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 · 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

festivals · sermon · social justice · theology

Those who attack the weak

Purim is such a strange time. It is a time when everything is turned upside down. In our story, the oppressed become the oppressors; the ones who wanted to slaughter become the slaughtered; Jews become Persians; Persians become Jews.

We act out the topsy-turviness of it all by dressing up in costumes, getting drunk, and generally living as we normally wouldn’t. Somehow this grand inversion festival is one of my favourites, but I’m never really sure what it was about until it’s over. In fact, every year for the last year, I’ve preached about Purim after it happened, rather than before. I suppose that fits with the overall back-to-front-ness of the whole celebration.

This year, what struck me most was the connection between the Torah portion and the Megillah reading.1 In our Megillah, the story of Esther, the enemy is the evil Haman. Haman sets himself up as a god, demanding that people bow down to him, and when they do not, he seeks to wipe out the Jews. The Jews, in this antique Persian context, are already the most vulnerable people. They are the smallest minority, unarmed, and completely powerless. Haman decides to wipe them out.

In the Torah reading, taken from Deuteronomy, the enemy is Amalek. We are enjoined to remember him and what he did to the Israelites in the wilderness.2 The Amalekites had attacked the Israelites when they were at their weakest, dehydrated and suffering without water.3 According to our commentators, Amalek attacked from behind, killing the weakest first.4

The Megillah tells us that Haman was a descendant of Amalek, via their king, Agag.5 We do not necessarily need to believe that Haman had any genetic connection to Amalek. What they had in common they showed through their actions. Both attacked the weak. Both went for the most vulnerable first. They are not only symbols of antisemitism, but of all tyrants. This is how the cruel operate: by doing first to the weak what they would like to do to the strong.

It is deeply distressing to see in our times that the ideas of Amalek still prevail. At this moment, the world is closely watching the Coronavirus. My rabbinic colleagues in Italy are on complete lockdown. Many services have been cancelled. I am giving this sermon, for the first time, over the internet, rather than in person with my regular congregation.

That there is a pandemic should not be too alarming. There are often diseases going around the world – some are more contagious and more deadly than others. This one, it seems, is much less deadly than bird flu, but is more contagious than regular flu, and we do not yet have immunity to it.

In these times, maintaining calm and supporting each other is of the utmost importance. We should all, I am sure you already know, be meticulous about following NHS advice to wash our hands regularly, avoid touching our faces and not get too close to each other. If you exhibit symptoms, like a dry cough, shortness of breath, or fever, you should stay home for 7 days. Don’t go to the hospital or the GP.6

Yet there are those who have not helped maintain calm, but who have almost revelled in the potential death toll. Jeremy Warner, a journalist for the Daily Telegraph, wrote in his column that the death of the weak from Coronavirus could be good for the economy. He said:

Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.7

With this one sentence, the Telegraph reminded me that Amalek’s ideology never ceases. It is in the idea that the weak are disposable, that the strongest survive, and that the strength of the economy or the nation matters more than the lives of the vulnerable.

The idea espoused by Warner might be called ‘social Darwinism’. It is a theory of evolution that sees all species as rugged individuals, fighting over resources. Sickness and death are nature’s way of weeding out those who are unnecessary. If people survive, it is because they deserved to. This was the logic that allowed the weak to be killed by the Nazis. It is the theory that underpinned government inaction to HIV as it killed off gay and black people.

It must be opposed. No idea could be more antithetical to the Jewish mind. We affirm that every human being is created in the image of God, and every life has intrinsic value. The disabled, the elderly and the immuno-compromised are not valuable because of how much they can contribute, but because God has placed them on this Earth. The Creator’s purpose for humanity far exceeds what any stock market has in mind.

We must oppose it not only because it contradicts religious truth, but also because it contradicts scientific truth. In 1902, the biologist and Russian Prince, Piotr Kropotkin, wrote his major work, ‘Mutual Aid’.8 In it, he argues that the survival of the species is due as much to cooperation as it is to competition. In the animal realm and throughout history, the major reason for life’s continuity has been its ability to work together.

Different species depend on each other and selflessly help each other. Most of all, human survival is intrinsically linked up with our social nature. Our skill lies in our ability to communicate complex ideas with each other. We are, by nature, dedicated to the preservation of our young, our elderly and our neighbours.

That is the message we must take away today in this time of sickness. We must support one another. For some, this means staying home so that they do not infect others. For some, this means checking in on our neighbours to see how they are and what they need. For others still, it means making donations to charities and mutual support organisations.

Purim was a time of inversion, when old habits were reversed. Let us shake off the old traditions of individualism and greed, to replace them with the Torah values of love and support.

In the face of those who attack the weak, we will be the ones to make them strong.

Shabbat shalom.

mutual aid animals

1 Mishnah Megillah 3:6

2 Deut 27:17-19

3 Ex 17:8-16

4 Mechilta de Rabbi Ishmael 17

5 Esther 3:1

 

I donated to Queercare, who are doing work for at-risk LGBT people. I encourage you to give to the charity of your choice.