judaism · sermon

Pharaoh’s hard heart

Pharaoh had a hard heart. The Torah tells us so in many different expressions.

God says: וַאֲנִ֥י אַקְשֶׁ֖ה אֶת־לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֑ה

I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.[1]

וַיֶּחֱזַק֙ לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה

Pharaoh’s heart stiffened.[2]

וַיַּכְבֵּ֤ד פַּרְעֹה֙ אֶת־לִבּ֔וֹ

Pharaoh weighted his heart.[3]

וְלֹא־שָׁ֥ת לִבּ֖וֹ

Pharaoh refused to concern his heart.[4]

Every time, the Torah uses a different verb: Harden, stiffen, weighted, turned away. Every time, the Torah uses a different grammatical form: passive, active, reflexive, causative.

The distinctions are so significant that their similarity can be lost in translation. English versions will tell you that Pharaoh was stubborn, indifferent, callous. They will elide that in every one of these Hebrew idioms, the common word is Pharaoh’s heart.

We are supposed to imagine a heart that has long been bolted shut to cut himself off from the feelings of others. In the ancient world, the heart was considered the seat of all thoughts and feelings, much in the same way as we think of the mind today. A hardened heart is one that won’t permit any thoughts or feelings but one’s own.

That was Pharaoh. That is how the Torah describes Pharaoh every time it explains why he would not let the Israelites go. Pharaoh would not let people out because he would not let people in.

Over the last year, I have come to relate to that hard-heartedness. The pandemic and lockdown have been a stressful experience. Personally, I think I have turned inwards, focusing much more on myself and my family than on others and their needs. I have looked forward, determined to get through the crises, but I have not looked around at others and made the conscious effort I should to empathise.

A heart that can’t let anyone in also isn’t ready to let itself out. I wonder how the last year will affect people’s psyche. Has the last year, with its necessary focus on isolation and separation, prepared us for the hard emotional work of returning to being in community? What kinds of people will be when we emerge from this year? Will we have the empathy we need to let our people go?

This is Mental Health Shabbat. It is a time for us to reflect on the state of our hearts. We do not want our hearts to be hard, like Pharaoh’s. It is a time to open up our hearts, so that we can let our own feelings out, and the feelings of others in.

This was a short sermon for Friday night at Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue.


[1] Ex 7:3

[2] Ex 7:13

[3] Ex 8:28

[4] Ex 7:23

judaism · sermon · torah

Matchmaker, matchmaker

“Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match. Find me a find, catch me a catch…”

Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava joyously sing these words in their iconic scene from Fiddler on the Roof. It’s a classic musical film set in Tsarist Russia at the turn of the century, when huge upheavals are taking place throughout the Jewish world. People are moving, traditional ways of living are changing, and new ideas are coming to the fore. 

Nowhere is this difference clearer than in the confusing world of romantic relationships. According to shtetl customs, the girls would expect to be matched with their perfect partners by a shadchan, or matchmaker, and they would settle down to a quiet life of conventional piety in the kitchens while their husbands worked on making a living and reading the Talmud. So, at the start of the story, each of the girls calls upon the matchmaker – called Yenta – to find them their dream husband. They wish for someone wealthy, learned, and acceptable to their parents.

But this is a world where conventions are being upended, and fate has other plans for the lovebirds. Tzeitel, the eldest, turns down her match with the old, ugly and wealthy butcher, refusing the match made for her by the shadchan. Instead, she marries the poor and humble, but decent, tailor. Her father agonises with the betrayal of tradition, but ultimately acquiesces.

Next up is Hodel. A Torah scholar would have been lovely for a foregone era, but at the turn of the 20th Century, a Marxist radical and heretic was exactly what she craved. She falls in love with a Jewish social revolutionary, much to her father’s dismay. A communist! Of all things. Once again, he agonises over the break with tradition, but ultimately accepts it as inevitable.

Finally, the youngest daughter finds someone completely unacceptable. A Russian Orthodox man from outside the village. Her father cannot even bear to permit a marriage to a non-Jew, so they wed in secret. The scandal it must have caused. 

What a far cry this all was from the idealised matchmaking process envisaged in this week’s parashah. The story of Rebecca and Isaac falling in love is like a classic romantic comedy from a bygone era. The star of our scene is Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, who is set by his master a major task. Isaac cannot marry a Canaanite, but must marry someone from his own tribe. She must be strong and wealthy and beautiful and kind and willing to marry Isaac of her own accord. 

Eliezer prays to God and says that the ideal woman will help him feed his camels. Well, Rebecca does far more than that. She comes down herself, despite being a noblewoman, and offers Eliezer a drink. She chastises the other women at the well for not having done the same. She calls up the water from the well effortlessly and carries gallons of that to feed Eliezer’s entire caravan of camels. Oh, this Rebecca is strong and wealthy and beautiful and kind! She is exactly what Eliezer had sought after. He immediately pulls out a wedding ring for Rebecca to wear through her nose…

But was she willing? After all, Isaac has been pretty much a non-entity in this story so far. He hasn’t even talked since Abraham tried killing him as part of a wild game of chicken with God, and seems to spend most of his time wandering about in fields looking contemplative. Yes! She puts on the ring instantly and agrees to marry him, then gets consent from her own family. 

Just a few days later they meet each other for the first time and fall in love. 

Now, isn’t that how relationships are supposed to be? It might seem strange to modern ears, but those were the expectations of our ancestors. A matchmaker, like Eliezer in the Torah, or Yenta in Fiddler on the Roof, would set up a couple. They would come from similar backgrounds in terms of class, status and religion. They would often even be cousins. Their parents arranged the relationship and, once they were together, they built a home and learned to love each other. 

That world was upended with the modern era, when emancipation, urbanisation, and progressive ideals started to change people’s expectations of relationships. In this new reality, people had choices. 

They could leave their village, practise their religion differently, decide not to practise it at all, and marry non-Jews. Women could even have opinions. Fiddler on the Roof speaks to the concerns emerging from that new reality of relationships a century ago. Today, many of those tensions still exist.

Progressive Judaism was, in part, a response to those worries. Jews could have rejected modernity and held tight to the old ways of doing things in the time of Rebecca and Isaac. Jews could have rejected Judaism and embraced modernity, leaving behind all the traditions and texts in the past. 

Or we could find a middle way, our way, that embraced modern relationships and traditional Judaism under one chuppah. This is what we have done. We have come to celebrate interfaith partnerships, second marriages, non-conformists and unusual relationships. Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava would all be able to find a home in our synagogue. 

We  are finding new ways to embrace the realities of modern relationships and families. Our synagogues today are becoming welcoming places for single parents, people who have chosen not to have children, couples who have no intention of marrying, blended step-families and a whole host of other options. It should be a point of pride that we accept people as they come, in all their diversity.

Yet something is making a comeback that would have surprised the cast of Fiddler, and even a previous generation of Progressive Jews. Matchmaking is on the way into fashion. Yes, the matchmaker, matchmaker is back. The majority of people meet their partners because they are introduced by friends or coworkers, like Yelta and Eliezer of the past. The role of families in matchmaking may have declined, but the practice itself continues.

Personally, I’m thrilled about this development. I love matchmaking. There is an old superstition that someone who matches three couples will merit a place in the World to Come, and I boast that I can sin as much as I like now.

When the first national lockdown began, I worked with my housemate to put together a ‘Love is Blind’ matchmaking experiment, where we paired people up based purely on personality, without them getting to see each other. Nearly a year later, one of our matches is still a couple going strong. As the new national lockdown begins, we’re doing the same enterprise again; this time introducing people for dates via Zoom.

It’s just a bit of fun to help our friends pass the time, but it tells us something important about relationships in the 21st Century. Of course, modern matchmaking has to celebrate relationships in all their diversity. The old model of putting together a man and a woman to make babies doesn’t fit anymore. One of the reasons matchmaking fell out of fashion was that that style of connecting people was coercive and stifling.

But we can still connect people, if we do away with the prejudices of the past. Modern matchmaking takes a proudly pro-LGBT stance, reveling in our community’s gender and sexual diversity. Equally, the people we match often don’t expect to find the right person on their first date, and are just as interested in finding friends or casual flings. The idea of a bashert – a single partner who will fulfill someone’s needs for life – is no longer so significant to people. 

Society has already adapted to that change. I’m sure that Progressive Judaism will find ways of doing the same. Ultimately, what we most want to retain is that people can be loved and accepted, no matter how they choose to live. With that in mind, let us continue to find new ways to celebrate people and the relationships they have. That is the true Jewish tradition.

I gave this sermon on 14 November 2020 for Parashat Chayyei Sarah at Newcastle Reform Synagogue.

judaism · sermon · theology

Abraham and the Paradox of Jewish Evangelism

A priest, a monk and a rabbi are debating which of their religions is the correct one. They decide to settle it with a contest to convert a bear to their religion.

The rabbi tries first. Two days later, the priest and the monk end up visiting him in the hospital.

The rabbi says: “OK, maybe I shouldn’t have begun with circumcision.”

Let’s set aside the foreskin jokes, because I don’t think the rabbi would have had much better luck with a lady bear. Isn’t it a strange fact of our religion that we almost never set out to proselytise?

We, of course, welcome all sincere converts, and this synagogue is happy to encourage anyone on their spiritual journey. But you won’t find us outside Asda, handing out flyers with words from the Mishnah. And you certainly won’t turn on your TV to see a rabbinic televangelist warning you about the perils of pork.

But if you think you have stumbled upon spiritual knowledge, don’t you want to share it with the world? Who are we to zealously guard the secrets of the universe?

Even if you take a more humble approach to Judaism’s teachings, and think they’re just as good as any other people’s, there must be something particularly worthwhile about Judaism for you to log in to this morning’s service rather than watching Bargain Hunt. (Wait, don’t go, I promise this is going somewhere!)

That strange paradox of Judaism – that we have a universal truth but don’t seek to spread it – is encapsulated in the story of Abraham.

This week, God tells Abraham: “Go out by yourself. I will make your name great and you shall be a blessing.”[1]

Then, in the next two verses, as if a parallel to the first, God says: “All the families of the earth shall be blessed by you.” Then Abraham goes out with Lot and Sarah.[2]

So… does Abraham go out to bless himself or does he go out to bless others? Which is it?

This is the great tension in Judaism. Do we exist only for Jews? If so, why are we trying to change the world? Or do we exist for humanity? In which case, why aren’t we trying to make everyone Jews?

Our midrash plays with this tension. Bereishit Rabbah, a collection of rabbinic explorations of Genesis, contains an unusual parable. In it, Rabbi Berekhyah compares Abraham to a tightly sealed bottle of perfume. The bottle was left in the corner and nobody smelt it. As soon as it was moved, its fragrance was emitted. This, says our midrash, is what it was like when God told Abraham to go out from place to place and make his name great in the world.[3]

Makes perfect sense, right? No? Fine, let’s unpack it.

Abraham is a tightly closed bottle of perfume when he starts out in Haran. At this stage, Abraham has encountered God. Abraham has realised that the idols amount to nothing and the Creator of the Universe is a singular and invisible presence. He is somehow pure and untouched. The Pagans have not affected his beliefs, and he has not affected theirs. He is hermetically sealed.

Then God tells him to lech lecha – to go out. Abraham moves around out from Haran and down to Shchem and Be’ersheva in the land of Canaan. As he moves between these places, others get to smell him. They encounter the truth that Abraham has learned about ethical monotheism. God is one and just! Now everywhere he goes people can get a whiff of this knowledge.

Only there’s another problem. Bottles of perfume don’t emit their scent because you move them. They only work when you open them. In this analogy, the balsamic bottle that is Abraham still remains sealed. How is he spreading his fragrances everywhere if he hasn’t even opened up?

I don’t think the editors of our midrash have made some mistake. I think they are telling us something profound about the Jewish paradox. We have a truth that we want others to know and yet we don’t want to convert anyone. Our role as a light unto the nations is that we go from place to place, showing others who we are, but not changing anything about who they are. We are still Abraham, that sealed bottle, going out from Haran, somehow expecting others to smell our perfumes but not opening up wide to spread our scent.

The very word “evangelism” is a Greek one, meaning good news, referring to the Christian Gospels. The early Church actively went out on recruitment drives, telling people about Jesus and his message. We have no such good news to share. What would we say to people? “Rejoice! God has commanded you to pursue justice and only eat unleavened bread in the springtime!” Jewish evangelism seems somehow a contradiction in terms.

And yet we do go out and share our beliefs. We are happy to expound our Torah to anyone. We expect to transform the societies we are in. When we speak out for justice wherever we live, we are very much hoping that others will take note of our concern for the stranger and adjust their actions accordingly. How can we reconcile this desire to change others with our lack of desire to convert them?

Perhaps the problem isn’t perfume metaphors and paradoxes. Maybe the issue is how we understand Judaism’s mission. Abraham wasn’t sent out to turn others into Jews. Abraham was sent out to be a Jew.

Abraham had to go out and be different, to hold a truth that no one else held. Even when he passes it on to his children, they each hold a different truth. Isaac becomes the founder of our Judaism. Ishmael becomes the founder of Islam. They go out holding different truths, both contradictory and complementary. Abraham’s revelation of God’s unity is a realisation that this universal God can never be captured by one person in a single truth.

Abraham’s mission wasn’t to make everyone Jews. It was to enable everyone to be themselves. It was that all these other nations could celebrate their differences, just as Abraham loved his own.

That is our task today. We don’t say to the nations: “we want you all to be Jews.” We say: “we want you all to be you.”

We are models of difference in a society where we are not a majority and in a world where we are not dominant. Our role is to show how to conduct that uniqueness in a way that demonstrates dignity.

This is our evangelism. That is the truth we hold and that we want to share. That difference is a wonderful and treasured thing. From our differences, we are blessed. And in our differences, we bless each other.

So go out from Haran and share that sacred truth. And don’t worry – you don’t need to go circumcising bears.

This sermon is for Parashat Lech Lecha. I will give this sermon on Saturday morning 31st October 2020 at Newcastle Reform Synagogue, and a shortened version the night before for Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue.


[1] Gen 12:1-2

[2] Gen 12:3-5

[3] Ber Rab 39:2

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.

judaism · theology

We are not our past mistakes.

We are not our past mistakes.

Rabbi Meir was the greatest rabbi of his generation. He learnt from both the great masters of Mishnah, Akiva and Eliezer. He was ordained a rabbi by his teacher, Elisha ben Abuyah, younger than any of his contemporaries and gave more rulings than any of them.[1]

Meir was a great rabbi, but his wife, Beruriah, was even greater. She once learnt 300 rulings from 300 different sages in one day.[2] She was the only woman to be credited with making religious decisions. Sometimes she even overruled her husband. 

One day, Beruriah came in on her husband and heard him praying. He had been harassed by local hooligans. Rabbi Meir cried out in supplication to God: “Sovereign of All Worlds, I wish You would kill those bandits!”

Beruriah was shocked. “What are you thinking?!” she demanded. Meir looked surprised: “I am only asking for what it already says in the Psalms – let sinners disappear from the earth and the wicked be no more.”[3]

“That’s not what the verse says,” retorted Beruriah. “It says: let sins disappear from the earth, not sinners. The wicked won’t just disappear because someone wishes them away. They will only disappear because they will repent and give up their sins. The wicked do not disappear because God takes vengeance on them, but because God has mercy on them.”

From then on, Rabbi Meir changed his prayer. Instead, he said: “May God have mercy on them and may they change their ways.”[4]

God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but wishes only that they will turn from their evil ways and live.[5]

That is the message at the heart of this season. This is the last Shabbat in Elul, opening the last week of this month of repentance. Tonight, in Ashkenazi custom, we begin the practice of Selichot – reciting penitential prayers in the evenings. They are intended to help us acknowledge where we are going wrong so that we can correct our ways. 

As we approach the end of the year, we also approach the end of the Torah. We have been on a journey through the wilderness, and God has journeyed with us. 

When our story began, God wanted to destroy humanity. At the start, God flooded the world in anger at our violence. At Babel, God struck down the nations for our defiance. At Sodom, too, God destroyed a city for failing in its moral obligations. 

Now, at the end of the narrative, God no longer wishes to destroy us, but instead promises to rescue us. We are told that if we try to return, God will bring us back in love. No matter how far we think we have gone, God can find us and return us. No matter how much of an outcast you imagine yourself to be, God will be in your corner.[6]

That is the essence of teshuvah. Although often translated as repentance, it really means returning. It is the practice of becoming who you already are. At core, you are good, honest and faithful. If you do wrong, you are departing from your natural state. 

Contrary to the Christian doctrine that preaches we are born in a state of original sin, Judaism teaches that we are constantly reborn in a state of moral purity. Each morning, God sends us back our soul, renewed and ready to do good.

God has already given you the greatest gift you could need to face up to your flaws: you have another day. You have the chance to get up this morning and correct what you did wrong. You have the opportunity to be better than you were. You can revert to your initial state of holiness.

Teshuvah is the process we undergo to turn away from doing wrong. We look inside ourselves. We acknowledge where we have gone wrong. We announce that we will not make the same mistakes again. We make amends for what we did. And then, faced with the same situation again, we do not repeat our old errors.[7]

At this time of year, we are forced to face up to our mistakes. The more we look at them, the more we realise how many there are. Faced with our own inadequacies, we might despair. We might think that our lives our not worth living or that we are better off destroyed. This week’s parashah teaches us: it is not too late. We are not our past mistakes.

Rabbi Meir only truly learnt this much later in life. His teacher, Elisha ben Abuya, had given up on Judaism entirely. He had stopped believing and stopped pretending to believe. He was acting immorally. Meir came to find him. He said to him: “Come back, rabbi, make teshuvah.”

But Elisha replied: “I cannot. Because I have heard the divine voice reverberating: “Return, O backsliding children,”[8] except for Elisha ben Abyuah, who knew My strength and yet rebelled against Me.” Meir’s teacher, Elisha, believed he was beyond redemption. He believed he had gone too far for God to still love him.

At the end of Elisha’s life, he fell ill, and Rabbi Meir went to visit him. He said: “Return!” Elisha asked: “Having gone so far, will I be accepted?” Rabbi Meir replied: “The Torah teaches: “God will allow a person to return, up to their being crushed,”[9] even up to the time that life is being crushed out of them.” In that instant, Elisha ben Abuyah began to weep, and then he died. Rabbi Meir rejoiced, saying: “My master departed in a state of repentance!”

But the story doesn’t end there. After Elisha was buried, fire came down from heaven to burn his grave. The other rabbis came and told Meir: “The grave of your master is on fire!” Rabbi Meir went out, spread his cloak over the grave, and prayed that God would redeem Elisha. “But if God is not willing to redeem you, then I, Meir, will redeem you.” Then the fire went out.[10]

When he was young, Meir learned that he should pray for sins to be destroyed, not sinners. And when he was old, Rabbi Meir learned that he should pray for people to make teshuvah, even when he believed it was too late.

And his prayer for others, that God have mercy on them and they change their ways, reverberated and affected his teacher in his tomb. God’s mercy extended beyond the grave.

Yes, God can bring us back even in our dying moments. God can help us make teshuvah even after death.

Our mistakes do not define us.

We are not our past mistakes.

Shabbat shalom.

I gave this sermon on Shabbat 12th September 2020, Parashat Nitzavim, for Newcastle Reform Synagogue.

[1] Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 14a

[2] Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 62b

[3] Psalms 104:35

[4] Babylonian Talmud Berachot 10a

[5] Ezekiel 3:11

[6] Deuteronomy 30

[7] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, 2:2

[8] Jeremiah 3:14

[9] Psalms 90:3

[10] Jerusalem Talmud, Hagiga 77b

high holy days · judaism · torah

Not everything must be forgiven

Not everything must be forgiven.

Earlier in the year, I went to a Holocaust Survivors Centre to deliver a service. After we had sung songs, discussed Torah and celebrated the day, I went to join some of the survivors to eat.

We sat and chatted. They were all elderly, but brimmed with life. These refugees, mostly women, who had survived camps and treacherous journeys to get here, seemed to possess a vitality I rarely saw in people my own age.

They talked about their grandchildren, their local community and their synagogues. But they wasted no time getting to the really gritty questions. “Why should I believe in God after what happened to us?” “Did God let that happen to us?” “Do you believe in an afterlife?” I bashfully tried to answer their questions, often replying that I did not know.

But then one of them asked a question to which I did know the answer. To which I was in no doubt. She asked me: “Do I have to forgive the Nazis?”

“No,” I said. “No you do not have to forgive the Nazis.”

I did not cite a Torah verse or a scholar or a halachah. I just said no. There are things that are unforgivable, and I was taken aback at even the suggestion that a survivor could forgive the Nazis for what they did.

Not everything must be forgiven. Not everything should be forgiven. Not everything can be forgiven.

We have reached Elul. The new month has begun and we have entered the last lunar cycle of the year, taking us through to Rosh Hashanah. This is our season of contemplation and reflection; of apology and of forgiveness. In this time, it is natural that we want to unburden ourselves of the guilt we have clung to.

Forgiveness is supposed to be the release of resentment and vengeance when we feel we have been wronged. With it ought to come a feeling of relief and a sense of restitution in the world.

Yet, so far, I have encountered far more people struggling because they cannot forgive than because they cannot apologise. I think it is important to stress: you do not have to forgive everything and you cannot be expected to forgive everyone.

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah taught: “for transgressions between a human being and God, Yom Kippur atones, but for transgressions between human beings, Yom Kippur does not atone, unless the wronged party forgives.”[1] Judaism has no absolution. Our religion teaches that you must work to earn forgiveness, and guilt cannot be magically removed by prayer.

Even then, there are sins that can never be forgiven. For the most heinous crimes, like murder, even God does not forgive.[2]

We must assume that God does not forgive such an act because no human being could. Murder is irreversible in a way that other acts or not. The murdered person is not alive to forgive; no family member could forgive on their behalf. Even if they could, nobody could reasonably ask the family member of a murdered person to provide forgiveness, because it would take a super-human level of magnanimity.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, Moses creates cities of refuge throughout Canaan.[3] In ancient Israelite culture, the relatives of murdered people were not only not asked to forgive. They were expected to kill the killer as a matter of honour. Such a person was called a “blood redeemer.” They were required to avenge their family member’s killer, even in a case of accidental manslaughter.[4]

Moses established the cities of refuge so that the accidental manslaughterer would have somewhere to run. The killer could live there and escape being killed. Although they would need to start a new life, they would not be executed by the blood-redeemer, nor punished by the courts.

What is noteworthy about this system is how compassionate it is. There are times when people commit crimes and there is nobody at fault. Deuteronomy gives the example of a wood-chopper’s axe that backfires and kills a co-worker.[5] In this case, it would be improper to try the killer as a murderer, because there was no malice.

Yet, more importantly, it is compassionate to the victims. It does not ask the victim’s family to abandon their anger, but builds in an assumption that there would be raw feelings that would never be resolved within the court system. Rather than tell them to forgive, Moses establishes systems that mitigate their anger and prevent a cycle of violence.

Moses knew that not everything could be forgiven. That principle follows us through to this day. During the Second World War, Simon Wiesenthal, who was interred in the concentration camps, met an SS officer, who begged his forgiveness. The Nazi, on his death bed, admitted to having killed over 300 Jews by burning down their house and shooting at those who escaped. He said that he needed a Jew to forgive him. Wiesenthal did not.

Over the years, Wiesenthal contemplated whether he should have forgiven the Nazi after all. He wrote to thinkers across the world, including rabbis, philosophers, judges, priests and historians, asking for their view. He collected all their letters back into a volume called ‘The Sunflower’.[6] Of the respondents, not one Jew said he should forgive.

Most of those who said he should forgive replied as Christians, and said they would do as ambassadors for Jesus. Yet there is a more compelling answer offered by Jose Hobday,[7] who was a Catholic priest of Native American descent. He wrote of his experiences as an indigenous person in North America, experiencing genocide and persecution. He explains how those experiences and indigenous spirituality had taught him to forgive, not for the sake of his oppressors, but for the sake of himself. That forgiveness helped him transcend the wrongs that were done to him and his people. That if he did not forgive, it would only make him feel worse.

Yes, if forgiving will make you feel better, then you can do so for your own sake. But believing that you have to forgive when you cannot will only make you feel worse. Sometimes it is necessary for hurt people to hold on to their hurt and not relinquish it through forgiveness.

So, for your own sake, go into this Elul knowing that you do not need to forgive everything. You do not need to forgive those who have not made amends and you do not need to forgive what is beyond your capacity.

Judaism is not about creating perfect people, absolved of blemishes and able to exercise the infinite mercy we expect of God. It is about accepting we are real people, who make real mistakes, learn from them and try to improve. It is about accepting that we are vulnerable people, who are capable of hurting and being hurt, and who might not find resolution in this lifetime.

Work on what you can change in yourself. Apologise for what you have done wrong. Forgive where you can forgive.

But know that not everything must be forgiven. Not everything should be. Not everything can.

Shabbat shalom.

sunflowers

I will give this sermon on Saturday 22nd August at Newcastle Reform Synagogue.

[1]Mishnah Yoma 8:9

[2]Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 74a

[3]Deuteronomy 19:1-3

[4]Deuteronomy 19:6

[5]Deuteronomy 19:5

[6]Schocken Books, 1970

[7]Chapter 23

judaism · sermon · torah

Why only one God?

Why only one God?

A Jewish scientist finds herself at a conference, presenting a paper. A colleague asks her: “what’s your religion?” Nervous of prejudice, she says: “I’m an atheist.” Her colleague answers: “Yes, but is it the God of the Jews or of the Christians in whom you do not believe?”

As everyone knows, the best jokes are the ones you have to explain. And the very best jokes are the ones you spend a whole sermon unpacking, so strap yourselves in, because we’re going to look at the archaeological and scriptural evidence for why that introduction was, in fact, really funny.

It is a basic assumption of religion in the West that there is one God. Even for those who do not believe, they assume that it is one God in whom they have disbelief. Yet our society is filled with different religions and practices. When we encounter Muslims, Sikhs, Christians or Hindus, we assume that underlying the diversity of our doctrines and rituals, there is an underlying unity of belief in a single and universal Being.

But it was not always that way. In fact, the idea of monotheism was novel and contentious throughout the entire development of the Hebrew Bible. The insistence on one God is Judaism’s great innovation, and we have built our monotheism up into an obsession. Knowing God’s oneness is the first commandment.[1] Not worshipping other gods is the second.[2] Worshipping other gods can incur capital punishment.[3] It is treated as an unforgivable crime, on par with murder, and a Jew should choose death rather than worshipping another god.[4] The Deuteronomic insistence on one God has become the centrepoint of Hebrew prayer: “hear, O Israel, the Eternal One is our God; the Eternal God is One.”[5]

In this week’s portion, Moses exhorts the Israelites: “Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places.”[6]

But why? Why is it so important that there be one God? And why is it so important that the ancient Israelites worship no other? What was so bad about the other nations’ religious practices?

Archaeological excavations help us answer that question.[7] Scientists have dug up altars, shrines, coins and amulets to help us make sense of pre-monotheistic religion. The Canaanites, who preceded the Israelites, had a family of gods: Baal the storm god; Asherah, the fertility goddess; Mot the lord of death; Yam, the judge of the sea; and Moloch, the child-eating fire deity.

This is referenced in Scripture: “Be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” You must not worship your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Eternal One hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.”[8]

In that case, the issue with polytheism is the unethical behaviour it engenders! The old gods of Canaan required evil practices as part of their worship, like ritual human slaughter. But then why not simply abolish those gods, and leave the others? Or just legislate against those practices but keep the rest of the religion intact? In the mind of the ancient Israelites, there must have been something that directly connected any worship of multiple gods with murder.

Here, archaeology can help us further. Digs from different times show us that polytheism wasn’t suddenly abolished, but fell out of favour when the Israelite religion took off. The Canaanite pantheon reduced down to just a few gods. We can find statuettes representing them at most ancient Israelite Temple sites.

This is backed up by text: Jeremiah condemns the Israelites for baking cakes for the Queen of Heaven and making offerings to Baal.[9] Jeremiah explicitly condemns this because these are the ways of the Egyptians, who held them in slavery. Idol worship, says Jeremiah, means keeping up the practices of theft, murder and lying.[10] It is not just that the old gods require ritual murder, but that their whole religion is based on an Empire that was built on it. Idols are the symbols of captivity.

This point was finally hammered home when Jerusalem was destroyed and Nebuchadnezzar took the Israelites hostage in Babylon. After Ezra led the return to the Land of Israel, we can find no more evidence of idols or their shrines. The people abandoned them altogether.

What could have been more convincing that idols were the work of murderous empires than exile in Babylon? The Israelites saw first-hand how looting, murder, war, conscription and sieges were built into imperial expansion. We know that the Babylonians used their pantheon as a way to legitimise their colonisation, as they brought the local gods of conquered people into their own cult and placed them in inferior positions. We know that the emperors turned themselves into gods and made people throughout their lands worship them.[11]

All those gods in Israelite minds became death-gods. The only way to truly abandon the ways of the oppressors in Babylon and Egypt would be to uproot the idolatrous shrines and eliminate the pagan pantheon altogether.

Monotheism was an act of resistance to these corrupt ways.

God’s unity was not a mathematical question but a moral one.

The One true God could not be co-opted into imperialism because it was universal: no one nation could control it. No ruler could declare himself to be that God because God had no flesh or form. And whereas the many gods constructed hierarchies and different customs for different places, with monotheism came ethical universality.

That is why one God was so important then, and why it remains so important now. God’s unity continues to represent the unity of human beings and the refusal of the faithful to be dominated. So, in answer to the question: “is it the God of the Jews or of the Christians in whom you do not believe?” the atheist could happily answer “neither.” And I will gladly answer “both.” They are One.

Shabbat shalom.

Asherah-figurines
This is a photo of Asherah statuettes, which have been excavated at almost every ancient Israelite cultic site prior to Ezra’s Great Return

I wrote this sermon for Leo Baeck College’s weekly newsletter, and will deliver it for Newcastle Reform Synagogue on Saturday 15th August 2020, Parashat Reeh.

[1] Deut 5:6

[2] Deut 5:7

[3] Ex 22:20

[4] Yoma 82a

[5] Deut 6:4

[6] Deut 12:2-3 NIV

[7] All references to archaeology in this sermon are derived from ‘The Bible Unearthed’ by Israel Finklestein and Neil Asher Silberman

[8] Deut 12:29-31 NIV

[9] Jer 7:5-19

[10] Jer 7:8-11

[11] cf Dan 2

judaism · sermon

Comfort, my people, take comfort

Comfort, my people, take comfort.

This Shabbat and its haftarah take their name, Nachumu, from the opening words of Isaiah 40: ‘Comfort, my people, take comfort, says your God.’[1]

We have entered into the weeks of comfort, the weeks between Tisha b’Av and Yom Kippur. Here, the prophets promise us redemption and renewal if only we will correct our ways. It is a great build-up to the High Holy Days, leading us through the remaining summer months with a message of mercy.

After Tisha b’Av, we so need that reassurance. Tisha b’Av – or the 9th of Av – is a day of intense mourning in the Jewish calendar, which occurred during the week from Wednesday to Thursday nights. It recalls the destruction of the First and Second Temples by successive Empires in the days of our biblical ancestors. It summons Jewish congregations to lament our exiled state and God’s apparent absence from the world.

It is not a fast that is marked in all Reform communities, because it involves grieving for the Temple, which we do not want rebuilt, and because it wallows in so much misery, which we do not want to participate in.

Nevertheless, for the last 5 years, I have diligently engaged in Tisha b’Av rituals. This is mostly practical. On Yom Kippur, I’m often so busy curating religious experiences for others that I don’t get round to having one myself. My head is stuck on the next page in the prayer book, recalling the next tune, or remembering the complicated Hebrew I’ll read later. Tisha b’Av gives me a chance to have my own solemn day, where other people lead the services for me, and I can just use the time to reflect.

Most years, I go to Bevis Marks, the impressive Sephardi-Orthodox synagogue in central London. It is quite an experience. The building’s elegant chandeliers are extinguished. The beautiful decor is covered over with black sheets. A chazan chants the haunting melody of Eichah, beginning: “how lonely sits this city that was once full of people.”[2] A choir of harmonious men chants kinot – dirges – recalling the gruesome details of the destruction of the Temple, and connecting them to every tragedy Jewish people have ever endured.

But this year, I couldn’t go to Bevis Marks. Nobody could. Coronavirus has made physical attendance of synagogues too dangerous. Even those that have braved it have only permitted a tiny number to attend, with strict social distancing and masked faces. The Spanish and Portuguese community was especially hit by Covid back in March, so it makes sense that they would be cautious.

But what about me? What would I do? I depended on the spiritual experience of Tisha b’Av to see me through the rest of the year, and now the gates were closed.[3] I found myself wondering how it would be possible to do anything meaningful if I couldn’t do it the way I always had.

But I decided, for my own sake, I would make an effort. On Wednesday evening, I switched off my phone and tuned in to the streamed services from Lauderdale Road. I read through the Reform liturgies on my own, had one last glass of water before sundown, then went to bed. When I got up in the morning, I dressed as if going to synagogue, and watched a recording of the proceedings from the Kotel. I spent the day intermittently meditating, praying, studying texts and thinking about all the brokenness in the world.

For the first time, the loss of the Temple actually meant something to me. It wasn’t that I suddenly had a desire to return to animal sacrifices and priestly hierarchy, but I felt that I could emotionally connect to the verses in a new way. It can be really devastating to be away from the spiritual space to which you are accustomed. It is a shock to the system to realise that you can’t pray the way you used to.

And, strangely, I liked that I had made the connection. I liked that I could feel some new kinship with Jeremiah and the texts of Scripture. I liked knowing that the things I was experiencing had been suffered by others before. Because when I remembered that they had struggled, I also remembered that they had survived. In the face of difficult times, they had renewed Judaism, and changed its practices so that its message could continue.

I found myself enjoying marking the day alone. I didn’t feel like I was performing piety for others, but I was praying sincerely of my own accord. I realised that I, too, could adapt and reinvent.

In this week’s haftarah, Isaiah tells us: ‘The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.’[4] It wasn’t the building that mattered, it was the words that were spoken there.

After the destruction of Jerusalem, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai was among the few sages who remained. He did not try to rebuild the city walls. He tried to rebuild Judaism. He established an academy at Yavne and taught Judaism as he had received it, bringing in new teachings to adapt the religion to post-Temple times.[5] Rabbi Yohanan knew that the words of Torah were more enduring than any citadel.

Every edifice will eventually crumble. Temples, synagogues and familiar buildings get torn down, eroded and replaced. But the moral message of Judaism – the meaning we get from our texts – that will endure forever.

We now begin our ascent to the High Holy Days, with Rosh haShanah only seven weeks away. As we approach these important feasts and fasts, we may feel tempted to despair that the usual building won’t be there. It is true that we will not do things in our usual way. But like generations of Jews before us, we will find new ways to make our liturgy meaningful and turn its moral messages to our own day.

I encourage you to emotionally prepare yourselves for doing the High Holy Days differently. Think about how you can dress, act and participate so that the period will be meaningful for you.

We will explore new ways of praying, meditating, studying and feeling. And we will come out of this experience with a Judaism that has been transformed and renewed. It will be stronger, more versatile, and better equipped to face any crisis that may come. As Isaiah promised, we will soar on wings like eagles and run without ever growing faint.[6]

So take comfort, my people, take comfort.

Shabbat shalom.

5f3ac318f9ec28e284b5bda529754cbc--jewish-art-place

I gave this sermon on Saturday 1st August 2020 for Parashat Vaetchanan/ Shabbat Nachumu at Glasgow Reform Synagogue, over Zoom.

[1] Isa 40:1

[2] Lam 1:1

[3] Lam 1:4

[4] Isa 40:8

[5] Eichah Rabbah 1:31

[6] Isa 40:31