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

16th Ellul: the gates of repentance are always open

16 Ellul

In the introduction to “Orot haTeshuvah” (14:4), Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook writes: “The main reason for our failure to repent is that we do not believe how easy repentance can be”. He notes: “On the one hand, repentance is a divine command that is so easy to perform because the mere intention to repent is already considered repentance. Yet, on the other hand, it is an extremely difficult commandment because the act of penitence is not complete until it has been executed thoroughly in the outside world and in our own lives”

Tradition teaches that the work of teshuvah has two different strands. In Elul the focus is on the teshuvah known as “bein adam l’havero” – between people. When we reach Yom Kippur, that work is meant to have been done, we have reflected on our behaviour and made sincere apologies; where we can we have righted wrongs, or recompensed for them. Repairs have been made to the dislocated and torn relationships we have ignored or abused. We have sought forgiveness from those we have hurt, and we forgive those who seek our forgiveness for their hurt to us. This is important because Mishnah (Yoma 8:3) teaches:  “For the transgressions are between human and the divine, Yom Kippur atones; for the transgressions that are between human and human, Yom Kippur does not atone until one has appeased the other.” (Yoma 8.3)

The personal acts of atonement between human beings are the most critical for us – when we come to Yom Kippur the liturgy – with its collections of confessions, of reflections, of warnings and welcomings –will take us on a different path.

But the best guidance comes – as so often – from Maimonides. The process of Teshuvah is logical and clear for him. First we must reflect and think about what we have done. Then we must actively regret our actions, and move towards the other in order to repair the damage and apologise with sincerity. After that is the requirement that we reject our own behaviour, resolving to no longer choose to act as we have done before. We will behave differently when faced with the same opportunity to sin as before.

Rav Kook had it right – it is both extremely easy and extremely difficult to perform teshuvah. How we act in the world may not always match up with our intentions, and that is painful to acknowledge. But it is interesting to me that teshuvah is one of the seven things said by the rabbis to have been created before the world was created. It means that built into our humanity is the expectation that we will make mistakes, behave selfishly or meanly or thoughtlessly. Yet teshuvah is always available – as the midrash tells us (Midrash Rabbah, Devarim) “ Rabbi Channanya bar Papa asked Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman, what is the meaning of the verse (Psalm), “As for me I will offer my prayer unto You in an acceptable time “? He replied, “The gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, but the gates of repentance are always open.”

Or in the words of Franz Kafka “Only our concept of time makes it possible to speak of the Day of Judgment by that name; in reality it is a summary court in perpetual session”  (Reflections on Sin, Pain, Hope and the True Way 1917-1929).

The opportunity is ever present that we can become our better selves small act by small act as the days go by. The month of Elul may prompt us, but every day is an opportunity for teshuvah – and we should take it.

 

 

 

 

14th Elul: manageable teshuvah in bitesized portions

14th Elul

Reb Shmelke said “basing myself on the Talmudic tradition that if everyone repented together the messiah would come, I decided to do something about it. I was convinced that I would be successful, but, where to start? The world is so vast I shall start with the country I know best -My own.  But my country is so very large; I had better start with my town.   But my town itself is large, so I had best start with my street.  No, with my home.  No with my family. Reb Shmelke pondered a little and said “never mind, I’ll start with myself”  (Chasidic)

We stop ourselves very often from progressing, or from doing what we intend to do, by defining the terms of reference too widely. The month of Elul, the whole progression of the liturgical year from the haftarot of rebuke to Tisha b’Av to the haftarot of comfort to Rosh Hashanah, takes us on a journey – We ignore God’s warning and find ourselves in catastrophe. We are aware of God’s proffered comfort but find The Great Day of Judgment that is Rosh Hashanah awaiting us. We will spend the ten days of return trying to focus before Yom Kippur is upon us demanding the fruits of our work, and then Sukkot offers a breathing space……

Maybe we should just do our teshuvah in more manageable and less impressively indigestible chunks, so that we actually get some done.

Tisha b’Av: looking back, looking forwards

From 17th Tammuz we began the “Three Weeks” with a day of fasting to remember the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem. The grieving intensifies from the beginning of Av until we reach the 9th day – the fast of Tisha b’Av, when we mourn the destruction of both Jerusalem Temples.  From early rabbinic times, this period has been seen as a date when terrible things happened to the Jews. The incident of the spies which led to the exodus generation never entering the land is the first catastrophe attributed to Tisha b’Av, but many more have accumulated since. The Talmud tells us (Yoma 9b) that the First Temple was destroyed because of idolatry and immorality, but the second was destroyed even though the Jews were pious and observant. Causeless hatred was rife within the Jewish world, and this brought the cataclysm. Talmud concludes “This is to teach that causeless hatred is as grave as idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed together.”

Progressive Jews have abandoned any desire for Temple ritual and while we recognise the disaster that was Tisha b’Av and we mourn the pain, dislocation and vulnerability of our people, we cannot only observe the traditional Tisha b’Av mourning rituals or view it as divine punishment for which we had no agency.  Causeless hatred brought about disaster, Jews hating Jews for no reason. Rav Kook teaches that the remedy must be causeless love for each other, so we must make space for diversity within Judaism and value our differences– this is a direct response to Tisha b’Av, much harder than fasting or lamenting!

But there is another progressive response that comes from our early history. David Einhorn wrote his siddur “Olath Tamid” in the 1850’s and included a service “on the Anniversary of the Destruction of Jerusalem”. The siddur’s name shows how Reform Judaism saw prayers as the successor to the Temple rite, and the service for Tisha b’Av turns tradition around, giving thanks that Judaism could grow and thrive in so many different countries. His prayer speaks of “paternal guidance” to “glorify your name and your law before the eyes of all nations…as your emissary to all…. The one temple in Jerusalem sank into the dust, in order that countless temples might arise to thy honour and glory all over the wide surface of the globe”.  As with all mourning, Jewish tradition is to mark the event and come back into Life.

 

first written for publication in London Jewish News

The paradox that is Pinchas plays out also in Jeremiah or: the murderous zealot in the cause of God while the despairing prophet gives us hope

There is no literary connection between the torah reading of Pinchas and the designated haftarah- the connection is instead calendrical as this week we begin the cycle of haftarot that will take us to Tisha b’Av, the blackest day of our calendar – and from there to Rosh Hashanah, the day of our judgment and the new year.

The three shabbatot before Tisha b’Av each have a traditional special haftarah reading that deals with the punishment that will befall the people who forget the God of the covenant. They are known as t’lat d’fur’anuta’ the “three of affliction” or of rebuke.  As we enter the first of the three, which signal not only the coming remembrance of the cataclysm that was Tisha b’Av, but also that we are on the run up now to Rosh Hashanah, we are provided with a good deal of food for thought as we must begin to measure ourselves and our lives, to try to comprehend the circumstances and environment  in which we are living.

The prophet Jeremiah lived at the end of the 7th century BCE. The Northern Kingdom had been destroyed and its inhabitants dispersed and lost. Judah, the Southern Kingdom, was in danger of the same fate. Jeremiah recognised this, and he offered both despair and hope in his prophecy. The religious and social conditions of the time were not good – idolatry was rife, and Josiah’s reforms were partial and weak, and did not survive long after Josiah’s death.  People were disconnected from the source of their religious traditions to the point where they even felt that the misfortunes of their country could have been caused by their not offering incense to other gods during the time of Josiah’s reforms. It is likely that there were even human sacrifices being offered at this time, justified as being a return to the true religion, a perversion of Judaism that appalled Jeremiah.

People were being stigmatized as being treacherous; they could not trust one another or build up strong relationships. Social injustice existed on all levels of society, and was barely even noted, so ordinary had it become to mistreat the poor in society. The world of Jeremiah is one we might recognise today, society breaking down, all kinds of fantasies floated as if they might be genuine, fake news and loss of trust in the leadership.

And what does Jeremiah talk about?  He talks about contract, about the covenant that the Jews have with God, about how there is a special obligation of loyalty upon Israel, and that even if Israel does not offer this loyalty, even if destruction follows, the curious truth is that the special relationship between God and the Jews, implied by the covenant, will not be broken. In all of the despair he shines an odd ray of hope.

It is a strange conception that we have an unbreakable contract of obligation to God.  It is almost impossible for us to imagine an agreement which, even if broken on both sides, remains binding. And yet it is at the heart of our history, it is our raison d’être and our aspiration. A Jew cannot repudiate the covenant for all time, even if we appear to despise it or ignore it. The obligation and the special relationship remain in place. I am  reminded of the perennial Jewish complaint to God- “We realise that we are the chosen people, but can’t you just go and choose someone else for a change”.  The answer, of course, is “even if I do, it doesn’t preclude Me from continuing to choose you!”

Reading Jeremiah is to know that we have an inescapable destiny.  The folkloric Yiddish form – that something is bashert, that something is meant to happen in the grand scheme of things – has probably helped the Jewish people to get through all manner of crises. Yet Jeremiah, for all his despair at what is going on around him, is paradoxically aware both of a kind of predestination and of the critical importance that free will will have in any outcome – he is prophesying about the impact of the individual’s choices.  He begins his prophecy in a way that shows he believed he had been called with by God:  “before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.  Before you were born, I set you apart.  I have appointed you a prophet to the nations”

Jeremiah develops the twin concepts of predestination and free will.  He rails at the people precisely because he knows that their chosen behaviour is dangerous and wrong, but that they can choose to behave a different way and different outcomes will occur. Predestination is not the same as determinism.  As Mishnah Pirkei Avot comments: All may be foreseen, but freedom of choice is given”  or as Mishnah Berachot frames it “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven”: That is, whatever God may or may not perceive, it doesn’t have to mean that it will necessarily happen.  Unlike the covenant which binds us eternally however many times we may break it, we do have the power to escape what may seem to be our destiny – even a small change in behaviour can lead to a massive change in outcome.  It is in our hands to shape our lives.

Medieval philosophers understood this well. Maimonides comments that we enter the world with a variety of propensities and possibilities, but what use is made of them is our own doing.  Modern science has come to the same conclusion – we may be able to map out a whole variety of genes, but we still can’t guarantee our predictions about the bearers of those genes – even genetically identical twins can live completely different lives.

We read the 3 haftarot of rebuke and affliction every year in the 3 weeks before we commemorate the anniversary of the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples.  We can’t undo the history, but we can listen to the message – we know what is required of us, we know the likely outcome of our ignoring what God requires of us, we can change the future.

After Tisha b’Av our liturgical tradition decrees that there come 7 haftarot of consolation – more than double the words of warning and pain – a perfect number of weeks of grieving and moving on. From this Shabbat until Rosh Hashanah there are ten weeks of preparation, mirroring the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when the work we do from this period will intensify in urgency and feeling.   The liturgical calendar is being carefully patterned and manipulated to encourage us on a religious journey towards new beginnings. The message is being hammered home – the covenant may be ignored or unfulfilled but it has not broken, we remain obliged to our relationship with God.  Our future is foreseen in all its possibilities but we remain in charge of what will actually be – we have the choice to behave well, and if we choose not to do so we are well aware of the consequences.  But even the consequences, dire as they may be, never rule out the possibility of change, of, to use a very old fashioned word – redemption.  From the reading of the first haftarah of affliction until Rosh Hashanah we have ten weeks – the clock is ticking and, as we read in Pirkei Avot, “the work is great and the Master of the House is waiting.”

 

Rosh Hashanah Sermon  : unetaneh tokef prayer and the day for judgement.

 “B’rosh Hashanah yikateyvun, uv’yom tzom kippur yea’ha’teymun -On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed”

One of the most powerful themes in the liturgy for the Yamim Noraim is this one:- the idea that in heaven on this day there are opened three different books – one for the totally righteous, one for the totally wicked, and one – the largest one by far – for the people who have both good and bad deeds on our record, who must be weighed up and judged on a case by case basis.

The unetaneh tokef prayer – which came into use in Ashkenazi tradition in the Amidah since the 11th century (and is used in some Sephardi traditions just before the Mussaf service) but which is built on a much older poem from the Byzantine Period in Israel (circa 330–638) is a powerful liturgical poem for the Yamim Noraim, from which the quotation above is taken. It goes on to tell us what is also decided on this day: : How many shall leave this world and how many shall be born into it, who shall live and who shall die, who shall perish by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by beast, who by hunger and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, who shall rest and who shall wander, who shall be at peace and who shall be tormented, etc”  but goes on to remind us that” But Penitence, Prayer and Good Deeds can annul the Severity of the Decree.”

 The Book of Life:  Its earliest Jewish appearance is in the book of Exodus just months after the exodus from Egypt, when the Ten Commandments are given on Sinai and Moses returns to see people having despaired of his return and created a golden calf to worship. Moses returned to God, and said: ‘Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them a god of gold. Yet now, if You will forgive their sin–; and if not, blot me, I pray You, out of Your book which You have written.’  And God said to Moses: ‘whoever has sinned against Me, that one will I blot out of My book. Ex 32:32-35

We tend to see the Book of Life in terms of the unetaneh tokef prayer – a document that records everything, collecting the evidence determining who shall live and who shall die in the coming year, rewarding or punishing according to the life already lived. Yet the two ideas – that there is a Book written about our Life, and that reference to such a book enables the heavenly sentencing on Judgment Day (that is Rosh Hashanah), do not have to be so entwined.

The idea of a heavenly Book of Life seems to have originated in Babylon, with Babylonian legend speaking of the Tablets of Destiny, lists of sins and wrongdoings of people, who should be blotted out of existence. Scholars believe it probably referred to some kind of Eternal life, an end of time Judgment. Our Rosh Hashanah liturgy however sees the document differently, causing us to pray for a better and longer earthly life.

While the Mishnah tells us (Avot 2:1) “Consider three things that you may not come within the power of sin. Know what is above you—a seeing eye, and a hearing ear, and all your deeds are written in a book”, it also tells us “All Israel have a portion in the world to come”. Eternal life is, in effect, a given – the Book of Life is not so much about our eternity as about the actual record we each create as we live and go about our lives. The Sefer Hasidim pointedly adds that God is in no need of a book of records; saying “the Torah speaks the language of human beings”; that is, “this is a metaphorical statement to remind us that everything we do is a matter of record, and this record builds to describe and create testimony about each human life – its actions, its meaning, its impact on the world, its memory and memorial”.

The Book of our Life is not, in reality, simply a record of good and bad deeds, to be weighed up each Rosh Hashanah Judgment day when the book is opened.  It is the ultimate repository of who we are. We are, in effect, the sum of our actions and our memories. When our lives are stripped of memory they are stripped of meaning and of purpose. Purpose and meaning ultimately rely on a context and an awareness that is provided for us by our use and recording of memory.

In the last few weeks of Torah readings we have been reading about Moses’ rehearsing to and reminding the people of Israel about their history, their purpose, their connection with the Divine Being and its purpose, and the ethical and religious principles they agreed to when they entered the Covenant with God at Sinai, – an Eternal covenant, and one into which we bring our children. The whole of the book of Deuteronomy is in effect a Memory Book, a Book of Life, a record and proof text for who we are and what we are about. It is Moses’ last effort to implant within us a sense of our history and our purpose, a text to take with us into our future.

In just the same way as Torah gives meaning and purpose to the wider Jewish identity, our very personal existence depends on our own memory, mission and morality – remembering where we came from, what we are called on to do, and how we are called on to do it. And  this information is what creates each of our books of life, which we are invited to open and to read during Ellul, and then from Rosh Hashanah till Yom Kippur.

Our continued existence as thoughtful and purposeful human beings depends upon what is written in our own Book of Life. Who we really are will form who we will become. If we pay no attention to our own historical reality, to the memories of ourselves and of our people which we rehearse regularly in religious ritual both at home and in the synagogue, then slowly but surely we will lose touch with our root meaning – that which in religious terms would be called Covenant.

If we no longer tell the stories of our past, and find meaning within them that can speak to the modern world, then we will lose our particular purpose, and our lives will indeed become simple accountancy columns – so much fun versus so much pain, so many good deeds versus so many mean ones.  If we distance ourselves from the moral teaching of our tradition, and create a morality based instead on convenience or on what feels right in some unsubstantiated way, then we are in danger of losing our way, of making decisions not using our inherited system of values but on what suits us or fits in with our limited world view.

Memory, Purpose  and Morality – these bring the awareness of where we are the and the connection to where we come from; they create the understanding that our life must be lived with a purpose that is connected to our peoplehood, our roots – however we want to define memory; and a set of overarching values that are not about our own gratification or benefit but about a world view that takes in more than our own selves or our narrow context. This is what Moses was trying to explain in his last speeches recorded so clearly in the book of Deuteronomy – distilling both the history and the learning of the earlier books of Torah.  It is what we must try to do now, as we open our personal Book of Life and read it in order to understand something deep and vital about how we are living our own lives. Not just to reflect on things that are pricking our conscience a little or on the irritations and anxieties of other’s behaviour towards us. But to consider our memory, our  purpose in the world and the morality that both feeds and drives us.

Purpose and meaning, that which gives shape and direction to our lives, does not come out of nowhere. It is shaped by the stories we tell of ourselves and our forebears, by the writings of our historians and our prophets; It is taught to us in our homes and a variety of schools; That which comes to us through our faith tradition is rehearsed in prayer; symbolically enacted in rituals; and recalled periodically in a variety of services and liturgies. Our memories are strengthened by their being recalled and recounted, freshened and sharpened by how we use them.

Without a structure and a system for remembering and teaching, for measuring ourselves against who and what we should be, we ultimately cut ourselves loose from purpose and meaning and have to find roots wherever we can. This is as true of a nation state as it is of a religious identity as it is of an individual person. Each of us must root ourselves in a sense of meaning and purpose if we are to live full lives, and our senses of meaning and purpose must themselves be rooted in something of value and credibility – our family hist­­­ory and its stories, our connection to religious tradition, to a system of values and morals, to our reasons for being – our own humanity.

So when we pray – B’sefer Hayyim nizakeir v’nikateiv lefanecha.Anachnu v’chol amm’cha beit yisrael, le’hayyim tovim v’shalom.

May we and all Your people the family of Israel be remembered and recorded in the Book of Life for a good life and for peace. We are asking not for a simple accounting exercise in order to creep into heaven, not a weighing up of good and bad in the hope that we have been rather better than not, but that our lives are recorded and our memory maintained and refreshed so that we are better able to observe and take hold of the purpose and meaning of our individual and group existence, that our behavior will align more closely to who we know we could become – articulating the values of human dignity and social justice, of enacting good in the world.

It is important that we ask both for ourselves and also for all the people Israel to be able to critically understand the purpose and meaning of existence. For we are not alone here, not individuals on a journey to personal enlightenment so much as a group who are bound – since Sinai – in Covenant with God. We are a people, responsible each for the other, created to support each other and the values we share in the world.

We are a people, responsible each for the other, seeing ourselves as partners in co-creating with God the world in which we live, responsible for the enactment of the divine message of shleima – wholeness and integrity, in our world.

Torah tells us the world is not finished and perfect, it is up to people to complete and to perfect it.

We work on ourselves. That may be more or less difficult, more or less possible, and ultimately it is between ourselves and God just how well we manage.

For most of us our personal Book of Life is readable, at least in solitude, with a modicum of privacy to protect our dignity. We remember our childhoods, at least enough to draw from them the lessons we need as adults. We mostly have at least a sketchy knowledge of our family history over the previous generations – the name of a town or shtetl, the name of an ancestor recalled in our own, the stories that emerge when the family get together for a lifecycle event or festival. We can reconstruct enough of our past to gain a sense of our purpose and, as the bible says, the apple does not fall far from the tree – our family history is often surprisingly circular, and we maintain the values and traditions of our past in some way.

But when we become a group, then it is harder to examine our actions, to take joint responsibility for things we either know nothing about or maybe feel angry about.    We all belong to many different groups and we have responsibility for them– to hold each to account, to remind each of their past and their purpose. In particular at this time we think about the group we belong to called “Jewish Peoplehood” and “Israel”, and remind each other that Israel’s very existence depends on its memory, on its mission, and its morality.

Our memories are held in a book – the Book of Life for the Jewish people is Torah and its descendant the Rabbinic tradition of responsa and innovation. If we forget the values that are given to us there then we forget who we are and what we are about, we will ultimately fall apart, unnourished, unrooted, unconnected.

So when we think about the Book of Life this year, consider it a Book that actively maintains us and our purpose, defines our identities and our values so that we can work in the world in a consistent and meaningful way. And think too about the greater Book, the one that records the behaviour of our whole people. And with both of these volumes open and read lets think about what we want to be written in the coming year, so that when we leave here today we can begin to take up our meaning and our purpose, rooted in our values and our morality, and review and record the memories we want to be acted upon and remembered.

 

Ki Tavo: creating our own narrative by our own actions. What we do becomes what we are.

“When you enter the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, …, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Eternal your God will choose… You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him; “I acknowledge this day before the Eternal your God that I have entered the land that the Eternal swore to our ancestors to assign us.” …. “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meagre numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labour upon us. We cried to the Eternal, the God of our ancestors, and the Eternal heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Eternal freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents, bringing us to this place and giving us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, Eternal One, have given me.” ….. And you shall rejoice in all the good which the Eternal your God has given to you, and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the stranger that is in the midst of you. (Deut 26:1–3, 5-10, 26:11)

The commandment at the beginning of the sidra is familiar to us, reminding us to tell our story in such a way that we do not just focus on harvest, or on our good fortune, nor even to tell it while recognising that our good fortune is not simply the result of our own effort, but to create a narrative that puts our experience into the context of the historical experience of the Jewish people.

Telling our story is how all of us make sense of our lives. Each of us has a narrative running through our consciousness, each of us notices most easily what fits into that narrative, manages to ignore that which cannot be meshed into the story.  The theme of these days of preparation for Rosh Hashanah – that of opening and reading to book of our lives, emerges in part from the awareness of the stories we construct about our everyday experience.  But while each of us may be the centre of our own continuous narrative, Jewish teaching does not allow us to become self-absorbed. Instead we are expected to see ourselves as part of a whole that is greater than ourselves. We are part of a people. We live beyond this moment – we live in the span of the whole experience of our people.  And the way we express ourselves religiously is woven into our internal and external narrative. We have to become aware not only of the immanent God with whom we can create some form of relationship of “I – Thou”; The God we worship is the God of history, the God who has no limits of time or space. Ever since we accepted Torah, Jews have been taught to see God at work in the world around us, in the historical experience of our people, and in the humanity of others.

Each of us, like the Israelite farmer bringing his first fruits, is required to tell a story, to render an account – before God and to our innermost selves, of who and what we are – a narrative that explains just what it is that spurs us on to action in this world. In telling his story, that farmer was commanded to look beyond his immediate reality to a vision of what his life was to be about. So, we too, are asked, when telling our story, not to ignore the “real world” but to transcend it, to direct our attention away from the concrete trivialities of our material existence and toward those goals, however exalted and “unrealistic,” that God would have us set for our lives.

The liturgical formula that is preserved in the verses at the beginning of ki tavo is a rare example of the prayer life of ancient Israel.  We use it in a number of settings – from the Pesach Haggadah to the liturgy of bikkurim, and its familiarity speaks to us and reminds us that the story of the redemption from slavery which led to the covenant at Sinai is a foundational one for us as Jews. Without it our stories are in danger of sentimentality. But it isn’t just the words that teach us.  We are moved from words to actions. The ritual begins with our declaration to proclaim our understanding and our faith. Then we go beyond the declaration into action – the tachlis.  Having acknowledged the Source of our blessing – God – and told the story of our own historical vulnerability, remembering our impotence and pain, we go on to do something intensely practical – to share the offering with the Levite/ priest and the ger–“the sojourner/stranger that is in your midst.” (Deuteronomy 26:11)

The ger, (Sojourner/stranger) is almost a synonym for the idea of the vulnerable, the one who does not have land or resource, the one without the support of family or landsmen, the person who is quintessentially alone. Today the closest equivalent is likely to be the refugee or the asylum seeker, washed up without possessions in a foreign environment. Torah requires us not only to acknowledge our own good fortune, but to behave directly out of that acknowledging, to routinely share with those who do not have the same good fortune as us.  The act of thanksgiving commanded at the beginning of the sidra leads us to act even before thinking about the action, getting us to do a good thing, to perform a mitzvah, that will shape our understanding of the world, that will shape us.  The requirement to care for the vulnerable enters into the narrative we live by each day, we cannot disregard it.  It is no surprise therefore that tradition teaches that “In the future age, all sacrifices and prayers will be abolished, except that of thanksgiving”. (Menachem of Gallia, in Vayikra Rabbah 9:7).

In this month of Elul as we approach the High Holy Days and we think about what we have done and what we have not done, what we should do and what we fear we will never do, it is important to remember that these days are the white fast, they are days of Awe but they are also days of thanksgiving for all we have, for knowing that God will not desert us, that God will let us find our way if we search. They remind us that we should not forget our past nor think only of our present. They remind us that we have to find the words to tell the story that is true for us, that gives meaning and shape to our lives. And even before we really understand, we have to act.