fast · high holy days · sermon

Closing the Gates

These are the short sermons I delivered for the final two services of Yom Kippur 5781.

Yizkor

This morning, I talked about how this year could be understood through the lens of grief. Yet nothing can compare to the grief of losing a loved one. Every feeling we described, of denial, bargaining, sadness, anger and acceptance, is intensely heightened by the enormity of the lives that have been lost in this last year.

I will not say numbers. Their lives were not statistics. They cannot be reduced to the collateral damage in government reports about which measures worked best. They were full human beings, imbued with the sacred light of God. They were people with pasts and dreams, filled with stories. They were complete people, with flaws and complexities and little idiosyncrasies.

And we have not yet even begun to mourn them. In the midst of a pandemic, we have been like the Israelites in the desert, forced to keep on moving and maintaining high spirits for an undefined period of time. We keep looking straight ahead to keep our spirits awake, so struggle to look back at the hurt. Even old wounds from people long dead have returned to us, and we have struggled to find ways to heal.

Here, in this moment, for this brief service, we can take the time. Let’s stop in this space and reflect. We remember the names of everyone who mattered to us. We loved them. We cared for them. They cared for us. We admired them. We looked up to them. They took inspiration from us. We laughed with them. We cried with them. We got angry with them. We hated them. Sometimes. We spent precious time with them. We did not spend enough time with them.

And now, in this moment, we remember them. And we refuse to let them ever be forgotten.

Neilah

This year has been challenging for all of us. As much as our physical health has been at stake, everyone’s psychological wellbeing has taken a toll. Public health experts warn that we are facing a delayed mental health crisis. 

This morning, I spoke about how the year could be understood through the stages of grief. Those feelings, however, can be pathological when taken to an extreme. Sadness can become depression. Anger can become anxiety. Denying what exists and accepting what does not can result in psychosis. 

We will need to pull together in the coming year. We will need to check in on each other more than ever and find new ways to support each other. Above all, please talk about your feelings. If it feels like it’s going too much, do talk to a rabbi for pastoral support, or to a doctor for medical help. It is important that we all look after each other.

I know that we begin Yom Kippur by annulling the vows we have made with God. I think, however, this year, we need to end by making a new one. We need to promise each other we will make it. We must swear to each other that we will do everything we can to keep our bodies, minds and souls alive in the coming year. Say it to God, make it a vow.

As the gates of prayer close, I vow that I will care for myself and my community. I vow that I will be honest with my feelings and kind to my body. I vow that I will be here next year.

Next year, in a world without pandemic. Next year, in a world built back better without racism and injustice. Next year, in a world where we can see each other in person. Next year, in the building, with each other, holding hands and singing together.

We will make it to next year. Shanah tovah.

high holy days · sermon

Who is responsible?

This High Holy Days, I am only giving short divrei torah. These are the words I offer for Erev Yom Kippur 5781.

  1. All our vows

Remember this time last year? All the promises we made? How good did we think we would be, and how much did we think we would accomplish? It’s probably for the best that we get the chance to annually annul those commitments. 

Let’s begin by being honest. We ask too much of ourselves. The criticisms you make of yourself would make you shudder if you heard them said aloud, even to your worst enemy. Do you really believe God sees you in such a light? God, the Eternal One, full of compassion and slow to anger, lifts you up in kindness and forgets your transgressions.

Tonight is a chance to see yourself through Heaven’s eyes. The frustrations you feel at your projects can wait. Your aspirations can be laid aside. Right now, you are only human, held in the loving embrace of God’s peaceful tent. Forget everything you promised yourself you would become, and allow yourself to just be, as we join together for kol nidrei.

  1. Like clay in the potter’s hands

Who by fire, who by water, who by plague? Who at the right time, and who after a short life? 

We pray these words and they take on a heavier meaning this year. We are living through a pandemic that puts pressure on life, and seeing people taken before their time. 

I need you to know something of great importance. You are not being punished. God is not exacting revenge on you personally. Your loved ones are not suffering because of anything they’ve done wrong.

When the world flooded, the water did not discriminate between the righteous and the wicked. When the Angel of Death was released in Egypt, it did not look at the first borns’ deeds. And when the great martyrs of the rabbinic tradition were killed by Rome, it was not because of any failings on their part.

You did not create this, and any theology that casts personal blame for this situation does not represent a loving God. We must accept the things we cannot change. We are like clay in the hands of a potter.

  1. Responsibility in a pandemic

Sometimes being in a community means coming together in the same place. Sometimes being in community means doing things apart in our own homes. 

In either case, we are doing what we do out of love and moral responsibility to each other. In normal times, that means showing up for each other, bringing food and giving each other hugs. 

These are not normal times. Right now, the morally responsible thing to do is to stop the spread of the virus. The loving thing to do is to protect each other, especially our most vulnerable members. Doing things this way, by holding our services over Zoom, is our way of affirming that we truly care for each other as part of a community.

I know that this synagogue has been doing amazing work to support its members. It is so important at this time that we look out for each other, through our mutual aid societies, neighbourhood groups and social support networks. Please continue to call each other, drop round packages and be on the lookout for your community’s needs. And please donate what you can to the charity appeal. 

high holy days · liturgy · sermon

It is on us.

What are we doing here tonight, beating our chests and chanting our sins? Haven’t we been through enough?

We have spent most of this year, from Purim onwards, sitting in our houses, staring at screens as nothing but bad news floods in. Coronavirus. Climate catastrophe. Police brutality. Rising inequality. Economic collapse.

Frankly, shouldn’t we able to take a night off? You might think we should get to the High Holy Days and only hear reassuring pleasantries. But Judaism never lets us off that easily. If that is what you want, Selichot is the wrong service. It’s very meaning is apologies, penitences, petitions. Its whole purpose is to summon us to ethical action and force us to examine our deeds.

At this service, we have to be confronted with Hillel’s maxim:

 אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו אֵימָתָי

If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am for my own self [only], what am I? And if not now, when?[1]

This saying from the Mishnah is often rendered in the more memorable format: if not you, who? Yes, life would be much easier if we could look to others to resolve our problems. If only the government would do a better job… if only the European Union would sort things out… if only Jeff Bezos would spread his wealth around a bit… if only God would stop Coronavirus… if only God would send Moshiach to us today and sort the whole thing out! If only.

But your religion isn’t asking you to look at what others should be doing. It is calling on you to consider what you should be doing. Every time we pray, we recite the immortal words of Aleinu: “t is our duty to praise the Ruler of all, to recognise the greatness of the Creator of first things, who has chosen us from all people by giving us Torah.”[2]

Aleinu. It is on us. The power and responsibility for what happens in this world rests with us. To be a Jew is to be singled out, directly and personally, by God. You, as an individual have been called upon by God and tasked with Torah, with the moral welfare and social responsibility for all humanity. You are asked to take action.

And what does Aleinu say we must do? To cut off the worship of material things. To destroy prejudice and superstition. To speak out against oppression. To unite the whole world. To bring goodness and truth and justice to this world.[3]

That is our calling. That is what we must answer. According to folklore, this prayer was introduced into the daily liturgy in the 12th Century, when a group of Jewish men and women were burned at the stake for refusing conversion. As the flames piled up around them, they sang these lyrics to a haunting melody, refusing to give up even unto death.

Faced even with being burned alive, these martyrs’ first recourse was to recall their own moral duties. They used their last moments to remember why they were placed on earth. Why, in this time of Coronavirus, should we be any different? We must see this season as a time to take up the yoke of responsibility Judaism has bestowed.

As we recite our selichot, challenge yourself. Ask: have I been as generous as I should? Have I done enough to reach out to vulnerable people?  Have I prayed? Have I built community? Have I supported my loved ones? Have I been kind?[4]

And, if, on any point, you find yourself deficient, now is the time to correct your ways. If not you, who? If not now, when?

I gave this sermon on Saturday 12th September 2020 at Glasgow Reform Synagogue for Selichot.

[1] Pirkei Avot, 1:14

[2] Forms of Prayer 2008, p. 310

[3] Forms of Prayer 2008, p. 311

[4] Based on Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 127a

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