That’s at the very end of Mishnah Pesachim, and she probably won’t have got that far. That’s it, put her in her place. Make sure she knows that she doesn’t really know it all. Thank you, chacham, for your very wise remarks, the rest of us would like to get on with the meal.

Then you’ve got the rashaa – the wicked son – who asks “what does all this mean to you?” To you, not to him. He doesn’t care. He’s not interested. Why are you doing all this? Your wicked son will do whatever he likes, but from his aloof standpoint, he can take a shot at you with your primitive rituals. The accusing patriarch responds to this by telling him he should have been left in Egypt. Hope you can take scorn as good as you give it, rashaa.

Next comes along the child who is tam. The Reform Haggadah generously translates this as naïve, probably to avoid the ableist overtones of the more familiar translation that this child is simple. The word could just as easily mean ‘mute’ or ‘modest’, but we’re probably meant to imagine her as clueless. She asks: “what’s this?” Like a lost sheep bewildered by the most basic rituals of the most famous festival, she’s stuck, absently pointing at objects and asking what’s going on.

How do we help her? The seder leader responds by saying “God took us out of Egypt with an outstretched hand…” – and then doesn’t even bother finishing the sentence. There’s a long verse you could quote to the tam but you assume she’s already lost interest and, frankly, you’ve already lost patience. Why bother with someone who’s simple?

You turn straight to the child who doesn’t know how to ask. And you repeat exactly what you just said to the simple child. How much more patronising can you get? You’re not going to even bother trying to include him. You just tell him what he already knows because he just heard you say it to your daughter.

If anything, the Haggadah is a model in how not to engage people. It’s an exercise in what happens when you label children and assume the worst in them. You respond with terrible answers that leave your dinner guests feeling deflated.

In 1950, the great Hebrew poet Leah Goldberg wrote a response to the Four Children. It was the only poem she ever wrote about the Second World War, and it’s a stunning meditation on how the trauma of genocide shaped her contemporaries’ outlooks. In this poem, she completely reimagines who the four children are, picturing each of their postures as a trauma response.

She begins with the child who does not know how to ask, imagining a woman heartbroken by survivors’ guilt. She has witnessed the most horrific brutality and lived to talk about it. Only now she has no words. Stumped, she asserts:

I am not wicked, not smart, not even simple,

And for this reason, I asked no questions

Her survivor cajoles the reader: If you can, then open me up.

Goldberg then helps us understand why someone might become ‘wicked.’ She tells of a man who has been toughened up by circumstances and now cannot bear to empathise. His tears have dried up and his heart has hardened. So he vows to be cruel and cool and estranged. He tells God:

To you, I blunt my teeth.

What about the simple child? Goldberg tells us of someone who has known so much pain that just looking at stars reminds her of her anguish. She looks at the millions of stars and sees the millions dead. The stars remind her of her night terrors:

On all other nights against a dark arrogant sky,

Against a delirious moon and against the milky-way

Great gloomy ghosts of a day gone by

And, just once, she wants to get back her naivety. She wants to be able to stop seeing her pain when she looks up at night. So she implores:

On all other nights, anticipation, silence

On this night – only stars

Why shouldn’t she be permitted her simplicity?

The wise child, in Goldberg’s poem, is the one who says the least. He is the one who died. That is what wisdom meant to a survivor of the Shoah.

Reframed through Leah Goldberg’s eyes, we can understand the four children not by their worst intentions but by the trauma they carry and the way they deal with pain.

This seems to me a much better way of greeting dinner guests. It should be a starting assumption that everyone we meet is carrying baggage. Everyone is hurting. We have to be able to meet people at their most vulnerable and our most sympathetic.

As lockdown eases, I am aware that many people are only just processing what we have been through. I am not by any means comparing what we have experienced to the Holocaust, but we have certainly been through something unprecedented and destabilising. Our old certainties about our religion, our health, and our community have been disrupted. We have known death, heartache, family struggles and isolation.

Now we meet each other. We can choose what responses we adopt. We will meet people who seem wicked, or who seem naïve, or who seem like they know it all, or who seem like they have nothing to say. We may well want to blunt our teeth at them and put them in their place. We may want to be impatient or patronising.

But the better response, the more Jewish response, will be to meet them where they are, and hear them in their hurt. Whatever type of child they seem to be, the important thing to remember is that inside them is a child. Someone inside of them is vulnerable, scared, and looking for assurance. Someone inside of you is the same.

Let us not label each other and dismiss people, but greet each other with compassion and empathy.

Moadim lesimcha.

Shabbat shalom.

This sermon is for Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, Seventh Day Pesach, 3rd April 2021

festivals · sermon

Reform Judaism – or Revolution Judaism?

There was a seder that lasted all night. We talk about it every year.

It once happened that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon were reclining in Bnei Brak. They were discussing the Exodus from Egypt all that night until their students came and said to them: “Our teachers, the time has arrived to read the morning Shema.”

How could it be that five rabbis could talk all night and not know that the time had come to say Shema? We might imagine them engrossed in animated conversation, but even the best dinner party guests can identify when the sun has come up. The Shema is to be recited at dawn, and surely five great sages would know when the dawn has come.

Unless, of course, they couldn’t possibly know whether it was dark or light. Perhaps, our commentators now speculate, the rabbis were deep underground in a cave. You see, these rabbis lived through the great revolt against Rome, the Bar Kochba Rebellion. During this time, Jews hid out in caverns, as armed conflict raged between Judean zealots and Rome’s imperial armies.

The year was 132 CE. The great Temple in Jerusalem had already been destroyed 60 years earlier. The wicked emperor Hadrian, who was also responsible for the Wall less than an hour from this synagogue, had overtaken the entire region. He erected a new temple to the Roman god Jupiter, renamed the capital city after himself, and persecuted the inhabitants.

Hadrian further antagonised the Jews by introducing new taxes and prohibiting certain religious practices. Shimon bar Koseva, better known as Bar Kochba, emerged as a military leader, determined to wage war against Rome. He gathered troops and summoned the entire Jewish diaspora into revolt. He called on our sages: “get armed! Get ready to reclaim Jerusalem!”

Every single one of the rabbis had an opinion on the matter. The core question facing them was whether they, the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people, should get behind the armed struggle. Do they join with the ranks of the militants, or seek to make compromises with the Empire? Do they risk dying on their feet, or concede to live another day on their knees?

The new Reform Haggadah stages a debate between these five thinkers. Throughout rabbinic literature, we have statements attributed to each sage, many of which may have been directly connected to the struggle against Rome. Haggadateinu stitches them together into a dialogue, where each rabbi advocates his position.

Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Joshua tried to persuade the others of pacifism. The Torah teaches peace, so that was what they should pursue. The Jewish mission, after all, was to beat swords into ploughshares.

Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer countered them. The Jewish mission was to declare victory for God by opposing tyranny. This was, after all, the festival of Pesach, the celebration of freedom from Pharaoh, when the Jews had brought down the greatest empire of the age. They could relive their former glory, with swords in their hands and God on their side. A messianic fervour took hold of them, and Akiva even concluded that Bar Kochba must be the Messiah, ready to lead the Jews to ultimate salvation.

They continued the debate all night. They didn’t realise that dawn had come.

We do not know whether any of the sages changed their mind. But we do know what happened next. The Jews joined en masse in the revolt against Rome. And they lost. Hadrian persecuted them and destroyed an entire generation of rabbis. Akiva was flailed to death as he recited his prayers. Tarfon joined him as one of the ten martyrs.

So, with hindsight, which one of them was right? A cynic would dismiss Rabbi Akiva’s passion, saying he was foolhardy to take on the empire. But there is no guarantee that they wouldn’t have suffered just as much if they hadn’t resisted.

Maybe collaboration with Rome would have secured their survival. Our ancestors could have gone down Rabbi Tarfon’s route. They could have negotiated and compromised. Perhaps he would have permitted them to stay under his rule in Palestine and they would have lived there.

Then who would we have been? We would never have spread across the Diaspora as a light unto the nations. We may never have composed the Mishnah, the Midrashim, the Talmuds, or any of the subsequent generations of rabbinic literature. Quite possibly, if every Judean of the time had survived, the people would have lived, but there would be no Judaism. We needed the revolutionary spirit, that sense of injustice, and that determination to fight for what was right, in order that we could truly pass on a tradition.

Our Judaism is the Judaism of Rabbi Akiva.

But it is also the Judaism of Rabbi Tarfon. After the failure of the revolt against Rome, our rabbis had to regroup and reconsider what Judaism would mean. They re-made their religion as a movement that was not tied to any country or Temple, but that could live everywhere in the world. They did away with ancient sacrifices and replaced them with universal prayers. They found a way to make an accommodation with reality.

And they held onto Rabbi Akiva’s dreams, too. For two thousand years, Judaism has sustained its hope for a messianic age. At the end of the seder, we still declare ‘next year in Jerusalem!’ We are not making a plan to buy plane tickets. We are talking about the Jerusalem that Akiva had hoped for – the time of the Messiah. The age when tyranny is destroyed and war abolished.

We are, therefore, a religion of both revolution and reformation. We are still holding that tension, between working within oppressive systems, and seeking their abolition. We continue to recite the words of all five sages, holding their ideals alive.

And, as we recall their seder in Bnei Barak at our sederim in Newcastle, we join them back in those caves. We are with them, asking the same questions. We still want to know: how will we get free? What must we do? When will we know that the time has come?

We are still, in many ways, in Mitzrayim. The messianic age has not arrived. But every year we raise our glasses and welcome Elijah. We eat our symbols of liberation. We pray for the coming of a new day.

Yes, although we may feel that we are in darkness, we know that the dawn will come.

The dawn will surely come.

Chag Pesach sameach vkasher.

festivals · judaism · sermon · torah

We are leaving the tight spaces

As a child, I loved Watership Down. Based on a book by Richard Adams, it was turned into an animated film in 1972. On rainy days, I kept going back to it, and my love has continued as an adult.

In Watership Down, a group of rabbits leave the only warren they have ever known to build a new burrow. They promise each other they will find a “strange and marvelous place where no one even stops to notice that you stare about you.”

Fiver, a small, stammering rabbit has profound visions. His brother, Hazel, explains them to the other rabbits and convinces them it’s time to leave. On the way, these escapees miraculously cross a great body of water, pass over a treacherous highway, lodge with suspicious friends and find terrifying enemies. But ultimately they reach their destination: an enormous, fertile hill, topped by a fruit tree. 

As an adult, I can now see that it was an allegory for the Exodus from Egypt. In fact, now that I look back, I can see how every event in Watership Down maps on somehow to a story in the Torah.

I come back to it with new eyes and realise that Watership Down made the biblical story relatable to me in a unique way. From my perspective as a child in England, I had no concept of what a desert was like and I’d never been to a Middle Eastern city.

But I knew the joy of tall trees and long grass. I knew what it was like to find the perfect hill on a warm spring day. Somehow the rabbits felt real in a way that even Moses and Miriam did not.

Don’t get me wrong. This was no pastoral idyll. Parts of the film were terrifying. Some people look back and wonder how it was even classed as suitable for children. It includes death, peril and violence between bunnies. 

But the most frightening part of all is not the journey the rabbits take. It’s Fiver’s vision of what will happen if they don’t leave. He imagines the rabbits trapped in their burrows, squeezed to death as men filled in the holes. He foresees them all being crushed in the tight confines underground. 

That is their Egypt. I don’t know whether Richard Adams had any knowledge of Judaism. In fact, I highly doubt it. But, somehow, with this image, he captured a great Jewish esoterical tradition about Egypt.

In Hebrew, the word for Egypt is Mitzrayim. The Zohar, a great medieval exploration of biblical mysticism, breaks down this word. Tzar, in Hebrew, is a narrow place. Tzarim is the plural: narrow places. The prefix ‘mi’ means ‘out of.’ Mitzrayim: “out of confined spaces.” Egypt is the narrow straits we must escape. 

Today is a special Shabbat in the liturgical calendar. This morning, we read the very last of Exodus. Tomorrow, we start the new month of Nissan.  It is called Shabbat haChodesh – the Shabbat of the Month. We leave Exodus and begin the month of the festival of Pesach, the celebration of our liberation.

That liberation does feel quite imminent to me, even if the Jewish calendar doesn’t quite match up with the government’s road map. We are on our way out of confinement and heading for open spaces.

The most profound moment on that journey for me has been getting my first dose of the vaccine. About a month ago, faith leaders were summoned by our local authorities to get the life-saving injection. 

I knew that this was not just important but felt like a holy moment. In the build up to being jabbed, I consulted with all my colleagues about what blessing I should recite when it happened. Everyone had different opinions

Some suggested we should say “rofei hacholim” – God heals the sick. Others thought the best prayer was “shehechiyanu,” the blessing that thanks God for allowing us to live to see the day. In the end, I said “hatov vehameitiv”: God is good and does God. It’s the prayer you say when something happens for your benefit and the benefit of the entire community. 

This week, Reform Judaism distributed our own liturgy for what we can see when the vaccine comes our way. Rabbi Paul Freedman has carefully compiled a single a4 document with words to recite in Hebrew and in English. 

The prayers are familiar, but the opening verses took me by surprise. Rabbi Freedman has chosen to start us off with a line from Psalm 118: 

מן המצר קראתי יה

Out of the meitzar I called to God.

The meitzar. The thing that causes distress. The small and confined place. The thing that presses us down. 

Out of the meitzar. Out of the narrow spaces. Out of Egypt.

Yes, that is truly what receiving the vaccine means. For over a year, we have been in narrow spaces. My French colleagues even call lockdown ‘confinement.’ We have been in our homes. We have been stuck in our front line workplaces and unable to go any further. We have only seen each other in small boxes, the narrow Zoom frames on our small computer screens. These have been our Mitzrayim. 

And now, as we turn to the new month of Nissan, we can finally see a way out. Our own exodus is beginning to feel tangible. In only two weeks, we will do our seder again online, and we will tell each other that we are leaving Egypt. We will promise each other to see each other next year in person. And this time, God willing, it will be possible.

So do take your vaccine when your turn comes. The Jewish community is responding well to the call from medical experts to get immunised, and I’m thrilled every time I hear that one of you has had the jab. 

If you have doubts and want to speak to a medical professional about what it involves, just ask and I will happily put you in touch with someone.

Please don’t hesitate or wait because you think someone else might be more deserving. Our epidemiologists and ethicists all say the same thing: when the doctors say it’s your turn, take your turn. Every immunised person protects many more people in the community.

We have known confinement and narrow spaces. We have lived in Egypt. And now we have been given our own little miracle. The vaccine is a sign and wonder. With an outstretched arm, you can receive it, and thank God that you will live to see another season.

The wide expanse awaits us. Soon, like the rabbits of Watership Down, we too will congregate in open spaces. We will sit under fruit trees on perfectly verdant hills surrounded by family and friends.

Our own Promised Land is in reach.

Shabbat shalom.

festivals · sermon · spirituality

It’s time to start spring cleaning already.

It’s time to start spring cleaning already.

Around this time of year, I start to notice the mess that has built up. The crumbs in the toaster. The oven I haven’t cleaned in such a long time. The floorboards and high surfaces- how did they get so dusty?

It’s Shabbat Parah. Purim has passed and this week’s extra reading from Numbers reminds us that the next festival to come is Pesach. Yes, it’s really only a month away, and it’s snuck up on us so quickly this year.

In our additional parashah, the priests undergo a strange cleansing ritual. They sacrifice an unblemished red cow and use its ashes like a soap, sprinkling it over themselves and their surroundings. Of course, it makes no sense to us, and even our medieval commentators admit to being a bit baffled.

But that’s the way cleansing rituals are. You can’t explain them. You just do them. The meaning is implicit. Or, rather, we feel it on an emotional level, rather than being able to rationally think it. 

A couple of years ago, Marie Kondo impressed Western audiences by bringing Shinto spirituality to house clearances. Her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, encouraged people to rethink their relationship to their things. She asked people to look at the items in their houses and ask: “does this spark joy?” Her philosophy was that something should only be kept in your home if it was useful or beautiful. 

At the time, the trend passed me by, and I didn’t realise how profound it was. How we organise space has a profound impact on how we see ourselves. My boyfriend jokes that he can tell the state of my mind by the state of my room.

This period, from Shabbat Parah until Pesach, is our period for clearing out clutter. It is a spiritual time for tidying up. Tradition says we should be hunting out chametz – bits of leavened bread – and getting ready to remove them from the house. 

But it’s so much more than that. It’s a chance to clear our houses and our heads. It’s an opportunity to reevaluate what things we need and what we don’t.

So let’s take to it – slowly and gently, finding our own meanings in the clutter. Spring cleaning is here. Let’s do it.

Shabbat shalom.

This sermon is for Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, Shabbat Parah, on Friday 5th March.