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)

Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2021 Lev Chadash Milano

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.

This blessing, first found in the Talmud (Berachot 54a) is commonly used to thank God for some personal joyful experience.  It was instituted for uncommon or periodical positive occurrences and experiences, such as when doing a  mitzvah for the first time that year. So we are used to reciting it on the first day of the festivals, on taking the lulav or sitting in the sukkah for example (and for those who have a second day of the festival there is a tradition to save a new fruit not eaten in that year in order to say the blessing over that on the second day), lighting the first candle of Chanukah or reading the megillah at Purim…..

It is also commonly said over major purchases or on hearing exciting news. (Mishna Brurah 225:10

There is another blessing – HaTov v’haMeitiv that gives thanks to God –  and this blessing is traditionally used slightly differently – not as a personal blessing, but instead it is used on occasions that are considered to bring pleasure to the whole community as well as the person saying the blessing. (HaTov is for the individual, HaMeitiv for the community)

Barukh atah adonay eloheynu melekh ha-olam, ha-tov v’hameytiv.  Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Sovereign of the universe, who is good and bestows good.

They are part of a set of blessings that are to be recited not at specific times, or even necessarily at specific events, but as a response to events that bring us joy in the moment they happen. So we read in the Talmud (Berachot)

MISHNA: One who sees a place where miracles occurred on Israel’s behalf recites: Blessed…Who performed miracles for our ancestors in this place. One who sees a place from which idolatry was eradicated recites: Blessed [is God] Who eradicated idolatry from our land.

One who sees conspicuous natural occurrences recites a blessing. For zikin and zeva’ot, which the Gemara will discuss below, for thunder, gale force winds, and lightning, manifestations of the power of the Creator, one recites: Blessed [is God] …Whose strength and power fill the world. For extraordinary  mountains, hills, seas, rivers, and deserts, one recites: Blessed [is God] …Author of creation., Rabbi Yehuda says: One who sees the great sea recites a special blessing: Blessed [is God] …Who made the great sea. As with all blessings of this type, one only recites it when he sees the sea intermittently, not on a regular basis.

For rain and other good tidings, one recites the special blessing: Blessed [is God] …Who is good and Who does good. Even for bad tidings, one recites a special blessing: Blessed…the true Judge. Similarly, when one built a new house or purchased new vessels, they recite: Blessed [is God] …Who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this time.

The mishna then goes on to articulate a general principle: “One recites a blessing for the bad that befalls them, just as one does for the good. Similarly, one must recite a blessing for the good that befalls them just as for the bad.”

Blessings are woven into Jewish life. The very first tractate of the Talmud is Berachot – blessings. Our central prayer, the Amidah, is framed as a series of blessings. There is a Talmudic tradition that we should say 100 blessings every day – (the tradition comes from a rabbinic interpretation of the verse in Deuteronomy (10:12) “Now Israel, what does the Eternal your God ask of you? To reverence the Eternal your God, to walk in God’s ways, to love and serve God….”  “Mah Adonai Eloheicha Sho’el may’imach?”.  In the Talmud (Menachot 43b)  The question Mah (what?) is read as “Me’ah – one hundred – so the verse would read “the Eternal your God asks one hundred of you” – and what are the hundred? They mean hundred Blessings.)

It is a midrash, using a clearly written verse as a peg on which to hang an important idea – saying blessings when doing ordinary activities is an integral part of Judaism, it helps us to see the extraordinary in quotidian behaviours . Blessing God in some way allows us to perceive God, to love God and to be active in God’s service.

Why would the Rabbis of the Talmud twist the words in order to bring about this idea? I think it is because they were aware of the power of thankfulness to strengthen us.

And more than that: if we bless God in good times and in bad, reactively as well as in a formulaic pattern, as part of the rhythm of our lives and in moments of powerful emotion – then we are able to move our focus outside of our own existence and see ourselves not only as individuals, but as individuals who are in relation to the community, to the environment we live in, and to the Divinity.

This strand of blessings woven into our daily existence, with highlights that happen when a moment or event occurs to which we must react, shapes our thought and our sense of self.  And most of all it gives us moments to hold on to, to connect with, and to infuse us with hope.

The Shehecheyanu blessing is a complex and multi-layered one. It is said not only in relation to time but to events. More particularly it is not usually said during a unique once-in-a-lifetime experience, but during an event we hope to repeat: the mitzvot of the festivals in the coming year, the joy of a new purchase etc.

So built into its recitation is the idea of the future, the idea that we look forward with hope.

While we thank God for bringing us safely to this time, we are already calculating that other similar experiences will be ours in coming years.

Hope is a particularly Jewish value. Different from Optimism (which is a generally a passive trait, an attitude which reflects the belief that things will work out well) Hope is an active choice. We may (or may not) await a messiah, but we cannot wait for that messiah to make things better for our world – the messiah will come when WE have made the world fit for them. As my colleague Rabbi Michael Marmur once wrote:  “Standing around and trusting that things will work themselves out is indefensible on moral and theological grounds.” Greta Thunberg’s challenge on climate change in her speech to the UN puts it even better:

“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!”   (Sept 25th 2019)

The Hebrew word for hope is “Tikvah”, and it has a root meaning of a cord or a rope, a binding of threads together into a long piece. It is found in bible in the story of Rahab who let down a scarlet cord (Tikvah) and so saved herself and her family during the destruction of Jericho by Joshua. It is also in Jeremiah ““For I know the plans I have for you declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope [tikvah]” (Jeremiah 29:11). The Psalmist calls God “tikvati” (my hope) (71:5), bound to God in trust.

Hope in the Hebrew bible is the twisting of the threads of our existence into a kind of  rope; making up the complicated cord that links us across time from the past to the present to the future. It is the choice we make in trusting in God. The Shehecheyanu prayer acknowledges the hope that has so far brought us into the present, while looking to a future we choose to believe will come. We will say this blessing over this event again.

In the ancient pre-biblical world, the world was in the hands of other powers. There was nothing we could do to take our fate into our own hands. We could appease, we could second guess, but ultimately we had little influence over the future.

The Hebrew bible changes that idea radically. It is full of stories with beginnings but no ends – God tells Abram to leave Haran and go to a place God will show him; God tells Moses “ehyeh asher ehyeh” – I will be whatever I will be; Torah ends with Moses surveying the land but with everyone still on the far side of the Jordan…   The rest of the story is for us to bring forth, to make happen with our own choices.  We have many beginnings in the narratives in bible, indeed the very first word is about beginnings -bereishit – but then the stories require us to have agency, to make choices, to choose hope.  Our lives are all about what we do, not what God decides for us.  Talmud too – and the system of halacha – leaves choices to us, authority is given to the leaders of each generation for their own generation rather than fixed law for all time.

In the Talmud (shabbat 31a) is a list of questions that Rava says we will be asked after we die. In addition to asking if we acted properly in business, set aside time for torah study etc is the question “tzafita lishuah” – literally “did you await salvation”, but understood to mean –“ did you live with hope?”

We are obliged to live with hope. To make the choice to hope. By doing so we keep the thread of Tikvah in good order so that it will take us from past to present to future, allowing us to hold on even in difficult times, to pass our values and learning onward.

When we say blessings, in particular the blessing formula, are we blessing God or are we stating that blessing is sourced in God?  The word Breicha, meaning a pool or a well-spring, derives from the same verbal root, and reminds us that blessings are a deep source within us, refreshing and renewing us.

The word for hope – Tikvah – is also intimately connected with a body of renewing water – the mikveh or ritual bath that we use for ritual purification and for spiritual renewal. The very first mikveh is the body of water found in the creation story in Genesis, when God brings forth our world ready for us to live in it (Gen 1:9). Jeremiah calls God the “Mikveh Yisrael” (17:13) “the Hope of Israel…the source of living waters”.  By saying the blessings, by choosing hope and by locating ourselves across time, we are immersing ourselves in renewal, in resilience, in revitalisation. We are choosing continuing beginning, ready to take part in our world.

Somewhere in these entwined words is a powerful idea, an idea that links us to the past as far back as creation with all its hopes, and into the future with all its uncertainty. The choice to hope is what keeps us connected in time and in space, in spiritual relationship and in lived experiences. One way to renew ourselves, to keep us going, to give us resilience is to make the active choice to keep hoping. One way to choose hope is to notice again and again that nothing is too trivial, too good or too bad to let us stop and consider the source of all blessings.

On many Jewish tombstones is the acronym Taf Nun Tzadi Beit Hey which stands for the phrase “t’hi nishmato/a tzrura bitzrur ha’chayim” – may their soul be bound up in the ropes of life. Each of us lives the thread of our own life, and each of us is intimately bound with the threads of the lives of others – with those who came before us, and with those who will come after us, and with those with whom we share our lives. Each of us is held in the tapestry of those woven corded threads. And in this way, as William Stafford wrote

“There’s a thread you follow. It goes among

things that change. But it doesn’t change.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.

You have to explain about the thread.

But it is hard for others to see.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.

Tragedies happen; people get hurt

or die; and you suffer and get old.

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

You don’t ever let go of the thread.  (William Stafford, The Way it I)

When we say the Shehecheyanu blessing we are doing more than giving gratitude for having lived to see this event. We are holding onto the thread of hope, making an active choice to bind ourselves to our people’s past and to our future, making an active commitment to living our present lives as fully and as meaningfully as we can.

So on this first day of the festival, let us say once more the blessing

Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, she’he’cheyanu, v’kiy’manu v’higianu lazman hazeh

Shanah Tovah.

Sermone di Rosh Hashanah 5782 – 2021 Milano

Di rav Sylvia Rothschild

            Baruch Attà, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh.

            Benedetto sei tu, Adonai nostro Dio, Sovrano di tutti, che ci ha tenuti in vita, ci ha sostenuto e ci ha fatto arrivare  a questo tempo.

            Questa benedizione, che si trova per la prima volta nel Talmud (Berachot 54a), è comunemente usata per ringraziare Dio per alcune esperienze gioiose personali. È stato istituita per eventi ed esperienze positivi non comuni o periodici, come quando si compie una mitzvà per la prima volta in un anno. Siamo quindi abituati a recitarla il primo giorno di festa, per esempio prendendo il lulav o sedendo nella sukkà (e per chi ha un secondo giorno di festa c’è la tradizione di mettere da parte un nuovo frutto non mangiato in quell’anno per dire la benedizione su quello il secondo giorno), accendendo la prima candela di Chanukkà o leggendo la megillà a Purim…..

            Si dice anche comunemente durante gli acquisti importanti o dopo aver ascoltato notizie entusiasmanti. (Mishna Brurà 225:10)

            C’è un’altra benedizione: HaTov v’haMeitiv che rende grazie a Dio, e questa benedizione è tradizionalmente usata in modo leggermente diverso, non come benedizione personale, ma in occasioni che sono considerate di piacere per l’intera comunità così come per la persona che pronuncia la benedizione (HaTov è per l’individuo, HaMeitiv per la comunità).

            Barukh Attà Adonay Eloheynu Melekh ha-olam, ha-tov v’hameytiv. Benedetto sei tu, Adonai, nostro Dio, Sovrano dell’universo, che è buono e dona il bene.

            Fanno parte di una serie di benedizioni che non devono essere recitate in momenti specifici, oppure necessariamente in specifici eventi, ma come risposta a eventi che ci portano gioia nel momento in cui accadono. Così leggiamo nel Talmud (Berachot):

            MISHNA – Colui che vede un luogo dove sono avvenuti miracoli per conto di Israele recita: Benedetto… chi ha compiuto miracoli per i nostri antenati in questo luogo. Colui che vede un luogo da cui è stata sradicata l’idolatria recita: Benedetto [è Dio] che ha sradicato l’idolatria dalla nostra terra.

Chi vede eventi naturali cospicui recita una benedizione. Per zikin e zeva’ot, che la Gemara discuterà più avanti, per il tuono, venti di burrasca e fulmini, manifestazioni del potere del Creatore, si recita: Benedetto [è Dio] … la cui forza e potenza riempiono il mondo. Per straordinarie montagne, colline, mari, fiumi e deserti, si recita: Benedetto [è Dio] …Autore della creazione, Rabbi Yehuda dice: Chi vede il grande mare recita una benedizione speciale: Benedetto [è Dio] …Che ha creato il grande mare. Come tutte le benedizioni di questo tipo, la si recita solo quando si vede il mare a intermittenza, non con regolarità.

Per la pioggia e altre buone novelle, si recita la benedizione speciale: Benedetto [è Dio] … Chi è buono e Che fa il bene. Anche per le cattive notizie si recita una benedizione speciale: Benedetto…il vero Giudice. Allo stesso modo, quando uno costruisce una nuova casa o acquista nuove stoviglie, recita: Benedetto [è Dio] … Che ci ha dato la vita, ci ha sostenuto e ci ha fatto arrivare  a questo tempo”.

            La Mishna prosegue poi articolando un principio generale: Si recita una benedizione per il male che capita, proprio come si recita per il bene. Allo stesso modo, si deve recitare una benedizione per il bene che  capita, così come per il male”.

            Le benedizioni sono intessute nella vita ebraica. Il primissimo trattato del Talmud è Berachot, benedizioni. La nostra preghiera centrale, l’Amidà, è inquadrata come una serie di benedizioni. C’è una tradizione talmudica secondo cui dovremmo dire cento benedizioni ogni giorno, la tradizione deriva da un’interpretazione rabbinica del versetto in Deuteronomio (10:12) “Ora Israele, cosa ti chiede l’Eterno, il tuo Dio? Per riverire l’Eterno tuo Dio, per camminare nelle vie di Dio, per amare e servire Dio….” “Ma Adonai Eloheicha Sho’el may’imach?” Nel Talmud (Menachot 43b) La domanda (cosa?) è letta come Me’à, cento, così il versetto direbbe “l’Eterno il tuo Dio ne chiede cento”, e cos’è cento? Significa cento benedizioni.

È un midrash, usare un versetto chiaramente scritto come un piolo su cui appendere un’idea importante: dire benedizioni quando si fanno attività ordinarie è parte integrante dell’ebraismo, ci aiuta a vedere lo straordinario nei comportamenti quotidiani. Benedire Dio in qualche modo ci permette di percepire Dio, di amare Dio e di essere attivi al servizio di Dio.

            Perché i rabbini del Talmud dovrebbero distorcere le parole per realizzare questa idea? Penso che sia perché erano consapevoli del potere di rafforzamento della gratitudine. E ancora di più: se benediciamo Dio nei momenti buoni e in quelli cattivi, sia in modo reattivo che in uno schema convenzionale, come parte del ritmo della nostra vita e nei momenti di forte emozione, allora siamo in grado di spostare la nostra attenzione al di fuori della nostra stessa esistenza e vederci non solo come singoli individui, ma come individui in relazione alla comunità, con l’ambiente in cui viviamo e con la Divinità.

            Questo filone di benedizioni intrecciato nella nostra esistenza quotidiana, con momenti salienti che accadono quando si verifica un episodio o un evento a cui noi dobbiamo reagire, modella il nostro pensiero e il nostro senso di sé. E soprattutto ci dà momenti a cui aggrapparci, connetterci e infonderci speranza.

            La benedizione Shehecheyanu è complessa e multi-stratificata. Si pronuncia non solo in relazione al tempo ma agli eventi. Più in particolare, non si dice di solito durante un’esperienza unica, irripetibile, ma durante un evento che speriamo di ripetere: le mitzvot delle festività del prossimo anno, la gioia di un nuovo acquisto ecc.

Così incorporata nella sua recitazione c’è l’idea del futuro, l’idea di guardare avanti con speranza.

Mentre ringraziamo Dio per averci portato sani e salvi in ​​questo momento, stiamo già calcolando che avremo altre esperienze simili nei prossimi anni.

            La speranza è un valore particolarmente ebraico. A differenza dell’ottimismo (che è generalmente un tratto passivo, un atteggiamento che riflette la convinzione che le cose funzioneranno bene) la speranza è una scelta attiva. Possiamo (o meno) aspettare un messia, ma non possiamo aspettare che quel messia renda le cose migliori per il nostro mondo, il messia verrà quando NOI avremo reso il mondo adatto a lui. Come ha scritto una volta il mio collega rabbino Michael Marmur: “Rimanere in piedi e avere fiducia che le cose funzioneranno da sole è indifendibile per motivi morali e teologici“. La sfida di Greta Thunberg sui cambiamenti climatici nel suo discorso alle Nazioni Unite lo esprime ancora meglio: “Questo è tutto sbagliato. Non dovrei essere quassù. Dovrei tornare a scuola dall’altra parte dell’oceano. Eppure venite tutti da noi giovani per la speranza. Come osate!” (25 settembre 2019)

            La parola ebraica per speranza è “Tikvà”, e il significato della radice da cui deriva è la parola  filo o corda, un legame di fili tenuti assieme in un lungo tratto. Si trova nella Bibbia nella storia di Raab che lasciò cadere una corda scarlatta (Tikvà) e così salvò se stessa e la sua famiglia durante la distruzione di Gerico da parte di Giosuè. È anche in Geremia “Poiché io sono consapevole dei progetti che nutro per voi, dice il Signore, progetti di pace e non di sventura, per darvi avvenire e  speranza [tikvà]” (Geremia 29:11). Il Salmista chiama Dio “tikvati” (la mia speranza) (71:5), si lega a Dio nella fiducia.

            La speranza nella Bibbia ebraica è l’attorcigliamento dei fili della nostra esistenza in una specie di corda; componendo il complicato cordone che ci lega nel tempo dal passato al presente al futuro. È la scelta che facciamo nel confidare in Dio. La preghiera Shehecheyanu riconosce la speranza che finora ci ha portato nel presente, mentre guardiamo a un futuro che scegliamo di credere arriverà. Diremo questa benedizione su questo evento ancora.

            Nell’antico mondo pre-biblico, il mondo era nelle mani di altre potenze. Non c’era niente che potessimo fare per prendere il nostro destino nelle nostre mani. Potevamo cercare di placare o potevamo indovinare, ma alla fine avevamo avuto poca influenza sul futuro.

La Bibbia ebraica cambia radicalmente questa idea. È pieno di storie con un inizio ma senza fine: Dio dice ad Abramo di lasciare Haran e andare in un luogo che Dio gli mostrerà; Dio dice a Mosè “ehyè asher ehyè” – sarò ciò che sarò; la Torà termina con Mosè che esamina la terra ma con tutti ancora dall’altra parte del Giordano… Dobbiamo portare avanti il resto della storia, realizzarlo con le nostre scelte. Abbiamo molti inizi nelle narrazioni nella Bibbia, in effetti la primissima parola riguarda gli inizi, bereishit, ma poi le storie richiedono a noi di avere una motivazione, di fare delle scelte, di scegliere la speranza. Le nostre vite riguardano tutto ciò che noi facciamo, non ciò che Dio decide per noi. Anche il Talmud, e il sistema della Halachà, lascia a noi delle scelte, l’autorità è data ai leader di ogni generazione per la propria generazione invece che una legge fissa per sempre.

            Nel Talmud (shabbat 31a) c’è un elenco di domande che Rava dice che ci verranno poste dopo la morte. Oltre a chiederci se abbiamo agito correttamente negli affari, dedicato del tempo allo studio della Torà ecc. è la domanda “tzafita lishuà” – letteralmente “hai aspettato la salvezza”, ma inteso come “hai vissuto con speranza?

            Siamo obbligati a vivere con speranza, di fare la scelta di sperare. In questo modo manteniamo in buon ordine il filo di Tikvà in modo che ci porti dal passato al presente al futuro, permettendoci di resistere anche nei momenti difficili, di trasmettere i nostri valori e di imparare andando verso il futuro.

            Quando diciamo benedizioni, in particolare la formula di benedizione, stiamo benedicendo Dio o stiamo affermando che la benedizione proviene da Dio? La parola Breicha, che significa piscina o sorgente, deriva dalla stessa radice verbale e ci ricorda che le benedizioni sono una fonte profonda dentro di noi, che ci rinfresca e ci rinnova.

            La parola per speranza, Tikvà, è anche intimamente connessa con un corpo di acqua rinnovatrice: il mikvè, o bagno , che usiamo per la purificazione rituale e per il rinnovamento spirituale. Il primissimo mikvè è il corpo d’acqua che si trova nella storia della creazione nella Genesi, quando Dio fa emergere il nostro mondo pronto per farci vivere in esso (Gen 1:9). Geremia chiama Dio il “Mikvè Yisrael” (17:13) “la Speranza d’Israele… la sorgente delle acque vive”. Pronunciando le benedizioni, scegliendo la speranza e collocandoci nel tempo, ci stiamo immergendo nel rinnovamento, nella resilienza, nella rivitalizzazione. Stiamo scegliendo di continuare l’inizio, pronti a far parte del nostro mondo.

            Da qualche parte in queste parole intrecciate c’è un’idea potente, un’idea che ci collega al passato, fino alla creazione, con tutte le sue speranze, e al futuro con tutte le sue incertezze. La scelta di sperare è ciò che ci tiene connessi nel tempo e nello spazio, nelle relazioni spirituali e nelle esperienze vissute. Un modo per rinnovarci, per andare avanti, per darci resilienza è fare la scelta attiva di continuare a sperare. Un modo per scegliere la speranza è notare nuovamente che niente è troppo banale, troppo buono o troppo cattivo per permetterci di fermarci a considerare la fonte di tutte le benedizioni.

            Su molte lapidi ebraiche c’è l’acronimo Taf Nun Tzadi Beit Hey che sta per la frase “t’hi nishmato/a tzrura bitzrur ha’chayim” – possa la loro anima essere legata alle corde della vita. Ciascuno di noi vive il filo della propria vita, e ciascuno di noi è intimamente legato ai fili della vita degli altri: con coloro che sono venuti prima di noi, con coloro che verranno dopo di noi e con coloro con cui condividiamo le nostre vite. Ognuno di noi è trattenuto nell’arazzo di quei fili intrecciati. E in questo modo, come scrisse William Stafford:

            C’è un filo che segui. Va tra le cose

            che cambiano. Ma il filo non cambia.

            Le persone si chiedono cosa stai seguendo.

            Devi spiegare cos’è il filo.

            Ma per gli altri è difficile da vedere.

            Mentre lo tieni non ti puoi perdere.

            Le tragedie accadono; le persone si fanno male

            o muoiono; e tu soffri e invecchi.

            Niente di ciò che fai può fermare lo svolgersi del tempo.

            Non lasciare mai andare il filo.

                                                (William Stafford, The Way it Is)

            Quando diciamo la benedizione Shehecheyanu stiamo facendo di più che ringraziare per aver vissuto fino a vedere questo evento. Manteniamo il filo della speranza, facendo una scelta attiva per legarci al passato e al futuro del nostro popolo, impegnandoci attivamente a vivere le nostre vite presenti nel modo più completo e significativo possibile.

            Quindi, in questo primo giorno di festa, diciamo ancora una volta la benedizione:

Baruch Atatà Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, she’he’cheyanu, v’kiy’manu v’higianu lazman hazeh

Shanà Tovà.

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

26th Elul

Elul 26th   Friday September 3rd

בְּכָל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַזְכִּיר אֶת-שְׁמִי, אָבוֹא אֵלֶיךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּיךָ.
In every place where My name is mentioned, I will come to you and will bless you.

“In ancient times there were holy places.The land of Israel was holy.Holier still was Jerusalem. In Jerusalem the holiest site was the Temple.And within the temple was a place supremely sacred: the holy of holies. Then there’s holy time. There are festivals.Holier still is Shabbat.And holier than that is Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, Yom Kippur. The day of atonement. And there are holy people. Israel is called goi kadosh, a holy nation.” Mishnah Kelim 1:6

After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Judaism had to face the question – there is still holy time and still holy people, but where are the holy places?

The answer comes from Ezekiel (11:16) who, speaking of forcible expulsion and dispersion from the Land of Israel, offers God’s promise:

וָאֱהִי לָהֶם לְמִקְדָּשׁ מְעַט, בָּאֲרָצוֹת אֲשֶׁר-בָּאוּ שָׁם  
And I will be for them a mikdash me ‘at (a small sanctuary) in the lands where they go to

Wherever we are, we create mini sanctuaries for ourselves. According to the Talmud (Megilah 29a), God will dwell in the holy spaces we create, because they are in place of the Temple: mik’d’shei me’at.  These holy spaces are traditionally study halls, synagogues, and of course our homes. Each of us makes for ourselves a mikdash me ‘at, we can feel safe and be ourselves “at home;  and the holiness comes when we intentionally create the space for it.  Be it lighting shabbat candles or making Havdalah, considering the ethics of the food we cook and consume, having a “Jewish kitchen”, studying Torah, praying…..

This is the second year many of us will be participating in services at a distance from our communities, sitting in our homes in rooms that are not purposefully designed to facilitate prayer. It may be helpful to think about how to make our prayer space more intentionally holy, how to transform the tables and spaces we work from and sit in, so that we are more able to feel ourselves both in the divine presence and also in the company of our community.

Firstly – find a space that is not your usual workspace if possible. Or if it is your workspace move things around a little, clear the desk, put away files.  Maybe put a meaningful tsatske or flowers on the table too.  Place your candlesticks and kiddush cup in your eyeline. On Rosh Hashanah put some honey and apple there, on kippur if you have a shofar, put it out too.  Get your prayerbooks ready and maybe also some good meditative reading (suggested list below)

Put a different cloth over the desk/table, and make your chair different too – you can drape it with some fabric like a scarf.  Then say a blessing over the space to designate it you mikdash me’at  (some suggested blessings are at the end of this post)

Move your computer screen as far away from you as you can, or attach your computer to the TV so that you are not tempted to play with the keyboard etc, and can instead immerse in the experience on screen. Turn off all other programmes and notifications that might pop up on screen while you are participating in the service.

You may also find that if you have a wall hanging on a Jewish theme, or a mizrach, it would help to make the space feel more “Jewish”. You can often download artwork or mizrachim or photos of Jewish interest from the net.

Then it is time to think about yourself. Just as you would if you are attending physical synagogue, consider what you will wear to be festive yet comfortable. Get your tallit and kippah ready and available to wear.

Verses and blessings to help create your sacred space/mikdash m’at:

  מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
How good are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwelling places, O Israel!  (Numbers 24:5)
  מַה-נּוֹרָא, הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה:  אֵין זֶה, כִּי אִם-בֵּית אֱלֹהִים, וְזֶה, שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם
“How awesome is this place, this is the none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. (Gen 28:17)
  כִּ֣י הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ עוֹמֵ֣ד עָלָ֔יו אַדְמַת־קֹ֖דֶשׁ הֽוּא׃
The place which you are standing on is holy ground (Exodus 3:5)
בְּכָל־הַמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אַזְכִּ֣יר אֶת־שְׁמִ֔י אָב֥וֹא אֵלֶ֖יךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּֽיךָ
In every place where My name is mentioned, I will come to you and bless you.  (Exodus 20:21)
וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָם
Exodus 25:8  And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, הַמַבְדִּיל בֵּין קֹדֶשׁ לְחוֹל   Blessed are you God who separates between the holy and the ordinary. (Havdalah blessing)  
Blessing for the Household:    

בְּזֶה הַשַּׁעַר לֹא יָבוֹא צַעַר בְּזֹאת הַדִּירָה לֹא תָבוֹא צָרָה בְּזֹאת הַדֶּלֶת לֺא תָבוֹא בֶּהָלָה בְּזֹאת הַמַּחְלָקָה לֺא תָבוֹא מַחְלוֺקֶת. בְּזֶה הַמָּקוֺם תְּהִי בְרָכָה וְשָׁלוֺם Through this gate let no sorrow enter Through this house let no trouble come Through this door let nothing frightening come In this area let there be no quarrelling or conflict In this place let there be blessing and peace.  

25th Elul: building our community together

25th Elul  2nd September 2021

This will be the second year that many of us will not be sitting together with our community as we work our way through this penitential season. We may be alone or in a small group, but the loss of being together with the whole synagogue community, of hearing and singing along with the heartfelt penitential prayers, of viscerally experiencing teshuvah with others, helping each other on the journey – this loss is real.

As Rabbi Sacks wrote – and I am never quite sure if he is paraphrasing a famous theme tune – “Community is the human expression of Divine love. It is where I am valued simply for who I am, and for what I give to others. It is the place where they know my name”

So how do we build community when we are socially distanced from each other? How do we reach out to others, pray with them, call them, feed them, cry with them? How do we enable the sense of belonging that we crave?

One of the mi sheberach prayers after the reading of the Torah and Haftarah, the prayers that invoke God’s blessing on those being prayed for, is the prayer for the community and it is extraordinarily detailed.

We ask for God’s blessing first on the whole of the local community and their loved ones, as well as on the whole Jewish people, but then focus more narrowly  

Those who prepare synagogues for prayer and those who come to pray in them. Those who provide light, and those who provide wine for kiddush and Havdalah, and those who provide bread, and those who give charity to the poor and for everyone who is involved faithfully in supporting the needs of the community……

There is no job too humble, no gift too small, for the community to recognise that without that person/ work/ object they would be far less able to function.

While we are unable to meet in person, it is up to us to keep communities together and functioning. Reaching out to others to see how they are, checking that there are supplies so that everyone will be able to make shabbat and the festivals – and for the wider community that our neighbours and neighbourhood is cared for.

Making community is an active verb. It doesn’t just happen, and it works best when there are many different people involved.   It is for all of us to get involved – as the midrash says: “If someone… says, “Why should I trouble myself for the community? What’s in it for me to take part in their disputes? Why should I listen to their voices? I’m fine [without this],” this person destroys the world. — Midrash Tanhuma, Parshat Mishpatim

Soon the new moon of Tishri will be with us and we will prepare for the services of Rosh Hashanah. We may be physically alone or isolated from loved ones. We may feel ourselves distanced from normal community events. We can respond by drifting away or we can respond by making an active choice to create community in whatever way we can.

The mi sheberach  for the community uses an interesting adjective – it speaks of those who create community be’emunah  With faith. It sometimes is a leap in the dark to put in the work to create community, and sometimes the process is discouraging or hard to do. But with all important work if we begin with a belief in its importance, we will find the strength to bring it forth into reality.

24th Elul: Each of us has a voice with which to speak truth

24th Elul 1st September

“Rabbi Yochanan said: When God’s voice came forth at Mt. Sinai, it divided itself into 70 human languages, so that the whole world might understand it. All at Mt. Sinai, young and old, women, children, and infants according to their ability to understand. Moses too, understood only according to his capacity, as it is said (Ex. 19:19), ‘Moses spoke and God answered him with a voice.’ With a voice that Moses could hear.” (Midrash Exodus Rabbah 5:9)

This midrash, which speaks of God being heard by each person according to their ability to understand, also hints that even if we might disagree with each other, we all somehow hold the same ultimate/absolute truth. 

The Talmud clarifies this Eruvin 13b

Although Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed, Beit Shammai did not, nevertheless abstain from marrying women of the families of Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying those of Beit Shammai. This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship towards one another. . . For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. [One group] said: “The law is in accordance with our opinion,” and the other said: “The law is in accordance with our opinion.” Ultimately a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: “Both these and those are the words of the living God.”

The word of God emerges in a multiplicity of ways and is understood according to the context and situation of those who understand. But as the Talmud tells us, the disagreements that ensued from different groups having different understandings were held with respect, the groups never separated from each other or put each other on the other side of acceptability. Instead they worked with each other, recorded each other’s opinions, found ways to work with the complexity rather than boil God’s word down to absolute do’s and don’ts.

Rav Kook developed this theme. Writing about the idea that the scholars of Talmud were known as “builders” he said “the building is constructed from various parts, and the truth of the light of the world will be built from various dimensions, from various approaches, for “these and those are the words of the living God” . . . It is precisely the multiplicity of opinions which derive from variegated souls and backgrounds which enriches wisdom and brings about its enlargement. In the end all matters will be properly understood and it will be recognized that it was impossible for the structure of peace to be built without those trends which appeared to be in conflict”

We come from a tradition of rich multi-vocality. And each of us has a voice we must bring to the community, each of us builds our world as we understand the imperatives to be. If we are passive or silent, our voice will be missed, our world the poorer. Speak your truth with respect and with love.

23rd Elul “I am wrong. I was wrong, I will be wrong again. I am human

23rd Elul  31st August

Most of us find it hard to admit to being wrong. We have what is known in psychology as “error blindness”

This may be because we have long internalised that making an error demonstrates our incompetence, or inadequate morality, or even our stupidity, so we prefer to be blind to our own mistakes and often double down on them rather than acknowledge them.

We know that “to err is human” – that as a general principle human beings are fallible, we make mistakes. We know that learning follows a pattern of getting things not quite right until we get them right. But as individuals, we tend to take our own subjective position and weave stories around the inconvenient parts until we can defend ourselves and what we “know” to be right.

Kathryn Shulz asks in her Ted talk “On Being Wrong” “how does it feel to be wrong? The answers show an interesting disconnect – people will generally say “it feels bad, or embarrassing or uncomfortable”. But these are not answers to the question – instead they are answers to the question “how does it feel when you realise you are wrong?”.  When we are wrong, and haven’t realised it, we simply don’t notice. We assume it is the fault of the other person that they disagree with us. And because we assume there is a problem with the other, then we find it hard to connect with them.

Shulz argues that our ability to see things other than with complete objectivity is inherently human. We expect something to happen, and if something else happens we either don’t notice it or we generate stories about it that keep our expectation safe. We bring forth our own reality and so stay in our comfortable space.

 “For good and for ill, we generate these incredible stories about the world around us,” she says, “and then the world turns around and astonishes us. . . . If you really want to rediscover wonder, you need to step out of that tiny, terrified space of rightness, and look around at each other. And look out at the vastness and complexity, and mystery of the universe and be able to say, ‘Wow. I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong.”

If we really want to rediscover wonder, we need to step out of our tiny space of being right, and look around us. Notice what else – and who else – is there. Notice other realities. Be able to say “I might be wrong” without any of the judgemental aspects we are often so afraid of.  Owning our mistakes can take us to wide new spaces, open us up to experiences and understandings and relationships we may otherwise think unimaginable.

Our liturgy for this time contains a number of ritualised confessions. Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu – I have been guilty, I have betrayed, I have stolen, I have been hypocritical…..  Maybe we should add another vidui line – “I was wrong, I am wrong, I will be wrong about so much – and now is the time to stop defending my view and think about it again.

21st Elul

Elul 21   29 August

“I am not immortal.

Whatever I put off for later

May never be.

Whoever doesn’t know now

That I love them

May never know.

I have killed time.

    I have squandered it.

            I have lost days…weeks…

As a man of unlimited wealth

Might drop coins on the street

And never look back.

I know now, that there will be an end,

A limit.

But there is time

Valuable and precious time

To walk,

        talk,

            breathe.

Time to touch,

        taste,

            care.

To warm the child

Who is cold and lonely.

There is time to love

I promise myself…

            I will.

I am

I am ready

I am ready to give

I am ready to give and to receive

I am ready to give and to receive love”

This poem is part of a longer work by Leonard Nimoy, published in 1973

Suggestions for reflection

With the limited time we all have on this earth, what are the most important things for you to have done?

Are you ready to give love – to others and to yourselves?

Are you ready to receive love – from others and from yourself?

Is there something you can decide to do in order to show more love to yourself or to others?

20th Elul – relying on God’s mercy

Elul 20 28th August

Leil Selichot

Leil Selichot ( the night of penitential prayers in preparation for the Yamim Noraim)occurs after nightfall this Saturday evening.

This service is usually said on the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah, although it may be done on the Saturday evening the week before if Rosh Hashanah is early in the week. Then there are selichot services on the following early morning throughout Elul.

Selichot are prayers which ask for forgiveness (you may be used to hearing the word “selicha” – please or excuse me – in Israel). A major theme of the selichot service will be the repeated recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, derived from the biblical verses Exodus 34:6-7 – Adonai Adonai El Rachum v’Chanun,  Erech apayim v’rav Chesed v’Emet. Notzer Chesed la’alafim, Nosei Avon v’fesha v’hata’a v’nakeh” _ The Eternal, The Eternal, God of mercy and grace, slow to anger and filled with lovingkindness and truth, who forgives iniquity and transgression and sin and who cleanses us of guilt.”

The locus of this verse is immediately after the incident of the Golden Calf, when God had threatened to destroy the people of Israel rather than forgive them (32:10) and Moses had to plead and persuade God to stay with the people. Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17b) comments that Israel’s sin was so serious that there was no possibility of successful intervention on their behalf, but God was moved  and so appeared to Moses and taught him the Thirteen Attributes, saying “Whenever Israel sins, let them recite this (verse) in its proper order, and I will forgive them.” . No wonder then that the selichot services are built around the recitation of this verse, and no wonder that this period, while solemn and reflective in nature is not depressed or fatalistic. The possibility – indeed the fact of – forgiveness from God, is available to us, as long as we do the work of teshuvah, of acknowledging and repairing our mistakes, of resolving to do better in the coming year and making the behavioural changes to do so, of accepting our full selves and moving on.

In Elul we are told, God is close. The doors to mercy and forgiveness are open. And like every journey, it begins with the first step.