high holy days · sermon

God has decided to let you off this year

At Yom Kippur, we stand trial. The Heavenly Court convenes and charges the Jewish people with its sins. 

The Accuser lays out the prosecution. They have sinned. They have betrayed. They have been two-faced. The people have been angry, cruel, violent, hypocritical, dishonest and corrupt. All the evidence is laid out before the Holy One, who presides over the case as its Judge. 

The evidence is pretty compelling. We have been everything that the Accuser says we have, and more. We cannot pretend to have been perfect. In fact, we have fallen pretty far short of decent. 

The Angel of Mercy steps forward to plead in our defence. True, the Jews have been callous and unkind, but they have also been charitable, supportive, participated in mutual aid groups, called up vulnerable people, tried to make peace with their friends and neighbours. They have done their best.

The Accuser laughs out scornfully. “I challenge you,” says the avenging angel, “to weigh up this people’s good deeds against its pad. Set their mitzvot on the scales of justice and see how they manage against all their malice. Let’s see whether their good even comes close to counter-balancing their bad.”

The Angel of Mercy is nervous. Of course, they won’t win. The good deeds aren’t nearly numerous enough. Every one has been kept and held tight over the year. This is a sure way for the Jews to lose.

Perhaps the compassionate Angel can plead extenuating circumstances. After all, we’ve been through a pandemic. There has been so much uncertainty. The Jews have had to work from home with screaming children. They have been cut off from all their usual support systems. They have dealt with unimaginable stress. 

Surely, God understands that they can’t be expected to have been on their best behaviour. Not this year. This has been the hardest year yet. And, yes, to be fair, the Angel of Mercy did make the same excuse last year, but this year really was even worse. It really was.

God interjects; raises a single finger. “Enough evidence,” God says. “This year, I have decided just to let it slide.”

Now, both prosecution and defence look confused. They glance at each other, the assembled Heavenly Court room, and we defendants here gathered in our witness box. Perhaps the Holy One has made a mistake?

“It is true,” says God “that this people Israel has done much evil, and it is true that they have done some good. Their good does not amount to much and their evil is pretty damning. Yes, there are extenuating circumstances, but they are not very convincing. I did, after all, give this Torah to all times and places, including to Covid-stricken Britain. So there is no good reason to forgive the Jews. But, having weighed up all the evidence, I’ve decided I’m just going to forgive anyway. I’m just going to pardon them. Court adjourned.”

And that’s it. That’s the end of Yom Kippur on high for another year. 

It was over quickly. But it went exactly as it did last year. And the year before that. And every year going back to when humanity was first created. 

This is the story told by Pesikta Rabbati, a great collection of stories and sermons from Jews in the 9th Century CE. According to this midrash, when Yom Kippur comes around, the Accusing Angel charges the Jews with all its sins before God.

This Angel heaps all of our sins on top of the scales of justice. They weigh down heavily, and it’s clear that the sins outnumber the good deeds.

God then gives greater value to the good deeds so that they can override the evil, but the Accuser has many more sins to submit in evidence.

So, says our midrash, God hides our sins. God wears a long purple cloak and shoves all the sins under it. God sneaks the sins off the scales, and determines to find us innocent anyway.

Our sins are removed and hidden away.

“Yom Kippur” is often translated as “The Day of Atonement,” but the literal meaning of “kippur” is “cover,” “curtail,” “tuck away.” This is the day when our sins are submerged under the great cover of God’s forgiveness. 

They don’t disappear, but God is able to hide them away and forget them. For the sake of love of humanity, God just lets us off.

Lo ‘al tzidkateinu – not because of our righteousness do we pray for God’s forgiveness, but because of God’s unending love. Only on account of God’s infinite compassion do we get to carry on. God’s forgiveness is infinite and instant. 

But if we already knew God would forgive us, why do we bother? Why turn up here for Kol Nidrei, and afflict ourselves, and spend 25 hours in prayer? What’s all this for? 

Well, it might take God only a short while to forgive, but for us it takes a bit more work. We have to go through some effort to get to a fraction of that clemency. So, we take our time to look within, examine our imperfections, and release the guilt we have been feeling. Now is the time for us to forgive.

This year may seem like it requires more forgiveness than usual. This is an unprecedented time for conflict between friends and family, personal struggles, grief, job losses and frustration. It is hardly surprising that people feel so much resentment. 

I speak to people angry about how much they have lost. Time. Money. Strength. Health. Joy. Socialising. All these things that we have been robbed of. We have struggled in ways never experienced before.

Understandably, people want to place the blame elsewhere. They project their anger onto others who they imagine haven’t followed the rules enough, or who have taken it all too seriously, or who don’t think the same way as they do. 

All that anger does is sit inside of the people who hold onto it. It won’t help get back what has been lost. The weight of holding onto slights without forgiving just pulls us down. It just holds us back from growth. The only way to move forward is to let go.

That is why we have forgiveness. We acknowledge our hurt. We take stock of the injuries. And then, although it may be painful, we let go. We accept the way things are and make peace with what can’t be undone.

So, I urge you to forgive.

You might not get closure. You might not get apologies. You might not get reconciliation. Try to forgive anyway. 

The people who have hurt you probably did much wrong. And they probably didn’t do enough to make up for it. And all the dire circumstances will not feel like enough to excuse their behaviour. If you can, excuse it anyway.

The people who you forgive might not be big enough to forgive you back. Still, consider forgiveness.

In the build up to Yom Kippur, we were supposed to apologise to everyone we wronged. You did apologise, didn’t you? Me neither. Not enough. Not completely. Not to everyone. Not for everything. 

And I know my own reasons. I have been so tired and preoccupied and overworked and anxious. I have been too busy getting by to be trusting or vulnerable. The right time to apologise just never came up. 

But I still want to be forgiven. And I know God has already found a way to be merciful towards me. So I will have to reciprocate. 

At Yom Kippur, we stand trial, and God finds us not guilty. Not because we deserve it, but because God has decided to put trust in us. Our task over Yom Kippur is to validate that trust. 

So, we will try to forgive. It is not easy. It may well feel incomplete, and some things may be beyond pardon. Nevertheless, let us try to leave some of the pain of the previous year behind. 

Let us endeavour to accept people, including ourselves, flawed as we are, and move on.

Gmar chatimah tovah.

This is my Kol Nidrei sermon for South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue

interfaith · sermon · torah

Who gets to be Jacob?

I am told that, as a toddler, whenever it came to game-playing, I had to be Postman Pat. No matter what the game was, I insisted on playing that friendly gentleman with a black and white cat. As I grew up, I had to compete with other children for different parts in our roleplay. We couldn’t all be the robbers, somebody would have to be the cops. Not everyone can be the Yellow Power Ranger and we can’t all be Ginger Spice.

Those were, at least, the parts we competed for in the 1990s. It was fairly low stakes, but it seemed quite important at the time.

But it’s nothing compared to the fight for roles that went on in the 5th Century CE. This big broigus was not just between two individuals, but between two whole religious groups: the Jews and the Christians. That battle was played out in two foundational texts of our traditions: a sermon by St Augustine of Hippo on the Christian side and the midrash, Bereishit Rabbah, for the Jews. Both were determined that they were Jacob, and the other side was Esau.

Which one would get to be Jacob?

At stake in this question is an ancient prophecy, told to Rebecca while she was pregnant: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will emerge from your body. One shall be stronger than the other; and the older shall serve the younger.”

When Rebecca gave birth to Jacob and Esau, she was not just birthing twins, but rival nations. A strong one and a weak one. An older one that would serve the younger.

We have Esau: the hairy, ruddy hunter. We have Jacob: the smart, younger upstart.

The contest over Isaac’s blessing and birthright laid out in our parashah was more than a competition between siblings. It was a war between peoples.

So which one is the Jews? And which one is the Christians?

As far as the Jewish texts are considered, Jacob must be the Jewish nation. Meak and smart? That’s us. Gentle but witty? Sounds Jewish. He even changed his name to Israel. Bnei Yisrael, the children of Israel, klal Yisrael, the community of Israel, daat Yisrael, the laws of the Jews. Surely Jacob must be us!

And meanwhile Esau… well, he’s Rome. He changed his name to Edom, which, granted, is on the other side of the River Jordan in Mount Seir, but was the birthplace of Rome’s most wicked emperor and Temple-destroyer, Hadrian. And look at those Romans. They’re the hairy, barbarous, fighting ones. They’ve got their swords and their empires, just as Esau had his bow and his field.

Bereishit Rabbah, our classical midrash on Genesis, spells it out for us.

Two proud nations are in your womb, one is proud of his world and one is proud of his kingdom. Two prides of their nations are in your womb – Hadrian amongst the gentiles and Solomon amongst the Israelites.

We’re Jacob. We’re the one that God has chosen. We are the descendants of Solomon, proud of the world of Torah and obligation. They’re Esau. They’re the other brother. They’re the descendants of Hadrian, proud of their ill-gotten Empire.

Except, of course, for one obvious problem. Jacob is supposed to be the younger brother. Aren’t we, the Jews, clearly the older sibling? Our revelation is much older than the Christian one and the kingdom of David long predates the Caesarian Empire.

This fact was not missed by our Christian interlocutors.

Foremost among these Christians was St Augustine of Hippo. Augustine was a Father of the Christian Church, a theologian living in North Africa. His ideas were definitive in Christianity for many centuries, and people of all religious stripes still reverentially refer back to his writings. As far as Augustine was concerned, Jacob had to be Christendom. Israel, God’s treasured child, was the Church.

True, says Augustine, the Jewish nation sprang from Jacob, but since then, they have gone on to become Esau. They’re the elder people whom God has rejected. Esau was born shaggy and hairy, which means full of sins. Just look at the Jews – that’s clearly them!

Augustine continues: the prophecy promised that the elder would serve the younger, but that never happens in the biblical text. Esau goes on to become very rich and both wind up blessed in their lifetimes. Clearly, this refers to events that had not yet transpired: that the real Jacob would go on to have the upper hand. Now look at the world of Augustine, where the Christian Empire spans the globe and the Jews are a fractured diaspora in their lands. Surely this is the proof that the Jews are now Esau, serving their younger brother, the Christian Jacob.[1]

This battle of biblical exegesis probably sounds quite twee today. After all, why should it matter which of our religions gets to be Jacob? But this battle for religious identity and purpose shaped interfaith relations in medieval Europe.

If the Jews were Esau, then the Christians had replaced them as Jacob. Judaism was superseded, no longer necessary, and its practitioners were hairy remnants of an outdated doctrine. As Esau, the Jews were a savage menace who needed to be tamed by the genteel, pious Christians in their role as Jacob. This Christian doctrine was the theological basis for Jewish subjugation in Europe.

Faced with such hostility and oppression, it was only natural that medieval Jews felt the need to double down and insist that they were still Jacob. They imagined that Christian dominion would only last so long but that the Jews would ultimately triumph. They could still be Israel, despite what was said about them.

The modern era has seen reconciliation between Jews and Christians. Over time, theologians and historians on both sides have come to emphasise their kinship over rivalry. Perhaps, in the conflict over who got to be Jacob, these twin religions forgot that they were, in fact, siblings. Perhaps, still stuck in childhood contests, our communities had ignored the way the story ends.

By the time of the story’s completion, Jacob and Esau are no longer warring for the same birthright. They have both struggled, and lost, and achieved their own blessing. In maturity, Jacob and Esau meet again and wrap their arms around each other. They weep as they realise that God’s blessing is not finite. They never needed to fight over it.

After 2000 years of struggle, perhaps we Jews and Christians can reach the same intellectual adulthood. The campaign for who is the favourite brother can be put aside as we realise that we are on twin paths. We are both children of the same Divine Parent.

Perhaps we cannot all be Postman Pat, or Ginger Spice, or the same Power Ranger. But everyone can be Jacob.

I will give this sermon at Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue on Shabbat 21st November 2020 for Parashat Toldot.


[1] ‘Sermon on Jacob and Esau’, Jacob Rader Marcus and Marc Saperstein, The Jews in Christian Europe, pp. 33-34

judaism · sermon · theology

Abraham and the Paradox of Jewish Evangelism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Gen 12:1-2

[2] Gen 12:3-5

[3] Ber Rab 39:2