fast · high holy days · sermon

Closing the Gates

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

Yizkor

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

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

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

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

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

Neilah

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

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

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

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

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

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

We will make it to next year. Shanah tovah.

high holy days · sermon

Grieving the Year

Stage 1. Denial

At the beginning of the Coronavirus crisis, the grief expert David Kessler described our relationship to these unprecedented times as a mourning process:

“The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively.”

No doubt, over the past 6 months, many of us have felt that complicated array of emotions associated with grief. Indeed, today, it is hard not to feel some anxiety and dissonance that we cannot do Yom Kippur in our usual ways.

Kessler suggests that the best way to face up to this feeling is to know the stages of grief and understand them. Denial. Bargaining. Anger. Sadness. Acceptance.

Each of these feelings is important and needs to be honoured. The Jewish tradition has much to teach us about them. In each of these difficult feelings there is holiness and meaning. I am going to tell Chassidic stories about each of these stages of grief, beginning with stage one: denial.

Rabbi Shmelke once asked the Maggid of Mezritch, to explain a difficult theological concept to him. He said: “Our sages teach that we should thank God for suffering as much as for wellbeing, and receive it with the same joy. How is that possible?”

The Maggid told him to seek out Zusya. Zusya had known nothing but poverty and heartbreak in his life. He had lost his children and lived with chronic illness. “He will explain suffering to you,” said the Maggid.

Rabbi Shmelke found Zusya at the House of Study and asked him the question: how is it possible to thank God for suffering? Zusya laughed: “You’ve come to the wrong person. I haven’t suffered a day in my life.”

As Rabbi Shmelke left the room, he realised that he must accept all suffering with love.[1

Stage 2: Bargaining

Abraham bargained with God to prevent the utter annihilation of Sodom. Moses bargained with God so that not all of Korach’s supporters would be killed. ‘Perhaps,’ thought an old Jew in Jerusalem, ‘I might be able to intercede with God too.’

So every day she went down to the Kotel – the Western Wall in the Old City. Each morning, she davened and prayed to God: “Sovereign of the Universe, I beseech you. Please bring an end to this plague and to economic crisis. Please put an end to the bush fires and the wars.”

“God,” she cried out at the Wailing Wall, “if you grant us peace and stability, I will devote every moment of my life to Torah and prayer. I will be the most righteous person in the world.’

She went down every week on Shabbat. And then every morning. And then three times a day. And then she was praying every day three times a day for months on end.

Her daughter asked her: “how do you feel with your new piety?”

“Like I’m talking to a brick wall.”

Stage 3: Anger

Once, Rebbe Levi Yitchok of Berditchev saw a tailor remonstrating as he prayed, throwing his fists up in the air. After the service, he called over the tailor to ask him what he’d been saying to God.

The tailor said: “I told God what was what. I said: ‘Listen, God, you want me to repent of my sins, but I’ve only committed minor offences compared to You. Sure, I don’t keep perfect shabbat or kosher, and I’m sorry about that. But You – You have taken away mothers from their babies and babies from their mothers. You have allowed all manner of injustice to continue. So let’s call it quits: You forgive me and I’ll forgive You.”

The Berditchever Rebbe laughed: “You’re a fool. You let God off far too easy. You should have demanded the Messiah and the redemption of Israel. That would have been a much fairer exchange.”[2

Stage 4: Sadness

Once, in the middle of the night, one of the Mitteler Rebbe’s children fell out of bed. Entirely engrossed in his studies, he did not hear the child’s cries. However, his father, the Alter Rebbe, heard the cries, closed his Torah books, and went to comfort the child. The Alter Rebbe later said to his son: “No matter how deeply immersed you are in holy pursuits, when a child cries you must hear it; you must stop what you’re doing and soothe their pain.”

So too: we must hear the crying child within us, and acknowledge our own pain.

Stage 5: Acceptance

Professor Aisha Ahmad is a political analyst in Canada, who has worked in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Mali, Iraq, and Lebanon, often in some of the most challenging situations. She recently warned that, in her experience, the 6 month mark in a sustained crisis is always very difficult. She advises us:

“It’s not productive to try to ram your head through it. It will break naturally in about 4-6 weeks if you ride it out. This six month wall both arrives and dissipates like clockwork. So I don’t fight it anymore. We have already found new ways to live, love, and be happy under these rough conditions. Trust that the magic that helped you through the first phase is still there. You’ll be on the other side in no time.”

Once, Rabbi Mikhal of Zlotchev was asked: “You are poor, rebbe, and yet every day you thank God for taking care of all your needs. Isn’t that a lie?”

“Not at all. You see, for me, poverty is what I need.”[3]


[1] Martin Buber, Tales of the Hassidim: Early Masters, pp. 237-238

[2] Louis Newman, Hassidic Anthology, p. 57

[3] Elie Wiesel, Souls on Fire, p. 49

high holy days · sermon

Who is responsible?

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

  1. All our vows

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

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

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

  1. Like clay in the potter’s hands

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Responsibility in a pandemic

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

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

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

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

high holy days · poem

Kol Nidrei

Every year since starting as a rabbinic student, I have read this poem, by the Yiddish writer Wlasyslaw Szlengel. He wrote it in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, not long before the entire community was liquidated.

I’ve never understood the content and the words,
Only the melody of the prayer.
While my eyes I close, I see again
Reminisces from my childhood
The yellow grayish glow of candle light,
Sad movements of arms and beards,
I hear a cry, wailing
An immense plea for mercy, a miracle…
Whipping of the chest, clasping hands –
The glory of old books,
Fear of verdicts unknown and dark.
That night I’ll never tear off my heart,
A menacing mysterious night,
And the grieved prayer Kol Nidrei —
I know by now, when I feel bad
Or tomorrow, when fate will be more courteous to me,
In my thoughts I’ll come back to that night,
And always
In my heart I shall be in it.
Come with me – – –
Jews – frightened, beaten, persecuted,
Cast out of everything – – –
Depressed,
Humiliated.
You – that that your benches were broken,
Your faith as well and your skulls.
You – whose mouths are been shut,
As are the roads, the shops.
You – mud is thrown on your faces.
You – who know already what
Is fear from human being.
And you –
Who want to forget that only yesterday,
Or a hundred years ago,
Were Jews
Running away—
To the tangle of the big affairs,
To the excess of the big people
To the lie of the big words,
Hiding yourselves behind the backs
Of foreign ideas, not yours…
You – free of
Tallith,
Shabbathot,
Kapoth,
Come!
On the same long big night
to the foggy memories sunk in sentiments
In the heart and in the tear
Go back to the darkened prayer rooms
From long lost childhood,
Where grayish light gleam and candles cry,
Where Mothers wring their hands,
And through trembling hands,
Pages of yellow books murmur,
While injustice lie like a stone on our soul.
At least we shall be united in our hearts
In the sad prayer of Kol Nidrei.

high holy days · sermon · story · theology · torah

The Torah was given to all of us

The Reform liturgy for Yom Kippur takes on a tour through the progression of Judaism. The reading choices are different to in Orthodoxy. Whereas in Orthodox synagogues, you would hear the story of the High Priest’s atonement rituals with the two goats in the morning and the rules of illicit sexual relations in the afternoon, the editors of the Reform machzor felt these texts did not reflect their values and substituted them. In the morning, in our community, we read Nitzavim, Moses’s final address to the people. For the haftarah, we read Isaiah’s denunciations of exploitation. Then, in the mussaf service, we read the stories of the martyrdoms of our sages with the destruction of the Temple in 70CE. Through this history, we see the values of progressive Judaism elucidated at each stage: freedom, personal responsibility, decentralisation and anti-authoritianism. For my Yom Kippur sermon this year, I retold those stories to show how those values emerged.

“You are all standing here today,” said Moses.

He looked out over the vast plains of Moab. He gazed at his assembled audience, stretching far back into steamed blurry visions in the distant desert. He saw their weariness and felt his own. At 120, his physical strength had not weakened. His eyes still saw clearly and his teeth worked perfectly. Although he carried a stick, he did not depend on it. Physically, he was fine. But, mentally, he was drained.

For forty years, Moses had presided over the people. Gradually, he had tried to cede power. He had appointed judges and officials who would help resolve disputes. He had tried to teach people as far as possible all the laws that he had received from God on that great mountain in the Egyptian desert. More than ever, he felt ready to go. But the question was: were the people ready to be without him? What could he tell them in this last speech to prepare them for a society where they would have to lead themselves?

“You are all standing here today,” Moses repeated. “All of you.”

“But, really, all of you. Women and men. Children and the elderly. All of you are here. All of you were present at Sinai. I need you to know that it wasn’t just me and Aaron who did all this. You emancipated yourselves. Nobody forced you to leave Egypt. You got up and went because you knew you deserved better. You could have turned back to Egypt any time, but you didn’t, because you had faith. Hold on to that feeling now.”

Perhaps, Moses thought, he had not been specific enough. “Yes, the strangers too. All the foreigners who have joined us on the way. And the wood-choppers and the water-drawers. The people who do the most menial work among you. The most neglected among you. I want to mention you especially. I want you to know that you were at Sinai. Nobody can take that away from you. You experienced the full might of God and you choose to be God’s people. Never let any priests or princes tell you this was all their work. It was yours.”

“This,” said Moses. “This covenant that God made stands for all time. It speaks to all future generations to come. The soul of every Jew is here with me. All of you are witnesses. All of you have had the responsibilities of this religion entrusted to you. Even if you are scattered to the ends of the Earth, God will find you there. This religion stands firm in every time and place.”

The Israelites stared back at Moses in a calm silence. Only the sounds of gentle winds and crickets interrupted Moses’s speech. These followers had long known that this speech was coming. They had had plenty of time to prepare for it, and yet felt completely at a loss.

“What I’m saying,” said Moses, “is that the Torah is yours. God didn’t give it to me or to the scholars. God gave it to you, to read it and learn it and interpret it in the way that works for you. These commandments that I put before you today are not too incredible for you, nor are they too far from you. They are not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the Heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No. It is right with you. It has been with you all along. You are in charge of your lives. You are responsible for your destinies.”

That was the message Moses left with the Israelites and through them with us, the Jewish people. It has a stronger bearing on us now than we may realise. It demands of us way more than we might be prepared to accept. When Moses died, he did not place power in the hands of priests and kings. He handed it over to everybody. There would not be anyone to frighten the masses into following orders or to offer up commands. The rules were all already there. The people had been entrusted to follow them for themselves.

With time, certain leaders did try to control Judaism. With the rise of the Temple, a centralised cult in Jerusalem set out the rules. The priests insisted that penance could only be paid with animal sacrifices and ritual fires. They tithed the people and brought them under authoritarian rule. Outside the centre of the city, the prophets chastised the priests. Among the urban poor and the rural peasants, the prophets cried out that God had given the Torah of justice to everybody, that God abhorred inequality and would never give religious power to the elites.

That is why, today, we read also the haftarah of Isaiah. Isaiah looked upon the centralised cult and was revolted by it. He saw a nation rife with exploitation and hypocrisy. He chastised the wealthy: “On the days when you fast, you exploit the workers! You fast and you strike with a wicked fist.” Such fasts, said Isaiah, meant nothing to the Almighty. God would not listen to the pleas of the wicked. Instead, insisted the prophet, God sought for every oppressed person to be free, for every chain to be broken, for every mouth to be fed and every soul to be remembered. This religion, said Isaiah, was never given to the exploiting class. It is the blessing of the oppressed. It is the hope of freed slaves and menial workers. It is a promise of redemption for people who could never quite believe their lives had meaning. We are the heirs to their Judaism: to the Judaism of the prophets.

When the Temple was destroyed, a group of visionary rabbis realised that the time had finally come to take back control from the priests and hand it over to the people. Chief among them was Rabbi Akiva Rabbi Akiva had been a peasant farmer. He did not even learn to read until he was 40. He came from the poorest class and knew their struggles. He saw the Priesthood trying to control our religion in their own interests and vowed to resist them.

Akiva insisted that the Torah was not a dead letter, but the word of a living God. Everyone could read it and find something in it. Every letter could be analysed. Whole worlds lay hidden in subtle sentences in our holy text. Akiva and his disciples replaced Temple sacrifices with prayers, good deeds and study. These were acts of piety available to everyone, no matter what their wealth our status. He created a Judaism of the people, by the people, for the people.

Our parashah today says “the Torah is your life and the length of your days.” Akiva agreed. He said that Torah was to the Jews what water was to the fish.[1] Akiva truly understood what it meant for everyone to receive the Torah. All of us were there for it. Everyone in this room. So all of us know something unique about the words of the living God. All of us have something important to contribute.

Akiva handed us over freedom. He took Judaism out of the hands of invested leaders and put it into the lives of the Jewish people. Read it, he said. You will find your life’s meaning in it. You will see that these are the words of a loving God. You will realise that you were created in a Divine image and that everyone else was too. You will understand the need to pursue justice.

Moses, Isaiah, Akiva. The progenitors of our Judaism. All of them with a simple message: this is your Judaism. You are free to follow it as you wish. With that freedom, they gave us the greatest gift they could. They gave us responsibility. Pharaohs would not govern our lives. Nor would bearded men in big gowns. We would govern our lives. We would have to choose for ourselves between right and wrong. We would have to live according to the justice demanded on High, with nobody to judge us but the still, small voice of conscience God had planted within us.

Take this day of Yom Kippur and realise that your life is in your own hands. Whether the world is just or unjust is up to you. Whether you are kind or unkind is up to you. Whether the oppressed remain oppressed or go free – that is up to you.

Let us resolve this day to take the true meanings of our religion to heart and to pursue justice in every quarter.

Gmar chatimah tovah.

isaiah chagall

I gave this sermon on Yom Kippur morning at Kehillat Kernow, the Reform Jewish community in Cornwall. If ever you are in the area, I highly recommend going to this warm, welcoming spiritual community.

[1] Berakhot 61b

high holy days · judaism · sermon · theology

Forgive yourself

Forgive yourself.

I’ve always struggled through Yom Kippur. It’s not just the fasting or the sitting in shul all day. That stuff’s tough, but there’s something more existentially difficult about Yom Kippur. I find the prospect of judgement quite scary.

What makes Yom Kippur harder than any other day of the year is I feel myself somewhat stranded without excuses. Any other day, if I get angry or petty or unkind, I have good excuses. I’m busy. I’ve got too much on. I’m tired. On Yom Kippur I have to reflect over all those occasions and my excuses seem pretty inadequate. On Yom Kippur we are stripped bare in front of our Maker, and as I recount the extenuating circumstances to exonerate me for going wrong, I can hear God saying: “Really though?” My reasons don’t cut it when I have to face up to Infinity.

As Kol Nidre comes in, I always feel deeply unprepared for the questions my conscience has prepared for me. By the time we’ve been through 24 hours of praying, studying, silent meditation, chest-beating and singing, the shofar blasts loudly for the last time and I’ve as good as promised myself that the next year I’ll be a saint. Next year, I’ll never get angry. Next year, I’ll never be impatient. Next year, I’ll go to synagogue every week. (Actually that one I probably will do, but you get the idea.) The process of Yom Kippur makes me set the standards for myself so high that by the following Kol Nidre I can only look at myself and realise that I’ve failed to meet them.

This year I’m going to try a new discipline. I’m going to try to forgive myself.

The process I described really is important. Faced with a perfect Being, as we are with God on Yom Kippur, every one of us is lacking. All of us have something to feel genuinely guilty about. All of us need to set our standards for ourselves just that little bit higher. But we also all need to learn to forgive ourselves.

There is a wonderful Chassidic story. Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk, a great Polish tzaddik of the 18th Century, approached the gates of Heaven. He stood before the Almighty and was asked: “Did you pray enough?”

“No,” answered the rebbe. “I’m afraid I did not.”

“And did you study enough Torah?”

“No,” said Elimelech. “I didn’t.”

“Did you give enough to support the needy?”

“I did not.”

“Were you kind enough?”

“No.”

“Elimelech,” said the Holy One, “you have told the truth and for that you will pass through to Heaven.”

The truth is none of us can ever do enough. Nobody can ever pray hard enough, read enough Torah, give enough to support the needy or exercise enough kindness. All we can do is be honest with ourselves, and keep trying.

On Kol Nidre, we are faced with the same questions as Elimelech was. We have to inspect the content of our souls in just the same way as he did. Have we prayed enough? Studied enough? Done enough to support others? Been kind and charitable and loving? No, we have not.

And we should not kid ourselves that the stakes are any less high than they were for a man standing at the gates of Heaven. If anything, they are higher, because while Elimelech was dead and could not do anything further to improve, we are still alive and have the chance to be better than we have been.

The rituals around Kol Nidre help to convey the gravity of that situation. First of all, we are supposed to feel a little bit closer to death. Ashkenazi Jews wear kittels, the garments in which we will be buried, to convey that sense of mortality. In reciting Viddui, we say the same words that repentant souls recite on their deathbeds. In fasting, in huddling together, there is some deeper feeling of an intimate proximity to death.

Tonight, everyone wears tallits. This is the only time of the year when the whole community drapes tzitzit from the long white garments over their shoulders. Why do we do this? Because these are the vestments of dayyanim – judges. Tonight, we are a court room. We take the scrolls from out of the ark and swear on them as holy texts. We are a mirror of that divine court that has sat in Heaven to weigh up the balance of our lives and pass judgement.

Now, feel yourself in that position. Realise that you are not just judged but you are also the judge. You are in a room full of other people in the same position. Is there anyone in this room so guilty, so impossibly unrepentant, that you cannot forgive them? Entrusted with the full power of a heavenly court that can choose between life and death, is there anybody you would not forgive?

Now turn that same judgement on yourself. Forgive yourself. Over the next day, we will all carry out moral audits on our lives. We will be encouraged to think through everything we have done wrong and to recount our misdeeds. But let’s focus, too, on forgiving ourselves. Let’s treat our own souls with the love and kindness we wish upon others. Nobody can be a harsher critic of you than yourself, and you know that there are times when you talk about yourself in ways you wouldn’t talk about your worst enemy. So give yourself a break.

I think part of the reason why we recite Kol Nidre, annulling all our vows, right at the start of Yom Kippur, is so that we can do just that. This prayer asks God to realise that all the promises we made from the last year to this one could never be met. This asks God’s forgiveness for the fact that we made promises at all. Because all the vows we made last Yom Kippur were impossible. We said we’d be better Jews this year than we were last year. We said we’d be kinder, more conscientious, and more humble. We said we’d pray more and study more. And we didn’t. Not enough anyway. And that’s OK.

Perhaps among all the promises that we make to ourselves this Yom Kippur, we can add an additional promise that this year we will forgive ourselves. We will be gentler with ourselves. We will love ourselves more. And, even if we don’t succeed, we can be merciful. We can forgive ourselves.

Gmar chatimah tovah.

 

kittel

I gave this sermon for Kol Nidre at Kehillat Kernow, the Reform Jewish community of Cornwall. It was a wonderful place, and I will write more about it at a later date. One piece of critical feedback I received stuck with me: a woman said that, by saying that we all wear tallits, she felt I had excluded her. She had grown up Orthodox and always felt that the Jewish community was excluding her. My comments, which seemed to only address men, had projected her back to her childhood. At the time, I defended myself, saying that I’d grown up in the progressive world and so had never known a place where women didn’t wear tallits. On reflection, I am not happy with the answer I gave. I was trying out more ‘frum’ practices this year, by wearing slippers and kittel. I know from my own experience that seeing people seemingly adopt Orthodox forms can bring up memories of exclusion and discrimination. In light of that, if I want to experiment with it, I need to be much more explicit about what my values are: how I reconcile socialism and feminism with an interest in halachah. Moreover, Yom Kippur already can feel quite daunting for everyone. It’s supposed to be a time for huddling together and bringing everyone ‘inside the tent’. I need to constantly remind myself that the shared belief of progressive Jews in feminism, queer liberation and anti-racism is not additional to what we do but is at the core of who we are. In future sermons, I hope to be more explicit about that.

high holy days · judaism · story · theology · torah

Jonah is a story about suicide

We know that life is sacred. I have mentioned it a few times over these Holy Days and we hear it all the time in our religion. Yet there is one question on which it seems almost silent. It is one that I’ve been thinking about a lot this year. Throughout the Tanakh, suicide is not mentioned. No tractates are written against it, no stories are written about it. Where could I turn to provide an answer? It seemed like a glaring oversight, and one that needed an answer more than ever for a generation where issues of anxiety and depression have never been so pronounced. And then, as I turned to the Yom Kippur readings, I realised that the answer had been staring me in the face.

The story of Jonah ends on an anti-climax. After hauling Jonah out of his home, sending him miles away into the heart of empire, drowning him, having a giant sea-monster swallow him, made him chastise his foreign enemy to give up on evil and actually convinced them to do so, God tells Jonah: “And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!”

Put yourself in Jonah’s shoes for a moment. All that, that whole mission, only to tell him that he cared about ignorant people and cattle. All that, when Jonah had thought he’d watch a city, ten times bigger than Manchester, burn to the ground, only to be told that God likes the animals in the city just like Jonah cares for a plant. What a disappointment.

It’s the kind of ending that leaves you scrambling back over everything you’ve read, wondering what the point of it all was. Did I miss something?

And here’s the real kicker: when God tells Jonah that he’s not going to destroy Niniveh, he’s also telling him that he’s not a prophet. In Deuteronomy we learn: “When a prophet speaks in the name of God, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that God has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.”[1]

Jonah has prophesied and he’s gone big. He’s told everyone in the capital city of the biggest empire on earth that they’re all doomed to die because they’re sinners. It’s a bit like getting on a boat from Southport, journeying to New York, pitching up in Time Square and announcing to everyone there that they’re about to die. In fact, it’s worse than that, because in this scenario, Jonah’s people and the Americans are sworn enemies. He’s gone through all of that, only to find that his prophesy did not come true. He was wrong. He was not a prophet.

But what was it that God actually told Jonah to prophesy? Was he told that Niniveh was going to be overthrown in forty days? No. At the very beginning, God says: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me.”[2] Not tell them they’re going to be destroyed. Not tell them they’re all going to die. Not tell them to fast and weep. Just – tell them they’re going wrong.

Here’s what I want to suggest. That anti-climactic ending is much more profound than we might initially realise. The message given to Jonah was so much bigger than that. That prophecy was not about the wrongdoing of a city – it was about suicide. The story of Jonah is a story about a man contemplating suicide, rebutted over and over again by God’s message: choose life.

Today’s Torah portion announces that message. Moses stands on the edge of the Promised Land, knowing he will not be allowed to enter it, and gives the Israelites his final words: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”[3] This message is so profound. Life, it says, is not an accident. It is a choice, and it is a choice we must make. We must decide whether to truly participate in this world.

The prophet Ezekiel says: “Turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?”[4] This is God’s message to Jonah: choose life, for why would you die? Let’s read the story again, this time assuming the prophecy is different. We’ll realise that the story was not about whether the people of Niniveh should die, but about whether Jonah should live.

Several times throughout the story, Jonah threatens suicide. Sometimes those threats were so imperceptible you might not notice them. At the very beginning, when Jonah flees from Jaffa to Tarshish, he pays the fare before he gets on the boat. That might seem a reasonable enough thing to do now. But in the Ancient Near East, you didn’t pay your fare before travelling, you paid it afterwards. You paid it afterwards because otherwise you’d be at the mercy of sailors, who’d already have everything they needed from you, and could chuck you overboard so they wouldn’t have another mouth to feed. Paying your fare upfront is tantamount to a death-wish.

It doesn’t stop there. Once on the ship, God sends a mighty storm over the seas. Jonah could pray to have his life saved, but instead he curls up in the bowls of the ship, falls asleep and waits for the end. God has other plans, and Jonah will not die yet.

The captain of the ship and the rest of the sailors find him, realise that he’s the cause of the storm and ask him what they should do. Jonah could say: “take me to Niniveh so that I can do what God asked me.” He could say: “help me convince evil-doers to repent from what they’re doing.” Instead he says: “Heave me overboard!”[5] That’s right. Once again, Jonah tries to die. The sailors, who already have his money, who have never met Jonah before, who have a different religion and tribe to Jonah, beg God that they won’t have to kill Jonah. Jonah is insistent.

So the sailors heave Jonah overboard and it’ll take all but a miracle for him not to die. Thankfully, God is in the business of providing such things. God sends a giant fish, which swallows Jonah whole, leaving him able to survive. Jonah sits in the belly of the fish and sings: “I sank to the base of the mountains; The bars of the earth closed upon me forever. Yet You brought my life up from the pit, Eternal One, my God! When my life was ebbing away, I called God to mind; And my prayer came before You.”[6] Finally, it seems like Jonah’s getting it. Finally, brought to the very brink of death, it seems like Jonah is ready to choose life. God commands the fish to spit out Jonah on the land.

This time, Jonah does what God tells him. He heads out to Niniveh, that great city, to prophesy against them. Are his enemies, the overlords of the world’s biggest empire, rife with sin and iniquity, angry at him? Do they try and kill him? No, they’re horrified. It’s as if they’d never even considered what they were doing was immoral. They throw on sackcloth and ashes and prepare themselves for death. They even put sackcloth on the animals, so ready they are for utter annihilation. But God’s intention is not for them to die. As Ezekiel reminds us, God takes no pleasure in the death of them that die, but that they turn from their ways and live.[7]

Jonah is disappointed. He scolds God: “Please, Eternal One, take my life, for I would rather die than live.”[8] Has Jonah learned nothing? Close to death in the belly of the big fish, it seemed like Jonah was finally getting it that all God wanted was for him to live. Yet here he is again, begging to be allowed to die, threatening suicide once more.

God tries a different tactic. Instead of heavy-handed miracles and big displays in Niniveh, God tries out a gentle parable. God allows a gourd to grow over Jonah’s head, then allows it to die. Perhaps this will teach Jonah the precious, fragile sanctity of life. Quite the opposite. Jonah begs for death, saying: “I would rather die than live.” God asks Jonah: “Are you so deeply grieved about the plant?” “Yes,” he replied, “so deeply that I want to die.”[9]

Finally, we get to the prophecy that had been meant for Jonah all along. God says: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!”[10]

That’s why the story finishes by telling us about all the animals. God is saying: “Don’t you realise how much I care about you? I care even about the cattle in this city. I care even about a single plant in the desert. I love even your enemies, who are persecuting you, who do not worship me, who don’t follow my laws. How much do you think I care about you? Can’t you see how important you are? Choose life, Jonah. I’m begging you, stop with these thoughts of suicide. Give up on all that anger and hate you’ve been bottling up. Choose life, Jonah, why would you choose death?”

That’s what this whole story has been about. It was never about sin and death and punishment. It was so much simpler than that. It was about life. “Look Jonah,” says God. “I know you don’t think your life is worth living, but I do. To me, your life has meaning. To me, you are worth everything. Yes, even you. You with your stubbornness, your bitterness, your rage. You with all your unhappiness, your imperfections and mistakes. You mean so much to me that I will perform miracles. I will turn the world on its head to keep you alive. I will send you to the ends of the earth just to tell you I love you. Choose life, Jonah.”

That’s what this whole day has been about. Sometimes in prayer, especially deep in the fast of Yom Kippur, we can get so caught up in recounting our sins and holding onto our guilt, that we forget the whole point of the day. This day is not for wallowing in misery, it is to be thankful for life. We have been called here because our lives have meaning. By dint of being human, we are not just special, we are holy. To be a Jew means to affirm that life matters. It means to be willing to live a life that shows the best of what humanity can achieve. Of course, we may not succeed, but don’t we owe it to ourselves to try? Don’t we owe it to ourselves to choose life?

On the question of suicide, I think that Judaism has an answer. Judaism has only one answer, in fact, to every question, which is that life is holy. We are here to manifest the sacredness of life in everything we do. So today, let’s ask ourselves: are we doing that? Are we holding on to sadness and rage or are we thankful for another day? Are we dwelling on all that we’ve done wrong, or will we embrace the chance to get it right? Won’t we remember today that God wants for us to live?

Today God has put before you two choices: blessing and curse, life and death. Choose life, for why would you choose death?

jonah whale

This sermon was originally delivered on Yom Kippur 5778 at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community.

[1] Deut 18:22

[2] Jonah 1:2

[3] Deut 30:19

[4] Ezek 33:11

[5] Jonah 1:12

[6] Jonah 2:7-8

[7] Ezek 33:11

[8] Jonah 4:3

[9] Jonah 4:8-9

[10] Jonah 4:10-11

high holy days · liturgy · sermon · Uncategorized

Is the Kol Nidrei prayer angry enough?

There are two versions of the Kol Nidre prayer. One in Hebrew; one in Aramaic. One ancient; one more modern. One looking forward; one looking backwards.

The original, older prayer in Aramaic, has these words:

All vows, oaths and promises which we make to God from this Yom Kippur to the next and are not able to fulfil – may all such vows between ourselves and God be annulled. May they be void and of no effect. May we be absolved of them and released from them. May these vows no longer be considered vows, these oaths no longer be considered oaths, and these promises no longer be considered promises.

The reformers decided to substitute it for a Hebrew alternative, and you can probably see why. Before we have made any promises, we announce our intention to annul them. We cancel every vow in advance. This was deeply worrying to many rabbis throughout history. The prayer was used as fodder by antisemites to accuse Jews of being duplicitous and untrustworthy.

Many Jews worried that it gave off the wrong impression. More than that, they were worried for their own integrity. One of the most important principles for the earliest reformers was that they would not say with their mouths what they did not believe in their hearts. So they scrapped prayers that talked about their expectations for the Messiah or their desire to build a Temple. They got rid of prayers cursing their enemies or extolling the greatness of one nation over another.

It was inevitable, then, that they would have to remove the Aramaic Kol Nidre prayer. Not only did they not believe in it, the prayer was actually about not believing the words they were saying. So they substituted it for a new version in Hebrew: “Source of Our Being, accept the vows of the children that they will turn away from evil, and walk in the ways of your Law of righteousness and justice.” Our siddur includes a reading from the American Conservative rabbi Harold Kushner to drive home the point about keeping promises:

All vows, promises, and commitments made in Your presence –

May we be given the strength to keep them

[…]

We meant them when we made them,

But distractions were many, and our wills were weak.

This time may we be strong enough;

May our better selves prevail

I want to ask: what do we gain and what do we lose by changing the prayer in this way? I think it is evident what we do gain. These words are so much more comfortable to say. It is so much more credible that we want to keep our promises than that we want to annul them.

But perhaps this very gain is also our loss. I recently ran a retreat for Jewish activists, including some members of this congregation and many from elsewhere. One participant had grown up Orthodox but found she no longer had a home there. She had turned away from Judaism and was now, tentatively making her way back. At the end of a morning prayer service, she said to me: “The trouble is, you’re making Judaism too easy! Liberal Judaism cuts out all the anger and the edge.”

I have a lot of sympathy with this argument. Prayer should be comforting and uplifting, but if it is only those things it is incomplete. If our prayers are going to speak to real life, they need to speak to every emotion we experience. They should encapsulate our sadness, our anger and our frustrations, as well as our happiness and joy. This year, I realised how inadequate my prayers were when I looked up at the burnt-out shell of Grenfell Tower and realised that I did not have the words to mourn such callous loss of life. We need prayers that reflect our anger.

The original Aramaic prayer has something edgy about it. Tonight, we are told, God’s face comes closest to the earth. God’s presence is with us more than any other night. And what do we do, faced with our maker? We set out a list of demands: that every promise we make should be annulled and every vow irrelevant. Not the mistakes we’ve made with other people, but specifically we annul our promises to God. Worse than that, we say we want them all forgiven in advance. We haven’t made a single promise and already we want to annul it. That is a pretty audacious prayer.

The Hebrew alternative, though more honest to the best of what we mean, might be less honest to how we feel. Coming to synagogue on Kol Nidre can feel like a big deal. For many of the people who attend synagogues across the country this evening, this will be only the time they come all year. That’s great, because this prayer was written expressly so that people who had fallen out of participation could join in again. In Eastern Europe, it helped Jews who had fallen out with their friends and family to reconnect with the community. In medieval Spain, it helped Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity to keep up a sense of commitment, even if they were too afraid the rest of the year. For those people coming, isn’t there something more honest, more empowering, about annulling vows and expressing that anger than about resolving to be a more faithful person? Don’t we all, no matter our piety, come to prayer with a little bit of frustration and anxiety, especially as we enter Yom Kippur?

As well as a difference in tone, I think there’s a difference in timing. I find the idea of time in the two prayers really interesting. In the Aramaic prayer, we annul the promises that we’re going to make in the future. In the Hebrew one, we repent for our sins and we resolve to be better in the present. But the language was changed to Hebrew by the reformers because they thought that the more ancient language was the more authentic. They reached deeper into the past in order to be better in the present. Between these two prayers, I feel like there is a conflict not just over what we want to say, but over where we are and in what direction we are going. On this most holy night, with God closest to us, where do we really stand in time? Who really are we?

These prayers seem to stand in conflict, but they don’t have to. There are good reasons for the Hebrew prayer and good reasons for the Aramaic one. Perhaps the answer is we need both. We need to be humble and we need to be angry. We need to be faithful and we need to be honest. We need to repent of the sins of the past and annul the vows of the future because, when we do so, we can stand in that Infinite Space where all sins are forgiven and all promises are forgotten. We can greet God with our whole selves, complete with all our emotions, ready to say: I’m sorry. I’ll do better again next year.

Gmar chatima tovah.

kol nidrei

This sermon was originally given for Manchester Liberal Jewish Community on Friday 29th September (Erev Yom Kippur 5778) and originally published by Leo Baeck College