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

story · theology

The morality machine

Once, in a plausible past, a scientist built a machine. It was so powerful it could handle complex reasoning. It could calculate absolutely anything.

The scientist programmed the machine so that it could work out the optimal outcome for any decision. If she asked it whether to eat porridge or cornflakes, this contraption would measure up the nutritional value of each cereal against her personal health, exercise and needs.

It would even factor in how happy each breakfast choice could make her, short term and long-term. This machine would crunch those numbers until it spurted out the best possible result. Porridge this morning. Almond milk. No salt or sugar.

This scientist discovered she could put her instrument to use with every daily task. Before long, she had completely optimised her life. She went to sleep and woke up at exactly the right time. She did the perfect amount of exercise. She worked a job that maximised her fulfilment, income and skill set. 

She used it to work out where to do her charitable giving: finding the cause that would save the most human lives for the least amount of money. The machine told her which purchasing choices would have the least impact on the environment for the fairest price to consumer, labourer and business owner.

Such a fine apparatus! Of course, it was only a matter of time before she realised this could have implications far beyond her own life. She brought her machine to the capital city and presented it before the benevolent president.

“Ma’am,” she intoned as she bowed, “this machine will help you make the perfect decision at all times.”

“Let me try,” said the president. She lifted herself from her seat and walked over to the metal block. “For the longest time, I have wondered if I need more advisers to increase the wisdom in my country. Perhaps this machine can tell me how many more I should hire, and what sort of person I need?” 

The scientist typed in the numbers, and you have already worked out what happened next. The answer was so obvious! The machine told the president that she did not need any advisors, because all her decisions could be rationally calculated by the computer. Immediately the president dismissed all her advisors.

Now the real work could begin. The computer informed the president of all the best crops that could be grown in the best soil for the best results. It told her what land to capture and which pastures to disregard. It explained which industries would be most cost-effective. Within a matter of months, the country was transformed.

Then the computer updated the president with which workers were most efficient, and which ones consumed more than they produced. The machine enumerated which people were most likely to disrupt social order. It showed how the population would be healthier and happier if it were smaller and more homogenous. The president gleefully implemented its dictats.

The machine calculated who to imprison. Who to promote. Who to ignore. Who to starve. Who  to execute. 

Because a machine can count absolutely anything. Except the value of a life.

No. The worth of a human being cannot be accounted for by any mathematical system. Life comes from something that is infinite and belongs to that Infinity. As such, it is indivisible, indefinable, immeasurable. No machine can capture God. No machine can understand those inviolable precepts that  we call ‘human rights’.

The idea that there is such a thing as human rights is, fundamentally, a religious ideal. It can only be understood by reference to something holy. The rights of human beings are inviolable because they are given by God. Philosophy’s great atheists – Bentham, Marx, Singer – also explicitly rejected the discourse of human rights. 

Conversely, Tom Paine grounded his rights of man in the biblical account of God having created us equal in Eden. When Jefferson wrote the American Declaration of Independence, he explained that human beings “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” When the colonised and enslaved people of the Americas answered back that they, too, had such rights, they appealed to the same Divine Source. When Wollstonecraft vindicated the rights of women, she insisted that “God brought into existence creatures above the brutes so that they would have incalculable gifts.” 

In this week’s haftarah, God tells the prophet Zechariah: “not by might, nor by power, but only by My spirit” can the Jewish people truly live. All the force and wealth in the world cannot compare to the sacred truth of God’s infinity. We are nothing if we abandon God’s message.

More than a religious value, human rights are a Jewish value. Hanukkah is underway. It is a festival that celebrates an oppressed minority’s achievement of religious freedom in the face of colonial oppression. It remembers how the Seleucids once tried to violate Jews’ every right, but were ultimately defeated. Above all, we are told, it was God who safeguarded their rights.

A testimony to the Jewishness of human rights comes from the author of their Declaration. This week is Human Rights Shabbat, commemorating 72 years since the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Among its composers was a French-Jewish jurist named Rene Cassin. Cassin was keen to ensure that there was some legal framework for guaranteeing people were protected, no matter where they were from; what minorities they belonged to; or what they believed. 

In particular, in the shadow of a genocide perpetrated against Jews, the Declaration of Human Rights sought to ensure that never again would a group be systematically eradicated. Human rights were supposed to be a counterpoint against genocide.

Genocide, like the choices described in the story of the morality machine, is the result of mechanical thinking. It is something that can only be justified when human beings are reduced to statistics and social consequences only measured in terms of order or prosperity. 

You see, the machine that could calculate anything except the value of a life did not exist only in fiction. It is already a part of our daily reality. 

Before genocide can be carried out in camps, it is developed on spreadsheets and planned on computers. 

Before people can commit atrocities, they have to switch off the part of themselves that connects with their infinite source and plug in only to the finite equations of capitalist mentality. If we are not careful, we can become the machine. We become the automatons that punch out numbers and make calculations and rationally process every evil. 

Our media asks us how many people should be permitted into Britain, and we churn back answers into the polls. We are challenged to decide how many people should die of Coronavirus, and how many should be imprisoned to stop their deaths. We are told to weigh up which tools of warfare our country should have to capture the greatest resources for the least sacrifice. 

We are asked the most unconscionable questions and, barely processing the implications, return answers like amoral computers. If we permit ourselves to think like robots when we weigh up the values of other people’s lives, we truly do destroy the humanity in ourselves. 

We will only break free from such finite thinking when we put it into the perspective of Infinity. It is the infiniteness within someone that makes them holy. It is their Infinite source that makes their purpose sacred.

For the sake of humanity, we embrace human rights.

I wrote this sermon for the Leo Baeck College newsletter and will deliver it to Newcastle Reform Synagogue on Shabbat Vayeshev, 12th December 2020.

judaism · sermon · torah

Rest is resistance

“Take a break,” Moses said to the Israelites. “I’ve spoken to God, and we’re both very keen on this: you need to take Saturdays off.”

“Yes, we know, we’ve heard this before,” said the Israelites. “You told us when we were around that mountain. You told us when we were building the mishkan. You said these exact same words only a few weeks ago in another parashah. You don’t need to keep going on about it.”

“I do, though,” said Moses. “It’s really important. I’m telling you now so you get it. 24 hours of rest. 25 if you want to be extra about it. But definitely no less. You need to take a break.”

The Israelites sighed. “We get it. Tell us something new.”

“OK,” said Moses. “Take a break. Or I’ll kill you. I’m serious now. Not resting on Shabbat is punishable by death. If I catch any of you picking up sticks or lighting fires on Saturdays, that’s it. Dead.”

“But why?  Why does this matter so much to you?”

“Because,” said Moses. “For generations, we were slaves. Our whole lives we worked. When our masters had their days off, we still worked, serving them. We broke our backs. We lost touch with what mattered. We forgot how to think. We forgot how to enjoy life. We have a chance here that we’ve never had before. We can build an entirely new society, where the measure of life isn’t how well we work, but how well we rest. If we instill this day of rest with holiness and make it the cornerstone of our society, we can build a community that resists the tyranny of work and the oppression of masters.”

And that was that. Shabbat became enshrined as the hallmark of Jewishness. No more would people exploit each other on their holy days. No more would we be defined by our productivity. Instead, the marker of Jewish observance was how holy we could make this day by refraining from work.

Generations later, our rabbis were faced with a new question. If work was forbidden, what actually was work? Perhaps in the peasant and smallholder society of ancient Israel, it was obvious. But in the new reality of urban living across a wide Diaspora, it was no longer so clear. They needed to know how to make the day holy.

So they looked to this week’s parashah. Here, in this section of Torah, the commandment to honour the Sabbath bookends descriptions of how to build God’s dwelling place. They looked at all the work that must have been involved in creating this momentous desert structure. Lighting fires. Tanning leather. Dying cloth. Joining wood. Polishing stones. Spinning wool. Carrying. Pushing. Lifting. Choosing. Separating. Drawing. Planning.

If this was the work that was required to build God’s dwelling place in ancient times, they reasoned, then abstention would be the way to build God’s dwelling place today. Just as the performance of work was a holy act in the Torah, not doing the same things could be a holy act in our world. Through their interpretation of this text, our rabbis gave new life to the holiness of Shabbat and the value in not working.

This idea has so much relevance to us today. In recent months, an article has been circulating entitled ‘How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.’ It argues that the generation of people now in our twenties and thirties live in a permanent state of overwork and exhaustion. It gives good material reasons why this should be the case. We were born into post-Soviet Thatcherite Britain. The dominant idea was that anyone could work hard enough to become rich, and we were educated in a system that reinforced this. By the time we entered the job market, the country was in recession, wages permanently stagnated, housing became completely unaffordable and job security became a rare luxury. As a result, we are primed with a need to work hard, but the rewards for this seem completely unattainable.

I think the reason this article was so widely shared was because it spoke to many of my peers’ lived experiences. I doubt, however, that the issue is generational. I look at the teenagers I am tutoring for bar mitzvah, and I am overwhelmed by how much pressure is on them. They seem to be constantly examined, overburdened with extra-curricular activities, and pushed to constantly improve their CVs, even from the youngest age.

At the same time, I see friends in their fifties and sixties who are permanently exhausted. I recently asked an older friend how he was doing. He answered that he wasn’t sure if he was tired from sickness or just living out the regular fatigue that comes from working. We are, as an entire society, exhausted and struggling to keep our heads above water.

This systemic problem may feel insurmountable. The people sitting in this room cannot, on our own, redesign society, push wages up, make housing affordable, or transform the labour market. (Much as I my try to push the line that we can.) Yet there is one thing we can do. We can do what our ancestors did when they left slavery and decided to institute their own rules. We can do what our rabbis did when they were confronted with urban living and needed to re-imagine work. That is: we can shift our focus.

Against a culture that sees work as the end of human existence, we can prioritise rest. In a world that demands us to be constantly online, we can switch off. In a society that tells us we are isolated competitors, we can build meaningful community. We can insist that we do not live to work, but we work to live. Our lives do not have meaning because of how productive we are, but because of how much compassion we can put into this world.

Against the crushing pressure of modern capitalism, Judaism continues to issue forth a two-word rallying cry of protest: Shabbat shalom!

Shabbat-Kodesh_art

I gave an earlier version of this sermon at Kehillah North London in 2013 for Parashat Vayakahel. I reworked it and delivered it at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community on Saturday 2nd March 2019.