Kol Nidrei Sermon – the curious case of collective vows we made in error

L’italiano segue l’inglese

The Neder – The vow, is one of the earliest forms of prayer that we know, first recorded when Jacob speaks to God at Beit El, (Genesis 28)  though even by the time the bible was redacted  it was clearly something to be discouraged.  By the book of Deuteronomy we find “When you shall vow a vow to the Eternal God, do not be slow to pay it, for the Eternal God will certainly expect it from you and you will incur guilt. But if you have not vowed, there is no guilt upon you.” (Deut 23:21-23).

That biblical vow-maker par excellence – the nazir – must bring a sin offering and a guilt offering at the conclusion of his vow – indicating that the additional piety he has taken on himself has some negative aspects to it, and that by denying himself normal pleasures he is behaving wrongly. As the Babylonian Amora Shmuel (2nd/3rd century) said “even though he fulfils the vow, he is called wicked” (Nedarim 22a)

It is clear by the rabbinic period that taking upon oneself additional restrictions beyond those established by the Torah and the Sages is viewed with  extreme disfavour  -to the point of being called a sinner for doing so (Ned 77b) (see Rambam Hilchot De’ot 3:1)

Not surprising then that there is a habit in the orthodox world of adding “bli neder” to any promise or offer, thus ensuring that should it not happen they would not be guilty of an unfulfilled vow.

There are two Talmudic tractates (Nedarim and Shevuot) which are devoted to the complex legal and moral problems that arise when people make vows that cannot or will not be fulfilled, so while vow- making may be frowned upon, it clearly has a place in the heart of the person looking for tools of spiritual value in their lives, and remains a problematic habit in our world.

From the earliest rabbinic times, the annulling of the vows of an individual to another individual is done by a beit din, which must satisfy itself about the nature of the vow, its context, its probability of being able to be fulfilled and so on. And should a beit din act to annul any vow made between individuals, then both people involved must be examined by the court, and must be present for the annulment to take place. Whether they are Jew or gentile, their presence is necessary; no annulment can take place in secret or as a favour to an important person. This is a complex legal arrangement, with many safeguards and requirements in law, and it seems that the formulation of the beit din being asked to annul empty or unfillable vows began fairly early on in the rabbinic period, even while they knew explicitly that the annulment of vows has little basis in any text:  the Mishnah tells us “the rules about the absolution of vows hover in the air and have nothing to support them” (Hagigah 1:8).

But what of the Kol Nedarim prayer that names this service?  This prayer about all our vows was described by the Babylonian Geonim in the 7th Century as a minhag shtut – a foolish custom – but it was already clearly embedded in the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah at that point, possibly as a way to begin a new year with a clean slate, or because it resonated with the magic of blessings and curses on incantation bowls from the sixth century – magic that would have been known to the community even if it was not supposed to form part of their world view, and so again promised some kind of supernatural cleansing of a problem at a critical time of the year.

Because it was so deeply ingrained in the customs and folk-understanding, the Babylonian sages compromised with the people, and turned the formula into a religious rather than legal one, seeking mechila, selicha v’kapparah – forgiveness, pardon and atonement – from God rather than from any human entity. They underpinned this text with one from bible – “And all the congregation of the children of Israel shall be forgiven, and the stranger that sojourns among them; for in respect of all the people it was done in error.” (Numbers 15:26)

וְנִסְלַח, לְכָל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְלַגֵּר, הַגָּר בְּתוֹכָם:  כִּי לְכָל-הָעָם, בִּשְׁגָגָה.

Bishgaga – as a collective we have vowed things to God in error.  It is an extraordinary statement, reaching well beyond both the laws of Nedarim and of the biblical verse. But it gives us the space to come together and make our teshuvah with the support of our community.

Even after the intervention of the geonim, changing the focus of the vows to those between us and God, changing the time frame of the vows and so on, here are so many problems still with the collective annulment we make each year. It is not really possible legally either to annul vows retroactively nor proactively, and yet a compromise was reached between the spiritual needs of the people and the carefully and closely read and understood legal texts of the rabbinate.   If only that were true today.

The battle between the people’s love for Kol HaNedarim and the rabbinic uneasiness with the whole idea of collectively annulling vows is long standing and ongoing. Each strand of Judaism right up to the early Reform movement has tried to remove the formulation from the liturgy at various times, but always found they had to put it back. The power of the people’s needs and wants in this particular case is extraordinary, it stands out in our history and it begs the question – why do the people venerate this prayer so much?

Why is this prayer almost the only thing that the Jews have resisted the rabbinic rulings about? Across the generations, from the earliest liturgies for the Yamim Noraim till today, ordinary Jews demand the right as a community to convene a communal Beit Din, to remove the scrolls in the evening service from the Aron Kodesh – which we leave open and empty -, and in the presence of the community repeat this formulation three times, each time louder than the last.

We know how this prayer looks to the uninformed – the idea that we begin our service annulling any vows made retroactively or proactively does not play well to the outside world who would not understand that the vows in question are only those between us and God.  Many Jews listening to Kol HaNedarim would have had real lived experience of the anti-Semitic uses this prayer has been put to.  Christian Europe called us perfidious oath breakers precisely because they did not understand the limits of the Kol HaNedarim prayer, did not understand that it was framed in the relationship between us and God, not the relationships between human beings.  The More Judaico (Jewish Oath) was a special form of oath taken in the courtrooms of western Europe, rooted in antisemitism and accompanied by particularly unpleasant requirements such as making the Jew stand on the bloody skin of a pig to recite the words of the oath, or to stand bareheaded on a wobbly stool and beaten if he fell off. The intentionally humiliating, painful and dangerous More Judaico was required of Jews in some European courts of law until the 20th century.

So what is it about the Kol HaNedarim prayer that causes us to cling to a formulation of dubious wording, decried by the rabbis and used against us so cruelly and violently by the people among whom we lived? Why have the Jewish people so consistently and so determinedly fought for this prayer, even using it to describe the service that begins Yom Kippur? What is going on that across the generations, across geography, across every expression of the Jewish people, this formulation – the Kol HaNedarim is so cherished?

It is a question that cannot be definitively answered, but I think driving this determination to recite and to hear the words of this prayer – even for Jews who have little contact with the liturgy or with the community – are the twin ideas of our obligation and commitment to a relationship with something outside ourselves, and of a need for the connection and possibilities of being truly seen and understood, leading to deep forgiveness.

Were we not to consider ourselves somehow obligated to God – however distant this feeling might be in our ordinary daily lives, we would not need a ceremony to forgive us having failed in this obligation and help us to find a way back.  The need for relationship is primal; the connection to the divine giving meaning to our lives is somehow hard-wired into us.

Just as the vidui – the recitation of our sins, is a collective public confession that happens in each of the services of Yom Kippur, the Kol HaNedarim is a collective public statement. Both prayers work at a number of levels in the liturgy, but perhaps the most important is that they enable us to say out loud and within our community things that we might find almost impossible to say or do any other way. We have not all done all of the sins we publicly confess to, yet we join in with the recitation of them all, both to allow any individual to speak out without being noticed or judged, and also to create – and to return to -the community we are . The confessional prayers are written in a particular liturgical form which uses the whole alphabet to describe the sins – to show that we are, when reciting the sins on the page, also symbolically confessing to every other form of bad behaviour which is staining our souls and causing us spiritual discomfort or alienation.  The point of the vidui is to bring us together, into a collective, back to our moment of truth. It allows us to be the truth we seek. It reminds us of our commitments – the active obligations we took upon ourselves, and it allows us to be clear and honest, inside the protection of a community at prayer.

The sound of the shofar, which has been blown every weekday of Ellul, and which will be the last sound of the services of Yom Kippur, also calls us to our true selves.   The Tekiah Gedolah is the bookend to the Kol HaNedarim – alongside that opening ceremony,  it frames the journey we make and makes the space for us to be completely true, fully aware of the sacred within us, as we become part of our community.

My colleague Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg writes of the shofar “I always think of the shofar as coming from the depths of creation. Formed from the horn of a ram or mountain goat, its rough, un-honed cry calls of the bond which unites all nature, animal and human. It speaks without words of our bare and basic togetherness in this world of cold and warmth, food and hunger, life and death. The breath which flows through the shofar resonates with the ruach, the breath or spirit which breathes through all life, the spirit of God which hovered over the face of the deep in the beginning and which creates and sustains all living being. It calls us home to the sacred within ourselves, and in all life.”

Why have we Jews fought to keep Kol HaNedarim, both against the internal opposition and the external opprobrium it engenders? I think because it allows us access to what Jonathan calls “our bare and basic togetherness… it calls us home to the sacred.. to the bond of life… to the breath of {God}.” It engenders a place where we can be truly who we are, and where our souls can give our most authentic expression.

So as we begin the final services of this period of Yamim Noraim, of the Days of Awe, with the Kol HaNedarim still echoing in our hearts and minds, we journey together this evening and tomorrow in a space of truth, allowing our awareness of the sacred within ourselves and our world. And we hope that when the Tekiah Gedolah ends the services of Yom Kippur tomorrow evening, we can begin to move on in our lives with a renewed awareness of our purpose, and of the sacred tasks of being, and of becoming, bonded together and filled with the breath of God.

 

 

Il Neder, Il voto, è una delle prime forme di preghiera che conosciamo, registrata per la prima volta quando Giacobbe parla a Dio a Beit El (Genesi 28), sebbene, già quando la Bibbia fu redatta, il voto era chiaramente qualcosa da scoraggiare. Nel libro del Deuteronomio troviamo: “Quando farai un voto al Signore tuo Dio, non dovrai tardare ad adempierlo perché il Signore tuo Dio te lo richiederebbe ed in te si troverebbe il peccato. Se invece cesserai di far voti, non ci sarà in te peccato.”. (Deut 23: 22-23)

Quel creatore di voti biblici per eccellenza, il nazir, deve portare un’offerta per il peccato e un’offerta di colpa alla conclusione del suo voto, mostrando che la pietà aggiuntiva che ha preso su di sé ha alcuni aspetti negativi e che negando a se stesso normali piaceri si sta comportando in modo errato. Come disse il babilonese Amora Shmuel (II/III secolo) “anche se adempie al voto, viene chiamato malvagio”. (Nedarim 22a)

Dal periodo rabbinico è chiaro che chi si assume ulteriori restrizioni oltre a quelle stabilite dalla Torà e dai Saggi è visto con estremo sfavore, fino al punto di essere chiamato peccatore per averlo fatto. (Ned 77b) (vedi Rambam Hilchot De’ot 3:1)

Non sorprende quindi che nel mondo ortodosso vi sia l’abitudine di aggiungere “bli neder” a qualsiasi promessa o offerta, assicurando così che, se ciò non dovesse accadere, non si sarebbe colpevoli di un voto non realizzato.

Esistono due trattati talmudici (Nedarim e Shevuot) che si dedicano ai complessi problemi legali e morali che sorgono quando le persone fanno voti che non possono o non vogliono adempiere, quindi, mentre il voto può essere disapprovato, esso ha chiaramente un posto nel cuore della persona che cerca strumenti di valore spirituale nella propria vita e rimane un’abitudine problematica nel nostro mondo.

Fin dai primi tempi rabbinici, l’annullamento dei voti fatti da un individuo verso un altro individuo viene svolto da un beit din, che deve accertarsi sulla natura del voto, il suo contesto, la sua probabilità di poter essere adempiuto e così via. E in caso di annullamento di qualsiasi voto fatto tra singoli individui, entrambe le persone coinvolte devono essere esaminate dal tribunale e devono essere presenti affinché l’annullamento possa aver luogo. Che siano ebrei o gentili, la loro presenza è necessaria, nessun annullamento può aver luogo in segreto o come favore a una persona importante. Si tratta di un complesso accordo giuridico, con molte garanzie e requisiti di legge, e sembra che la formulazione del beit din cui viene chiesto di annullare i voti a vuoto o non adempibili sia iniziata abbastanza presto nel periodo rabbinico, anche se sapevano esplicitamente che l’annullamento di voti ha poche basi in qualsiasi testo: la Mishnà ci dice infatti: “le regole sull’assoluzione dei voti fluttuano nell’aria e non hanno nulla per essere sostenute”. (Hagigà 1:8)

Ma che dire della preghiera di Kol Nedarim che dà il nome a questo servizio? Questa preghiera, che riguarda tutti i nostri voti è stata descritta dai Geonim babilonesi nel VII secolo come un minhag shtut, un’usanza folle, ma a quel punto era già chiaramente inserita nella liturgia di Rosh HaShanà, forse come un modo per iniziare un nuovo anno con una tabula rasa, o perché risuonava con la magia delle benedizioni e delle maledizioni sulle coppe incantatorie del sesto secolo (oggetti rituali apotropaici con la funzione di trappole per demoni), magia che sarebbe stata conosciuta alla comunità, nonostante non avrebbe dovuto far parte della loro visione del mondo, e così da promettere una sorta di pulizia soprannaturale di un problema in un momento critico dell’anno.

Poiché era così profondamente radicata nelle usanze e nella comprensione popolare, i saggi babilonesi scesero a compromessi con il popolo e diedero alla formula aspetto religioso invece che legale, cercando mehilà, selichà ve kapparà, perdono, assoluzione ed espiazione, da Dio piuttosto che da qualsiasi entità umana. Avvalorarono questo testo con uno tratto dalla Bibbia: “E verrà perdonato a tutta la comunità dei figli di Israele e allo straniero dimorante fra essi, perché tutto il popolo ha parte nell’errore.”. (Numeri 15:26)

וְנִסְלַח, לְכָל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְלַגֵּר, הַגָּר בְּתוֹכָם:  כִּי לְכָל-הָעָם, בִּשְׁגָגָה.

Bishgaga: collettivamente abbiamo promesso delle cose a Dio per errore. È un’affermazione straordinaria, che va ben oltre le leggi di Nedarim e del versetto biblico. Ma ci dà lo spazio per riunirci e fare la nostra teshuvà con il sostegno della nostra comunità.

Anche dopo l’intervento dei geonim, cambiando l’obiettivo dei voti a quelli tra noi e Dio, cambiando l’intervallo di tempo dei voti e così via, abbiamo ancora tanti problemi con l’annullamento collettivo che facciamo ogni anno. Non è davvero possibile legalmente né annullare i voti retroattivamente né proattivamente, eppure è stato raggiunto un compromesso tra i bisogni spirituali delle persone e i testi legali del rabbinato attentamente e minuziosamente letti. Se solo fosse vero oggi.

La battaglia tra l’amore del popolo verso Kol HaNedarim e il disagio rabbinico con l’idea di annullare collettivamente i voti è lunga ed è in corso.

Ogni filone dell’ebraismo fino al primo movimento della Riforma ha cercato di rimuovere la formulazione dalla liturgia in varie occasioni, ma si è sempre trovato a doverla reinserire. Il potere dei bisogni e dei desideri delle persone in questo caso particolare è straordinario, si distingue nella nostra storia e pone la domanda: perché le persone venerano così tanto questa preghiera?

Perché questa preghiera è quasi l’unica cosa per cui gli ebrei hanno opposto resistenza alle sentenze rabbiniche? Attraverso le generazioni, dalle prime liturgie per gli Yamim Noraim fino ad oggi, gli ebrei ordinari chiedono il diritto come comunità di convocare un Beit Din comune, per rimuovere le pergamene nel servizio serale dall’Aron HaKodesh, che lasciamo aperte e vuote, e in presenza della comunità ripetere questa formulazione tre volte, ogni volta più forte della precedente.

Sappiamo come questa preghiera appaia ai non informati. L’idea che iniziamo il nostro servizio annullando qualsiasi voto fatto retroattivamente o proattivamente non suona bene al mondo esterno che non capirebbe che i voti in questione sono solo quelli tra noi e Dio. Molti ebrei che ascoltano Kol HaNedarim hanno avuto una vera esperienza vissuta degli usi antisemiti per cui questa preghiera è stata utilizzata. L’Europa cristiana ci ha chiamato perfidi interruttori di giuramenti proprio perché non capiva i limiti della preghiera di Kol HaNedarim, non capiva che era inquadrata nella relazione tra noi e Dio, non nelle relazioni tra esseri umani. Il More Judaico (giuramento ebraico) era una forma speciale di giuramento prestata nelle aule dei tribunali dell’Europa occidentale, radicata nell’antisemitismo e accompagnata da requisiti particolarmente spiacevoli come far stare l’ebreo sulla pelle insanguinata di un maiale per recitare le parole del giuramento o stare a testa nuda su uno sgabello traballante e picchiato qualora fosse caduto. Il More Judaico, umiliante, doloroso e ed intenzionalmente pericoloso era richiesto agli ebrei in alcuni tribunali europei fino al XX secolo.

Allora, che cosa c’è nella preghiera di Kol HaNedarim che ci induce ad aggrapparci a un enunciato di dubbia formulazione, denigrata dai rabbini e usata contro di noi in modo così crudele e violento dalle persone tra le quali abbiamo vissuto? Perché il popolo ebraico ha combattuto così costantemente e con determinazione per questa preghiera, arrivando a usarla per descrivere il servizio con cui ha inizio Yom Kippur? Per quale motivo attraverso le generazioni, attraverso i continenti, attraverso ogni espressione del popolo ebraico, questa formulazione: il Kol HaNedarim è così amata?

È una domanda cui non è possibile dare una risposta definitiva, ma penso che guidare questa determinazione a recitare e ascoltare le parole di questa preghiera, anche per gli ebrei che hanno pochi contatti con la liturgia o con la comunità, siano le idee gemelle del nostro obbligo e l’impegno per una relazione con qualcosa al di fuori di noi stessi e per il bisogno di connessione e possibilità di essere veramente visti e compresi, portando a un profondo perdono.

Se non dovessimo considerarci in qualche modo in obbligo verso Dio, per quanto distante possa essere questo sentimento nella nostra vita quotidiana ordinaria, non avremmo bisogno di una cerimonia per perdonarci di aver fallito in questo obbligo e aiutarci per trovare una via di ritorno. Il bisogno di relazione è fondamentale; la connessione col divino dà significato alla nostra vita, è in qualche modo connaturata in noi.

Proprio come il vidui, la recitazione dei nostri peccati, è una confessione pubblica collettiva che accade in ciascuno dei servizi di Yom Kippur, il Kol HaNedarim è una dichiarazione pubblica collettiva. Entrambe le preghiere lavorano a vari livelli nella liturgia, ma forse la più importante è quella di consentirci di dire, ad alta voce e all’interno della nostra comunità, cose che potremmo trovare quasi impossibili da dire o fare in altro modo. Non tutti abbiamo commesso tutti i peccati che confessiamo pubblicamente, eppure ci uniamo nella recitazione di tutti, sia per consentire a qualsiasi individuo di parlare senza essere notato o giudicato, sia per creare, e tornare ad essere, la  comunità che siamo. Le preghiere confessionali sono scritte in una particolare forma liturgica che usa l’intero alfabeto per descrivere i peccati, per mostrare che, quando recitiamo i peccati sulla pagina, stiamo anche confessando simbolicamente ogni altra forma di cattivo comportamento che sta macchiando le nostre anime, causandoci disagio spirituale o alienazione. Il punto del vidui è riportarci insieme, in maniera collettiva, al nostro momento di verità. Ci permette di essere la verità che cerchiamo. Ci ricorda i nostri impegni, gli obblighi attivi che ci siamo assunti e ci consente di essere chiari e onesti, all’interno della protezione di una comunità in preghiera.

Il suono dello shofar, che è stato suonato ogni giorno della settimana di Elul, e che sarà l’ultimo suono dei servizi di Yom Kippur, ci chiama anche a noi stessi. Il Tekià Gedolà è un po’ il corrispettivo del Kol HaNedarim, insieme a quella cerimonia di apertura, incornicia il viaggio che facciamo e rende lo spazio per noi completamente vero, pienamente consapevole del sacro dentro di noi, mentre entriamo a far parte della nostra comunità.

Il mio collega Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg scrive dello shofar Penso sempre allo shofar come proveniente dal profondo della creazione. Formato dal corno di un ariete o di una capra di montagna, il suo grido aspro e scabro richiama il legame che unisce tutta la natura, animale e umano. Parla senza parole della nostra nuda ed essenziale unione in questo mondo di freddo e calore, cibo e fame, vita e morte. Il respiro che fluisce attraverso lo shofar risuona con il ruach, il respiro o lo spirito che respira attraverso tutta la vita, lo spirito di Dio che aleggiava all’inizio del profondo e che crea e sostiene tutto l’essere vivente. Ci chiama alla casa del sacro in noi stessi e in tutta la vita.

Perché noi ebrei abbiamo combattuto per mantenere Kol HaNedarim, sia contro l’opposizione interna che contro l’obbrobrio che genera all’esterno? Penso perché ci consente di accedere a ciò che Jonathan chiama “il nostro nudo e fondamentale insieme … ci chiama alla casa del sacro … al legame della vita … al respiro di {Dio}”. Crea un luogo dove possiamo essere veramente chi siamo e dove le nostre anime possono dare la nostra espressione più autentica.

Così, quando iniziamo i servizi finali di questo periodo di Yamim Noraim, dei Giorni del timore reverenziale, con il Kol HaNedarim che riecheggia ancora nei nostri cuori e nelle nostre menti, viaggiamo insieme questa sera e domani in uno spazio di verità, consentendo la nostra consapevolezza del sacro in noi stessi e nel nostro mondo. E speriamo che quando domani sera Tekià Gedolà terminerà i servizi di Yom Kippur, potremo iniziare ad andare avanti nella nostra vita con una rinnovata consapevolezza del nostro scopo e dei sacri compiti dell’essere e del divenire, uniti e riempiti con il respiro di Dio.

 

 

 

Traduzione di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

Sukkot: the people, the land, the relationships that connect us

Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals mandated in Bible, forming a particular cycle of harvest celebrations with Pesach and Shavuot, yet unlike them in the passage in Leviticus which details the festivals, Sukkot is given an extra dimension – it is not only an agricultural celebration but also one that reminds us of the foundational story of our people.  “The fifteenth day of this seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruits of the land, you will keep the feast of the Eternal seven days …And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of the tree (hadar), branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick leaved trees, and willows of the brook and rejoice before the Eternal .. You shall dwell in booths seven days…that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…”  Lev 23:34-43

This explicit link to the exodus, to the people’s vulnerability and dependence on God, brings a powerful richness to our celebration. Unlike the Spring/Summer celebrations of Pesach and Shavuot, with hope and new life bursting forth, the autumnal setting of Sukkot brings intimations of the dark, hard winter days ahead, the leafless trees, the sleeping earth, a quasi-death experience. Sukkot comes six months after Pesach, and it builds and develops the themes of that festival. Unlike the intense dramatic ‘high’ of the plagues and our leaving slavery in Egypt that Pesach provides, Sukkot marks the “ordinary and everyday” struggle to stay alive and safe. It reminds us that our freedoms are fragile, that even basic necessities are not automatically given to us, that life is made up of routine hard graft and of effortful striving. And in this quotidian mundane activity, God is also present, even if less obvious to us.

Sukkot is a festival of autumnal abundance in preparation for months of wintertime scarcity. But at the same time it draws our attention to our two most basic frailties, our need for water (for ourselves and our crops) and for shelter.  The sukkah itself represents the fragility of our homes, with the “s’chach” open to the skies even as the abundant fruit is hanging from it, and the arba’a minim shaken as an almost magical ceremonial to bring rain in the right season.

The four components, held together as they are shaken, are a fascinating concatenation of concepts. Biblically mandated, the palm, myrtle, willow and etrog can represent such a complexity of characteristics. One midrash suggests that together they represent the whole community, all of whom have value and are included in the ritual – the hadar fruit, the etrog, has taste (Torah) and aroma (Mitzvot); the palm has tasty fruit but no smell, (ie represents those who have torah but no good deeds); the myrtle leaves smell wonderful but it has no fruit (mitzvot but no torah), and the willow has neither taste nor smell (no torah and no mitzvot). Every community has people with each of these categories. When we pray before God, each person is important.

Another view is that each one represents a different part of the land of Israel- so the palm tree which loves a hot dry climate grows well in desert areas, the myrtle thrives in the cooler mountains regions, the willows grow only near the streams and waterways that flow all year, and the etrog is most comfortable in the lower coastal areas and the valleys. Israel has a series of microclimates, each represented here.

Or one can understand the arba minim to represent our history from Egypt to settlement: so the lulav would represent wandering in the desert, the willow- crossing the Jordan, the myrtle our settling in the mountains and the etrog the establishment of orchards.

And there is also a midrash that the arba’a minim represents each human being – the palm being the spine, the myrtle the eyes, the willow the lips and the etrog the heart, and we come in supplication to God because we understand how fragile our existence truly is.

Whichever symbolism resonates, the core truth is the same. We are in this world together, our survival is not guaranteed, we need to work together and support each other even as we celebrate a plentiful harvest.  We need to be aware of scarcity, that we can all be affected, that only by sharing and by working together can we create a more harmonious world.

Sukkot is given four names in bible: “Chag ha’Asif”[i] – the festival of ingathering; “Chag ha’Sukkot”[ii] – the Festival of Booths; He’Chag[iii] – THE festival; and “Chag l’Adonai”[iv] the Festival of the Eternal. Of these, the third name – the festival par excellence – gives us most pause for thought, for it reminds us that Sukkot is the most important festival.

Why is this? The symbols of the festival remind us that EVERY person in our society is important; each one needs the dignity of their own home and the security of knowing that basic needs will be met; (Talmud Berachot 57b tells us a home of one’s own increases self-esteem and dignity). They remind us that we are all journeying, that while we may have the illusion of a stable rooted existence, the world turns and our fortunes can turn with it. They remind us that we all have responsibility for the environment and for how we treat our world, that damage to our environment and changes to our climate affects us all. They remind us that we are dependent on factors that are beyond our control. Yet with all of this unsettling symbolism, the rabbis call this festival “z’man simchateinu”, the time of our rejoicing, based upon the verses in Leviticus.  Why does Sukkot make us so happy, this festival of wandering and of fragility? I think because it reminds us of our human commonality and the power of human community. We are connected to God and we are connected to our land, we are connected to our foundational stories and to our historic experiences, but for any of this to truly matter, we must be connected to each other.

[i] Exodus 23:16; exodus 34:22

[ii] Leviticus 23.34; Deuteronomy 16:13,16

[iii] Ezekiel 45, 25, 1 Kings 8, 2, Ezekiel 45, 25 and 2 Chronicles 7, 8

[iv] Leviticus 23:39

(written for the “Judaism in 1000 words” section of Movement for Reform Judaism website)

Shofetim : justice is human as well as divine.

There is so much in this sidra but the overwhelming impulse is to pursue justice – Tzedek. And one phrase stands out for me – “you shall come to the priests and to the Judge that shall be at that time and you shall enquire; and they shall declare to you the sentence of judgement….According to the law which they will teach you, and according to the judgement which they will tell you, you shall do and you shall not turn aside from the sentence which they tell you, to the right or to the left.” (Deut. 17:9-11)

This verse becomes the mandate for Rabbinic Judaism – and one might even say for the evolving and progressing Judaism of which our synagogue is a part. The law is decided not for all time, but by the judge who lives at that time; Torah it is not to be fossilised or protected from modernity or the zeitgeist – it is part of the same process that people are, learning as we add to knowledge, changing as we find new ways to express ourselves. Indeed, so powerful is this text that Rashi (11th Century) builds on the phrase about not deviating from the decision making of the contemporaneous judge either to the right or the left, to bolster the power of the rabbis by saying “even if they declare the left is right and right is left, you follow their judgment”, basing himself on a much earlier midrash [Sifre (2nd Century)].

The requirement to pursue Justice – “Tzedek Tzedek tirdof” – and the importance of Torah being mediated through modern understandings of the world, is an extraordinarily powerful combination. Our understanding of what Justice means has grown and changed as we see how the world is connected and as we appreciate the shared humanity of all peoples and realise that our responsibilities continue outside our own immediate circle and networks, to all human beings.  We have both the principles of k’vod haBrit – Respect for different Jewish points of views and for different levels of Jewish knowledge and activity, and k’vod haBriyot – Respect for all that is created. Both in the Particular world of Jews and in the Universal world of creation, the idea of honouring God through the action of Tzedek – right behaviour – is part of Jewish teaching.

How do we honour both brit and briyot? Both the Jewish world and the larger world in which we live? We do so with the pursuit of justice, and we understand that justice must be brought about and administered in both the worlds in which we live. We can no longer view the world through the eyes of cloistered community; we have a modern understanding and appreciation of how completely we are part of the wider community. How we behave as Jews, be it individually, as a community, or indeed as Israel, must be shaped and filtered through both the imperative to justice and the understanding of modernity. We must read our texts mediated not only through the commentators of old, but also with the eyes of our own contemporaries.

The Midrash Tanhuma proclaims that “every judge who adjudicates according to the quintessential truth is regarded by Scripture as though they were a partner with God in creation.”  So searching out and supporting Justice brings us as close to the divine as we can get.

 The famous phrase ‘Tzedek Tzedek tirdof” “Justice Justice you shall pursue” continues “so that you will live, and inherit the land which the Eternal your God is giving to you (Deut. 16:20) and this is telling. Justice is the thing that brings us as close to God as we can be, the Land of Israel is seen in tradition as being a land which has the eye of God upon it. If Justice is not done in Israel, we will not deserve to live within it – indeed Jacob ben Asher [writing in the halachic code the Tur (c 13th century)], comments on the Talmudic statement that “The only reason Jerusalem was destroyed was because the sages based their decisions on the strict requirements of the law, without going beyond it” (Baba Metzia 30b) by extending it and saying “The only reason that Jerusalem was destroyed and Israel was exiled was because they abolished justice”.

 To simply apply law mechanically and strictly, without thought of context or complexity, is, in the eyes of the Tur, to abolish Justice.

 As we look around in our worlds, shaken by uprisings and riots, by demands and terror, let us take a deep breath and remember that mechanistic responses – even if written in our holy texts – may not be the answer, and we have also to apply the human responses of our own time.