The Ten Days of Return: Calling out to God determined to be heard

The Psalmist asks “Eternal God, what are human beings that you should care for them, mortal creatures that you should notice them?”

The question is carefully posed. We recognise that we are indeed fragile presences on the earth, our lives barely impacting in time or space, yet we confidently assert that God notices us and cares about us. We wear celebratory white during this season of penitence because we know that God will forgive us if we sincerely repent.

Our tradition provides us with a strong sense of ourselves. We are at one and the same time both “dust and ashes” and “the beloved children of the Sovereign”. We are mortal and yet we are bound up in immortality. We are fully individual and also we are a small part of a whole creation. It takes a particular view of the world to be able to hold both all the opinions at the same time, yet the Jewish mind is asked to somehow encompass them all, just as our liturgy speaks of God in a variety of ways all at the same time. And it is this dynamic tension that traditionally nurtures our distinctive identity and sense of self.

Yet how easily could we agree with the Psalmist today? Are we able to put a direct question to God? And even if we are comfortable with that relationship, would we dare to remind God that a precondition of the conversation is that God must pay attention to us and care for us? For many of us the easy familiarity of the covenantal relationship is lost and we struggle to find a bridge to that place. This is what the month of Ellul is for, and the Ten Days of Return. It is the work of the High Holy Days.

We may no longer be sure of God; we may wonder about the purpose of prayer. And yet part of us doesn’t want to let it all go; we want to return to that clarity that gives meaning to our lives. The Psalmist had many doubts and fears, but he knew his worth in relation to God. It is time for us to reclaim that knowledge, to search ourselves and to begin to really know ourselves. This understanding is the foundation of the bridge we build into the future, the bridge we build back to the knowledge of God.

מָה-אֱנוֹשׁ כִּי-תִזְכְּרֶנּוּ;    וּבֶן-אָדָם, כִּי תִפְקְדֶנּוּ.

Thoughts for Rosh Hashanah and the coming year: believing in the aspiration to goodness.

I was asked to write my thoughts in a booklet to be sent to the Movement for Reform Judaism’s constituent congregations on “What inspires you, how you will change and what you will change in the coming year?”  and I share my contribution here.

Rabbi Joseph, Morris2

Rabbi Morris Joseph is by way of a hero of mine. A man who had journeyed in his life from service as rabbi of orthodox communities, to the West London Synagogue, his published writings belie the fact that he was essentially a man of the 19th century and have much to say to us in the 21st. In his sermon on “Reform and Reformers” he challenges his listeners to think about why they are in a Reform community at all. Dealing with those who joined for the laxity of “Judaism lite” or who enjoyed the aspect of revolt against established authority he admits the difference between the ideal theology and its less than ideal practitioners. He says “If the religious tone of our congregation is unsatisfactory, it is simply because so large a number of our members do not realize the responsibilities which their membership imposes upon them. They either attach no meaning to Reform, or they attach a wrong meaning to it.”. He goes on to remind us that the relaxation of some laws is done to free us for the meaning behind the law: “..because we are less bound, ritually and ceremonially, than other Jews. We are more free in one sense ; shall we accept that freedom without giving something in return, or, worse still, make it a pretext for stealing a wider and far less desirable freedom ? Why has the yoke of the Ceremonial Law been lightened for us ? Surely in order to place us under the yoke of a higher law, to set our energies free for the truly religious life. If we do not believe this, then we degrade Reform to the level of mere convenience and selfishness. We make it a force acting not on the side of Religion, but against it.”

Morris Joseph believed in the progressive nature of Judaism. He thought that in order to
live, Judaism had to adapt itself to the shifting ideas of successive ages. But that did not mean that he did not also believe in the eternal nature of the Jewish message, and he preached wonderful sermons that set out a theology of high ideals and the importance of trying to live up to them. Ultimately, his measure of a person as not their theology, but the way they lived their lives. The point of Reform Judaism was to free our energies not to focus on the finest ritual details but to become the best, most honourable person we could become. His hope was that all who joined his synagogue would do so under “a strong and solemn sense of ethical and religious responsibility”.

Growing up in the Bradford Synagogue, one of the earliest Reform Communities in the country after West London and Manchester, the influence of Morris Joseph could still be felt. His call not for Judaism lite but for an ethical Judaism connected to its history and covenant with God still echoed within that beautiful building. The Jewish world has altered unimaginably since his death in 1930, and the wartime influx of German Jews to Britain changed and energised Reform synagogues in this country. The establishment of the State of Israel has also impacted on what it means to be Jewish. Yet his words continue to inspire me – his belief in the goodness of humanity, in the striving to be a better person expressed as our religious obligation, in his love of prayer and liturgy and his writing of new prayers for his community.

So what will be my change in the coming year? After more than eleven years successfully pioneering a job sharing model with Rabbi Sybil Sheridan, her retirement means it is time for me also to move on. At the time of writing I do not know what this will mean, but I shall be accompanied as always by the words and the teaching of Morris Joseph who believed in religion, in humanity, in community, in the Jewish people and in the aspiration to goodness.

What about myself will I change? I will once again search my heart and mind in order to identify how I can work this year towards becoming my best self, even though I know that this endeavour will never be fully achieved – and I will neither give up nor despair because I know this. And I will aspire to his ideal of becoming one of “those who have helped to form anew the moral life of Israel and to vitalize it afresh as a world-wide force.”

Nitzavim Vayelech: Standing Up – for each other and for our common humanity.

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In Nitzavim Moses warns that “The secret things belong to the Eternal our God; but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this Torah.”  (Deuteronomy 29:28). It sounds perfectly reasonable as a sentence until one starts to look a little closer – what are the secret or hidden things being referred to here? What are the revealed? And why the need to state the distinction? It is an obscure verse and open to much conjecture.

Rashi understands this verse as one where Moses reassures the people who are standing and accepting the covenant for all time and all Jews – even those not yet born. They must be afraid that they will be held responsible for things about which they knew nothing, as part of some Jewish collective responsibility – indeed we are told in Talmud (Shevuot 39a) that” Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la zeh – all Israel are responsible, one for the other.” So in Rashi’s eyes Moses is explaining that any sins that were openly committed and that we might have been able to prevent or mitigate – these we remain responsible for. But actions done in secret, about which we can have no knowledge – these are left for God to deal with; and he goes on to explain that God will indeed punish sins that are not publicly known about, if they are not acknowledged or mitigated.

One of the great themes of the end of the book of Deuteronomy is ‘arvut’ – the mutual responsibility between Jews. As the leadership of Moses is coming to an end, he clearly foresees a splintering of the group, maybe the challenge of a number of different leadership candidates, and he does his best to prevent this by stressing the communal nature of our relationships with each other. So here we are reminded: we are part of a single people bound by a single covenant. We cannot afford to ignore what each other is doing, or to challenge what we see to be against the values of our tradition, or to excuse something as fringe or marginal or not impacting upon us.

There is a something else that adds to the oddity and opacity of this verse – in the scroll the words ‘for us and our children’ with dots over each letter. The reason for this scribal notification is not known, but it drags our attention to the verse asking for us to pay even more intense attention to it.

We read in the Talmud: Why are there dots over ‘for us and our children’ and the ayin of ‘ad’? To teach that they were not punished for the hidden things until the Jews had crossed the Jordan – the words of Rabbi Judah. Rabbi Nehemiah said to him: Is one ever punished for the hidden things? Doesn’t it say: to eternity? Rather, just as one is not punished for the hidden things, so they were not punished for the revealed things until the Jews had crossed the Jordan. (Sanhedrin 43b)

The Talmud seems to imply that the collective responsibility only comes into being once the Jews had arrived in the land, that the peoplehood only becomes absolute at the point they have a land. This idea has evolved as the Jewish people fulfilled the Abrahamic promise by being dispersed all over the world, and as the land became metaphor more than reality for so much of Jewish history to grow into a sense of collective arvut – of responsibility for more than our Jewish community but for the different communities of which we are part, and certainly our identities have become more complex and overlain with different relationships. We grow into our communities when we have shared purpose, shared values, shared space. But the dots over the phrase “for us and our children” direct us to look deeper and closer, and again Rashi comes to our aid. Rashi, (commenting on Psalm 87:6) suggests that “the hidden things are not sins, but people” – that while many Jews have left Judaism either through historical circumstance or through assimilation, and their children may never even know of their Jewish history and backgrounds, Rashi understands that their Jewish roots are never forgotten by God.

Now this may make some people uncomfortable. In Nitzavim we were entered into a covenant without either assent or consent – by our descending from Jewish parentage we are part of this covenant whether we like it or not. Jewishness is something that is given to us whether we wanted it or not. Similarly, the understanding of a verse around this covenant is that we can never escape it – even if we no longer are aware of being part of the Jewish people, by virtue of heritage all who descend from that time will find themselves brought back into it. One thing that it does do however is to bring into focus that we cannot really know anyone’s yichus, and that we should trust God’s judgement over our own. It also means that we cannot be narrow in our understanding of who is in our community, with whom we share responsibility – the obligation to care for others extends beyond the confines of family or known community, out to the whole human world – the arvut is rightly broadened out to include all the groups among whom we live.

This verse about the hidden and the revealed reminds us that we cannot know everything about the world. It reminds us that we have responsibility for what we do or should know about – and it also reminds us that one of the things we know is that we cannot know for sure where the boundaries of our community lie, only that they extend into the human race.

Danny Siegel wrote a wonderful poem which speaks to us in the same way, a poem I love to read and use to remind myself of the extensiveness of arvut:

“If you always assume/ that the person sitting next to you/ is the messiah/ just waiting for some simple human kindness/ You will soon come to weigh your words/ and watch your hands/ and attend to your responsibilities./ And/ if he so chooses/ not to reveal himself in your time/ It will not matter. (Danny Siegel, ‘A Rebbe’s Proverb (from the Yiddish)’)

Image taken from Wikipedia internet map http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d2/Internet_map_1024.jpg

Ki Tavo: Listening in silence and paying attention – belonging to God requires the habit of thoughtful choice

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“Moses and the Levites spoke to all Israel, saying: Silence! Hear, O Israel! Today you have become the people of the Eternal your God:  Heed the Eternal your God and observe God’s commandments and laws, which I command you this day.” (27:9)

 Two phrases leap out at us when we read this verse. Firstly we recognise the words “Shema Yisrael” yet the imperative just before “Silence!” is new to us. And secondly we see that on this day, as the Israelites are poised to enter the land of Israel, they have become a people belonging to God.

 Why this demand for absolutely dedicated listening to what Moses has to say? And why only now are the Israelites described as being a people belonging to God – surely that happened long ago with Abraham, or certainly at Sinai when the covenant was agreed?

 Moses is determined to make clear that only now, here, on the banks of the Jordan, after the forty years of traveling in the wilderness,  about to enter the land and fulfil the promise made at Sinai, they would become the people he aspired for them to be – a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Only now, here, in that liminal space when all things can still be possible, do they become a people – and more than that, a people who belong to  God.  But there are rules for this belonging – in the next chapter we are told “God will make you a holy people who belong to God, as was sworn to you IF you will keep the commandments of the Eternal your God and walk in God’s ways” (28:9)  and “The Eternal has chosen you this day to be for God a treasured people, as God promised you, and you must keep all of God’s commandments” (29:18).

 The Sefer HaChinuch tells us that this commandment is not like others which are specific and focussed, but is a more personal mitzvah about walking in God’s ways- imitating the divine compassion. To walk in God’s ways is to orient your life in such a way as to always try to make the thoughtful choice, to make a habit of good behaviour. To fulfil this mitzvah requires of us constant attention to ourselves – are we being the best person we could be? Are we acting as we would like a compassionate being to act?

 As we are in Ellul, the days before the Yamim Noraim, this is the question we should be asking of ourselves – are we walking in God’s ways?  Are we keeping the commandments so as to become sanctified by them?

However we see the work of walking in God’s ways and fulfilling God’s commandments, these questions come to challenge us – how are we living our lives? For if we are not walking in God’s ways then a great deal of difficulty follows, as detailed in this sidra. We may or may not remain cohesive, a people with shared traditions and values. And ultimately we may not keep the land on which our peoplehood is predicated.

 Sidra Ki Tavo is uncompromising in this respect. Being God’s holy people and belonging to God and to the Land is predicated on our own behaviour. No wonder Moses asked for silence to impart this information – it is a reminder for us to take nothing for granted. Not even our identity, certainly not our God.

Ki Tetzei: You Shall Not Remain Indifferent – The Extra Dimension in Jewish Law

            Parashat Ki Tetzei contains seventy two commandments, (some say 74: either way the largest number in any Torah portion). They deal with such diverse subjects as the treatment of captives, defiant children, lost animals, birds’ nests, roof railings, divorce, rights of aliens, loans, vows, and protection of works; parental guilt, charity for the poor, regulations for inheritance and fair weights and measures. Many attempts have been made to categorize such laws, but the words of Torah which conclude the duty to return lost property or to keep it safe until it can be restored to its owner – the words lo tuchal le’hitalem – you shall not remain indifferent (or you shall not hide or act as if you cannot see) seem to me to sum up the ethical principle which underpins these disparate laws most powerfully.

            Way back in the book of Genesis, when Cain says to God “am I my brother’s keeper?” the response from God is “What have you done, your brother’s blood calls out to Me from the ground” – in other words it is made clear to Cain that ‘Yes, we are responsible for each other; we must not remain indifferent to the situation of others, nor hide from their pain, nor avoid seeing their distress. More than that, we have to try to see ahead, to work out the possibilities that our actions or omissions may cause others. We are obliged to consider the effects of what we do upon other people.

‘Lo tuchal le’hitalem – you shall not remain indifferent’ It is a powerful dictum, a motto for every day life. It could have been formulated for our middle class existence, when people talk of compassion fatigue, of undeserving refugees; when we create rational and reasonable explanations for our unwillingness to care about the discomfort in the world we see around us.   Lo tuchal le’hitalem – you shall not remain indifferent – it is an in-your-face moral and ethical requirement, taking us further into our humanity, reminding us that however practical Judaism is, however much a religion of doing, the doing is based on our shared humanity, our striving to reach a fuller and richer knowledge of our Source.

            Nachmanides makes it clear that the mitzvah of returning lost property supersedes any inconvenience to the finder. He reminds us that the mitzvah applies to friends, strangers, and even to enemies. He says “Assist others. Remember the bond of humanity between you, and forget the hatred”. Benno Jacob builds on his commentary, and suggests that the act of helping an enemy by helping his lost animal is itself a means of arriving at reconciliation. But it is Pinchas Peli who crystallizes the heart of Judaism taught in this huge collection of disparate laws – “From the moment one notices an animal gone astray, or an object lost by someone, one must not hide oneself. Whether he is busy with something else, or whether he chooses to get involved, a person is in fact involved, and duty bound to bring the object to his home, keeping it there safely until it can be returned to its owner. While some legal systems require returning or handing over found property to the authorities, none enjoins the finder from ignoring the lost object in the first place.

            Judaism is an infinitely complex way of being. There is no single Hebrew expression to approximate the word ‘religious’ – the use of idioms such as dati (legally observant) or charedi (quaking in the presence of the lord) are recent innovations, and they are not only inadequate and parochial, they distort the essence of Judaism. Judaism is not only about what one does and doesn’t do. It is more than what rituals you keep, or what time you separate. It isn’t lived only in the spiritual plane nor exclusively in the material world, but is rooted in the ethical and the moral. A legal code which tells us to behave properly towards others, to look after lost property even of your enemy, to make strenuous efforts to return that property – this we all understand and appreciate. But that extra expectation, – you shall not pretend not to see or to notice this property – you shall not hide yourself or be indifferent to your surroundings, however inconvenient it might be for you to notice them and therefore to have to respond to them – that is a quintessentially Jewish requirement, a teaching which fully recognises age old human rationalizations or ways of glossing over what we’d rather not deal with.    

            At this time of year, in the month of Ellul, we examine our lives and the things we have done or left undone, affecting people around us as well as affecting ourselves. It is a time when we need to be honest, to stop hiding behind all the good reasons why we didn’t have time to do what we should have done, to stop sliding our eyes away from the pain we have participated in.

Lo tuchal lehitalem- you shall not hide yourself, you shall not be indifferent.   We are not permitted to look the other way, to continue with our lives as routinely as before. Hiding the truth from ourselves and not acting to help others is a direct prohibition. Indifference to our world is intolerable, unethical and it breaches our morality. As we continue the run up to Rosh Hashanah, the annual Heshbon ha Nefesh – accounting of our soul, we need to strip away the pretence, come out of hiding and look clearly and dispassionately at our world and our place in it.

Losing our indifference might be the best thing we do all year.

 wiesel indifference