judaism · sermon · Uncategorized

This burden is too heavy for you to bear alone

One of the things I love about our prophets is that they’re not perfect people. If they were perfect, what could we learn from them? Moses is a profoundly imperfect person. In Egypt, he gets so angry with a slaver that he murders him and runs away. In the desert, Moses gets angry again and smashes a rock to get water from it, rather than talking to it as God asked. Moses is somebody who gets angry, impatient and struggles with everything he has to do.

In this week’s parasha, Moses is no longer angry or impatient – he is just burnt out. His father-in-law, Yitro, comes to visit him in the desert. Yitro is a Midianite priest who gave Moses work when he was on the run after the killing the slaver. While Moses was there, Yitro’s daughter, Zipporah, fell in love with him and started a family with him.

As soon as Yitro arrives, Moses prostrates himself and offers him food. Yitro looks at him. Moses is growing old. When they left Egypt, Moses was already eighty. His body is aching. He’s had enough. But he’s persisting. From dawn until dusk, Moses sorts out people’s problems. He listens to their concerns and solves them.

Moses has been trying to deal with everything on his own. Rashbam, a medieval commentator, points out that Moses has been trying to do so much he’s been left doing nothing. Instead of empowering people to solve their own problems, he’s left them standing in the desert, waiting for his judgement. He is on the verge of burning out.

Yitro sees all this. Yitro puts a hand on his shoulder. He gently cajoles him: “What are you doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?”

Moses tells him: “The people need me, I have to do this.”

“No, you don’t,” says Yitro. “This is not good for you. It’s too heavy for you.”

Moses, known for his anger and impatience, just gives in. “You’re right,” he says.

Yitro comes up with a plan for him to delegate tasks. He spreads out the work so that Moses just supports a few people, and in the smallest groups, Moses assigns responsibility so that people can look after themselves.

For me, this is a beautiful moment. Moses realises that he can no longer carry a burden – and he shares it. First, he shares it with Yitro, acknowledging that he’s vulnerable. Then, he shares it with the whole community, recognising that power and responsibility need to be shared with everyone.

In their groups of tens, the community will share their problems. They will talk about their worries and solve them together.

This has such a profound message for us. In our society, we are so often discouraged from sharing our problems. Chin up. Stay strong. Keep calm and carry on. We are conditioned to think that our emotions are better kept to ourselves; that being vulnerable means being weak.

The expectation that we should always be happy, or always be calm, and shoulder our burdens ourselves, is not reasonable or realistic. We’re real people, living in a broken world, who feel the full range of human emotions – of sadness, frustration, anger, ecstasy, bliss and joy. There is no reason why we shouldn’t sometimes need to unload.

Our society is beginning to initiate conversations about mental health. Those conversations are not easy. For decades, we have been taught that our mental wellbeing is something that needs to be dealt with privately. But how can it be? Human beings are social creatures. Our individual lives are deeply locked in to the lives of everyone else around us. How everyone else is feeling intimately affects how we are.

This is especially important here in the Jewish community. Many of our members have endured a great deal and need to be able to process that in a healthy and compassionate way. Often, there are few other places to go with our problems but our religious communities. Plenty of us would understandably struggle to open up about our feelings with regular friends. If we decide to seek out counselling, we might find NHS waiting lists inordinately long. Even if we do get counselling, it can only take us so far – it is not a substitute for a loving community where people talk to each other and support each other.

The synagogue is a place where we can talk about our feelings in a supportive environment on our own terms. Creating a supportive environment doesn’t mean wallowing in misery or forcing conversations that aren’t comfortable – it just means creating a space where people can be themselves and connect with their traditions.

In this community, we’re going to try and do much more of that. Andrew has very kindly agreed to hold services once a month, so that between us we will have regular shabbats every two weeks. These services and study sessions will give everyone opportunities to connect with their religion on their own terms.

Just as Moses delegated out responsibility, the engine of Manchester Liberal Jewish Community is in its members. We work together to take on the tasks that keep this community going, so that this inclusive and empowering Jewish community can exist in Manchester. Every one of us puts effort into ensuring that the community continues to run – whether that’s by cooking food, doing admin, advertising events on social media or just turning up.

Whether you’re a regular or a newcomer, this community is here for you and will welcome you. We need you to help us create a supportive, inclusive, Jewish space in Manchester, where everyone can participate and everyone can benefit.

Moses accepted that the burden he was carrying was too heavy to bear alone, so he shared it. Come share your burden. Come be part of a community. Come and find peace.

manchester dusk skyline

I gave a slimmed-down version of this sermon at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community on 2nd February 2018. If you are Jewish and living in Manchester, do consider joining our community. If you are living elsewhere in the UK and want to find an inclusive Jewish community near you, look on these listings from Liberal Judaism and the Movement for Reform Judaism.

Uncategorized

I won’t let you go until you bless me

I won’t let you go until you bless me.

I won’t let you go until you bless me.

Bless me anyway.

Prior Walter is wrestling with an angel. He is dying. Many of his friends have died. It’s the 1980s, New York, and he’s living with HIV. This is the climax of my favourite play, Angels in America.

An angel has come and delivered a prophecy. He does not want it. The prophecy tells him that everybody needs to stop moving around so much and making so much noise. It tells him to stop modernity. He refuses. He tells the angel to take her prophecy back.

I won’t let you go until you bless me. Free me! Unfettter me! Bless me or whatever, but I will be let go.

The angel refuses.

Bless me anyway. I still want my blessing. Even sick. I want to be alive.

Eventually, the angel relinquishes and accepts back the prophecy.

This exchange sheds so much light for me on this week’s parasha. Jacob wrestles with an angel, and receives a new name: Israel, one who struggles with God. He prefigures a new people, a people who will struggle with God. A people who will not blindly follow God but will enter a two-way relationship, fraught with conflict. A people who will not slavishly enact rules of tradition, but who will fight over them and grapple with them.

Encapsulated in this story, I find the essence of Judaism: a process of struggle; with ourselves, with our society, with meaning itself. I like this in Judaism. I love the idea that Judaism is an approach to struggle. Whereas other religions talk about being saved from struggle or releasing the individual from the cycle of struggle, Judaism embraces it. Life is a struggle, it says, let’s get stuck into it. Let’s fight with ourselves, let’s fight with our society, let’s fight with God.

I like this version, because I’m good at fighting. I grew up in a very political house and spent most of my formative years involved in activism. I’m good at saying what’s wrong with the world and setting out to change it.

But this is not all of what that story is about. I’ve embraced the conclusion, but I’ve neglected what it took Jacob to get there. Yes, Jacob becomes one who struggles with God, but he gets there by telling the angel: I won’t let you go until you bless me.

I won’t let you go until you bless me.

Jacob’s starting position is not conflict. Jacob’s starting position is that he wants to be blessed. He wants to get the best thing possible out of this situation. He has run away from his home and his brother Esau. Now, he has run away from his uncle Lot. Jacob has got into fights with everyone. Jacob is fighting with his own conscience.

But when he is fighting with the angel, he doesn’t set out to win. He can’t physically overpower an angel. He can’t intellectually overpower an angel. By definition, these creatures are stronger, more enlightened, closer to God than human beings. All Jacob can do is ask for a blessing. All Jacob can do is realise that he has to make the most out of the situation he is in. Only when he realises this, and discovers that it’s not about winning, does Jacob find release and receive his blessing.

Over the last few months, I’ve realised how important it is not just to struggle, but to know when you can’t win; not just to fight against the bad, but to bless it too. In our morning prayers, we thank God who creates the darkness and the light, the good and the bad. All of it comes from God. Sometimes all we can do is resign ourselves to it, and ask the bad to bless us anyway.

Last year on Lag B’Omer, my friend went into hospital with liver failure. My boyfriend has known him for years. We spent months waiting for him to receive a transplant and hosting his family while he recovered. It looked like he was on the mend, and he had started working again at his job in the library.

About five weeks ago, he was rushed to hospital again. His liver was failing and other organs were at risk too. He has been in hospital, in an induced coma, on life support, since then. A week ago, the doctors told us that if he did not receive a matching organ by Thursday – today – that it would be too late to perform a transplant.

These last few weeks have made our house a strange place. It’s been filled with friends and family coming to stay, hoping for his recovery. We’ve filled the place up with laughter and tears – and, of course, prayers.

That’s all anyone can do when faced with a problem that is impossible to fight against. All of us have been helpless to decide whether he can receive a transplant or not. Whether he lives or not has been in the hands of amazing NHS doctors and nurses, but mostly it’s depended on that Great Being way beyond anybody’s understanding or control.

So I’ve had to learn a new skill: to bless it anyway. Everyone in our house has found ways of praying, at home and in the hospital. We’ve prayed hard for a recovery, while accepting that what might happen is way out of our hands. Life is complicated, fragile and inexplicable. What exactly it is that keeps it going or ends it we’ll never quite know. I have had to try to find new ways to bless the Source of all the good and all the bad in the world. That’s easy when things are good, but harder when things are bad.

On Sunday morning, our friend went into surgery for an organ transplant. Twelve hours later, we heard that the operation had been successful. That doesn’t mean he’s fine yet. It will be another week before he wakes up. The road to recovery is long, and there is no telling what will come next. But we will bless it anyway. We will say to him, to God and to this shitty situation: bless me anyway. I won’t let you go until you bless me.

I won’t let you go until you bless me. I won’t let you go until you bless me.

I won’t let you go

angels in americaI gave this sermon at shacharit on Thursday for Leo Baeck College. At the time, I included more names and personal details, which I’ve edited out for this version. I wanted to share with my fellow students what had been happening over the past few weeks.

judaism · sermon · torah · Uncategorized

The most boring part of the Torah

Genesis 10 is the most boring part of the Torah. Gandhi said it sent him to sleep. Militant atheists hold it up as a paragon of inane irrelevances. Although it is very clearly part of this week’s section of the Torah, everybody skips over it. You won’t hear any Liberal or Reform synagogues read it out this weekend. Even Chabad’s lectionary, known for keeping in even the driest sections for the sake of tradition, skips over Genesis 10 as though it’s not there.

It’s the genealogies. The lists of all the people who begat other people from Noah to Jobab. All the sons of Shem, Ham and Japheth roll off the tongue and over the heads of the readers. We can see why people would want to cut it out. In the rest of this section of the Torah, God floods the planet, Noah builds an ark, saves Noah, along with his family and favourite animals, then dramatically hangs a rainbow in the sky to symbolise a promise never to destroy the world again. At the end, after we’ve skipped over Genesis 10, the people attempt to build a tower so tall it can reach Heaven, only to be struck down and separated into many nations with many languages. By comparison with everything else, Genesis 10 is boring.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read it. The Torah is a carefully crafted text. Nothing gets in there by accident. The genealogies aren’t just a list of names that break up two well-known stories; they’re integral to the Genesis narrative. They tell us something deep about what kind of book the Torah is, who it’s for, and what makes it different from every other book that’s gone before. I find that in the boring bits, whether in a book or a relationship or a friendship, you find out the most important stuff. You find out who somebody really is.

It might help to put this text into the context of other Ancient Near Eastern prologues. It was common, in the civilisations of the Eastern Mediterranean, to begin with a list of people. These were the kings and their years leading up to the present day. For people in these societies, years were marked by the reign of their rulers and stories were told in relation to kingdoms. The Torah begins differently. The ancient Israelites were suspicious of monarchy and authority. They only managed a brief spell under a united kingdom, preferring instead to unite by their loyalty to God rather than to a person. For them, authority comes not from might but from history and tradition. So their story does not begin with a list of kings. It begins with a seemingly innocuous list of ancestors.

On closer inspection, these ancestors are not really people at all. Look, for example, at the descendants of Ham: Cush, Mitzrayim, Put and Canaan. These names are familiar. We know Mitzrayim as Egypt, the place our ancestors left in the Exodus. We know Canaan as Palestine, the place they entered. Put, according to Josephus, was the founder of Libya. Cush is commonly identified with Sudan. These are the nations of north-east Africa.

We see too the names Babel (Babylon), Accad (Akkadia) and Ashur (Assyria). These are the names of nations in the Near East. Later, scholars will come to identify Ashkenaz with Germany and Tarshish with Spain. The point is clear: this is a universal text. It is a story not of one great empire and its kings but of everybody. In this, the most boring bit of Torah, we find its most essential message: universalism. We are, all of us, part of this planet, sharing in its fortunes. We are, all of us, the children of Noah, descended from one common ancestor, connected by a universal God.

It encourages us to value unity in diversity – we may all come from a common ancestor, but we have gone in many different directions, all of which are to be celebrated. I think that’s the reason why it’s sandwiched between the stories of Noah and Babel. In Noah, people are violent and angry, so God floods the whole world. We realise that if the world floods, we all drown together. Our fates are so deeply intertwined that whatever we do to the world will affect all of us. In Babel, everybody speaks the same language and tries to build a tower together. But they are so single-minded that they subject everybody to the same conditions. They have no respect for difference or the unique dignity of each other, so God must separate them and diversify their languages. They needed difference.

Genesis 10, the history of all the nations of the world, combines the two messages of universalism and diversity. Yes, we all come from Noah and yes, we are all different. Yes, we share in this world, and yes, we are all part of different and exciting nations. Yes, we are all the same. And, yes, we are all different. This is a message that we can all share in what’s good in the world if we can all see what’s good and different in each other.

The nations of the world will, inevitably, look different in a decade to how they look now. The UK will most likely leave the European Union. Catalonia may or not become independent. Perhaps our Scotland will hold another referendum; Ireland and Northern Ireland might re-examine their borders. We will probably see new movements to restructure states all over the world. New nations will unite, new nations will split.

Separating or uniting need not be inherently good or bad things. What matters is the spirit in which they are done. If people split based on malice and anger, as did the generation before the flood, they won’t succeed. If people join out of a desire to be homogenous and to force everyone to conform, as did the generation at Babel, they will fail. Only if they can respect difference, uniting in a spirit of diversity, will people succeed.

tower of babel

 

 

high holy days · liturgy · sermon · Uncategorized

Is the Kol Nidrei prayer angry enough?

There are two versions of the Kol Nidre prayer. One in Hebrew; one in Aramaic. One ancient; one more modern. One looking forward; one looking backwards.

The original, older prayer in Aramaic, has these words:

All vows, oaths and promises which we make to God from this Yom Kippur to the next and are not able to fulfil – may all such vows between ourselves and God be annulled. May they be void and of no effect. May we be absolved of them and released from them. May these vows no longer be considered vows, these oaths no longer be considered oaths, and these promises no longer be considered promises.

The reformers decided to substitute it for a Hebrew alternative, and you can probably see why. Before we have made any promises, we announce our intention to annul them. We cancel every vow in advance. This was deeply worrying to many rabbis throughout history. The prayer was used as fodder by antisemites to accuse Jews of being duplicitous and untrustworthy.

Many Jews worried that it gave off the wrong impression. More than that, they were worried for their own integrity. One of the most important principles for the earliest reformers was that they would not say with their mouths what they did not believe in their hearts. So they scrapped prayers that talked about their expectations for the Messiah or their desire to build a Temple. They got rid of prayers cursing their enemies or extolling the greatness of one nation over another.

It was inevitable, then, that they would have to remove the Aramaic Kol Nidre prayer. Not only did they not believe in it, the prayer was actually about not believing the words they were saying. So they substituted it for a new version in Hebrew: “Source of Our Being, accept the vows of the children that they will turn away from evil, and walk in the ways of your Law of righteousness and justice.” Our siddur includes a reading from the American Conservative rabbi Harold Kushner to drive home the point about keeping promises:

All vows, promises, and commitments made in Your presence –

May we be given the strength to keep them

[…]

We meant them when we made them,

But distractions were many, and our wills were weak.

This time may we be strong enough;

May our better selves prevail

I want to ask: what do we gain and what do we lose by changing the prayer in this way? I think it is evident what we do gain. These words are so much more comfortable to say. It is so much more credible that we want to keep our promises than that we want to annul them.

But perhaps this very gain is also our loss. I recently ran a retreat for Jewish activists, including some members of this congregation and many from elsewhere. One participant had grown up Orthodox but found she no longer had a home there. She had turned away from Judaism and was now, tentatively making her way back. At the end of a morning prayer service, she said to me: “The trouble is, you’re making Judaism too easy! Liberal Judaism cuts out all the anger and the edge.”

I have a lot of sympathy with this argument. Prayer should be comforting and uplifting, but if it is only those things it is incomplete. If our prayers are going to speak to real life, they need to speak to every emotion we experience. They should encapsulate our sadness, our anger and our frustrations, as well as our happiness and joy. This year, I realised how inadequate my prayers were when I looked up at the burnt-out shell of Grenfell Tower and realised that I did not have the words to mourn such callous loss of life. We need prayers that reflect our anger.

The original Aramaic prayer has something edgy about it. Tonight, we are told, God’s face comes closest to the earth. God’s presence is with us more than any other night. And what do we do, faced with our maker? We set out a list of demands: that every promise we make should be annulled and every vow irrelevant. Not the mistakes we’ve made with other people, but specifically we annul our promises to God. Worse than that, we say we want them all forgiven in advance. We haven’t made a single promise and already we want to annul it. That is a pretty audacious prayer.

The Hebrew alternative, though more honest to the best of what we mean, might be less honest to how we feel. Coming to synagogue on Kol Nidre can feel like a big deal. For many of the people who attend synagogues across the country this evening, this will be only the time they come all year. That’s great, because this prayer was written expressly so that people who had fallen out of participation could join in again. In Eastern Europe, it helped Jews who had fallen out with their friends and family to reconnect with the community. In medieval Spain, it helped Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity to keep up a sense of commitment, even if they were too afraid the rest of the year. For those people coming, isn’t there something more honest, more empowering, about annulling vows and expressing that anger than about resolving to be a more faithful person? Don’t we all, no matter our piety, come to prayer with a little bit of frustration and anxiety, especially as we enter Yom Kippur?

As well as a difference in tone, I think there’s a difference in timing. I find the idea of time in the two prayers really interesting. In the Aramaic prayer, we annul the promises that we’re going to make in the future. In the Hebrew one, we repent for our sins and we resolve to be better in the present. But the language was changed to Hebrew by the reformers because they thought that the more ancient language was the more authentic. They reached deeper into the past in order to be better in the present. Between these two prayers, I feel like there is a conflict not just over what we want to say, but over where we are and in what direction we are going. On this most holy night, with God closest to us, where do we really stand in time? Who really are we?

These prayers seem to stand in conflict, but they don’t have to. There are good reasons for the Hebrew prayer and good reasons for the Aramaic one. Perhaps the answer is we need both. We need to be humble and we need to be angry. We need to be faithful and we need to be honest. We need to repent of the sins of the past and annul the vows of the future because, when we do so, we can stand in that Infinite Space where all sins are forgiven and all promises are forgotten. We can greet God with our whole selves, complete with all our emotions, ready to say: I’m sorry. I’ll do better again next year.

Gmar chatima tovah.

kol nidrei

This sermon was originally given for Manchester Liberal Jewish Community on Friday 29th September (Erev Yom Kippur 5778) and originally published by Leo Baeck College