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.

festivals · judaism · sermon

How to survive the rainy season

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was a Hassidic rabbi who left behind his Orthodox community to join the American hippies in the 1960s. He wound up founding the Renewal Movement, combining traditional Judaism with New Age meditation and spirituality.

He used to tell this story of an encounter he had with Brother Rufus, a Native American medicine man. Reb Zalman and Brother Rufus were attending a conference of psychologists and mystics; the psychologists were studying the mystics. As Reb Zalman was explaining the Jewish festival of Sukkot, which occurs at the autumn equinox, and the holiday of Pesach, which comes at the spring equinox, Brother Rufus lit up! “Oh,” he said, “in the autumn you teach your children the shelter survival, and in the spring you teach them the food survival.”

This answer makes a lot of sense of what Sukkot is actually about. Disconnected from the rural desert living of our ancient ancestors, the practice of erecting temporary shelters and covering them in fertility talismans might seem incomprehensible. But for those who are connected to the earth’s agricultural cycles, Sukkot makes a lot of sense. It’s about learning to survive the rainy season.

The Torah portion commands us to spend eight days in temporary shelters to recall our wandering in the wilderness. For the ancient Israelites, this probably wasn’t just recollection of a mythic past. In a world where entire years could be upended by flash flooding, droughts and unexpected ecological malfunction, being able to move must have been a necessity. Any young person would need to know how to build shelter and brave the elements. Considered in this light, Sukkot feels more like a biblical precursor to Scouts and Guides.

By the time of the Mishnah, Jews had migrated away from nomadic agricultural living towards inhabiting larger settlements and cities. Yet even this 2nd Century text seems to capture something of the necessity of surviving the rainy season. It talks about which building materials and supporting structures are appropriate. It instructs us to make sure there are holes in our roof – a sure indicator that we’ll really experience everything the Heavens can throw at us. The Mishnah maintains the survival lessons.

And then, suddenly, the Mishnah seems to strike an altogether different note. Out of nowhere, it tells us about all the different ways to conclude the festival celebrations. The text stops being about surviving and starts being about how to be joyful. Harps, lyres, cymbals and trumpets. Psalms and songs and dancing. Shofar blasts. Meat. Banqueting. Carnival. In fact, the Mishnah tells us: “if you haven’t seen a party like this, you’ve never seen joy before in your life.”

Why would the Mishnah jump from teaching us the survival methods of our ancestors to talking about all this revelry? Perhaps the answer is that they’re not so distinct after all. Joy isn’t an add-on to survival: it’s integral to it. If you really want to get through the rainy seasons and the darkness of winter, you’ve got to have the right mindset. Cosy homes and well-stocked cupboards matter a lot, but attitude counts too.

The health psychologist Kari Leibowitz reckons she can back this up with science. She studied the mental health of people living in the polar regions of Norway, when winter brings exceedingly long nights and disrupted sleep patterns. Amazingly, she found that Norwegians were just as happy in the winter as at any other time of year. This was because many Norwegians approached the long nights as a challenge that excited them. The more people saw winter as a fun time, the more fun they actually found it.

Maybe that’s what our forebears of Torah and Mishnah knew from years of experience. If you want to get through the rainy season, you have to actually want the rain to come. You have to be a little bit thrilled by the idea. Surviving is not just about keeping our bodies intact – it’s about having mental determination to get through. 

Some of that is about what you imagine when you think of the rainy months. I’ve already started picturing hot chocolates, roast vegetables, games of Scrabble and complicated jigsaw puzzles. I’m imagining arts and crafts while sitting under piles of rugs with the baby in a handmade jumper. 

Of course, not everybody has access to the luxuries I’m describing. Some people are legitimately worried that autumn could bring tighter finances, struggles heating their houses and even homelessness as recession kicks in. These are serious issues, and it’s not fair to expect people facing such challenges to feel joy. So why not start easing their minds now?

Our food banks, mutual aid societies and housing shelters need your support. Get down now to donate what you can, and give what you can through their websites. If you want to practice feeling joy, helping others is a great way to start. 

So that’s how we’re going to survive the rainy months. By knowing our history. By learning traditional skills. By experiencing joy. By helping each other. 

After all, there’s only one way we can get through all this: together.

I gave this sermon for Sukkot 5781 on 3rd October 2020 at Newcastle Reform Synagogue.

festivals · high holy days · judaism

A journey through time

Sermonettes for Rosh Hashanah

This year is unlike every other in so many ways. In order to keep people engaged with the services, I delivered sermonettes between prayers, as two-minute reflections on the meaning of the festival. The seven drashes for Rosh Hashanah 5781 follow.

  1. On breathing

How wonderful are Jacob’s dwelling places! How good it is for us here, where for the first time in living memory, we are not all gathered in one place but we are all in each other’s tents. This whole community has gathered together in dispersed places. And although we are distant, we are somehow together. We are with each other, in our living rooms.

This is, of course, not a normal New Year, and this is not the usual format. Rather than preach at you uninterrupted for twenty minutes, this morning I am simply going to guide you through the service. At each stage, I will offer little sermonettes explaining our purpose here today.[1] Welcome, and thank you so much for coming on this journey.

Jewish liturgy takes us on a journey through time. Each service is a journey from primordial history through the present towards the ultimate redemption of humanity. The Jewish High Holy Days take us on a journey from the creation of humanity towards the Messianic Age.

And today – today, right now – is where it all begins. On the seventh day of creation, at this precise time in history, the first human being was created. The Holy One breathed air into Adam’s nostrils and that wind became his soul.[2] So, too, was his wife called Chava. Chava – Eve – literally means breath. She is both breath and life. We are here with Adam and Eve at the dawning of humanity once more.

Rabbi Zahavit Shalev taught us that every night when you go to sleep, your soul disappears and returns to God. Then, when you wake up in the morning, God returns your soul to you so that you can breathe alive once again.[3] As we wake, we say to God: “thank you, Sacred Name everlasting, that you have returned my soul to me in compassion, unending is your faith.”[4] We are here at the beginning of a day at the beginning of time, grateful to be alive.

Right now, you are Adam. You are Eve. You are the first person rising up on the first day, breathing for the first time, saying to God: “this soul that you have placed inside of me is pure.”

[1] Everything about these sermonettes I owe to my teacher, Dr. Jeremy Schonfield

[2] Genesis 2:7

[3] From her rabbinic dissertation on sleep

[4] Modeh Ani, Forms of Prayer 2008, p. 18

* * *

2. On taking responsibility

Eight days after a baby is born, it becomes liable for its first commandment.

By ten days, it has been named, or washed, or circumcised. It ceases to be an embryo and takes on its first responsibilities of being Jewish. It realises that being human is a blessing and a privilege, and that it must honour the duties that come with that.

Ten days after we are created on Rosh Hashanah, we come into contact with Yom Kippur. We are forced to inspect our lives and accept that we are responsible. We take on the commandments laid down to us by God. We accept that we are not just flesh and bones, but living spirits with moral responsibilities.

Ten generations after Adam came Noah,[1] who learned that people could fail in their responsibilities. Ten generations after Noah came Abraham,[2] who realised how painful keeping promises could be. Abraham, we read today, was called upon by God to head up Mount Moriah and sacrifice his youngest son. Abraham encountered God and learned that this came with reward, but came with responsibility too.

Ten minutes after we wake up, we are faced with our obligations. Having thanked God for our souls, we return our debt of gratitude by doing the most important commandment that has been given to us. We study.[3]

You are here. A ten day old baby. Abraham receiving God’s call. A full human being, learning that you are responsible. Learning that you must learn.

[1] Genesis 5

[2] Genesis 10

[3] New Forms of Prayer Draft Liturgy, p. 32

* * *

3. On ancestors

The Amidah is a journey within a journey. It begins with Abraham and Sarah and ends with King David building Jerusalem. When we begin this voyage in time, we cast our minds back to our ancestors. We remember Sarah’s hospitality; Rebecca’s generosity; Rachel’s patience and Leah’s humility.

Amidah means standing. It is the standing prayer, and we are literally standing in their footsteps. We are here because of our ancestors. Generations of human beings from hunter-gatherers to the creators of our modern industrial cities have brought us to this moment.

And we, as Jews, are here as Jews, because of every other Jew. For thousands of years, people have put their feet together on this day at this time of year and recited these words. By showing up today, we have kept that tradition going. We are another link in the chain.

Over time, we have come to do things differently. Spontaneous prayer gave way to memorised blessings, which gave way to words written on scrolls, which became prayer books with the advent of the printing press, that we can now see on computer screens in front of us.

Although the medium has changed, the message has not. Ethical monotheism. Judaism’s mission of doing justice in the name of the One God. We stand in the footprints left by ancient prophets, affirming the faith they once held.

* * *

4. On being yourself

Stop. Breathe. Take a moment. Shut your eyes.

Feel your breath rising and falling. Don’t try to force it. Just notice how you inhale and exhale. Pay attention to your nose, chest, lungs, shoulders, mouth. Feel the breath coming in and out of it.

When we began this journey through time, you acknowledged that the soul within you was pure. That is your natural state. Good. Honest. Righteous. Beautiful. That is who you are.

When you looked back over your ancestors, you remembered their piety. Of course, they made mistakes, but it is their goodness that has endured. So will it be with you.

You not only have ancestors. You are an ancestor. You are leaving your own tracks in the sand. What you put into the world now will stay long after you are gone.

Breathe. Contemplate. What do you want to leave behind?

Breathe. Remember. Who are you, deep down?

Breathe. Know that you are loved and lovable and able to love. Make the conscious choice to fill the world with the best of who you are.

Open your eyes. Open your lips. Pray that you may become who you are.

* * *

5. On being vulnerable

The service is reaching its apex. When we started, it was summer. Suddenly, you look around and see that autumn is coming. We are at the turning point of the year, when green leaves turn brown and Elul’s rays give way to Tishrei’s rains. We will change our blessings. Soon we will stop asking God for dew and start requesting fertile rains. We have journeyed through the seasons.

You are older now than when this service began. Yes, an hour and a half  has passed, and with it you have learnt more about who you are and who you want to be.

You are spiritually older, too. You have been Adam, Eve, Abraham, Sarah, Rachel, David. And now, you have grown enough that you can finally be you. You can find yourself exactly as you are, vulnerable and exposed. You can be present in this mortal body.

Your body is mortal. This year has brought home for many of us how fragile health can be. We have asked God to make peace for us as it is in Heaven. We ask God now for healing. We accept that our bodies are frail. Souls need plenty of sustenance. As individuals, as Jews, as humanity, we pray for God’s sacred restitution.

* * *

6. On the messianic future

The future awaits us!

The shofar is a herald for many things, but above all it was once used as a siren to announce that a dignitary was coming. When kings and queens approached a town, the shofar would sound to announce their arrival. That sound alerted the villagers to prepare their banquets and make a welcome party.

This section of the shofar service is called malchuyot. It shares its root with melech – king; malkah – queen; malchut – sovereignty. It means royalties. This is the time of our acknowledgement of God’s supremacy over all.[1] It is a reminder that the day will eventually come when everyone will understand God’s unity.

We sound the shofar and announce that the Ultimate Sovereign is coming. God is on the way.

When compiling the liturgy in the 3rd Century, Rav ordained that within this section we would recite ‘aleinu’ – the prayer affirming God’s majesty and our messianic future. It speaks of the coming day when all humanity will be united by a single God.

As progressive Jews, we understand this not as Davidic kingship or nationalist aspirations for supremacy, but as the coming of an age of peace and justice. We look forward to a utopian future in which all struggles are brought to an end, replaced by enduring joy. And we accept that it is our responsibility to bring about that perfect society.

[1] Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 16a

* * *

7. On today

You have been young and old. You have been the first human being and witnessed humanity’s ultimate redemption. You have breathed so many cycles, taking advantage of the beautiful soul placed within you. And now, having been through all of this, having seen time from every angle, all you are left with is today.

Today.

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi once met Elijah. He asked him: when will the messiah come? Elijah said: “The Messiah is at the gates of Rome, sitting among the poor, the sick and wretched. Like them, he changes the bindings of his wounds, but does so one wound at the time, in order to be ready at a moment’s notice.”

Rabbi Joshua went out to the gates of Rome, and lo and behold, he found the Messiah sitting there, tending to his wounds. Rabbi Joshua said to the Messiah: “When will you be coming?” The Messiah looked up and joyously answered: “Today!”

The next day, Rabbi Joshua went back to Elijah and complained: “The Messiah lied to me. He said he was coming today and did not.” Elijah replied: “He said he would be coming today, if only you would hear his voice.”[1]

Olam haba zeh olam hazeh. The world to come is the world we are in.

We are here today with nothing but the present. Whatever the past and future might hold, this moment is sacred. And so we call on God – hayom teamtzeinu. Give us strength today. Give us blessing today. Remember us for life today. Amen.

[1] Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 98a

festivals · high holy days · judaism

Spiritual Dialectics

Sermonettes for Erev Rosh Hashanah

This year is unlike every other in so many ways. In order to keep people engaged with the services, I am delivering sermonettes between prayers, as two-minute reflections on the meaning of the festival. The four drashes for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781 follow.

  1. On lighting candles

The world stands balanced between darkness and light. Just as the day comes, night will surely follow. And when night falls on a night like tonight, on a holy night, we light a candle.[1]

Adam was afraid of the dark. When the first human being witnessed the sun start to fall on his first evening on the planet, he cried out because he thought the sun would never return and the darkness marked his death. Throughout the night, he and Eve cried, until dawn came, and he realised that God had made day to follow night.[2]

As night falls, we too can feel fear. But we know something that Adam did not. We know that the day will come. We know that even in the midst of utmost darkness, light will surely come.

This year, celebrating Rosh Hashanah may inevitably feel bittersweet. We are dipping our apples in a honey that has tasted pandemic and economic collapse. Many of us are facing uncertainty about our health, finances and relationships. It is natural that we should wonder how much we can go on.

But by coming here tonight, we affirm that we will go on. We remember the thousands of years we endured since the first human being looked upon the first night sky. We acknowledge that we do not only pray that day will come, but that we can work to bring on the day.[3] And we know that no matter how dark it may seem, we can always light a candle.

[1] New Forms of Prayer Draft Liturgy, p. 19

[2] Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 8a

[3] Yaakov Roblit, Shir laShalom

* * *

2. On the holiness of hope

“You’ve got to have hope. To some people the only thing they have to look forward to is hope.” These were the words of Harvey Milk, a gay Jewish immigrant in California; an activist who transformed politics in defence of minorities. As he sought election to office, he told his captive audience: “You have to give them hope.  Hope for a better world. Hope for a better tomorrow. Hope that all will be alright.”

And it wasn’t alright for Harvey Milk, who was assassinated 40 years ago. But it was alright for many others. Because of his fight, I grew up in a better world than I otherwise would have done. Because of the sacrifices he made, I live in a world that gay people of the past could only have imagined. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to give up hope now.

We are all here because of the optimism of previous generations. The immigrants who packed their bags, believing they could make a better life here. The survivors who made it through the camps because they had the strength of will. The feminists who insisted that women had a place in the synagogue, not just as spectators but as leaders. Every Jew who decided that showing up was  worthwhile and kept the faith of our people alive through the centuries. We owe it to them, and to the generations who will follow us, to keep hope alive.

The psalm that Howard and Fiona just read for us teaches: “When the wicked flourish, they are only like grass […] but the righteous shall flourish like a palm tree, growing tall like a cedar in Lebanon. Even in old age, they will bear new fruit and shine green in the courtyards of our God.”[1] Remember this. Remember that the wickedness we see in the world is only grass that will wither, but that righteousness plants firm roots in the soil and refuses to be moved.

Know that just as we live in the dialectic of night and day, so too do we live in an unending struggle between right and wrong. As Jews, we will hold on to our faith in what is right. And in pursuit of it, we will remind the world of the holiness of hope.

[1] Psalm 92, excerpted and adapted

* * *

3. On blessing the new moon

There was a time in King Solomon’s life when he was given over to nihilism. He wrote Qohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes, in which he declared: “Everything is vanity.” He said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?”[1]

His advisers tried to console him, but Solomon only retorted with a challenge: “tell me something that will always be true.” Many days and weeks passed, but no one could respond. One day, a jeweller came in holding up a ring. On it, she had engraved three words: גם זה יעבור – this too shall pass.

Yes, the only certainty is change. We recite hashkiveinu – cause us to lie down and let us rise up to life renewed.[2] We go to sleep only to wake up. We wake up, and we go to sleep. We live in this constant cycle.

In a moment, we will recite the blessing for the new moon. The moon, like us, like life, exists in a constant state of flux. It waxes only to wane and fills out only to diminish again. Note that is not the full moon we bless, when the night sky is brightest and the moon appears most whole. It is the new one, when only a slither hangs in the night sky, promising only potential.

When the rabbis blessed the moon, they used to gaze up at it and say: “David, king of Israel, long may he live.”[3] David was, of course, long dead. He, the father of Solomon, was for them the prototype of the messianic age. He represented an imaginary perfect society of the past. And he stood in as the harbinger of the future utopia. We do not live yet in a perfected world, but we can look up at the sky and see the moon as our model. Just as the moon starts out as a tiny crescent and expands to its fullest form, we too can live in the darkest of times and know that completeness will follow. Whatever this pandemic throws at us, we know that it will pass, and a brighter future awaits us.

[1] Ecclesiastes 2:1-2

[2] New Forms of Prayer Draft Liturgy, p. 53

[3] Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 25a

* * *

4. On sickness and health

We live in the balance between sweet and bitter; darkness and light; completion and absence; justice and iniquity. Above all, this year, we live in the balance between sickness and health.

Let us take time to reflect on sickness. On all those who have died of Covid. The 40,000 who died in the UK and over 900,000 who have died worldwide. We think of all those who have survived Covid but still live with its scars – those who still have trouble walking, breathing and carrying out daily activities. We think of all those suffering with sicknesses unrelated to the pandemic, often marginalised and ignored. We contemplate the mental health of everyone in our society, as we face anxiety, depression and trauma. We pray for everyone whose bodies, minds and spirits need healing.

But in the dialectic of health, we are also able to celebrate the vitality we still possess. We show joy at all those who are alive. We are grateful that we who sit here tonight are counted among them. We can think of the community we have built, the solidarity we have engendered and the strength we have found in each other. Let us pray, then, not only that we will be healed, but that we will be active in helping others to heal.

festivals · sermon · theology

Falling in Love is a Choice

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about falling in love. Maybe it’s the spring heat of May. Maybe it’s the newborn baby delighting me with his first smiles. Maybe it’s my boyfriend moving down from Manchester. Or, perhaps, it’s because it’s Shavuot.

The model of a loving relationship in Tanach is of Ruth and Naomi. It may sound strange to think that two women could be such an example even in Orthodox Judaism, but Ruth’s words are used in wedding liturgies to this day, as well as recited by proselytes upon their conversion to Judaism. Why is it that this text connects falling in love, joining a faith and receiving the Torah at Shavuot?

After Ruth’s husband dies, her mother-in-law, Naomi, begs her to leave. But Ruth responds:

Entreat me not to leave you, nor to turn back from following you. Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May God do so to me, and more, if anything but death parts you from me.

When Ruth tells Naomi she will never leave her, Naomi puts up every possible objection. It would leave her without a husband or income. Her sister has gone. Anybody would leave her. Be sensible. Go. 

But Ruth refuses to see sense. Her choice to stay with Naomi is irrational. She could never explain it in a way that makes sense to anyone else. Something more powerful than reason must have gripped Ruth’s heart. Surely it was love. Messy, confusing, irrational love.

Is that not how falling in love really feels? For anyone who has felt it, is love not completely illogical and nonsensical? Nobody could reason it. It runs not just contrary to reason but is almost its opposite.

And yet, somehow, love is also a choice. Ruth stayed with Naomi because she wanted to. She could have stopped up her heart, grieved and left her mother-in-law. But she stayed. Because love is nothing if it isn’t freely given.

At first it feels like the lapping of an emotion at your insides. And then the waves of longing seem to get bigger as they ask to be allowed to grow. And then you make a choice. If you are not ready to fall in love, you can walk away from its shores. But if it feels right, you will dive in and let its waters subsume you. 

Whether with a first partner or a best friend or a newborn baby or a brother or a mother or a spouse to whom you have been married for years. Love, when it comes, is a choice. But it is a choice we cannot help but make.

I think the same is true of faith. It is not something that can be reasoned or explained, but only felt. Religious belief starts as a nagging feeling of suspicion that there might be something greater than what our senses perceive. After that, we have to make a choice. As Einstein put it, either everything is a miracle or nothing is. 

And so, faced with a latent sense of wonder, the faithful make a choice about how to see the world. For those who believe, God is manifest in everything that exists. Every facet of nature is a revelation of God’s truth and a calling to accept it.

This, to me, was the true miracle of Sinai. It is that, like those who fall in love, the Israelites made an irrational choice that changed their lives and stuck with it. Shavuot is the celebration of the receiving of the Torah. It is the renewal of our wedding vows with God. Whereas anniversaries between human beings celebrate the date of falling in love, Shavuot is the anniversary of our falling in faith.

We are told so much about the fanfare that greeted the Israelites when Moses received the Torah. Thousands of people gathered round and all witnessed exactly the same thing. Thunder and lightning. A giant cloud descended over the mountain. A horn blast sounded loudly from the air. The whole mountain became cloaked in smoke and shook on its foundations.

But a cynic could have looked at all this and said: these are just natural phenomena. Thunder and lightning on the desert are rare, but they happen. It wasn’t really a shofar blasting from the sky, but the sound of sonic shock waves from the lightning. The mountain didn’t really move, it just felt like it from all the noise.

And that would be the rational position. But the Israelites were not interested in reason. They were falling in faith.

When Moses came down the mountain, his face was radiant and shining out beams from his cheeks. He carried with him two tablets, inscribed with the laws that would govern the nation for generations. The Ten Commandments. 

Some say that, as he descended, the desert mountain erupted in blossoming flowers. Some say the Commandments were written in black fire on white fire. Some say the mountain was upended and suspended over the Israelites’ heads.

And, of course, any sceptic could have said: this is trickery. God did not write those laws, but Moses made them himself while he was hiding up that mountain. These flowers and fires are just sleight of hand by an adept magician. 

And that would be the rational position. But the Israelites had made a choice to accept faith over reason. Thousands of them, huddled together in a strange place, made the decision to accept a beautiful belief over a plausible one. And nobody objected. Out of the many hordes assembled, nobody suggested that it was all a lie or a collective delusion. They let faith dictate to them.

And what did that faith say? That God is personally interested in the lives of people, even in those of refugees and runaway slaves! That the moral fate of the universe rested in the hands of a persecuted people, who were singled out to be light unto the nations. That love, truth and justice mattered more than could be calculated.

As Liberal Jews, we place a great deal of emphasis on reason, and rightly so. Reason keeps us from blind submission to antiquated and offensive ideas. It helps us keep Judaism alive in our own time. But we must also celebrate faith. Sometimes we hold beliefs that cannot be pinned down by logic, but can only be felt. Sometimes our irrational choices are so compelling that we live our lives by them.

Like having faith. Like seeing beauty. Like believing in miracles. Like falling in love.

Chag Shavuot sameach. Shabbat shalom.

love in the mountains

I gave this sermon for Shavuot on 29th May 2020 over Zoom for Three Counties Liberal Judaism.