high holy days · sermon

A life without regrets

If today were your last day, what would you make of the time you have had? Would you be satisfied that you’d lived your life right? Would you feel like you had left much undone or unresolved?

If today was your last day, would you feel confident in your end? Would you know for certain what had made your life worthwhile?

These are the uncomfortable questions Yom Kippur pushes us to consider. And they are indeed uncomfortable questions. Without even mentioning God, morality, or religion, I know that some will feel affronted by the line of questioning. I know that if I were the one being asked, I would feel affronted. I would be raising objections to the questions. 

But everything about the rituals of Yom Kippur forces us into that way of thinking. 

We dress in the clothes in which we will be buried. A kittle, or cassock, for Ashkenazim. A simple tallit for Sephardim. No jewellery, no perfumes, no fancy shoes. We are dressed not too differently from how we expect to leave this world.

We pray.  We pray that we will be allowed to live. We recount the many ways in which we might die: by fire, water, beast, sickness, ordeal. We recite vidui: the final words we expect to say on our deathbed.

We fast, afflict, and deprive ourselves. All of this is supposed to make us reckon with our mortality. It is a death rehearsal. Yom Kippur asks us whether or not we are ready for death.

Today is Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat midway between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. While some of our readings are special to the occasion, the Torah continues where we last left it before the High Holy Days, with Moses proclaiming his last speeches of Deuteronomy. 

At this stage, Moses knows that he will die, and he contemplates his coming end. His life is over, and so is his mission. He will not reach the Promised Land to which he has travelled, and he must handover power. God tells Moses: “The time is coming close for you to die. You will soon lie down with your ancestors.”

God offers Moses no reassurance that he has succeeded in his life’s task. Quite the opposite, God tells Moses that the people will now chase after false gods, neglect the holy laws, and forget their covenant with God.

After all that. Plagues and miracles in Egypt. Signs and wonders and an outstretched hand to deliver them. They had seen the sea part and bread fall from the sky. They had received the commandments from a thunderous mountain. Now, God tells Moses, they will forget it all and ignore what they learned.

Moses must have wondered in that moment if his life had been worth living at all. His projects may not be continued. His beliefs might not be upheld. Everything he did may have been for nought. 

Yet, somehow, Moses seems to have achieved a kind of calm. He no longer protests against his Creator. He does not challenge the decree. He hands over to Joshua and lets him take the reins.

Perhaps, by this stage, Moses has learned that what matters in life isn’t whether your work succeeds, but whether you perform it with integrity. What matters isn’t whether you find out all the answers, but that you seek to learn. And what matters isn’t whether you perfect the world, but that you treat the world as if it can be improved. In short, what matters is that you do your best.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Rava tells us that, upon dying, Heaven will ask of us six questions:

  • Did you have integrity in your work?
  • Did you make time to study Torah?
  • Did you care for your family?
  • Did you try to make the world better?
  • Did you welcome new ideas?
  • And did you have reverence for your Maker?

Our task on earth is not to be wealthy or famous or powerful. It is to be honest, studious, caring, supportive, optimistic, inquisitive and loving. It doesn’t matter so much what we do with life, but how we do it.

Heaven doesn’t ask what our job was. It asks if we did it faithfully. Did we conduct our working lives in ways that we could be proud to give account of ourselves before God? Did we act as if how we treated others in business mattered for the sake of our own souls?

Heaven doesn’t ask if you can recite the whole of the Mishnah by heart. It doesn’t ask whether you mastered some sacred texts. It doesn’t even ask if you learnt your aleph-bet. Did you try? Did you take an interest in your traditions and heritage? Did you actually look to the past to see if it had any bearing on your own life?

Heaven doesn’t expect you to have had only one marriage of the right kind. It asks whether you actually looked after people. Did you care for those around you? According to palliative nurses, the most common regret among the dying is that they did not spend enough time with those they loved. At the end of life, God also challenges you with the same question. 

Heaven does not ask if you brought about salvation of all humanity. It asks tzafita lishua? Were you on the look out for redemption? Did you search for chances to make the world better? Did you hold onto hope that the world could be changed?

And Heaven does not ask if you arrived at the right answers. It asks whether you asked wise questions. Were you curious? Were you inquisitive? Were you interested in what others have to say?

Above all else, the question we are asked is whether we had yirat Hashem, awe of God. Without this, all the other questions are irrelevant. The Talmud compares someone without reverence for Heaven to someone who only has the keys to the door inside the house, but can’t actually get into the house.

Ultimately, what matters is that we treat our lives like they have meaning. You have to actually care about how you live, and believe that it really matters.

When Moses reaches the end of life, he doesn’t wonder whether it was worth it. He is faced with the far more fundamental question of whether he really lived right. 

Integrity. Curiosity. Kindness. Justice. Effort. Love.

These are the things that really matter in the end. We will get to the end and our only regrets will be the attitude we took towards life itself. 

Yom Kippur is, indeed, a preparation for death. But above all else it is a calling to live. It demands of us that we look at our lives and resolve to conduct them better, with fewer regrets.

Shabbat Shalom

sermon · spirituality

In defence of large groups of people

The great sage of the Mishnah, Ben Zoma, once exclaimed:

How hard must the first ever human being have worked before he had bread to eat! He plowed, sowed, reaped, sheaved, threshed, winnowed, separated the grain from the chaff, ground the grain into flour, sifted, kneaded, and baked… and only then did he get the chance to eat. But I wake up and find all of these prepared for me.

He added:

How hard must the first human being have worked before he had clothes to wear. He sheared, laundered, combed, spun and wove… and only then could he put on a shirt. But I wake up and find all of these prepared for me.

And, of course, he is right. How many hands must have touched everything we enjoy. Ben Zoma knew this was true 2,000 years ago. How much more true is it now that we live in a globalised world with food, clothes and technology Ben Zoma could not even have fathomed.  Anything that anyone in this world does is because many people have worked together to make it happen.

But Ben Zoma also says something ridiculous. He imagines that Adam, the first human being, did all this alone. We know that is patently false. First of all, at the very minimum, Adam was accompanied by Eve in Eden. And, if we follow the biblical story, God provided that first couple with everything they needed. They could pick fruit off the trees without trouble and never bothered with bread. They didn’t even need clothes until they had left their paradise garden.

When Adam and Eve did leave Eden, they immediately found wives for their male children. The Torah doesn’t explain how they got there, but any other explanation for how humanity came about would be very troubling. The Torah knew that it was impossible for human beings to ever achieve something on their own.

And, in fact, the Talmud, where this saying from Ben Zoma is quoted, knew this too. This imaginary world where individuals only do things for themselves comes as part of a sugya that speaks in celebration of groups of large people. The Talmud marvels at the diversity of human beings, where every face and mind is completely different. It speaks in praise of migration, hospitality, crowded marketplaces and huge throngs flocking to the same place.

Human beings are social animals. From the off, we have done everything in groups. Before civilisation, we hunted and gathered in packs. When we first set up farmsteads and villages, we did so together, in groups. The modern world was built by people sharing technology, innovation, resources, and working together to develop them. The only evolutionary advantage that human beings really have is that we can organise in ways that no other animal can.

For the last year, some forms of collectivity have been permitted, and some have been forbidden. People have been allowed to meet each other in warehouses, factories, and takeaways, where they make and distribute things to those who can afford them.

People have not been allowed to encounter each other in parks, or houses, or community centres, or gyms. They have rarely been able to accompany the sick at their bedsides, or celebrate births and marriages, or share ideas in public forums. 

Now, as things ease, people are permitted to gather, but only if they are spending money. We can meet in shops, pubs, and restaurants, and even sit indoors without masks on. But very few of the community activities for children have returned. Older people in hospitals and hospices are still rarely seeing their families. 

Certainly, almost every form of protest or public demonstration remains criminalised, and it may stay so for a very long time. Like last summer, even with a nearly completed vaccination programme, the government is keen to rush people back to work, but reluctant to allow people time to just be together and heal. 

Still fearing the virus, despite minimal risk of transmission to the vulnerable, many people have given up on public transport. There is more regular car use in the UK now than at any previous point in history. I see people avoiding each other, avoiding making real contact, even though the option is there.

I look at this so-called ‘recovery’ from Coronavirus and wonder if anybody has considered what actually makes life worth living. We are not automatons, created to work like robots. The best part of being human is other human beings. We are social creatures, whose purpose is derived from what we can do together. 

And there is a place where people are supposed to be able to meet for just that purpose. Its name in Greek is ‘synagogue,’ which means ‘shared path.’ In Hebrew it is called a ‘beit knesset: ‘a house of meeting.’ In Yiddish, we call it ‘shul,’ which just means ‘school.’ This. This is it. This thing where we come together to sing in unison and study communally and hear how people are really doing, this is what life is supposed to be about. 

This. This place where babies are blessed, bnei mitzvah celebrated, weddings solemnised, healing recognised and deaths memorialised. This is how people recognise the humanity in others, and in themselves. 

This is my last service with you. I have absolutely adored working with you. I have got to know so many of you in such depth, without even leaving my home. I have heard about your families, your fears, your hopes, your dreams, and your life stories. I cannot wait to do that with you in person again.

We have weathered an entire year together through a pandemic. That much is remarkable. I have been so impressed by the ways you have continued to pastorally support each other online, and to provide essential services to the vulnerable. 

The next stage is going to be hard. It means meeting people face to face again. It means taking risks, being brave, and trusting each other. It means accepting compromises and imperfections. But above all, it means truly building a community that is loving and generative. 

I look forward to returning to Newcastle to see you all again in the building, in person, shaking hands, embracing, and catching up on the things that matter. I sincerely hope it will not be long before this community sings in harmony once more and natters over homemade foods at kiddush. 

At no point in our history has anyone managed to go it alone. The future sees us together.

Shabbat shalom. 

story · torah

A rock-eating worm built the Temple

This is the story of how the Temple was built.

This story comes to us from the Talmud. It was copied from the Mishnah. It belongs to the folk legends of King Solomon that may have predated it by some centuries. This is an old story. I sincerely doubt whether any of it ever happened, but I assure you it’s all true.

This is the story of how the Temple was built by a rock-destroying worm. When King Solomon decided to build the Temple, he brought up entire stones from the quarry. He wanted to carve those stones without swords. He knew there was only one way.

Somewhere in his kingdom there was a rock-destroying worm called Shamir. This monster was created at the very beginning of time, during the six days of creation in which light and darkness were separated and the first trees were planted. 

Some say the Shamir ate stones for breakfast; chewed through the hardest granite, making passageways like the holes in Swiss cheese. Some say it could cut through the rocks with only its gaze: a laser-like stare that sliced solid metal. Whatever were its methods, Solomon knew he had to have it.

In fact, the only way to catch this creature was to find something really soft. You had to wrap it up in cotton wool and barley bran. These materials would be too gentle and the Shamir would have no way of chewing through them.

Yes, this is all in the Talmud. This is our tradition. And if you feel like this rock-gobbling worm is far-fetched, I hope you will forgive me if I tell you that Solomon captured this creature by tricking the King of the Demons.

Solomon knew that Ashmedai, the world’s greatest demon, lived in the bottom of a pit on the top of the world’s tallest mountain. And the pit was filled up with gallons of rainwater that the demon swallowed whole every day, then waited for it to refill. 

Solomon sent his servant up that mountain and into that pit. The servant drained the pit of its rainwater and filled it again with fortified wine.

You might think that the King of the Demons would not fall for such a simple trick, and you’d be right. Ashmedai scoffed at the wine-filled pit and refused to drink from it. But days passed and the monster missed his gallons of water. Oh, he became so parched. Eventually, he gave in and took several enormous mouthfuls of the wine. 

Within moments, he fell fast asleep. Solomon’s servants tied him up and carried him back to Jerusalem. When Ashmedai woke up on the Palace floor, he roared at Solomon: “is it not enough that you have conquered the whole world, but now you must imprison me too?”

“I promise you,” said Solomon. “All I want is one creature. The shamir. The worm that eats through stone. I need it to build my Temple for God.”

Ashmedai sighed, and he replied: “I do not own the shamir. It belongs to the ministering angel of the sea, who has entrusted it to the wild rooster. Together they hide in the uninhabitable hills, where the rooster guards his eggs.” 

I’m quoting to you from the Talmud directly here, so you know that what I’m telling you is true. 

When Solomon knew where to find the wild rooster, he covered its nest with transparent glass. Seeing that it couldn’t get in, the rooster brought over the shamir to bore through the rocks. As soon as he’d seen the monster, Solomon knocked the chicken off of the nest and ran to collect his prize.

According to our tradition, that is how the First Temple was built. Overseen by Solomon, the King of the world, accompanied by Ashmedai, the King of the Demons, a stone-chewing worm carved out every brick. It snaked through all the pillars and ate at every rock. After years of winding through the granite, Solomon’s Temple was complete.

So, why did the Talmud come up with such a tall tale? Can it be that our rabbis really believed the Temple was built in such a fantastical manner? Somehow I doubt it. But nevertheless, I am adamant that this story is true. At least, I think it tells us something important we need to know.

Our rabbis were answering a textual problem. The Bible told us that King David was not allowed to build the Temple because there was too much blood on his hands. He had fought too many wars, subjugated too many peoples and built too much of his empire on the labour of others.

Only Solomon, whose name in Hebrew is cognate with peace, was able to overcome the violent tendencies of his father and build a Temple that would truly be fitting for God. How could he build such an edifice without getting blood on his hands?

When our rabbis imagine the construction of the Temple, they picture it as it ought to have been. No wars are fought to secure land. No natural resources are exploited to gain the raw materials. No workers are hurt in the making of the building. All that happens is a natural process, where a worm that would eat rocks anyway works its way through the stones to build God’s home.

The only people vaguely harmed are a demon who got drunk and a rooster that was knocked off its perch. This is the dream of how the Temple should have been made. It was created in complete peace and harmony with nature. 

By encouraging us to inhabit this fantasy, the Talmud draws our attention to the harshness of reality. Even the greatest and most noble civilisations are built on violence. Cities, skyscrapers and the highest cultures are all products of real graft. Human beings do interfere with nature. We do exploit workers. We do plunder natural resources and we do secure territories through war.

When we imagine a world where rock-destroying worms can carve out our accomplishments for us, we know that we are imagining something impossible. But the nature of Talmud is to challenge us to do impossible things.

The Talmud asks us to picture a different relationship between human beings, nature, and civilisation. In a world where the climate is being damaged in unspeakable ways, such imagination is required of us again. Humanity is at a juncture when we must completely rethink how to use resources and what kinds of civilisations we build.

That is what makes it true and that is why it still speaks to us today. The Temple was built by a rock-eating worm. Perhaps one day, we will build the world that way again.

I gave this sermon for Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, Parashat Terumah, on 20th February 2021. For the sources, look at Sotah 48b and the sugya beginning in Gittin 67b