Kristallnacht. November 9th – 10th 1938

As we commemorate Kristallnacht this year, the words of Arthur Flehinger, my step-uncle and a member of the Baden Baden synagogue who witnessed it all, along with my grandfather, need to be heard again

rabbisylviarothschild

The November Pogrom in Baden-Baden.’

 The events of 10.11.1938 in Baden-Baden were described by Arthur Flehinger, a teacher at the Hohenbaden Gymnasium, who subsequently came to Bradford, Yorkshire,  in a report he wrote in 1955: (In Stadtarchiv Baden-Baden 05-02/015). Translated by Rabbi Walter Rothschild.Image

“Until the infamous 10th November 1938 Baden-Baden remained largely sheltered from the worst excesses of the Nazis. This was not because anyone wanted to grant the Jews of the Spa town any especial privileges, but from purely egoistic reasons, because the Spa had strong international connections which had to be maintained; It was, as one said, Germany’s Visiting Card. Any major disruption of the inner peace would have had as an effect a reduction in the number of visitors from abroad and therefore a reduction in foreign currency takings, and the Nazis needed money and more money. Of course all the Nazi Orders (fingerprinting, Jewish…

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Parashat Toledot – Fighting for the space to live in safety and for important resources to be accessible to all who need them has a long history

“and [Isaac] grew richer and richer until he was very wealthy: he acquired flocks and herds, and a large household, so that the Philistines envied him. And the Philistines stopped up all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham, filling them with earth. And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you have become far too big for us.” So Isaac departed from there and encamped in the wadi of Gerar, where he settled. Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them. But when Isaac’s servants, digging in the wadi, found there a well of spring water, the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.” He named that well Esek., “contention.” because they contended with him. And when they dug another well, they disputed over that one also; so he named it Sitnah. harassment.” He moved from there and dug yet another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehovot, saying, “Now at last the Eternal has granted us ample space(breadth)” to increase in the land.”” (Genesis 26:13ff)

The stories in the life of Isaac often parallel those of his father Abraham. There is a famine in the early story of Abraham, and a famine in the early life of Isaac. In both cases they left the land of Israel – Abraham went down to Egypt, Isaac to Gerar in Philistine controlled territory, having been explicitly told by God NOT to go to Egypt. Isaac encounters an Abimelech, King of Gerar and lies about the relationship he has with Rebecca, calling her his sister rather than his wife, (something Abraham had also done, both in Egypt and in Gerar)

Abraham also has an encounter with an Abimelech, the king of Gerar, over the issue of the ownership of wells, just as Isaac does in the narrative here. The digging and ownership of wells is of importance in both their lives. Both father and son have issues with the large size of their flocks and herds and the resources needed to sustain them, and both father and son react most of the time by removing themselves from conflict – Abraham with his nephew Lot, Isaac with the herdsmen of Gerar. Both have two sons, and have what might be called fraught relationships with them and with the passing of the legacy of covenant. Abraham sends Ishmael away from him and involves Isaac in whatever the mysterious event of the akeidah, never seeing him again afterwards. Isaac is tricked by Jacob pretending to be Esau, passes on the covenant apparently unaware the recipient is not Esau (or at least there is ambiguity in his mind), and Jacob is sent away, never to see his father again.

Yet there is more to Isaac’s life than his simply repeating the leitmotif’s of his father, and echoing the experiences of that great Ivri, crosser of boundaries.

 Isaac – often seen as the least significant of the patriarchs, the son of a famous father and the father of a famous son. Yet his is a story with much to teach us. A man who never leaves the Land despite many trials. The only one to be described as being in love with his wife. A man who has to deal with complexity and ambiguity in navigating his life, and with fewer certainties. A man who has survived the terrible trauma of his father’s apparent attempt on his life – or at least a seeming willingness to do so.

The story told above – of the re-digging of the Abrahamic wells and the negotiations that ensue – resonated particularly for me this year as we watch the COP 26 conference and the postures and positions on display.

In the Abrahamic parallel we are told: “At that time Abimelech, with Phicol the commander of his army, said to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do; now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my offspring or with my posterity, but as I have dealt loyally with you, you will deal with me and with the land where you have resided as an alien.” And Abraham said, “I swear it.” When Abraham complained to Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized, Abimelech said, “I do not know who has done this; you did not tell me, and I have not heard of it until today.” So Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a covenant. Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs of the flock. And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs that you have set apart?” He said, “These seven ewe lambs you shall accept from my hand, in order that you may be a witness for me that I dug this well.” Therefore that place was called Beer-sheba; (well of seven or well of oath) because there both of them swore an oath. When they had made a covenant at Beer-sheba, Abimelech, with Phicol the commander of his army, left and returned to the land of the Philistines. [Abraham] planted a tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of the Eternal, the Everlasting God. And Abraham resided as an alien many days in the land of the Philistines. (Gen 21:22-34)

In this narrative we are confronted with the need for trust between the various powers or participants to the agreement who are involved – without that trust nothing “agreed” can be said to really be agreed.  We are confronted too with the issues of ownership of resources, of the fair sharing of such resources, with the actions of the people who reside on the land and those of people who control resources but do not “belong” to the land on which they are situated. Abraham and Abimelech appear able to make a treaty with a reasonable level of success – though we are never told why the servants of Abimelech had seized Abraham’s well in the first place.

By the time of Isaac, the wells had not only been taken back but actively stopped up – a strange phenomenon given the preciousness of the resource. Does this somewhat aggressive action date from unresolved issues from the time of Abraham? Is it to prevent others coming in from outside to use the water improperly? We can only speculate. But the continuing quarrelling and harassment that Isaac faces when trying to reclaim his father’s property shows us that the matter has not only not been resolved, but that there is ongoing acrimony and anger ready to erupt into violence.

Isaac does not go to the King as his father had done, he simply moves away and tries to settle elsewhere near a “family well”, and eventually he digs and finds what may be a new watersource, one that is not contested, and understands that now he has found a place to settle down.

Yet strangely, the next verse tells us that he moves on the BeerSheba, where he encounters God and receives the covenant promise, then builds an altar and worships, then pitches his tent and only then digs a well…

Abimelech and the Philistines come to find him to make a treaty with him, and responding to his challenge about their hostility to him which has forced him to move on, tell him that they now see that God is with him. (26:28) They make their own treaty with him, and leave. Only then do Isaac’s servants come to tell him that they have found water, which he names “Sheba” (oath) and again we have a story about the naming of Beer Sheba.

What comes down to us from these narratives is how the trust and the treaties need to be ongoing, that having been made once is not enough – they must be kept in good repair. We see that was accepted once may not be acceptable going forward. We see that pressure on resources will not only not go away, but will engender resentment and anger if not addressed fairly and regularly. We see that the actions of one (or more) rich and powerful agent (s) can be hugely detrimental to others with less power but with a real stake in the issue. And this power differential cannot be allowed to continue.

If we want to have a fairer world, a world where there is access to resources by all who need them, a world where there is trust and where people work to keep that trust alive and responsive, then we need to ensure that we are part of the solution, able to see the realities and to ensure that our leadership both acknowledge and respond in a timely and appropriate manner to those realities.

Watching the COP26 and seeing the posturing, the lobbying, the arrogance of the more powerful countries and the despair of those less powerful, we can see we have a long way to go to make a fairer and more sustainable world. The time is short, but this is no reason not to continue to involve ourselves and our values. Isaac eventually finds a place where there is space for everyone to have their own needs met without treading on the needs of others. It is a goal worth aspiring to.

Vayera – Mercy and Justice – truth springs up from the earth, justice from the heavens

Vayera 

Then the Eternal said, “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.”

The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Eternal. Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Gen 18:20-25)

Justice is at the heart of Judaism from the biblical narrative onwards, and it is understood to be a core attribution of God that we human beings should strive to emulate.

But Justice alone will not create a sustainable world. And here in Vayera we see Abraham challenging God and God’s intended actions against the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah. Is this how to dispense Justice? Something more is needed….

When we read the two creation stories in the beginning of the book of Genesis, we see that God’s name differs between the stories. To begin with God is called Elohim – a word that is also used to describe human judges in bible, and it is understood to correspond to the attribute of Justice. In the second story the name of God is YHVH Elohim – Justice is present but so is something else, something in the ineffable and unpronounceable name of God – something understood to correspond to the attribute of Mercy.

Why the additional name? Because anything created only to follow the rules of strict justice is unlikely to survive for long – Justice must always be tempered with Mercy.

The midrash explains thus: “In creating the world God combined the two attributes of justice and mercy: “Thus said the Holy One, blessed be God’s name! ‘If I create the world with the attribute of mercy, sin will be plentiful; and if I create it with the attribute of justice, how can the world exist? Therefore I will create it with both attributes, mercy and justice, and thus may it endure.'”. [Gen. R. 12:15]

“Initially, God intended to create it with the attribute of Justice. But then He saw that the world cannot exist [with only Justice], so He gave priority to the attribute of Mercy, and joined it with the attribute of Justice.” (Pesikta Rabbati 40)

As the prophet Micah put it (6:8)  “God  has told you, O human, what is good, And what the Eternal requires of you:  Only to do justice (mishpat), And to love goodness (hesed), And to walk humbly with your God”

The bible tells us “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16) but while it commands absolute justice we can see that at the same time compassion and mercy are threaded into the narrative almost all the time. Just as the first creation story has the world made from absolute justice, so there has to be a second creation where that justice is mitigated with mercy. If the world is made with only absolute justice, goes the thought, then no one would survive God’s decrees. And if it were to be made only with absolute mercy, then chaos would ensue if no one was ever going to deal with the consequences of their choices. Hence the intertwining of the two attributes, Justice and Mercy, within God.

In the Talmud there is a discussion about whether God prays and to whom. The decision is that God does indeed pray and that God prays to Godself. And what is the prayer that God recites? “May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may suppress my other attributes so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy, and on their behalf restrain my attribute of strict Justice.” (Berachot 7a)

In the story in Vayera, God appears to be in full “Justice” mode. It is Abraham who introduces the notion of mercy. Abraham’s question to God is a masterpiece of critical examination: “Shall the Shofet/Judge of all the earth not Mishpat/Justice”? It is a reminder that sometimes we may have to remind God of the prayer God prays (see above).

In the weekday Amidah there is a paragraph that does just that.

הָשִֽׁיבָה שׁוֹפְ֒טֵֽינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁוֹנָה וְיוֹעֲצֵֽינוּ כְּבַתְּ֒חִלָּה וְהָסֵר מִמֶּֽנּוּ יָגוֹן וַאֲנָחָה וּמְלוֹךְ עָלֵֽינוּ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה לְבַדְּ֒ךָ בְּחֶֽסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים וְצַדְּ֒קֵֽנוּ בַּמִשְׁפָּט:

 Restore our judges as before and our counselors as at the first. Remove sorrow and sighing from us, and reign over us You, Adonai, alone with kindness (hesed) and mercy (rachamim); and make us righteous with justice,

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה מֶֽלֶךְ אֹהֵב צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט:

Blessed are You, Adonai the Sovereign who loves righteousness and justice.

While the blessing uses a verse in Isaiah (1:26) I will restore your magistrates as of old,
And your counselors as of yore. After that you (Jerusalem)shall be called City of Righteousness, Faithful City”
to reference the “golden period” of the Judges – before the monarchy was established – a human monarchy which God had not originally planned for and which may be seen as in some way challenging the kingship of God. The final section explicitly reminds God that God should use kindness and compassion in order to bring about Justice, that  Justice only emerges when there is also compassion and mercy.

Justice is our imperative, it drives Jewish thinking in so many ways. This prayer reminds us that without Justice there will be “sorrow and sighing” – the world will not function and people will be ridden over roughshod with no way of protecting themselves.  But Justice cannot exist alone, in a place where there is only justice there can be no mercy. In a place where there is only mercy there can be no justice. And so while the imperative to pursue Justice at all times shapes us, we must be constantly aware to be merciful in its applications.

In the words of the psalmist

חֶסֶד־וֶאֱמֶ֥ת נִפְגָּ֑שׁוּ צֶ֖דֶק וְשָׁל֣וֹם נָשָֽׁקוּ׃ Faithfulness and truth meet;
justice and well-being kiss. אֱ֭מֶת מֵאֶ֣רֶץ תִּצְמָ֑ח וְ֝צֶ֗דֶק מִשָּׁמַ֥יִם נִשְׁקָֽף׃ Truth springs up from the earth;
justice looks down from heaven.

Just as God learns this, then so do we. Just as God acts with both attributes, so must we. It is a difficult road to walk, and just as Abraham was able to challenge God, so too we must challenge ourselves and each other. Justice yes, but mercy always too.

Lech Lecha: the land cannot continue to sustain us and something has to change

Now Avram was very rich in cattle, silver, and gold. And he proceeded by stages from the Negeb as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been formerly, between Bethel and Ai, the site of the altar that he had built there at first; and there Avram invoked the ETERNAL by name. Lot, who went with Avram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support them staying together; for their possessions were so great that they could not remain together. And there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Avram’s cattle and those of Lot’s cattle.—The Canaanites and Perizzites were then dwelling in the land.—  Avram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate:a (Lit. “Please separate from me.”) if you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north.” Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it—this was before the ETERNAL had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the ETERNAL, like the land of Egypt. So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they parted from each other; Avram remained in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the Plain, pitching his tents near Sodom. (Genesis 13:5ff)

Avram and his nephew (and heir presumptive)  Lot had travelled from their homeland of Haran and, finding famine in the land of Canaan had journeyed on to Egypt. There, the encounter with Pharaoh who took Sarai into his harem, believing her to be not Avram’s wife but his sister, led to the family acquiring great wealth before leaving Egypt and returning to Canaan (Gen 12:16). Travelling north through the Negev desert, they reached Beit El (North of Jerusalem), where they had struck camp on their original journey from Haran, and settled there.

But this time their herds and flocks were numerous, the land could not sustain so many animals – theirs as well as those of the Canaanites and Perizzites – and -as ever when a resource becomes scarce, tempers flare and cooperation ends as each group tried to take as much of the resource as possible to sustain their own before thinking of the needs other.

The land could not support them staying together for their livestock [possessions] were so many…..”

Abusing the land by overgrazing or by planting too intensively is a phenomenon as old as settled human habitation. The bible not only understands it, but legislates. So for example in Exodus 22:4 we read “When a man lets his livestock loose to graze in another’s land, and so allows a field or a vineyard to be grazed bare, he must make restitution for the impairment Lit. “excellence.” of that field or vineyard.” And Rashi comments here (quoting Talmud Baba Kama 2b) “this describes when  he takes his cattle into the field or the vineyard of his fellow and causes damage to him by one of these two ways: either by the mere fact that he lets his cattle go (tread) there, or by letting it graze there .”  The rabbis of the Talmud were well aware that overgrazing by animals damages the land in two different ways – by eating the vegetation which can then cause soil degradation and later erosion,  and by treading down the land so vegetation cannot thrive there.  

Bible is threaded through with the idea that the land itself has value and agency, quite separately from the fact it acts as home to humanity. From the moment the first human beings are created in the narrative in the first chapter of Genesis, they are given a blessing to “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and control it;” – this last verb is the focus of much commentary – one being that of Sforno (died Bologna 1550)  “It means that the human is to use their intelligence to prevent predators from invading their habitats”, and certainly both biblical and midrashic texts make clear that humanity can only keep control of the land if they take care of the land and act righteously in the way that God requires.  In the words of Rabbi Dovid Sears “the blessing to “control comprises a form of stewardship for which humanity is answerable to God”

The second creation story links humanity to the land even more intimately – Adam, the human being, is created from the Adamah – the ground. We are made of the same stuff, and while the life force is within us we have choices, afterwards we return to the dust we were formed from.

In the story of Avram and Lot there are a number of issues we can recognise in our modern problems with how we deal with our environment.

First of course is the sheer number of animals that they own between them – and the animals of the other peoples in the area. Quite simply the pshat (plain reading of the text) is that there is not enough grazing for them all.

Then there is the fact of individual desires that may mitigate against the needs of others. Ibn Ezra (died 1167 Spain) comments on the word “yachdav” (v6) thus “Yachdav (together) can refer to two (as in our verse) or to many, as in And all the people answered together (yachdav) (Ex. 19:8)….. Yachdav is not synonymous with yachad (together). Yachdav means acting like one person.”. Ibn Ezra is building on the interpretation of Targum Onkelos (early 2nd century translation of the Torah into Aramaic)  which translates yachdav to mean “as one person,” and makes clear that there must be shared values and deep relationship if human beings are to live in full harmony with the land. The uncle and nephew simply can’t create a strategy where they can share the resource that is there, they are each apparently calculating based on their own interests and values  – Lot for wealth, Avram one assumes, for the fulfilment of the covenant by staying on the land.That is, their individuality is blended, as in And all the people answered together (yachdav) (Ex. 19:8), which means that all the people answered as if they were one person. Yachad implies two people acting at the same time, but each one by himself (Weiser).

Thirdly, Avram gives Lot the choice of where he will take his animals. And Lot takes full advantage – “Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it—this was before the Eternal had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the Eternal, like the land of Egypt. So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they parted from each other;” (13:10,11)

Lot chooses what he believes to be the best and most richly resourced land for himself. Off he goes to the wealthiest part of the land to further his own material ambitions. We know of course that the cities of the plain – Sodom and Gomorrah – are materially rich but ethically lacking, a compromise that Lot appears prepared to make. His accompanying Avram on the great adventure of Lech Lecha, his role as heir presumptive – all of these are about feeding his own ambitions, and there is apparently no moral imperative in the choices he makes. We cannot but read this text in the light of what happens to Lot and his family, to the point where the descendants of Lot, the Moabites and the Ammonites are forbidden to intermarry with the descendants of Abraham.

Shortage of resource – be it land, water, grain, – the bible is constantly dealing with this problem – so much of the narrative is set against the backdrop of famine or struggles over the right to land. plus ça change plus c’est la meme chose.  We too are dealing with that same shortage of resource in the world – and unlike Avram and Lot we cannot simply spread out to find a place with enough resource to sustain us.

We have to address the overwhelming need to work together as one humanity on one planet. In a way that is truly “yachdav”. We are interconnected in so many ways across the globe: as our climate changes we will have an ever increasing number of refugees. As we compete for resources – be they metals for computer chips or construction, or for water, land and gran – we have to find a way to share equitably and openly. As the coronavirus circulates the globe we must share vaccines and medications if we are to prevent its repeated mutations and iterations. We are living in a world – as shown by recently leaked documents – where the rich are getting richer and hiding their wealth from the rest of the world, while the poor are not only getting poorer but are actively unable to sustain themselves from day to day.

The earth will not continue to sustain us as she is abused and ignored, as soil erosion and flooding, tidal changes and hurricanes increasingly demonstrate. The parasha Lech Lecha comes immediately after the cataclysmic floods and the dispersal following the tower of Babel in Parashat Noach. It is reminding us of our responsibility to each other and to our world. There is, as they say, no Planet B.

By Wenceslaus Hollar – Artwork from University of Toronto Wenceslaus Hollar Digital CollectionScanned by University of TorontoHigh-resolution version extracted using custom tool by User:Dcoetzee, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6233909

World Mental Health Day 2021 – A Jewish approach

In the Talmud, Berachot 5b, we read a series of stories of the sages and their illnesses. First we are told of Rabbi Yochanan’s student, Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba, who falls ill. “Rabbi Yochanan entered to visit him, and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Do you desire to be ill and afflicted? Rabbi Hiyya said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward, as one who welcomes this suffering with love is rewarded. Rabbi Yochanan said to him: Give me your hand. Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan stood him up and restored him to health.

Similarly, Rabbi Yochanan fell ill. Rabbi Ḥanina entered to visit him, and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Rabbi Yochanan said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward. Rabbi Ḥanina said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand, and Rabbi Ḥanina stood him up and restored him to health.

The Gemara asks: Why did Rabbi Yochanan wait for Rabbi Ḥanina to restore him to health? If he was able to heal his student, let Rabbi Yochanan stand himself up. The Gemara answers itself “A prisoner cannot generally free himself from prison, but depends on others to release him from his shackles.”

I read these stories as being a very clear statement of the repudiation of pain or suffering being “good for the soul” – or that accepting any pain or suffering is a gateway to divine mercy. Rather, the rabbis reject the idea that suffering is necessary for achieving closeness to God, or for salvation of the soul, or indeed for anything beneficial to the sufferer, in this world or the next.

Threaded through the narratives of the Hebrew bible are the stories of individuals who protest suffering – their own or that of the people around them.

Moses calls out to God to free him from the burden of leadership of a fractious people (Numbers 11:14-15), adding “And if You deal thus with me, kill me, I pray, out of hand, if I have found favour in Your sight; and let me not look upon my wretchedness.” – Moses would rather die than continue in his mental distress and the loneliness of his position.

In 1Kings 19:4ff we see Elijah, having shown courage and confidence against the Baal worshippers only the chapter before, now frightened and depressed at his situation “He went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom-tree; and he requested for himself that he might die; and said: ‘It is enough; now, O Eternal God, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.”

We see King Saul, the first King of Israel,  repeatedly demonstrating disturbed behaviour and showing emotional and mental distress: shortly after he is anointed King by Samuel he has an episode where he joins a band of wandering prophets and falls into some kind of ecstatic prophetic frenzy, (1Sam 10:10) leading to the proverb “Is Saul also among the prophets?”;  and again he appears to have an episode much later when chasing David (1Sam 19:23f) whom he knows will now be king in his place “And he went to Naiot in Ramah and the spirit of God came upon him also, and he went and prophesised until he came to Naiot in Ramah. And he stripped off his clothes and prophesised before Samuel and lay naked all that day and all that night. Wherefore they say “Is Saul also among the prophets”

More frequently however Saul is described in what today we would understand to be deep depression and anxiety– described as “an evil spirit from God”, and could be soothed only by David playing the lyre before him (1Sam 16:23).

The Psalmist repeatedly writes of emotional and mental distress, of feeling alone and abandoned, of the anxiety of living with the knowledge that there are those who seek to harm them. The language used is very much bodily oriented – feelings are experienced in heart and belly and bowels, and this reinforces the Jewish teaching of Maimonides – “the body is the home of the soul and the soul guides the body. This means that the body and the soul are one unit”

Maimonides also wrote that “”When one is overpowered by imagination, prolonged meditation and avoidance of social contact, which he never exhibited before, or when one avoids pleasant experiences which were in him before, the physician should do nothing before he improves the soul by removing the extreme emotions.”  He believed that mental health was as important as physical health, earning him the distinction of being the father of psychosomatic medicine. He emphasised the prevention of illness of all kinds, mental or physical, since they interfered with the person’s ability to serve God. (Koenig: Faith and Mental Health: Religious Resources for Healing, p34)

 His understanding that before addressing a person’s physical needs, physicians must first attend to the patient’s emotional and mental needs, was a powerful innovation for his time (12th Century) and led to him being appointed as court physician, as well as being described by Ibn Abi Ozeibia (1203–1270), the famous physician and historian of Cairo as a “healer of the body and the mind.”

In the traditional community prayer for healing, the “Mi Sheberach” prayer read in the morning service when the Torah is read, we pray for a r’fuah shleimah, a complete recovery, which includes both r’fuat hanefesh ur’fuat haguf, a healing of the soul and the body. This ancient formula which asks for “complete healing”, specifies that both the body and the soul are often in need of help, that we are human beings who experience distress and pain in both the physical and spiritual parts of our being. Judaism acknowledges a that both mental and physical ill- health exists, and our tradition treats them on equally, knowing that for a human being to be “shalem” complete and whole,  there should be good health in both the physical and spiritual aspects.

Somewhere this understanding that we are made up of body and spirit, that everyone from the highest social status to the lowest can be subjected to distress of both mind and body, and that prioritising physical health over mental distress can never successfully alleviate either – somewhere this knowledge has diminished.

  • According to MIND 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England  
  • 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem (like anxiety and depression) in any given week in England

https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/statistics-and-facts-about-mental-health/how-common-are-mental-health-problems/

In any given week in England people suffer:    Mixed anxiety and depression: 8 in 100 people

  Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD): 6 in 100 people

  Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): 4 in 100 people

  Depression: 3 in 100 people

  Phobias: 2 in 100 people

  Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): 1 in 100 people

  Panic disorder: fewer than 1 in 100 people.

We know that people who suffer from mental health challenges are not only having to deal with their illness, but that society will often stigmatise them and exclude them. People with a visible illness may attract empathy and concern, yet often people with an invisible illness or disability will find themselves ridiculed or dismissed, ignored or even feared.

Today is World Mental Health Day. A day for us to stop and recognise that each of us has a risk of mental ill-health in our lifetime, just as we have the risk of physical ill-health. A day for us to see the people whose suffering is often invisible to us; a day to give space and time to those who may be struggling, a day to tell others of our own distress and struggle. A day to remember that we are each made up of body and soul, and both can become out of sorts, both need to be in balance for our well-being.

 Mi she-bei-rach a-vo-tei-nu, Av-ra-ham, Yitz-chak, v’Ya-a-kov, v’i-mo-tei-nu Sa-rah, Riv-kah, Ra-chel, v’Le-ah, Hu yi-va-rech vi-ra-pei et ha-cho-leh/ha-cho-lah ____ ben/bat ____ Ha-Ka-dosh Ba-ruch Hu yi-ma-lei ra-cha-mim a-lav/a-lei-hah, l’ha-cha-li-mo/l’ha-cha-li-mah u-l’rap-o-to/u-l’rap-o-tah, l’ha-cha-zi-ko/ l’ha-cha-zi-kah u-l’ha-cha-yo-to/u-l’ha-cha-yo-tah V’yish-lach lo/lah bim-hei-ra r’fu-ah sh’lei-mah, r’fu-at ha-ne-fesh u-r’fu-at ha-guf, b’toch sh’ar cho-lei Yis-ra-el, hash-tah ba-a-ga-lah u-viz-man ka-riv, v’no-mar, Am-en!

May the One who blessed our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, bless and heal the one who is ill: ____ son/daughter of ____. May the Holy One, the fount of blessings, shower abundant mercies upon him/her, fulfilling his/her dreams of healing, strengthening him/her with the power of life.

Merciful one, restore him/her, heal him/her, strengthen him/her, enliven him/her. Send him/her a complete healing from the heavenly realm, a healing of body and a healing of soul, together with all who are ill soon, speedily, without delay; and let us say: Amen! Translation by National Center for Jewish Healing

https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/self-help/guides-tools-and-activities/five-steps-to-mental-wellbeing/

https://www.ageuk.org.uk/information-advice/health-wellbeing/conditions-illnesses/depression-anxiety/

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/world-mental-health-day

Parashat Noach: We will not be silent: renewing the work of creation

Parashat Noach

Ten generations from the Creation of the first human beings the earth is corrupted, violent and vile.

וַתִּשָּׁחֵ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ חָמָֽס׃

וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְהִנֵּ֣ה נִשְׁחָ֑תָה כִּֽי־הִשְׁחִ֧ית כׇּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר אֶת־דַּרְכּ֖וֹ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ קֵ֤ץ כׇּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃  {ס} 

The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness.  When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth, God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.

In three verses (Genesis 6:11-13) the narrative drives home the problem – human beings have damaged their environment irredeemably. Ha’aretz “the earth” is mentioned six times, each time with the connection that it is corrupted  – from the root שָׁחַת  meaning spoiled, destroyed, corrupted, decayed….

God doesn’t directly reference the corruption of the people – it is the earth which is expressing the consequences of human action and inaction, the earth which is acting out the full horror of what humanity has become. And it is on the earth that the full punishment will be felt, as the floods rise and the rain falls, the waters that surround the land which were divided above and below at the time of creation return to their place, and no land will be seen for 150 days and nights.

The intertwining of people and land is complete. What one does affects the other, yet we also know that the land is used again and again in bible to be the metric against which ethical behaviour is measured – and should we not follow God’s requirements we will be unceremoniously evicted from the land for which we have stewardship.

When God decides to end the corruption on the earth God speaks to Noach. God tells him – all flesh will be ended because it is the action of humanity that has brought this unspeakable destruction about, and God is about to end creation – both people and land must be ended.

And Noach says – well, interesting Noach says nothing. Indeed, we have no record in any of the narrative of Noach speaking. Not to God, not to his family, not to humankind. His silence is a cold core at the heart of the story.  Noach doesn’t react, doesn’t warn, doesn’t plead or beg or educate or protest….

Instead Noach builds the boat, collects the animals and their food as God has commanded him, floats in a sea of destruction as everything around him drowns. And when eventually the dry land appears and they are all able to disembark, still Noach doesn’t speak. He builds and altar and sacrifices to God. He plants a vineyard and makes wine and gets drunk, and only then does Noach speak – he speaks to curse his son who had shamed him while he slept off his drunkenness. (Oddly while it was his son Ham who had seen him in this state, Noach actually curses Canaan, the son of Ham.)

He breaks this long long silence for what? To curse so that one group of society will be oppressed by another. He has essentially learned nothing.

We read the story every year. Every year Torah is reminding us – it just took ten generations to completely spoil the creation of our world. We read it and yet we don’t notice it. Instead we focus on the rainbow, the promise from God not to destroy us again by flood. We have turned it into a children’s story decorated with colourful pictures of rainbows and cheerful animals on an artfully dilapidated boat.

We don’t pay attention to the silence of Noach, which mirrors our own silence. We too don’t protest or change our behaviours or warn or educate, we too just doggedly get on with our lives. We don’t pay attention to the way that nature rises up to right itself, the planet ridding itself of the dirt and destruction humanity has visited upon it. We don’t pay attention to the drunkenness of the man who cannot cope with what he has seen, nor the warnings which echo when he finally speaks – to curse the future.

Noach is the quintessential antihero. There is nothing much we can see in him to learn from or to emulate. Yet his story can teach us a great deal. First and foremost it teaches us that abusing the earth will bring devastating consequences to all who live on this planet, and to the planet itself. We learn that the earth is fragile and complex interdependent system, that it does not take long – ten generations – to corrupt and seriously damage it. We learn that the way to avert this is not only to change our behaviour but also to engage with each other and support each other in changing how we treat our world, silence and focus only on self-preservation will not bring a good outcome for anyone. We learn that the trauma of survival in such circumstances will mark the generations to come.

Bible tells us that God repents having made human beings on the earth. (Genesis 6:6) and so brings about the flood. It tells us that God wearily understands that “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21) after Noach has made his sacrifice having survived and returned to dry land. Much is made of God’s covenant not to bring total destruction by flood ever again – the symbol for the promise being the rainbow that appears in the sky – but this is not an open promise to the world that we will not bring about our own destruction, merely a divine understanding that perfection will never be part of the human project.

A perfect world is beyond our grasp, but that should not stop us grasping for a world which is healthy and healing, nurtured and nurturing, diverse and complex and continuing to evolve.

In the yotzer prayer, one of the two blessings before the shema in the shacharit (morning) service, is the phrase    “uvtuvo me’chadesh bechol yom tamid ma’aseh bereishit”

In [God’s] goodness God renews the work of creation every day.

Creation is not static, it is a constantly emerging phenomenon. Our tradition makes us partners with God in nurturing the environment we live in. If  God is said to give us a new possibility each day to make our world a better place, then unlike Noach we must grasp the challenge and work hard to clean up our world, and so avoid the inevitable consequences of just looking after ourselves and keeping silent.

Bereishit – the roots of social justice are entwined with our creation as human beings

And the Eternal God said, behold, the human being is become like one of us, to be able to know good and evil (Gen 3:22)

ֶוַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, הֵן הָאָדָם הָיָה כְּאַחַד מִמֶּנּוּ, לָדַעַת, טוֹב וָרָע;

What had been an ability reserved for divinity, to know and differentiate good and evil, to understand morality and make ethical decisions, has now become a human capacity. We can no longer exist in a state of ethical indifference to the world – we cannot claim we do not understand the consequences of our actions.

The Italian rabbi  and biblical commentator Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno (died Bologna 1550) wrote an extraordinary comment on this verse. He read the latter half of the verse as meaning that humanity will know good and evil while continuing to “wear our image”, an intolerable situation because of the human tendency to give in to the yetzer ha’ra, the inclination towards material rather than spiritual imperatives.

For Sforno the problem was that the human being, in favouring their yetzer hara, would not then reach the spiritual level set out for them when God first created them in the image of the divine, but I read his comment slightly differently. While protected and camouflaged because they were wearing the clothing of being created in the image of God, human beings would continue to choose selfishly intentionally. They would bring into disrepute the name and the meaning of being a religious person, they would disgrace and dishonour the values taught by religious traditions, because they would use it for their own purposes and to fulfil their own needs.

I cannot help thinking of how often in our world people wear the clothing of integrity while simultaneously denigrating and demeaning it. Of the police officer who used his warrant card to kidnap, rape and murder a young woman walking home, and all the other stories that are emerging as women tell their stories. Of the politicians who flaunt the national flag in their interviews as if they are defending the values of our nations. Of the despots who rule in the name of “the people” and divide communities by disparaging some imagined “elite”. Of the clergy and the educators and the employers who have historically abused their power and abused those in their power. Of the “nationalists” who foment hatred against outsiders and people in need. The list seems endless right now.

Moral authority  must be much more than clothing we can take on or take off. And much more than the roles we inhabit professionally. It must come from within, be ingrained in how we choose to behave whether “in role” or not, our actions informed by it whether we can be seen or whether we are in private.

Judaism is very clear that each of us is responsible for our own actions. God has given us a pure soul for which we thank God every morning in the “elohai neshama” prayer. It is for each of us to take care of that gift, to be aware of what might taint it and how we can make reparations and teshuvah in order to keep ourselves in good order. No one else can act as intermediary or offer absolution – we have to do the work ourselves.

 But Judaism is also interested in our responsibility for others and for our world. In this week’s sidra the first murder, the fratricide of Abel by Cain, is recorded. And God asks Cain the same question that God asked Eve – “What have you done? (Mah zot aseet/ mah aseeta?”. Eve tries to pass the blame onto the serpent who is then cursed among all the animals, (Genesis 3:13ff) but Cain’s denial of responsibility is far more chilling, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and it leads to him being cursed from the very earth of which he is made, as God says “the bloods of your brother cry out to me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10).

We cannot read this sidra without being very clear that the actions of one can impinge upon another. We cannot see God’s responses to our actions as being anything other than a repeated demand that we act ethically and morally, in the interest of the community rather than pursue our own desires. We see that God doesn’t ignore or deny the wrongdoing even if we might try to do so, to mitigate, to explain away, to obfuscate to ourselves or to others.

Each of us has the gift of moral discernment. We know the difference between right and wrong; we can identify even in the most complex situations what we should be doing, even if we choose not to do so. Each of us has the gift of a pure soul, every morning we are reminded in our prayers that the condition of our moral being is our own responsibility.  Each of us is also tasked with the welfare and well-being of our own communities, of giving a gentle “tochecha”(rebuke/honest feedback/helpful criticism) when we see someone whose behaviour is not in line with ethical imperatives.  We are indeed “our brother’s keeper”

In this very first sidra of the yearly cycle, we see the roots of social justice established as part of the agreement between God and humanity. We see how each of us is given the ability to understand right and wrong, each of us is given the choice, the continuous and continuing choice, in how we decide to act. We see that none of us are isolated or insulated from each other, that the choices we make may have deep impact on the lives and wellbeing of others. That we have responsibility to and for each other.

So when we see people wearing the image of the divine while at the same time diminishing the presence of divine will in the world, we have to speak up. When we see people abusing their authority, abusing their power over others; when we see politicians gaslighting the electorate or waving the flag to cover their selfish and destructive behaviour, we have to stand up and speak out. When we hear the rhetoric of hate in the guise of patriotism, we must call it out, confront it and those who speak it.

If like Adam, Eve and the Serpent we just try to pass on the blame, or like Cain we deny that any blame might be attached, we are denying the humanity of the other and denying our own human obligation to support and care for others – our obligation to act in the image of God. If we add to that our wearing the clothing of integrity and moral authority while denying the obligations they entail, we are truly ignoring the lessons of this sidra, and we are adding insult to injury by not only choosing our yetzer ha’ra over our yetzer hatov, but masquerading, pretending that this is divinely sanctioned behaviour.

Hiding behind a professional role, clothing ourselves in terms of values while choosing to behave directly in contradiction to those values, whether it be a religious professional or a policeman, a politician charged with working to benefit the country or a regulator tasked with ensuring their organisation does what it is supposed to do – Sforno was right to be worried. If we traduce the divine image in which we are made while proclaiming our rights and our righteousness, the damage we can do is amplified beyond measure. And so society loses trust in educators and police, in politicians and regulators, in journalists and in clergy…

Neila Sermon Lev Chadash 2021

Yom Kippur Neila 2021

There is a story told that has, in the last century or so been attributed to King Solomon, though it is found in a number of different cultures and not in fact found in the traditional Rabbinic texts nor is the central phrase found in bible. It goes like this:

Of all King Solomon’s servants, the bravest and most faithful Benaiah, the captain of the guard, had been the King’s companion in the fabulous adventures of his earlier days and more than once saved his master’s life. He had never failed in any task that Solomon set for him and he was very proud of this record. One day Solomon decided to play a trick on him and to set him a task he was sure he would fail :”Benaiah,  I want you to find me a certain wonderful ring, with magic powers,” said the King. “If a happy man looks at it, he at once becomes downcast and gloomy; but if a person in misery or mourning beholds it, hope rises in his heart and he is comforted.” I would like to wear it for the festival of Sukkot, in six months’ time.

Now King Solomon knew that there was no such ring but Benaiah began to search. First he went to the finest jewellers and goldsmiths and silversmiths in Jerusalem, for he didn’t know whether the ring was of silver or gold, set with precious stones or plain. To each he described its magic qualities, but no one knew anything about it. They had not even heard of such a ring. Benaiah then tried the smaller shops and less prosperous dealers. Always he met the same raised eyebrows, the same shake of the head. Ah, this ring must be treasured in some far-off city, thought Benaiah. When the great caravans came southward from Babylon and Damascus and Tyre, he was the first to meet them, and he spoke to the traders in precious gems, and said: “I am seeking a ring with this magic quality: When a happy person looks at it, he becomes sad; and when a wretched person sees it, he ceases to grieve and is comforted. Do you have it? I will pay any price. It is for King Solomon.” The merchants shook their heads, they had never even heard of such a ring.  

Benaiah went to Beersheba in the south, to meet the caravans that came up from the cities of Egypt, and from Yemen, the land of perfumes and asked the merchants: “Can you find me a ring which has the wonderful power of changing grief to joy and happiness to sorrow at a glance. They could not.  Benaiah went down to Jaffa, where the ships came in from the Great Sea and the Ocean of Darkness, in the west, and the Spice Islands and the Land of Ophir, to the east and south. To each merchant he said, “I seek a magic ring. It makes a mourner forget his grief, when he looks at it; but when a happy person sees it, their heart sinks and there is no joy in them.”  But each one answered him, “I know of no such ring”   Benaiah thought, How wise is my lord, the King! He knows the things hidden from other men, even at the ends of the earth! Meanwhile weeks, then months, went by. It was summer, and there was no sign of the ring and no one had ever heard of it.

 The last harvest of the year came, and with it the Succot festival was approaching. Every time King Solomon saw Benaiah, he would “Well, how goes the search, Benaiah? Have you found the ring?” when Benaiah shook his head, Solomon said with a pleasant “Search diligently, Benaiah. You will surely find it.” But as the days went by and brought no good news, he began to avoid the places where he might meet the King. Now it was only a week before Succot. Benaiah could not eat and his nights were sleepless.  He dreaded the moment when he must tell the King he had failed.

 It was the last night before Succot Eve. Benaiah lay restless bed for several hours; then he rose and dressed and walked silent city, hardly knowing where he went. At dawn he found himself in a poor neighbourhood, with small shabby houses. As the sun rose, people in patched and faded garments came out of their dwellings and set about the morning’s business. Benaiah saw a young man spread a mat upon the paving-stones in front of his home, and arrange on it some baskets of cheap silver and turquoise trinkets. He asked the young man about the ring, but the jeweller shook his head, he had never heard of such a thing.

Meanwhile the jeweller’s old grandfather had come out to sit by the doorway in the early sunshine and he spoke to the jeweller. “Wait” the young man called out, “I think we can serve you.  HE took from one of the baskets a plain gold ring, such as is used for weddings. With a sharp tool he engraved something on it and gave it to Benaiah

Benaiah hurried home and prepared for the festival.  When the celebration was at its height, King Solomon turned to Benaiah. A hush spread around the table. “Now, my faithful Captain,” the King asked “where is the famous ring?” To Solomon s astonishment, Benaiah cried: “I have it, O King! It is here.” And he placed it on Solomon’s hand. As the King looked at it, the teasing laughter faded from his face. He became silent and thoughtful, for the magic of the ring was working. The jeweller had engraved on it three Hebrew words Gam Zeh Ya’avor—”This, too, shall pass.”

It is an important story, for that magical ring – or rather the phrase engraved upon it – reminds us of the impermanence of our situation in the world, indeed of any situation in the world.  The book of psalms has many reminders of the transience of our existence – in psalm 144:3-4 we read

יְֽהֹוָ֗ה מָֽה־אָ֭דָם וַתֵּדָעֵ֑הוּ בֶּן־אֱ֝נ֗וֹשׁ וַתְּחַשְּׁבֵֽהוּ׃

Adonai ma adam va’teida’eihu, ben enosh vat’chashveihu

O  God, what are human beings that You should care about them? Mortal beings that  You should think of them?

אָ֭דָם לַהֶ֣בֶל דָּמָ֑ה יָ֝מָ֗יו כְּצֵ֣ל עוֹבֵֽר׃

Adam l’hevel damah, yamav k’tzeil oveir

Human beings are like a breath; their days are like a passing shadow.

And possibly my favourite verses on the subject  (psalm 103 vv14 ff)

For God knows how we are formed, is mindful that we are dust.  Human beings, our days are like those of grass, we blossom like a flower in the field then the wind passes over it and it is no more, its own place no longer knows it. But God’s steadfast love is for all eternity to those who have reverence and God’s righteousness to the children’s children.

כִּי־ה֭וּא יָדַ֣ע יִצְרֵ֑נוּ זָ֝כ֗וּר כִּי־עָפָ֥ר אֲנָֽחְנוּ׃

אֱ֭נוֹשׁ כֶּחָצִ֣יר יָמָ֑יו כְּצִ֥יץ הַ֝שָּׂדֶ֗ה כֵּ֣ן יָצִֽיץ׃

כִּ֤י ר֣וּחַ עָֽבְרָה־בּ֣וֹ וְאֵינֶ֑נּוּ וְלֹֽא־יַכִּירֶ֖נּוּ ע֣וֹד מְקוֹמֽוֹ׃

וְחֶ֤סֶד יְהֹוָ֨ה ׀ מֵעוֹלָ֣ם וְעַד־ע֭וֹלָם עַל־יְרֵאָ֑יו וְ֝צִדְקָת֗וֹ לִבְנֵ֥י בָנִֽים׃

Ki hu yada yitzreinu, zachur ki afar anachnu, enosh k’hatzir yamav, k’tzitz hasadeh ken yatzitz, ki ruach avra bo v’einenu, velo yakirenu od m’komo. V hesed Adonai mei’olam v’ad olam al y’rei’av, v’tzidkato livnei vanim

We are living through difficult times – of that there is no doubt. But as Solomon’s ring reminds us, this too will pass. I see photos of masked people during the influenza pandemic of 1918 and know that the strangeness of our social distancing and face protections are not so new to society and will again recede into history. I see – and feel – the grief and pain of mourners and know that the pain will lessen as we adapt to the loss of loved ones. We will never forget but we will reshape our lives to go on without their physical presence.

When you look at life through the lens of eternity, or with the eyes of a gardener who sees a seed grow and develop, flower and even fruit, and then fade, brown and dessicate in just a few short months, there is a peace to be achieved however sharp the pain of current realities.

We humans have the gift of being able to process grief, anxiety and pain; we reshape ourselves around it, we may not make something as beautiful as a pearl around the grit of the distress, but we make something extraordinary simply by breathing through it all, living and hoping and trying to cope with whatever comes next.

Gam zeh ya’avor – this too will pass and we, the individuals, the relationships, the communities, the peoplehood – we will still be here. We just need to trust in tomorrow.

Yom Kippur Morning 2021: Sermon Lev Chadash Milano

In “the Mirror and the Light”, the finale to Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell, she has him say while contemplating his own diminished future “We are all dying, just at different speeds”

Yom Kippur is a day that reminds us not only to consider how we are living our lives in the light of our values and hopes, but it speaks to us of our own mortality – it is a day out of time, a day we travel through as if dead, with no food or water, no ordinary business to transact etc. Yom Kippur is a dress rehearsal for death.

To be clear. We are not supposed to feel dead in the sense that we might feel nothing, or no longer care for the things of this world; rather we can take twenty five hours where we subsume the wants or desires of the body into the perspectives and expression of the soul.

As close as we can be, we become disembodied. We pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that are usually drowned out in the busy-ness of everyday living. The tradition is that we wear white – the colour of purity. Many of us wear a kittel – quite literally the shrouds that will wrap our bodies in the coffin. We are practising a death of the body in order to free the life of the mind or the soul.

Judaism is famously a religion of life. We toast each other “Le’chaim” – to Life! We focus on our actions in this world, and leave unexamined what may happen beyond this world. But we build into our practise this one extraordinary day when we rehearse our dying, in order to understand our world a little differently.

The point of Yom Kippur is not to remind us that we are mortal, that, as Mantel says we are all dying, just at different speeds. It is to remind us to think about how we are living our lives – specifically how are we living them in relation to the teachings and expectations of our traditions.

Rabbi Eliezer famously taught that one should: “Repent one day before your death.” So his disciples asked him: “Does a person know which day he will die?” Rabbi Eliezer responded: “Certainly, then, a person should repent today, for perhaps tomorrow he will die—so that all his days he is repenting.” (Talmud, Shabbat 153a)

In my work as a hospice chaplain I recently had a long conversation with a patient, a strict Catholic woman, who was terrified that she might not die in a state of grace, and that if she was not entirely absolved of her sins she would not be allowed to enter heaven. I was so perturbed by her distress and her certainty that the gates of heaven might be still closed against her even though she had made her final confession, received full absolution from her priest, and had had no obvious opportunity for further sinning given the frailty of her health, that I rang her priest to see what else could be done. There was nothing more to do, he told me, it was all in the hands of God.

It got me thinking back to Rabbi Eliezer. He is not talking about dying in a state of grace, not suggesting that we need to get our timing right so that we die shortly after repenting our sins. He is talking of being in a continuing state of teshuvah, not so much its colloquial meaning of “repentance” as its real meaning – “returning” or “turning towards God”. Eliezer is not terribly interested in the purity of our souls at any given moment, but in the fact of our being engaged in some kind of understanding of our purpose in this world, some kind of intention and action towards making ourselves and our worlds a better place.

Taking a day away from our routine, blocking it off in our diaries and using it for introspection and for the evaluation of our lives in the light of the values and teachings and the expectations of our tradition is a valuable and important activity. Doing it from within our community with a liturgy that provides a map for our journey of return is a supportive and sustaining factor in the day. Knowing that across the world Jews are coming together in real meetings and these days in virtual communities too, gives us the strength to keep going during the times when the prayers seem endless or pointless or inappropriate or trivial.  A day set aside in order to consciously attempt teshuvah, turning ourselves and our lives around in search of meaning, in search of God, is a gift to ourselves, the gift of time and of space to hear the needs of our souls which have so often been ignored or silenced in our quest for material success or even just to get through the daily routines we must complete.

When Rabbi Eliezer tells us to repent one day before the day of our death this is not a rhetorical flourish, but a reminder of the value of our lives. He is not suggesting that we live each day as if it were our last, cramming in all the things we might like to have done as we tick off as much as we can from our bucket list,  or fearful of a coming darkness and doom. He is saying we should live each day as well as we can, maybe not procrastinate so much, maybe say the words that need to be communicated to others, maybe enjoy the moment of sunshine playing on our skin or watch the clouds scooting across a beautiful sky. He is reminding us that each day we live we should strive for the understanding that this day is unique, it is providing us with an opportunity that may not return on another day to do the things that this day makes possible. How do we turn towards God today? How will we demonstrate our love for the Divine in our behaviour towards other human beings? And how will the choices I make today shape me and my relationships in the world? Am I making sure to appreciate what each day offers, to acknowledge the blessings in my life, to show that appreciation in my actions?

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said that “if you are not a better person tomorrow than you are today, what need do you have for a tomorrow?”

Each day we try to work on ourselves, try – in the words of the prayer – to bend our will to do God’s will.

The work of the day of Yom Kippur can be done on any day, it is simply helpful for us to block out the time to do it together with our community. And the day of Yom Kippur is not just one of prayer and of teshuvah, not only about atonement and about considering our lives from the outside as if we are dead.  It is a day that signifies the endless possibility of rebirth. The sound of the shofar at the end of the service is the cry of the reborn, it is our signal to go back into the world refreshed and renewed to do the work we are here to do.

There is a famous inspirational quote found on many a social media site “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” – and essentially that is what Yom Kippur is also helping us to understand and enact. But never forget, that if today doesn’t work out, there is also tomorrow, and the day after that.  

But don’t wait too long. Live every day searching for teshuva, for closeness with God, for aligning our will with God’s will, and then when the day of our death finally comes we will be able to say that we tried to live as fully as we could, we have no more need of a tomorrow.

Kol Nidrei Sermon 2021 Lev Chadash Milano

Kol HaNedarim 2021 Milan 

The bible begins with two different accounts of the creation of the world and of its inhabitants. In the first we have the presence of God hovering over a chaotic maelstrom from which carefully and methodically the various elements are separated out – light and dark, heaven and earth, seas and dry land etc. And then through the words and vision of God, emerged the sea creatures, the grasses and  trees,  the animals, and finally God created people.  The sense we have of God is of a majestic and powerful figure, who by the power of words and thought creates our world and then leaves it to get on with growing itself, with some responsibility in the hands of the creatures who have been made in the image of God. 

 In the second story God is much less distant, a more “hands on” and invested figure in the world which is being created. God plants a garden, forms the human being from the dust of the earth “by hand” so to speak, breathes the divine breath into the humans. There is an intimacy and closeness, so much so that God walks in the garden in the cool of the evening in order to speak with its human inhabitants, and God is involved in their behaviour and the consequences that flow from it. 

These two iterations of the divine being, of the transcendent and the immanent, are baked in to our understanding and story-telling of God and our relationship with divinity. And it seems that wherever we go in Jewish texts, in liturgy and in ritual, we meet God in both states of being.  We are constantly juggling the intimacy of a God who is close to us and who is ready to listen to us, with the majesty and awesomeness of the God who is Sovereign of the Universe, who has withdrawn a little in order not to take all the space in our world. 

The great prayer of the Yamim Noraim, the Avinu Malkeinu, is based on the prayer of Rabbi Akiva at a time of terrible drought when it seems that the people, having fasted and prayed, are now at the point of death.  We read in Talmud (Ta’anit 25b) “There was an incident involving Rabbi Eliezer… he recited twenty-four blessings, but he was not answered. Rabbi Akiva descended before the ark after him and said:

רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא אַחֲרָיו וְאָמַר אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ אֵין לָנוּ מֶלֶךְ אֶלָּא אָתָּה אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ לְמַעַנְךָ רַחֵם עָלֵינוּ וְיָרְדוּ גְּשָׁמִים

  רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא אַחֲרָיו וְאָמַר אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ אֵין לָנוּ מֶלֶךְ אֶלָּא אָתָּה אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ לְמַעַנְךָ רַחֵם עָלֵינוּ וְיָרְדוּ גְּשָׁמִים

Avinu Malkeinu, ein lanu Melech eleh ata, Avinu Malkeinu le’ma’ancha rachem aleinu.

Our Father, our King, we have no king other than You. Our Father, our King, for Your sake, have mercy on us. And rain immediately fell.”

There is so much to understand about our relationship with God from this page of Talmud. But let’s begin with that famous formula – “Avinu, Malkeinu”  – our Father (or parent) our King (or ultimate power”. Rabbi Akiva is joining together the  two ways in which we relate to God – as intimate as a nurturing parent, as distantly powerful as the Ruler of the Universe. He goes on, appealing first to God’s overwhelming sovereignty and alluding to the covenant of the Jewish people to the one and only God, and then shifts into something quite new and extraordinary – saying to God “For Your own sake have mercy on us”. Rabbi Akiva asks for a merciful outcome for the desperate Jewish people not for their own needs but For God’s own sake.   

What can Rabbi Akiva be suggesting? And why are his words so effective when the words of Rabb Eliezer his teacher, who had followed the proper established formulae and rituals, calling the people to fast and adding petitions into the Amidah had so clearly failed?

It is clear from this story that Rabbi Akiva is going outside of the established rituals for petitionary prayer, he is calling on God from the depths of his being, demanding to be heard by every aspect of God we humans can understand, the divinity which is both transcendent and immanent, both creative force and nurturer. And he reminds God of what God says according to Isaiah (48:9)

לְמַ֤עַן שְׁמִי֙ אַאֲרִ֣יךְ אַפִּ֔י וּתְהִלָּתִ֖י אֶחֱטׇם־לָ֑ךְ לְבִלְתִּ֖י הַכְרִיתֶֽךָ׃

Lema’an sh’mi a’areech appee, ut’hilati e’che’tam lach l’viltee hach’ree’teicha

For the sake of My name I control My wrath;  To My own glory, I am patient with you,  And I will not destroy you.

Akiva is referring to God’s own words. The biblical speech continues

הִנֵּ֥ה צְרַפְתִּ֖יךָ וְלֹ֣א בְכָ֑סֶף בְּחַרְתִּ֖יךָ בְּכ֥וּר עֹֽנִי׃

“See, I refine you, but not as silver; I test you in the furnace of affliction.”

לְמַעֲנִ֧י לְמַעֲנִ֛י אֶעֱשֶׂ֖ה כִּ֣י אֵ֣יךְ יֵחָ֑ל וּכְבוֹדִ֖י לְאַחֵ֥ר לֹֽא־אֶתֵּֽן׃ {פ}

For My sake, My own sake, do I act— Lest [My name]e be dishonoured! I will not give My glory to another.  (le’ma’anee, le’ma’anee eh’esseh ki eich yechal uch’vodee l’acher lo etein)

It is an extraordinary thing, this short invocation that Akiva offers. He reminds God – again from this same extended passage (Isaiah 48), that the drought and the rains are both expressions of God’s own power. And that when God withholds the rains so long that the people are in danger of death, even though the prayers of the people may not be as sincere as both they and God would want, even though the people may not merit the rains and the life they will bring, that God’s nurturing aspect must prevail if the Divine Being itself is not to be brought into disrepute.

Akiva’s prayer is a wonderful example of what is called “chutzpadik prayer” – the prayer of someone who knows they have no merit to demand of God and yet they make their demand anyway. The audacious prayer that dares to challenge God’s own judgment using God’s own arguments in that challenge.   It is the spontaneous and emotional prayer that arises from deep distress and yet also from deep Emunah – from the kind of faith that assumes that God must listen to us, must care for us, must pay attention to our needs – or at least assumes that if God is not doing so, we have the right to demand that attention, much as a very small child will assume that their parents will continue to love and support them and keep them from harm.  We learn that chutzpadik prayer is not only legitimate, not only can be heard, but that sometimes it is exactly the kind of prayer we should be doing, sometimes we can engage God by audacious challenge.

The Talmud debates why it is that Akiva’s prayer is heard when the actions and petitions of the great Rabbi Eliezer his teacher are not.

And that debate teaches us a lot too.

What happened immediately before our text is the story of a previous drought, when Rabbi Eliezer had decreed the full quota of 13 separate fasts in order to draw the attention of God to the plight of the community, and after the last one failed to bring the rain, the community were leaving the synagogue and Rabbi Eliezer said to them “Have you prepared your graves? [If the rain does not come we will all die of hunger]. All the people began to cry and then the rain fell.

Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was an austere and strict figure. Having come to study later in life, he devoted himself so entirely that he sometimes did not eat for days. He was the outstanding scholar of his generation, one who could expound traditional law better than any. His teacher, Yochanan ben Zakkai, said of him “he is a sealed cistern that does not lose a drop” meaning that everything he learned he retained, but more worryingly he said of himself “”I have never taught anything which I had not learned from my masters” (Suk. 28a).  In other words, the entire concept of spontaneous prayer or of new interpretation was foreign to him, and this is possibly best demonstrated in the story of the oven of Achnai, when the disagreement between him and his colleagues reached its peak, with Eliezer continuing to dissent from the majority opinion.  Even the voice of God coming from the heavens to declare that Eliezer was right did not persuade the rabbis from their decision, and subsequently they excommunicated Eliezer from the Sanhedrin – although his teachings continued to be recorded and accepted. They were apparently so afraid of his quick temper and angry persona that they did not excommunicate him in person, and had to send Akiva to explain to him, for fear of Eliezer’s anger destroying a lesser scholar.

Akiva was Eliezer’s student. He was a great scholar in his own right, but his personality was diametrically opposite to that of his teacher. So the scholars of the Talmud debate why Akiva’s spontaneous and chutzpadik prayer was heard when Eliezer’s rituals and petitions were not, and we are told

The Sages were whispering among themselves that Rabbi Akiva was answered while his teacher, Rabbi Eliezer, was not. A Divine Voice emerged and said: It is not because this Sage, Rabbi Akiva, is greater than that one, Rabbi Eliezer, but that this one is forgiving, and that one is not forgiving. God responded to Rabbi Akiva’s forgiving nature in kind by sending rain.”

Again a Bat Kol, a voice from the heavens is heard, one might say that again God is defending Rabbi Eliezer and his great scholarship, but this time something else is added into the mix. The personality of Akiva is gentle and forgiving, the personality of Eliezer is domineering and sharp. While Eliezer might be doing all the rituals right and repeating the petitionary prayers exactly as they have been done before, he cannot stop his own judgment on the people who have, most certainly, been insincere and lax in their behaviours.

But Akiva, gentle and sweet Akiva, he is ready to see the humanity in all the people who have most certainly sinned, and he is ready to bring his own humanity to God. And therein lies the difference between them.

We read in Seder Eliyahu Rabbah This is what God said to Israel: My children what do I seek from you? I seek no more than that you love one another, and honour one another, and that you have awe for one another” (Chapter 26)

 This period of time – the month of Elul, the festivals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the days in between, even some say the days till the end of Sukkot – are collectively called the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe. Awe can be defined as the feelings of reverence and wonder tinged with fear that are evoked by a sense of the sublime or divine. We are aware of the idea that these are days of Judgement, of consequences, of seeing our lives without the filters or varnish that may make us look softer, kinder, gentler, more honest…   We tend to think of the Awe of this time as being around our reverence for God or our wonder at the power of the universe, and the smallness of our own presence in it, but the chutzpah of Rabbi Akiva, embedded in the Avinu Malkeinu prayer that punctuates our services at this time, show us a different place to focus – on considering the humanity of others, fighting for their needs along with our own, petitioning God for a better world free of fear and of plague, of hunger and of early deaths….

The Avinu Malkeinu comes from a place of awe – of love for one another, of honour for one another, of awe for one another.  Remember that as we recite our petitions  together and responsively before the open Ark of each service, and when the Ark will finally close and the Shofar blast bring Kippur to an end at the end of the final Avinu Malkeinu in Neilah, remember that the awe continues even while the Yamim Noraim will conclude.

To quote Seder Eliyahu Rabbah one last time

How do we find our Divine Parent who is in Heaven?  How do we find our Parent who is in Heaven?

By good deeds and the study of Torah.

How does the Blessed Holy One find us – through love, through fellowship, through respect, through companionship, through truth, through peace, through bending the knee,

through humility, through more study, through less commerce,

through the personal service to our teachers,

through discussion among the students,

through a good heart, through decency,

through No that is really No,

and through Yes that is really Yes.

(Midrash Seder Eliyahu Rabbah 23)