festivals · sermon

The four children of Covid

Every seder, we read about the four children. These characters in our Haggadah have come to us from the Palestinian Talmud, and are based on Torah verses. They’ve entered our liturgy as a joyous part of the seder ritual.

It’s a fun annual party game to speculate about which of the four you might be, and even to assign the attributes to other guests at the party.

For what it’s worth, I usually play the wicked child of the Haggadah. I quite like the idea of being the trouble-maker.

But is it really how we want to define people, and their relationship to Judaism? My teacher, Professor Jeremy Schonfield, has pointed out that all the four children are really quite negative stereotypes, and they all get punished for their questions.

The chacham – or wise child – might better be called the know-it-all. She sits at the seder and already knows all the answers. So she comes along and, puffing up her chest, asks: “what are the laws of Passover?” Oh, she thinks she already knows. She’s asked this question every year. She can smugly rattle off to you how well she prepared koshering the house and she has strong opinions on what everyone else should be eating. Yes, you’ve met her.

So how do you respond to her? Tell the wise child the most complicated laws about Pesach, even the one about how you don’t start the second part of the meal until you’ve found the afikomen. That’s at the very end of Mishnah Pesachim, and she probably won’t have got that far. That’s it, put her in her place. Make sure she knows that she doesn’t really know it all. Thank you, chacham, for your very wise remarks, the rest of us would like to get on with the meal.

Then you’ve got the rashaa – the wicked son – who asks “what does all this mean to you?” To you, not to him. He doesn’t care. He’s not interested. Why are you doing all this? Your wicked son will do whatever he likes, but from his aloof standpoint, he can take a shot at you with your primitive rituals. The accusing patriarch responds to this by telling him he should have been left in Egypt. Hope you can take scorn as good as you give it, rashaa.

Next comes along the child who is tam. The Reform Haggadah generously translates this as naïve, probably to avoid the ableist overtones of the more familiar translation that this child is simple. The word could just as easily mean ‘mute’ or ‘modest’, but we’re probably meant to imagine her as clueless. She asks: “what’s this?” Like a lost sheep bewildered by the most basic rituals of the most famous festival, she’s stuck, absently pointing at objects and asking what’s going on.

How do we help her? The seder leader responds by saying “God took us out of Egypt with an outstretched hand…” – and then doesn’t even bother finishing the sentence. There’s a long verse you could quote to the tam but you assume she’s already lost interest and, frankly, you’ve already lost patience. Why bother with someone who’s simple?

You turn straight to the child who doesn’t know how to ask. And you repeat exactly what you just said to the simple child. How much more patronising can you get? You’re not going to even bother trying to include him. You just tell him what he already knows because he just heard you say it to your daughter.

If anything, the Haggadah is a model in how not to engage people. It’s an exercise in what happens when you label children and assume the worst in them. You respond with terrible answers that leave your dinner guests feeling deflated.

In 1950, the great Hebrew poet Leah Goldberg wrote a response to the Four Children. It was the only poem she ever wrote about the Second World War, and it’s a stunning meditation on how the trauma of genocide shaped her contemporaries’ outlooks. In this poem, she completely reimagines who the four children are, picturing each of their postures as a trauma response.

She begins with the child who does not know how to ask, imagining a woman heartbroken by survivors’ guilt. She has witnessed the most horrific brutality and lived to talk about it. Only now she has no words. Stumped, she asserts:

I am not wicked, not smart, not even simple,

And for this reason, I asked no questions

Her survivor cajoles the reader: If you can, then open me up.

Goldberg then helps us understand why someone might become ‘wicked.’ She tells of a man who has been toughened up by circumstances and now cannot bear to empathise. His tears have dried up and his heart has hardened. So he vows to be cruel and cool and estranged. He tells God:

To you, I blunt my teeth.

What about the simple child? Goldberg tells us of someone who has known so much pain that just looking at stars reminds her of her anguish. She looks at the millions of stars and sees the millions dead. The stars remind her of her night terrors:

On all other nights against a dark arrogant sky,

Against a delirious moon and against the milky-way

Great gloomy ghosts of a day gone by

And, just once, she wants to get back her naivety. She wants to be able to stop seeing her pain when she looks up at night. So she implores:

On all other nights, anticipation, silence

On this night – only stars

Why shouldn’t she be permitted her simplicity?

The wise child, in Goldberg’s poem, is the one who says the least. He is the one who died. That is what wisdom meant to a survivor of the Shoah.

Reframed through Leah Goldberg’s eyes, we can understand the four children not by their worst intentions but by the trauma they carry and the way they deal with pain.

This seems to me a much better way of greeting dinner guests. It should be a starting assumption that everyone we meet is carrying baggage. Everyone is hurting. We have to be able to meet people at their most vulnerable and our most sympathetic.

As lockdown eases, I am aware that many people are only just processing what we have been through. I am not by any means comparing what we have experienced to the Holocaust, but we have certainly been through something unprecedented and destabilising. Our old certainties about our religion, our health, and our community have been disrupted. We have known death, heartache, family struggles and isolation.

Now we meet each other. We can choose what responses we adopt. We will meet people who seem wicked, or who seem naïve, or who seem like they know it all, or who seem like they have nothing to say. We may well want to blunt our teeth at them and put them in their place. We may want to be impatient or patronising.

But the better response, the more Jewish response, will be to meet them where they are, and hear them in their hurt. Whatever type of child they seem to be, the important thing to remember is that inside them is a child. Someone inside of them is vulnerable, scared, and looking for assurance. Someone inside of you is the same.

Let us not label each other and dismiss people, but greet each other with compassion and empathy.

Moadim lesimcha.

Shabbat shalom.

This sermon is for Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, Seventh Day Pesach, 3rd April 2021

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.

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

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

climate change · judaism · social justice · torah

Pass on this Earth to your children

‘Tell your children that this land will be theirs to hold in custody,’ cried out Moses to the Israelites on the precipice of the Promised Land. [1] ‘Tell them to guard it and look after it because you could not. Tell them we brought them here that they would love and care for every plant and tree, but we were not allowed to enter because we were too accustomed to slave mentality. We were too mistrusting and selfish. But our children, we hope that they will have faith. We hope that they will be strong. We hope that they will look after this earth.’

‘Tell your children to tell their children,’ Joel wailed to the elders. ‘Tell them about the environmental destruction we witnessed. Tell them how we saw droughts and crop shortages. Tell them how we saw fertile land turn barren. Tell them how we saw everything devoured and nothing remain. Tell them how we saw famine lead to war and war lead to plagues. Tell them that we knew it was our fault.’[2]

‘Tell your children,’ the prophets said, ‘not to make our mistakes. Tell them to treat every part of the earth as if it is sacred. Tell them to care for the planet because if they destroy it, nobody will come to repair it after them.[3] Tell them that there is only one world and it is precious and it must be sustained. Tell them not to pillage it but to work in harmony with nature.’

And the elders wept. The religious leaders cried before their altars. Even the animals cried out for salvation from God. And the chieftains sulked in their tents and asked: ‘does this mean that God hates us? What have we done to deserve this?’[4]

Scripture records the words of the prophets and elders, but we do not learn how the children responded. What did they say when their elders told them these lessons? History rarely records the words of the young, even on issues of intergenerational justice. Especially on issues that affect the youth more greatly.

During the last uprising of Extinction Rebellion, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg preached to his congregation. He said: “in the synagogues, the elders are asking ‘where are the youth?’ But in the streets, the youth are asking ‘where are our elders?'”[5]

Young people are calling on us to take action for the environment. Their voices matter deeply, especially when the issue is the future of the planet. Climate change presents us with an unprecedented threat, and we are positioned as the elders scorned by the prophets.

I know that the people of my generation and older are not individually responsible for the climate crisis, but that it is a matter of systemic inequality and exploitation of natural resources.

Nevertheless I am increasingly conscious, as a parent, of what the next generation will inherit. Winona LaDuke, a Jewish-Native American activist from an indigenous reservation in Minnesota, urges us: “Be the ancestor your descendants would be proud of.”[6]

We cannot become such people if we don’t heed the call of the greatest call to intergenerational justice facing us. We cannot simply hide our faces in our homes like the elders confronted by Joel.

Of course, this congregation cannot take sole responsibility for ending economic reliance on oil or for replenishing the earth’s devastated ecosystems. But J and S have come to us with practical and necessary actions that we can take.

These students in our bar mitzvah programme have come to encourage us to take serious action. After only a year of teaching them, I have been so impressed by the intelligence, integrity and sensitivity of these young men. They will both become bnei mitzvah at Pesach time. As part of their studies, they have each taken on social action programmes.

J is asking you to recycle your plastic by making eco bricks. I hope that over this summer, every household in the Three Counties will return at least one eco brick to J in support of his project. J will also be appealing to the synagogue council, to ask them to make eco bricks part of the Mitzvah Day project this year.[7]

S is asking you to plant trees and sponsor his work with the Woodland Trust.[8] I encourage every member of the community to support S in some way, either by offering financial support or a place to plant. These projects are practical, necessary and helpful.

Joel tells us that the old shall dream dreams and the youth shall see visions.[9] In the future he prophesied, the generations were not adversaries in blame and despair, but companions in hope. The young people are offering us an opportunity to join them in healing our damaged planet. Let us take up their call.

Shabbat shalom.

introfigsm-m
This painting is by Winona LaDuke’s mother, Betty

I gave this sermon on Saturday 25th July at Three Counties Liberal Judaism for Parashat Devarim. This was my last sermon for the community. The names of the children are redacted for obvious  reasons.

[1] Deut 1:39

[2] Joel 1

[3] Kohelet Rabbah 7:13

[4] Deut 1:27

[5] Heard at New North London Synagogue, summer 2019

[6] https://www.mtpr.org/post/winona-laduke-be-ancestor-your-descendants-would-be-proud

[7] https://www.ecobricks.org/

[8] https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/

[9] Joel 2:28

judaism · sermon · theology

How will we know when this crisis is over?

How will we know when this crisis is over?

Because this crisis will end. Every catastrophe there ever was has been brought to closure at some point.

Wars have begun with shots fired on foreign shores and ended with neighbours kissing outside their front doors.

Our scientists have conquered tuberculosis, leprosy, HIV and polio. It may take months and it may take years, but they will find a cure and people will recover.

Humanity has survived ice ages, famines and nuclear meltdowns. And it will survive this. This crisis will, one day, be over.

And when it is… how will we know?

The ancient world had rituals for bringing every ordeal to a close. When the sick returned from their quarantine, they were ritually bathed seven times, given new clothes, and shaved from head to toe.1

We, too, will wash ourselves anew. We will look at water and soap differently. We will cry in the shower to produce as much water as possible, knowing that those cleansing droplets are the secret to life itself.

And we still won’t know whether the crisis is over.

The priests of the bible would perform ceremonies to indicate that closure had occurred. On recovery from sickness, they would give offerings of unleavened cakes, fine flour, oil and animal blood.1 They would thank God for their health with their sacrifices.2 They would wave their hands in the air, bringing the ingredients together, embodying their wholeness.3

We, too, will make offerings. We will return to reopened pubs and put our glasses in the air and celebrate our survival with pints of cider and drams of whiskey and we will say ‘l’chaim’ like we never knew what it meant to say ‘to life’ before.

We will be grateful. We will thank God that we were among those who survived. We will thank God that even those who did not survive would be proud to see the continuity of the world they built. We will realise that a day when you can drink surrounded by friends and family should never be taken for granted. We will truly understand that life is a gift.

And still we will not know whether the crisis is over.

Our rabbis knew how to mark transitions with words. When good things happened for the first time in a long time, they instituted that we should say “blessed are you, Eternal One our God, Creator of the Universe, who has kept us alive and sustained us and allowed us to reach this season.”4

We will do old things for the first time. We will play in parks with our children again. And they will meet new children for the first time. And we will leave our houses without a purpose just to knock on old friends’ doors and see their faces for the first time. And we will hug. And we will kiss. And we will go to cinemas and nightclubs and gyms and synagogues. Yes! we will most certainly pack out our synagogues again. And we will treasure those moments and thank God that we lived to see them.

And we won’t know whether the crisis is over.

Our rabbis knew how to mark the bad with the good. They knew that not every transition was a recovery. They knew that sometimes people died and it felt like the whole world had been destroyed. They knew how to mark it. They told us to rip our clothes and let our hair grow long.5 They knew that sometimes so many loved ones would die that we would have to shred our whole wardrobes.6

We will grieve. We do not yet know how many we will grieve. It may be only the thousands who have already died. We will learn not to call thousands of deaths ‘only’. We may lose a person whom we love. We may lose many people whom we love. We will grieve for all of them.

We will cry in the streets in funeral processions for all those who never had the chance to mourn properly on lockdown. We will wail without abandon for every life taken too soon. Every life that will be taken will have gone too soon. We will huddle together in houses and let out all our sadness and anger.

We will feel guilty. Because, after all, feeling guilty is a part of grieving and surviving isn’t always such a cause for celebration. And although we will not believe it at first, we will recover. And we will move on.

And we still will not know whether the crisis is over.

Because the crisis will not yet be over.

If we leave our houses and go back to our old jobs to pay rent and mortgages in the same houses to barely survive in the same cities, Coronavirus will not have been defeated. We will only have signed an armistice with sickness, knowing that another plague will face us again. This will not be the last virus. Any effort to return to normality will only exacerbate the problems that have gone before.

Never again will we fight each other for dried pasta and toilet roll and sanitary pads and formula milk. Never again will we stare into our cupboards and wonder how long our tinned food will last us. We cannot ever return to the days of scarcity.

Before we can begin to move on, we have to be assured that all of humanity’s basic needs will be met unconditionally. Healthcare, food, water and clean energy will be considered human rights. When we struggle for them, we will struggle for everyone to have them. We will insist on it the way that world leaders pledge at the end of wars never to pick up weapons again, only this time we will mean it.

And still that will not be enough for us to say that the crisis is over.

Never again will people carry on working when they are sick because dying of starvation sounds worse than dying of disease. Never again will people live one pay cheque away from homelessness. Never again will family homes be foreclosed. Never again will people worry how they are going to self-isolate when they have nowhere to live. Housing will be provided universally on the basis of need, so that these crises can never be repeated.

And that won’t be enough for us to say it’s over.

Because there are today vulnerable, elderly and disabled people who are saying that self-isolation was already their standard practice, and that they did not choose it voluntarily. Because there are sick people who already feel like they are a burden to society when their lives are a gift from God. Because there are families torn about by borders and there is escalating racism that makes people feel even more afraid and we know that loneliness and bigotry and fear make life unbearable. We will judge our society not by the strength of its economy but by the strength of its weakest members. Only when we are assured that the value of human life is unquantifiable will be able to draw a line under the past.

And that day will come. This crisis will end. Ever crisis that ever was has come to an end.

And we will mark it. Every human being who is alive will sign a new international constitution, swearing allegiance only to each other and to God. And we will swear to protect everything that lives and the precious planet that sustains it. And on that document we will enshrine rights we never thought possible. And it will be the benchmark for everything that comes afterwards.

And everyone, all around the world, will subscribe to it.

We will not know the crisis is over because everything goes back to being the same. We will know the crisis is over when we are certain that everything has changed.

Then we will know beyond all doubt that this crisis is over.

salah taher peace treaty

I wrote this sermon for Leo Baeck College, Parashat Tzav. I then decided to publish it early because I have too much free time. 

1Lev 14:1-10

2Lev 7:1-15

3Plaut 787

4Berachot 54a

5Rambam Mishneh Torah Hilchot Avel 7

6Rambam Mishneh Torah Hilchot Avel 8

sermon · torah

Children are a blessing

Children are a blessing.

I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to be in a community with so many children. At Sukkot, it was a precious experience to gather round with the young people as they built the sukkah, then shook the lulav and etrog. Tomorrow, the cheder year will begin and I am so excited to start studying with our young people – from 5-year-olds who will be coming to their first ever class, through to 18-year-olds who have stayed on to offer support. This is the sign of a truly intergenerational community that values its members of all ages.

The Torah goes to great lengths to convey to us just how important children are. At the beginning and end of most of the parshiyot in Genesis, we read a list of descendants, telling us who begot whom from the first human being up until the next point in the story. It is a way of letting us know that Judaism is passed on as an inheritance from generation to generation over great spans of time.

In previous weeks, we read how difficult having children can be. We were confronted with Sarah’s dismay at her inability to have children in her old age.1 We learned about Hagar’s surrogacy, and the ensuing rivalry between Abraham’s two wives.2 The parallel haftarah to that week is of Hannah, who is so desperate to have children that, when she prays in the Temple, the Priest believes she is drunk. The Torah lets us know that children are not something that can be taken for granted. Fertility can be a precarious thing, and children are not always a guarantee.

The Torah communicates its message that children are a blessing. Yet, as this week’s parashah shows, children can be… a mixed blessing. Rebecca and Isaac want to have children, but once they arrive they are fraught with problems. Even in the womb, Rebecca can feel the foetuses kicking at each other and struggling together. It is as if God has only answered her prayer to punish her.3

When they are born, the reason for their strife becomes obvious. In character and demeanour, Jacob and Esau are polar opposites. Jacob was a meek, introverted boy who worshipped God and read books. Esau was a hunter who loved the outdoors.4 I am told by natal doctors that children really are born with personalities. Some come out curious; some terrified; some as if they’re already the life of the party. This tension between different personality types is what makes the Torah, and life itself, interesting.

Immediately, Isaac and Rebecca understand that these different children need different parental approaches. Isaac focuses on Esau; Rebecca on Jacob. They raise them according to their respective strengths. The children are treated as blessings for who they are in their own right, and grow up to blessed in their own ways.

Rabbinic literature takes this idea even further. The midrash teaches in the name of Rabbi Yehudah: “Come and see how beloved small children are by God. The rabbis were exiled [to Babylon], and God did not leave with them. The priests were exiled, and God did not leave with them. Only when the children were exiled did God leave with them.”5 It is as, if, for the rabbis, the very life of a community depends on the presence of children.

So, why all this talk about children? I am certainly not trying to say anything negative about those who cannot have them; still less about those who have chosen not to. Our community is made up of myriads of different households, including loving relationships in many different permutations. All of them are welcome and celebrated in this synagogue. But the issue of children has been forefront of my mind.

In part, this is a donkey story. In her incredible Ted Talk, Rabbi Benay Lappe coins the term “donkey story” to describe how people look into the Torah and see themselves. She begins by quoting her teacher, Rabbi Lisa Edwards, who said, “if donkeys could read Torah, all the donkeys would jump out at them. All the stories about donkeys, they’d see. All the stories that we completely skim over.” Rabbi Lappe says that, in reading Talmud, she saw her own donkey stories: as a woman, a queer person and a radical. Ever since hearing her explain it, I’ve realised that the Torah often reflects back to me my own anxieties and hopes.

Right now, I am about to move in with my best friend, who is expecting a baby. We are both gay, but made the decision some time ago to engage in queer Jewish co-parenting. Or, as most people would call it, parenting. The baby is due (please God) at the end of March. I am both filled with excitement and racked with anxiety. I am excited because the thought of waking up in the morning to put a baby in a sling and take it outside to pray shacharit with me fills me with a joy I can’t decribe. I am excited because I had for so long imagined that parenting was something restricted to straight people and that it would never be something I was allowed to do.

And I have all the anxieties that people normally do when expecting children, like being able to afford them, spend enough time with them, keep them healthy, pass on enough Jewish knowledge without too much Jewish trauma and create a loving home.

Yet there is an anxiety I have that I had not expected. Just as I see children everywhere in the Torah, I also see how unfriendly so many spaces are to children and parents. For the first time, I walk into familiar meeting rooms, classes, and buildings and wonder how welcome I would be in them with a child. I am realising how many spaces I have created where I thought about how the experience would be for almost everyone, except families.7

I now come to synagogue and ask the same questions. How are children being treated here? As a blessing, or as an inconvenience? As participants in services, or as distractions from them? Are all kinds of families welcomed fully, or are they merely tolerated?

And, of course, welcoming people of all ages is not easy. The haftarah this week has an obvious link to the parashah, in that it talks about Jacob and Esau, but there is a more subtle link at the end. Malachi’s last words, the last words of all prophecy, are that parents need to turn their hearts towards their children and children towards their parents.8 Both need to acknowledge each other for successful community.

There will always be conflicts between the needs of some and the needs of others. Some people come to synagogue wanting nothing but peace and quiet, while others – especially children – will want to make as much noise as possible. Building truly intergenerational community requires all of us to make compromises, and for everyone to adjust slightly.

I recently witnessed a good model for this at Westminster Synagogue, an independent shul that split from West London Reform Synagogue. At this very posh place in Kensington, congregants are immediately greeted with small cards on their seats that give small pointers on how to make young and old feel welcome in the space. The card encourages older people to show children where we are, tell them about what the service means, and point out to them the ritual objects, like tallits, ner tamid, aron kodesh and rimonim. At the same time, it encourages parents to make full use of the space, including taking children outside and into the lobbies if they need to.

As a community, I hope we might be able to have conversations and reach our own conclusions about what compromises everyone can make so that this synagogue is as welcoming to everyone as it should be. We are already doing very well. I have been to synagogues where there were no children at all. I have worked in synagogues where there are no older people at all. We are doing really well by the simple fact that people are already here. If we want to move to the next stage as a community, we need to discuss not just how we get people here, but how we make sure everyone feels at home here.

May everyone who comes to this community know that they are truly a blessing.

Shabbat shalom.

kids and animals

I gave this sermon at Three Counties Liberal Judaism for Parashat Toldot on 30th November 2019.

1 Gen 18:11-15

2 Gen 15:1-6

3 Gen 25:21-22

4 Gen 25:27-28

5 Eichah Rabbah, 1:33

7Two books have been especially helpful for thinking about this: “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind,” by China Martens and Victoria Law; and “Rad Dad,” by Tomas Muniz and Jeremy Adam Smith.

8Malachi 3:24