Yom Kippur Sermon: what kinds of people are called dead even while still alive?

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In Midrash Tanchuma the question is asked:  “What kinds of people are called dead even when they are alive? Those who see the morning sunlight…those who see the sun set…those who eat and drink, and are not stirred to say a blessing” (Tanchuma, v’zot habracha, 7)

Yom Kippur is an unusual time – we treat it as a day outside of time, a day as if we are dead. We wear shrouds; we abstain from eating, drinking, washing and other activities of the living. We have in our liturgy the recurring imagery of a Book of Life, and we repeat the refrain of our hope that we will be inscribed in it for another year – for if we are not, then we will indeed be dead.  The awareness of our mortality looms over the day, it provides much needed perspective and hopefully also a spur to our thinking about our priorities when we return to daily life.

Yom Kippur is a kind of a dress rehearsal for our dying. When we will look back over a hopefully full and happy life, tradition teaches that we will understand what our life was really about, what was important and what was not – and the very thin lines between them. The Chasidic tradition tells us that that understanding will be our heaven and our hell – when we realise that things we overlooked as uninteresting or unimportant really were critical, when things we pursued and enjoyed having achieved will be sloughed off as irrelevant to our souls.

We have the chance today to weight the scales for that understanding. Yom Kippur reminds us each year that we will one day face our own death. Everyone dies, that is not negotiable, but the question is really, how well does everyone live? How well do we use our own lives?

Yom Kippur also gives us another experience – besides the time out of time, the day we can spend “as if dead” – it reminds us that we will undergo many deaths in our lifetimes, and that these small deaths can be doorways to other ways of being. We experience many losses, many changes from what we hoped or planned. Our life paths deviate again and again, sometimes randomly, sometimes unfairly – but as my mother is fond of saying, when a door closes, a window opens. We are able to find a new way of being, say goodbye to a previous iteration of ourselves and grow into someone a little different from before.

Our rabbis taught that sleep is one-sixtieth of death (Berachot 57b) and every day when we wake up  from sleep, we have a prayer to thank God for the return of our pure soul – the elohai neshama prayer speaks of God breathing our soul back into us – just as the first human was breathed into life. So every day is a new birth in potentia, we can start again after the small death of sleep. Every single day is a new possibility for change, for growth, for becoming more of the person we would like to be.

Just as each day brings the possibility of small changes or bigger transformation, the many sadnesses and losses and small deaths in our lives can help us focus on what is really important. And Yom Kippur is a gift of a day to us to weigh up the balance of our lives.

The Talmud tells us (Shabbat 31a) that after death every soul will arrive at the beit din shel ma’alah, the heavenly court, and will be asked the same questions. “Did you act in your business with honesty and integrity? Did you fix set times for studying Torah? Did you participate in the commandment of creation? Did you continue to hope? Did you engage in the pursuit of wisdom? Did you have fear of Heaven?”

These are not rhetorical or philosophical questions, they are designed to make us think about what our lives are for, how to best use the days and hours that we have – particularly since no one knows how short or long the time left to us might be.

The first question – did you have integrity and honesty in your dealings with others – is not only practical but aims deep at our character – how we treat others is a measure for how we value others.  The instinct to profit at the expense of others is in us all. The question aims squarely at how much we might have given in to that instinct, how much we temper it with the awareness that we are all the children of one God.

The second question is about study – our own inner lives are at stake here.  Torah study is the emblem of connection to our roots, to our people and to God. It provides the lenses through which we see the world, it shapes our moral code, it pushes us into an awareness that we are not the centre of the universe and that something else is. To make a fixed time to remind ourselves of the teachings which give framework to our behaviour and our decision making, is a life- giving action. It keeps us in the space where anything can happen, it gives us roots, it allows for us to continue to grow and to develop ourselves.

The third question – did you participate in the mitzvah of creation – this is more, so much more, than the plain sense of procreation. When we teach, when we model good behaviour, when we help others to grow or to change, to let go or to hold on, we participate in the mitzvah of creation. When we help a community to come together, be it providing the challot or the drashot, learning together, providing a group for the wedding or b’nei mitzvah celebrant or for the mourner to express their grief and fulfil their rites – we are participating in creation. When we recognise the humanity of the other – the refugee, the immigrant, the impoverished or the frightened, we are participating in the mitzvah of creation. When we visit the sick or comfort the bereaved, we are participating in that mitzvah too. Whenever we build relationship with the other, help a community to grow and thrive – all this is part of that same mitzvah. When we plant a garden or a tree, when we try to protect the environment with the choices we have – all of this is the mitzvah of creation.

Did you continue to hope? Despair is easy to come by in this world. More so for the generations of Jews exiled from their land and treated with scorn and humiliation. Yet the Jew continues to hope and that hope is what underpins our resilience and our particularity as a people. We don’t let go of our covenant promise, however distant it appears. We don’t let go of our faith in humanity either. As Edmond Fleg wrote:  “I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair is heard the Jew hopes.” The hope is understood in tradition as the hope for redemption, for the messianic age. The point of the hope is that Jews have clung on to our identity, our purpose and meaning through this mechanism. One day the hope will be fulfilled.

In our time it seems that darkness is coming once again, as nationalism and populism are on the rise, xenophobia and narrow hatred growing in many countries across the globe. All the more important then, to hold on to hope, not to give in to the eroding and corroding despair which would lead us to every darker, ever narrower places, which would destroy all that would be good in the world.

Did you engage in the pursuit of wisdom? – wisdom is more than knowledge, it is the ability to see through situations, to sift out the right from the wrong, to apply a morality as well as  legal or logical thinking. Traditionally explained as a gift of age and experience, wisdom does not fall into our laps, it must be pursued, worked on, it is the outcome of critical and honest thinking, of seeing honestly rather than through the lens of self-interest. One of my favourite sermons is by Milton Steinberg, called “To Hold With Open Arms” In it he tells the following story:

“After a long illness I was permitted for the first time to step out of doors. And as I crossed the threshold, sunlight greeted me. This is my experience; all there is to it. And yet, so long as I live, I shall never forget that moment…The sky overhead was very blue, very clear, and very, very high. A faint wind blew from off the western plains, cool and yet somehow tinged with warmth – like a dry, chilled wine. And everywhere in the firmament above me, in the great vault between earth and sky, on the pavements, the building- the golden glow of sunlight.  It touched me too, with friendship, with warmth, with blessing. And as I basked in its glory, there ran through my mind those wonder words of the prophet about the sun which some day shall rise with healing on its wings. In that instant I looked about me to see whether anyone else showed on his face the joy, almost the beatitude I felt. But no, there they walked – men and women and children in the glory of a golden flood, and so far as I could detect, there was none to give it heed,. And then I remembered how often I, too had been indifferent to sunlight, how often, preoccupied with petty and sometimes mean concerns, I had disregarded it, and I said to myself, how precious is the sunlight, but alas how careless of it are we”

Rabbi Steinberg died a young man – but the wisdom in this one story challenges us all about how precious our world is, and how careless we are of it.  He reminds us that that value of an experience is not lessened by whether or not it is commonplace. He reminds us we are in a connected world.

Did you fear heaven? The Talmud tells us that everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven (Rabbi Chanina TB Berachot 33b)- what does it mean? That we have free will to serve heaven or not – we cannot be coerced into faith or into religious practise, it is a free choice and not even God can act here. So we are being asked to defend our choices, from what ethical or other code we acted in our lives. We are being asked if we were true to our own selves.

“Everyone dies, but not everyone fully lives” said William Sachs Wallace. Yom Kippur is an opportunity, a repeated and fixed and regular time to examine our lives, so that on our deaths we can stand up in the heavenly court certain that we did, indeed, live as fully and as well as we could.  Each of us has our own life to live, there is no pro forma, no template that says “this one way is the right way”. We have to examine and discern, play the stories through our minds, speak to others to see how we have impacted on them, reflect and consider.

When I think of the many funerals I have officiated at or attended, and the thousands of life stories I have heard, there are some that stand out for me and stay with me because of what I learn from that person and the life they lived. It is rarely the amazing achievements of some member of the great and the good – their political or scientific or academic performances, their stellar achievements in their chosen fields, their honorifics and their titles. Yes, these are impressive, but sometimes I have listened to the list of public successes in a group of mourners so small, and so emotionally distant from the deceased, that I wonder what can have gone so badly wrong in their personal lives, their relationships?

 I once wrote the Hesped  (eulogy) for a woman who had apparently done nothing in her life but bring up her children and clean her home. As I was talking with the family, wondering what I could possibly say at the funeral, one fact kept shining through, demanding to be noticed.  She had been a loving and much loved woman. A wife, mother, grandmother, sister, friend, neighbour. Everyone had a story of how she had been there for them in some crossroads in their lives. Everyone spoke of how they could move on in their lives having discussed things with her. Everyone told of how loved they felt, a love they missed beyond telling. She had no list of achievements to define her, only her persistent and consistent and supportive love that had held together a large extended family, allowing each one to grow to be who they were. I realised then what an extraordinary achievement her quiet ­­­­life had been, how appreciative and appreciated she had been. I have never forgotten the lesson I learned from her life, as told by the people who mourned her.

What kinds of people are called dead even when they are alive? Those who see the morning sunlight…those who see the sun set…those who eat and drink, and are not stirred to say a blessing”

Let us resolve today, while we are examining our lives and our hopes, recalibrating our aspirations and letting go of our doubts and fears, that we will not be amongst those who see the sunrise and sunset, who enjoy all there is of the ordinary pleasures of life, and not be stirred to say a blessing. Let us decide that we will be among those who live our lives as fully and as appreciatively as we possibly can, and be as true to ourselves as we were created to be. A small change in behaviour, but it might lead to us being able to answer those questions to the heavenly beit din with a sense of having understood while alive, what some may only begin to see when it is too late to act.

 

Nel midrash Tanchuma viene posta la domanda: “Che tipo di persone vengono chiamate morte anche quando sono vive? Quelli che vedono il sole del mattino … quelli che vedono il sole tramontare … quelli che mangiano e bevono e non si sono premurati di dire una benedizione”. (Tanchuma, v’zot habracha, 7)

 

Yom Kippur è un momento insolito: lo consideriamo un giorno fuori dal tempo, un giorno in cui è come se fossimo morti. Indossiamo dei sudari; ci asteniamo dal mangiare, dal bere, dal lavarci e da altre attività dei vivi. Nella nostra liturgia abbiamo le immagini ricorrenti di un Libro della Vita, e ripetiamo il ritornello della nostra speranza che ci saremo iscritti in esso per un altro anno, perché se non lo saremo, saremmo davvero morti. La consapevolezza della nostra mortalità incombe nel corso della giornata, fornisce una prospettiva tanto necessaria e, si spera, anche uno stimolo al nostro pensiero sulle nostre priorità nel ritorno alla vita quotidiana.

Yom Kippur è una specie di prova generale per la nostra morte. Quando ripenseremo a una vita piena di speranza e piena di felicità, la tradizione insegna che capiremo in cosa consisteva veramente la nostra vita, cosa era importante e cosa non lo era, e le sottili linee tra esse. La tradizione chassidica ci dice che quella comprensione sarà il nostro paradiso e il nostro inferno, quando ci rendiamo conto che le cose che abbiamo trascurato come poco interessanti o poco importanti erano davvero critiche, quando le cose che perseguivamo e godevamo di aver raggiunto sarebbero state abbandonate come irrilevanti per le nostre anime.

Oggi abbiamo la possibilità di soppesare le scale per quella comprensione. Yom Kippur ci ricorda ogni anno che un giorno affronteremo la nostra stessa morte. Tutti muoiono, questo non è negoziabile, ma la domanda è davvero: quanto bene vive ognuno? Quanto bene usiamo le nostre stesse vite?

Yom Kippur ci offre anche un’altra esperienza: oltre al tempo fuori dal tempo, al giorno in cui possiamo trascorrere “come se morti”, ci ricorda che subiremo molte morti nelle nostre vite e che queste piccole morti possono essere delle porte verso altri modi di essere. Viviamo molte perdite, molti cambiamenti rispetto a quanto sperato o pianificato. I nostri percorsi di vita si discostano ripetutamente, a volte in modo casuale, a volte ingiustamente, ma come mia madre ama dire, quando una porta si chiude, si apre una finestra. Siamo in grado di trovare un nuovo modo di essere, dire addio a una precedente replica di noi stessi e crescere come qualcuno un po’ diverso da prima.

I nostri rabbini hanno insegnato che il sonno è un sessantesimo della morte (Berachot 57b) e ogni giorno quando ci svegliamo dal sonno, abbiamo una preghiera per ringraziare Dio per il ritorno della nostra anima pura, la preghiera elohai neshama parla di Dio che insuffla di nuovo la nostra anima in noi, proprio come al primo essere umano è stata insufflata la vita. Quindi ogni giorno è potenzialmente una nuova nascita, possiamo ricominciare dopo la piccola morte del sonno. Ogni singolo giorno è una nuova possibilità di cambiamento, di crescita, per diventare maggiormente  la persona che vorremmo essere.

Proprio come ogni giorno porta la possibilità di piccoli cambiamenti o maggiori trasformazioni, le molte tristezze e perdite e le piccole morti nelle nostre vite possono aiutarci a concentrarci su ciò che è veramente importante. E Yom Kippur è per noi il dono di una giornata per valutare l’equilibrio delle nostre vite.

Il Talmud ci dice (Shabbat 31a) che dopo la morte ogni anima arriverà al beit din shel ma’alà, la corte celeste, e gli verranno poste le stesse domande. “Hai agito nel tuo lavoro con onestà e integrità? Hai fissato dei tempi prestabiliti per studiare la Torà? Hai partecipato al comandamento della creazione? Hai continuato a sperare? Ti sei impegnato nella ricerca della saggezza? Hai avuto timore dei Cieli?”

Queste non sono domande retoriche o filosofiche, sono progettate per farci pensare a cosa servono le nostre vite, come utilizzare al meglio i giorni e le ore che abbiamo, in particolare perché nessuno sa quanto breve o lungo potrebbe essere il tempo che ci rimane.

La prima domanda, hai avuto integrità e onestà nei tuoi rapporti con gli altri, non è solo pratica, ma mira in profondità al nostro carattere, come trattiamo gli altri è la misura di come valutiamo gli altri. L’istinto di trarre profitto a spese degli altri è in tutti noi. La domanda mira esattamente a quanto potremmo aver ceduto a quell’istinto, a quanto lo temperiamo con la consapevolezza che siamo tutti figli di un unico Dio.

La seconda domanda riguarda lo studio: qui sono in gioco le nostre vite interiori. Lo studio della Torà è l’emblema della connessione con le nostre radici, con il nostro popolo e con Dio. Fornisce le lenti attraverso le quali vediamo il mondo, modella il nostro codice morale, ci spinge nella consapevolezza che non siamo il centro dell’universo e che qualcos’altro lo è. Trovare un tempo fisso per ricordare a noi stessi gli insegnamenti che danno un quadro al nostro comportamento e al nostro processo decisionale, è un’azione vitalizzante. Ci tiene nello spazio in cui tutto può succedere, ci dà radici, ci consente di continuare a crescere e svilupparci.

La terza domanda – hai partecipato alla mitzvà della creazione, è molto di più del semplice senso di procreazione. Quando insegniamo, quando modelliamo un buon comportamento, quando aiutiamo gli altri a crescere o a cambiare, a lasciarsi andare o a resistere, partecipiamo alla mitzvà della creazione. Quando aiutiamo una comunità a riunirsi, sia fornendo le challot o le derashot, imparando insieme, fornendo un gruppo per il matrimonio o per i  b’nei mitzvà o per il partecipanti al lutto per esprimere il loro dolore e soddisfare i loro riti, stiamo partecipando alla creazione. Quando riconosciamo l’umanità dell’altro, il rifugiato, l’immigrato, l’impoverito o lo spaventato, stiamo partecipando alla mitzvà della creazione. Quando visitiamo i malati o confortiamo i defunti, partecipiamo anche a quella mitzvà. Ogni volta che costruiamo relazioni con gli altri, aiutiamo una comunità a crescere e prosperare, tutto ciò fa parte della stessa mitzvà. Quando piantiamo un giardino o un albero, quando proviamo a proteggere l’ambiente con le scelte che compiamo, tutto ciò è la mitzvà della creazione.

Hai continuato a sperare? La disperazione è facile da trovare in questo mondo. Ancora di più per le generazioni di ebrei esiliati dalla loro terra e trattati con disprezzo e umiliazione. Eppure l’ebreo continua a sperare e quella speranza è ciò che sostiene la nostra resilienza e la nostra particolarità come popolo. Non abbandoniamo la promessa del nostro patto, per quanto distante appaia. Neanche noi abbandoniamo la nostra fiducia nell’umanità. Come scrisse Edmond Fleg: “Sono ebreo perché in ogni epoca in cui si sente il grido di disperazione l’ebreo spera”. La speranza è intesa nella tradizione come la speranza della redenzione, per l’era messianica. Il punto della speranza è che noi ebrei ci siamo aggrappati alla nostra identità, al nostro scopo e significato attraverso questo meccanismo. Un giorno la speranza si realizzerà.

Ai nostri tempi sembra che l’oscurità stia tornando, mentre il nazionalismo e il populismo sono in aumento, la xenofobia e l’odio stretto crescono in molti paesi in tutto il mondo. Tanto più importante, quindi, continuare a sperare, non cedere alla disperazione che erode e corrode che ci porterebbe in ogni luogo più oscuro, sempre più stretto, che distruggerebbe tutto ciò che c’è di buono nel mondo.

Ti sei impegnato nella ricerca della saggezza? La saggezza è più della conoscenza, è la capacità di vedere attraverso le situazioni, di selezionare il bene dal male, di applicare una moralità così come il pensiero legale o logico. Tradizionalmente spiegato come un dono dell’età e dell’esperienza, la saggezza non ci casca in braccio, deve essere perseguita, elaborata, è il risultato di un pensiero critico e onesto, di vedere onestamente piuttosto che attraverso l’obiettivo dell’interesse personale. Uno dei miei sermoni preferiti è di Milton Steinberg, chiamato “To Hold With Open Arms” In esso racconta la seguente storia:

“Dopo una lunga malattia mi è stato permesso per la prima volta di uscire di casa. E mentre attraversavo la soglia, la luce del sole mi salutava. Questa è la mia esperienza; tutto ciò che c’è da fare. Eppure, finché vivrò, non dimenticherò mai quel momento … Il cielo sopra di noi era molto blu, molto chiaro e molto, molto alto. Un vento debole soffiava dalle pianure occidentali, fresco eppure in qualche modo tinto di calore – come un vino secco e freddo. E ovunque nel firmamento sopra di me, nella grande volta tra terra e cielo, sui marciapiedi, l’edificio – il bagliore dorato della luce del sole. Mi ha toccato anche, con amicizia, con calore, con benedizione. E mentre mi crogiolavo nella sua gloria, mi passarono per la mente quelle parole meravigliose del profeta sul sole che un giorno sorgerà con la guarigione sulle sue ali. In quell’istante mi guardai attorno per vedere se qualcun altro avesse mostrato sulla sua faccia la gioia, quasi la beatitudine che provavo. Ma no, lì camminavano – uomini, donne e bambini nella gloria di un diluvio dorato, e per quanto potessi rilevare, non c’era nessuno a prestare attenzione. E poi mi sono ricordato di quanto spesso anche io ero stato indifferente alla luce solare, quanto spesso, preoccupato per le piccole e talvolta meschine preoccupazioni, l’avevo ignorato, e mi sono detto, quanto è preziosa la luce del sole, ma purtroppo quanto ne siamo disinteressati”. 

Il rabbino Steinberg morì da giovane, ma la saggezza in questa storia ci mette alla prova su quanto sia prezioso il nostro mondo e su quanto noi ne siamo negligenti. Ci ricorda che quel valore di un’esperienza non è diminuito dal fatto che esso sia o meno un luogo comune. Ci ricorda che siamo in un mondo connesso.

Hai temuto i Cieli? Il Talmud ci dice che tutto è nelle mani del cielo tranne la paura del cielo (Rabbi Chanina TB Berachot 33b) – cosa significa? Che abbiamo il libero arbitrio di servire il Cielo oppure no, non possiamo essere costretti alla fede o alla pratica religiosa, è una scelta libera e nemmeno Dio può agire qui. Quindi ci viene chiesto di difendere le nostre scelte e secondo quale codice etico o di altro tipo abbiamo agito nella nostra vita. Ci viene chiesto se siamo stati fedeli a noi stessi.

“Tutti muoiono, ma non tutti vivono pienamente”, ha detto William Sachs Wallace. Yom Kippur è un’opportunità, un tempo ripetuto, fisso e regolare per esaminare le nostre vite, in modo che sulle nostre morti possiamo stare in piedi nella corte celeste certi di aver vissuto, in verità, nel modo più completo e migliore possibile. Ognuno di noi ha la propria vita da vivere, non esiste un modello pro forma, nessun modello che dice “questo unico modo è il modo giusto”. Dobbiamo esaminare e discernere, interpretare le storie attraverso le nostre menti, parlare con gli altri per vedere come abbiamo avuto un impatto su di essi, riflettere e considerare.

successi pubblici in gruppi di persone in lutto così piccoli, e così emotivamente distanti dal defunto, Quando penso ai molti funerali in cui ho officiato o frequentato e alle migliaia di storie di vita che ho ascoltato, ce ne sono alcune che si distinguono e rimangono con me per ciò che ho imparato da quella persona e per la vita che hanno vissuto. Raramente sono i successi sorprendenti di alcuni membri dei grandi e dei buoni, le loro prestazioni politiche o scientifiche o accademiche, i loro successi stellari nei loro campi scelti, i loro onori e i loro titoli. Sì, sono impressionanti, ma a volte ho ascoltato l’elenco dei che mi chiedo cosa possa essere andato così male nella loro vita personale, nelle loro relazioni ?

Una volta ho scritto l’Hesped (elogio funebre) per una donna che apparentemente non aveva fatto nulla nella sua vita, ma ha allevato i suoi figli e pulito la sua casa. Mentre parlavo con la famiglia, chiedendomi cosa avrei potuto dire al funerale, un fatto continuava a splendere, chiedendo di essere notato. Era stata una donna amorevole e molto amata. Una moglie, madre, nonna, sorella, amica, vicina di casa. Tutti avevano una storia di come era stata lì per loro in un bivio nella loro vita. Tutti hanno parlato di come potevano andare avanti nella loro vita dopo aver discusso di cose con lei. Tutti hanno raccontato di quanto si sentissero amati, un amore che sentivano mancare oltre ogni dire. Non aveva una lista di risultati da definire, solo il suo amore persistente, solido e solidale che aveva tenuto insieme una grande famiglia allargata, permettendo a ciascuno di crescere di essere quello che erano. Mi resi conto quindi di quale straordinario successo fosse stata la sua vita tranquilla, di quanto fosse stata riconoscente e riconosciuta. Non ho mai dimenticato la lezione che ho imparato dalla sua vita, raccontata dalle persone che la piangevano.

Che tipo di persone vengono chiamate morte anche quando sono vive? Quelli che vedono il sole del mattino … quelli che vedono il sole tramontare … quelli che mangiano e bevono e non si premurano di dire una benedizione.

Cerchiamo di risolvere oggi, mentre esaminiamo le nostre vite e le nostre speranze, ricalibrando le nostre aspirazioni e lasciando andare i nostri dubbi e le nostre paure, che non saremo tra coloro che vedono l’alba e il tramonto, che godono di tutti i piaceri ordinari di vita, e non essere agitato per dire una benedizione. Decidiamo che saremo tra coloro che vivranno la nostra vita nel modo più completo e comprensivo possibile e saremo fedeli a noi stessi così come siamo stati creati per essere. Un piccolo cambiamento nel comportamento, ma potrebbe portarci a essere in grado di rispondere a quelle domande al Bet Din celsete con il senso di aver capito da vivi, ciò che alcuni potrebbero iniziare a vedere solo quando è ormai troppo tardi per agire.

Traduzione di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

Vayelech: the time for us to grow up and take responsibility for our choices is upon us. or: the bnei mitzvah of the people of Israel

Eight years ago one of my dearest friends was about to be seventy years old, and she decided to celebrate this momentous and biblical age by having her batmitzvah. I had tried to persuade her to do this for years and she had brushed me off; it is typical of her that she made her choice by herself on a date that had such resonance, and then throw herself into study and thinking for herself.  We talked a little about the date and the sidra, and then she chose to direct her own study and do her own research. Luckily she sent me a near final draft. I say luckily because she never read this drasha or celebrated that long awaited day, for with everything planned and organised and ready to go, she suffered a cataclysmic and sudden bereavement and the weekend was taken over instead with grief and shock and the arrangements to honour the dead.

We spoke a while afterwards about her celebrating her batmitzvah on a different date but we both knew that was not really going to happen. The anticipated joy would never be the same, the shadow of grief never quite left her, and she too would depart this world suddenly and unexpectedly and quite dramatically, leaving the rest of us a small flavour of the shock she had experienced on the day of her birthday batmitzvah, to grieve and to question, and to process the reality of what happens when a life is torn from the world without warning.

Checking my computer recently, and thinking also of her as I do at this time of year, I came across an email where she had sent me this draft of the drasha she was to give to the community she had been at the heart of for so many years. With the permission of her children, I want to share it here.

“Vayelech is the shortest parsha in the Torah. It is 30 verses long, and I don’t recall ever hearing it read. In non-leap years like this one it is linked with Nitzavim. When I read Nitzavim-Vayelech they held together. They are followed next week by Ha’azinu which, when I looked it up I discovered is one the 10 Shirot [songs] conceived or written as part of the Almighty’s pre-Creation preparations. The only one still to be written is the song we will sing when the Messiah comes. 

We are coming to the end of the Torah. This name, given to the first of the three sections of the Hebrew Bible, is better translated as Teaching. We are coming to the end of the month of Elul the month in which we begin to prepare for the approaching High Holy Days, and in the coming week we will celebrate Rosh Hashanah which in turn is followed by the 10 days of penitence and Yom Kippur. Then in roughly a month’s time on Simchat Torah we will finish reading the Teaching, the end of Deuteronomy, and seamlessly begin Bereishit – Genesis – again. 

Vayelech must contain the most important rite of passage in the whole history of our planet. But we will come to that.  

Israel is camped in its tribal groups on the banks of the Jordan, waiting to cross. The preceding parsha, Nitzavim, tells of Moses addressing the whole of Israel, in preparation for entering the land God has promised them. He reminds them they are standing before God, and is clear that every person is included in this relationship.

 [my son] tells me I can tell one joke… a clear example of don’t do as I do, do as I say …but I have two, and we will come to the second soon. A very good friend sent me a card, writing in it “I saw this, and thought of you.” The cartoon was a line drawing of 2 dogs, the larger one saying: “I understand more commands than I obey.” I hope you agree with me, that this is arguable!

Moses and God know from experience that the Children of Israel will fail to follow God’s Teaching. 

Moses warns those listening to him that the consequences of disobedience will be that the land will become desolate, but mitigates this by prophesying they will make t’shuvah, return to the right way, and God will reconcile with them and bring them back.

 And he says something that has always troubled me:  that the commandment he is giving to them and so to us “is not beyond you, or too remote. Not in Heaven, or across the sea. It is very close to you… in your mouth and in your heart, so you can do it.”

 What I have never been sure of is what this is, what it is that is in my heart, and in my mouth?  Not the 10 Commandments – too many!    And not the 613 mitzvot buried in the text. And then the man who is not my chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks said quite plainly on radio 4, no less, what it is, even quoting where I should find it. It is found in Genesis chapter 18, vv 17 – 19, where God is choosing Abraham because he deals with his household with Tzedakah and Mishpat:  two words which together give the meaning of justice tempered with mercy. This is how we hope God will deal with us on Yom Hakippurim.

 And finally Moses said that we have a choice, God has given us the choice of life and death – blessing and curse. We should choose to love God and walk in God’s path and keep God’s commandments. And just as the penalties for not doing so have been listed, the rewards of obeying are explained. 

What we have been told is that all Israel is equally bound by this covenant, regardless of social position or occupation. And that even if we disobey God’s Laws there can be future redemption.

Further, we know that obedience to God’s Laws is within our scope. 

And also that we are to have that freedom to choose that sets us apart from the animals.

 And then we come to today’s portion, .Vayelech “And he went” which is the beginning of the rite of passage for the Children of Israel.

 There is to be a change of “Top Management”. This is the day of Moses’s 120th birthday, and Moses has finally accepted that it is also his death day. It’s been hard for Moses to come to terms with his mortality, and he has behaved a little like a child trying to justify not going to bed, not just yet. There’s no time to discuss this today, try reading Louis Ginsberg’s Legends of the Jews. God has been forbearing with this servant with whom God has been in conversation for the last 40 years.

 In this time the generations born into slavery have died, and the people who are born into freedom have known no other Leader. Moses has taught them, settled disputes, referred knotty halachic problems directly to God, and brought back the answers. It is explained that God will go with them, and lead them across the Jordan. Further, that although Moses may not go, they will have Joshua.

 Moses has been frightened of dying, and the Almighty has shown him Aaron’s painless death. God is giving him the signal honour of dying on the anniversary of his birthday, and although Moses is not to be allowed to cross the Jordan God has taken him to look down upon the land.

 Moses is kept busy on this day – there are the tribes to address, and writing enough copies of the Teaching to give one to each tribe, and lodge one in the Ark of the Covenant. This is talked of as a witness against the people, but I suppose it’s the master copy, and proof of God’s promises and provisions. Moses writes The Scroll to the very end, until it is finished, which is taken to mean that it is prophetic, containing as it does an account of his death. Further, the Almighty gives him a message to deliver, and a song of 43 verses, one of the 10 Shirot, to teach to the people.

  How many people do you think there were, camped by the river? How many going into the Promised Land?

 Jacob went to Egypt with 72 souls in his household. A rabble of 600,000 freed slaves left Egypt – and these were the men of fighting age. Add their relatives – minimally a wife each, one child. – Not parents and siblings – this could cause doubtful accounting – a conservative estimate would be 1,800,000 people. No wonder manna was needed!

Nor was it just Jews who escaped Egypt, plenty of escapee opportunists would have taken the chance, and been the “strangers within your gates” who are to have equality under the covenant with Jacob’s descendants.

 The instruction was given for this to be read every seven years in the shemittah year. All Israel is commanded to gather at Succot in the place God has appointed (eventually the Temple in Jerusalem) and the King read to the people from the Scroll.

 And the chapter ends with the prediction that Israel with turn away from God, and that God’s reaction would be to turn God’s face away from them – but also with the promise that their descendants will not forget the words which will remain in their mouths.

 So what is happening?

 It seems that with the completion of the Torah and our entry into the Promised Land, our Creator considers we are grown up. We have the Torah; we have the record in it of discussions and decisions. We are aware that we can judge matters between human beings – but not matters between human beings and God. We cannot deal with these because it is not our business to govern or over-rule another’s conscience.

 God will not appoint another Moses – there is to be no dynastical continuity. No further theophanies. Israel has become a nation of priests with everyone having access to the Almighty and to God’s mercy.

 And when we begin Genesis all over again, we go back to Creation and the dysfunctional families of Adam and Noah. When we come to Abraham, look out for the Teaching and how it is built on chapter by chapter.

 And where’s the second joke? – listen to the translation.”

Sadly, we never heard the second joke. And the poignancy of some of the comments in the drasha make for difficult reading for those who knew her and knew her later story, though the mischief of her personality comes through this text for me, as does her clear and certain faith in God. This was a woman who, as administrator in the synagogue, would regularly leave open the door to the sanctuary in her office hours “because God likes to go for a walk”, but actually so that visitors would feel able to enter and sit and offer their prayers or order their thoughts. She would tidy up the siddurim and make sure they were properly shelved, saying that upside down books “gave God a headache”, to cover her need to honour God by keeping the synagogue neat. She spent hundreds of hours talking to the lonely, reassuring the frightened, supporting the vulnerable. She spent hundreds of hours creating the databases and systems to ensure that the synagogue ran as effectively as it could. And the roots of all this voluntary caring for the synagogue community was her own life’s struggles and her awareness that if God considers we are grown up now, with equal access to the Almighty and no “top management” to direct us, then we had better get on with it, with the work of creating and sustaining the world with tzedakah and mishpat, with righteousness and justice.

In this period of the Ten Days, as we reflect on the lives we are leading, the choices we are making, and the mortality that will come for us all, either with or without warning, I read her drasha as a modern ”unetaneh tokef”, and, as I was for so many years when I was her rabbi and she my congregant, I am grateful for the learning I had from her.

 

In memoriam Jackie Alfred. September 1940 – January 2017

 

 

 

 

Sukkot: Our plans make God laugh but we hope and trust anyway – what else can we do but rejoice in the life we have?

Putting up the succah in our autumnal garden some of last year’s birch leaves fall out of the folds of the s’chach and I am transported back to memories of the year gone by, aware suddenly of the passing of time, of what has changed and what is changing.

Autumn brings a special kind of melancholy. Some flowers and fruits are at their peak, the pears plumply falling on the lawn; the apples – those that have not been enjoyed by the birds – full and round. Many plants are still flowering profusely and as I look at them I know with sadness that soon  I will have to disrupt this joyful performance in order to dig them up and save them for next year, or cut them back to prevent the frost damaging their tender stems.

In the garden it feels a bit like a last hurrah. The squirrels are busily collecting acorns and conkers to bury against a hard winter; the birds are gorging on berries, the bees checking each bloom for the last sweet drops they may give up. The air has a chill, leaves are already creating an unwanted blanket over the flower beds, my gardener’s instincts are warning me not to leave the tidying up – what my mother calls ‘putting the garden to bed’ –  too  late. If I do, the price will be the slimy stems of frost damaged annuals, happy slugs and other pests doing their damage in comfort, and the bone chilling experience of wrestling with dead or dying vegetation fixed into the unyielding soil.

Autumn brings with it a sense of dying even while life is climaxing.  We have more than a shiver of recognition of our own mortality. And the Jewish festivals have been resonating with the season – We begin a new year with reflection and awe as we undergo Judgment Day – Yom HaDin; we follow through the Ten Days of Repentance (the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah) as we acknowledge our shortcomings and mistakes, until Yom Kippur enables us to, so to speak, slough off the burden of guilt that has been weighing on us, having done all we can to remedy what we have done.  We tidy up the garden even as we are enjoying its beauty; we cover over and put to bed the nagging thoughts about things we can no longer do anything about. We prepare for the future by cleansing the landscape of our lives.

And because all work like this takes longer than the original plan, and indeed is an ongoing act throughout the year, Jewish tradition reminds us that the Gates of Repentance stay open until the end of the Succot festival.

With all the intimations of death within life, with all the resonance of mortality and melancholy the season brings, we are commanded in bible to treat the festival of Succot with joyfulness. It is Z’man Simchateinu, the time of our joy. We must rejoice before God with the products of the land, the pri etz hadar (fruit of the beautiful tree), the palm, the myrtle, the willow of the brook.

As a gardener I notice that these plants all grow in Israel in different parts of the country – for such a tiny piece of land the different micro-climates are extraordinary.  The lulav, coming from the palm tree, fruits most happily where it is hot and dry – while it grows in the coastal areas, in truth it is a tree that disdains humidity and far prefers the semi –desert conditions. The myrtle (hadas) prefers the cooler mountainous areas. The aravah (willow) needs to be close to a consistent water supply (hence “willows of the brook”) and the etrog grows best in the lower coastal areas and the valleys.  These four symbols of Succot encompass all the growing conditions a gardener could work in, and it is a rarely lucky horticulturist who finds themselves able to work them all in one garden.  I would love more acid soils and less shade in my garden, but such is life, one works with what one has.

We bring together vegetation from all areas of Israel, symbolising not only geographical or horticultural diversity but also different times in our lives- the hot semi desert when growth and change seem impossible, the cool perspective when we can see, if not always reach, our next stage, the times when life flows fast around us and the times when the horizon is very distant and unimaginable.

On Succot we telescope the year with its possibilities into this composite symbol; indeed we telescope our lives with its many experiences both good and bad into the celebration of the festival, and we rejoice before God for our very selves. We know that no life is untouched by sorrow, that no-one escapes from living without experiencing problems and pain, but we know too that our lives are something to be thankful for, to celebrate and enjoy.  The autumnal adumbral presentiments of change – of life and death and rebirth – make us pause for a moment to notice the change, the growing and the dying back, the fruiting and the flowering.

Why are we commanded to rejoice at the very time we are facing the bleakness of the  winter? I think it is an assertion of hope, of trust that the world will once again flourish and flower, that life, even as it is in the process of completing one cycle, is readying and preparing the next. We are facing a dormancy but not an ending. We rejoice because we have confidence that we are not alone, that our lives are not isolated, but that a thread of something beyond us will connect us in time and space. The very succot we build and live in, fragile and uncomfortable and with little protection from the elements, remind us that when all the physical defences and supports we take for granted are gone, we are still together, still in community, still under the protection of God.  When we tie together the arba’a minim, we not only become aware of the larger world, shaking it East, South, West, North, Upwards and Downwards in petition for the water our land needs at this time, we also become aware of the composite peoplehood we are a part of. The midrashim that link the parts to the parts of the body, the “types “ that make up community, the geography of the Land of Israel – all of them have one thing in common. If we care for each other and live in community, sharing what we have, comforting those in pain or distress, recognising the humanity of the other, then we are stronger, we can face the Autumn and the Winter, we can depend on the thread of life that may seem impossible to see, that may lie dormant under unpromising conditions.

We rejoice on Succot because with all of the fears, all of the uncertainty, all of the sudden awareness of the transience of our materiality, we remember that we are part of a greater whole, and God, even if not obvious to us, underpins us and supports us and keeps us alive to say the she’he’cheyanu prayer at this season. We none of us know what our future holds for us and while we might make plans for it these are at the most provisional. As the Yiddish saying goes: Der mentsh tracht und Gott lacht – Human Beings make plans and (this is why) God laughs

דער מענטש טראַכט און גאָט לאַכט

All we can do is live in the moment, aware of the fragilities of life and aware too that life goes on – and hope that we will see the next season and the next.

 

Ha’azinu – what might we say and write when we confront our own mortality?

Moses knows he is going to die.  Not in the way we all ‘know’ we are going to die, the coldly logical knowledge that doesn’t impact on our emotions in any way, but in the way that some people who are very close to death know with a certainty that no longer expresses itself as fear or self-pity but with a clarity and sense of purpose.

I have sat at many deathbeds. I have seen denial and also acceptance, whimpering pain and alert peacefulness, sudden startling requests – for toast, for touch, for people long gone, for non-existent sounds or lights to be turned off or up.  What I have learned is that we none of us know how we shall die, how our last days and hours will be, but that at many, if not most of the deathbeds I have observed where there is some time for the process to be worked through, there is an opportunity to express what is most important to the dying person, to project themselves one last time into the world.

It is human to want to survive. Life wants to continue despite pain or confusion or fear. Even when a person seems prepared and ready for death there is often a moment where there is a struggle to continue in this world. Even Hezekiah who famously “turned his face to the wall” having been told that he must set his house in order for he would die and not live, then prays to remind God that he has done God’s will with his whole heart, and weeps sorely.   His prayer (found in Isaiah 38) resonates today “In the noontide of my days I shall go to the gates of the nether world, I am deprived of the residue of my years…. O God, by these things we live, and altogether therein is the life of my spirit; so recover Thou me, and make me to live.”

It doesn’t matter at what age we come to death – we want more life, we want to go on in some meaningful way, we want to be part of the future.

We all know we will die. We share death with all who have ever lived and all who will ever be. We may fear the how or the when, but generally we get on with life as if death is not real. And we don’t plan for how we might continue to be a part of the future, for how our life may make a difference for our having lived it, or for how or what might be remembered of our existence.

Yet sometimes we are forced to confront our own mortality. And when that happens, these questions demand to be asked.

The whole period of the Days of Awe which are now coming to a close forces us to acknowledge our own transience in this world.  Be it the wearing of the kittel we shall don for the grave, the taking out of a whole day from time to focus on how we are living our lives in order to reset and readjust our behaviours, or the saying of yizkor prayers and visiting the graves of our families. Be it the autumnal edge we feel as we shiver in the sukkah, or the browning and falling of the leaves, or the daylight hours shortening perceptibly – we are viscerally aware of the darkness that is coming, the lessening outer energy alongside the power of the interior life.

Sometimes this knowledge that we will inevitably cease to be in this world brings out a search for meaning, for a sense of self that will transcend the physicality of our existence. Sometimes we become engrossed in our own personal wants and needs, sometimes we look further outwards towards our family and our relationships, sometimes we gaze further out towards our community or we look further in time to see what will be after we have gone.  I think often of the story of Moses in the yeshiva of Akiva (BT Menachot 29b), comforted by seeing that Rabbi Akiva is citing him as the source of the teaching being given, even though he does not understand anything of the  setting that is 1500 years after his own life.  It is a story of not being forgotten, of projecting values down the generations. Talmud also tells us that R. Yochanan said that when a teaching is transmitted with the name of its author, then the lips of that sage “move in the grave” (BT Sanhedrin 90b.  Rabbinic Judaism gives great honour to the idea that we live on in the teachings we offered, but also in the memories of those who choose to remember us. It is commonplace in the Jewish world to be named for a dead relative in order to honour their memory, to tell stories about them long after the hearers (or even the tellers) have a first-hand memory of the person, to fast on the day of their yahrzeit (anniversary of their death) as well as to light a 24 hour candle and to say the kaddish prayer.

So it is time for us to give serious thought about how we project ourselves into the future, what we pass on in terms of life lessons, the stories people will tell about us, how they will remember us, how they will carry on the values that we have cared about enough for them to see and for them to choose too.

All rabbis have stories of sitting with the dying as these desires clarify. One colleague has I think the ultimate cautionary tale of being asked to come out to a deathbed of a woman he barely knew, a long way out from where he lived, in terrible weather, and sent in the form of a demand. Deciding that he must go but unsure of what was wanted, he collected together a number of different prayer books to be able to offer her the spiritual succour she wanted. Her final wish was that her daughter in law would not inherit her fur coat. She was taking her feud past the grave.  I remember the woman who sat in bed in her hospice writing letters to everyone in her life, beautiful letters – but she refused to actually see any of the people she was writing to. I remember the people who made great efforts to right wrongs and those who tried to comfort the people left behind. I think with love of the woman who sent an audio file with her message that she had had a wonderful life with the right man and they were not to grieve, even though her death seemed unfairly early. I think of the woman who, having lost her fiancé in the war, proudly told me she was going back to her maker virgo intacta, and the woman who told me of her abortion while she was hiding in Nazi Germany, and her belief that the child had visited her alongside its father who died some years later.

Many a personal secret has been recounted at a deathbed, but often having been released from the power of that secret if there is time, the soul continues its journey in this world, and suddenly all sorts of things come into perspective. And it is these stories that I remember with such love and that have had such great impact on me.  The stories that people had hidden from their nearest and dearest but which explain so much of who they are and why they have done what they did. Their belief that they were not loved enough which led to them thinking they were not able to love as much as they wanted. Their umbilical connection to Judaism that they had not lived out publicly for fear of what might happen to them or their children should anti-Semitism return as virulently as they remembered in their youth.  Their subsequent horror that children and grandchildren were not connected to their Jewish roots, and their guilt at having weakened this chain. There are multiple examples but what I see again and again is the need for good relationships with others, for human connection with others , for expressing warmth and love and vulnerability, the need for living according to clear and thoughtful moral values, and for a sense of deep identity that passes from generation to generation and connects us to the other in time.

Moses in sidra Haazinu is just like any other human being, wanting his life not to be wasted but to be remembered, wanting his stories and his values to be evoked in order to pass on what is important to the generations that will come after him, however they may use them.  He needs to be present in their lives, albeit not in a physical way.  The whole of the book of Deuteronomy has been his way of reminding, of chivvying, of recalling and reimagining the history he has shared with the people of Israel. He uses both carrot and stick, he uses prose and poetry, he is both resigned and deeply angry, he is human.

There is a biblical tradition of the deathbed blessing, a blessing which describes not only what is but also what is aspirational.  Rooted in that has come the idea of the ethical will to pass on ideas, stories and thoughts to the next generation of one’s family, a tradition that has found a home also in reminiscence literature.  Sometimes we find out much more about the person who has died from their letters and diaries than they ever expressed  in life – and often we mourn that it is now too late to ask the questions that emerge from these, or to apologise or explain ourselves.

As the days grow shorter and we have spent time mulling over how we are living our lives and trying to match them to how we want our lives to have looked once we see them from the far end, we could take a leaf out of Moses’ life’s work in Deuteronomy and write our own life story, not just the facts but the stories around them, how we understood them, what we learned.  Next year we might write it differently, but what a rich choice lies in front of us, to explore what is really important to us and to ensure that it, like us, will live on.

Chukkat: the fully lived life is not about length, but about limits or serious anger, serious consequences

The shadow of death hovers over parashat Chukkat.  It begins with the instructions for the ritual slaughter of the red heifer, and the cleansing rituals that those who had contact with a dead body must follow, and it records the deaths of both Miriam and of Aaron. It tells of the deaths by plague of those who rebelled against Moses’ leadership and it ends with two mighty battles.

One can read the whole Sidra as being about the coming to terms with mortality, and the limits of human existence.

At the centre of the Sidra is a powerful story which also deals with the limits of a human being. We hear of an incident which seems on the face of it quite minor, yet which has far reaching impact.  After the death of Miriam, the people complain about the lack of water, and God commands Moses to take Aaron’s  rod – the one which sprouted leaves and flowers when left overnight in the Mishkan – and with that miraculous sign in his hand, to order a rock to produce water in front of all the people waiting there.  Moses does indeed take the rod, but instead of using words, he strikes the rock. He seems to be at the end of his patience, angry and fed up with the people he is leading. Water gushes out at his action, but God informs him that because of his behaviour, he will not now enter the land he is leading the people towards.

It has been said about Moses that all of his sins – whether the impulsive murder of the Egyptian task master in his youth, the breaking of the stones containing the commandments, or the striking of the rock – show elements of anger and violence, of his unbridled self will and of his temporarily ignoring the real and present will of God.  A modern commentator (Rabbi Norman Hirsch) wrote that “the sin of Moses at Meribah is characteristic of the man, one of a series of sins, and serious. Why serious? Because civilization depends upon humility.  Without a sense of limits that flows from the awareness of a moral law and an ethical God, every brutality, every corruption, every atrocity becomes possible”

When people allow themselves to act without limitations, to let their anger overtake them, and to forget the reality of other people – their needs, their fears, their humanity – then atrocities not only become possible, they become inevitable. Once humility is overridden, and once people forget that God’s will is rooted in moral and ethical imperatives rather than in pride or land or material  success – then there are no boundaries, and our own characteristics and needs take over for good or for ill.

Moses fails ultimately in the job he has been set to do. His failure is in his unwillingness to control the righteous indignation he feels on behalf of God.  It shows itself in his need to demonstrate to others the rightness of his analysis.  His failure doesn’t lie in the feeling of anger as such, but in the way he uses it and allows it to use him.  In this story the demise we are witnessing isn’t to do with physical death, nor with a metaphysical response to the end of life – this time the fatality is Moses’ leadership and his ability to take the people into their next stage of the journey.  Because Moses shows that he is unable to change himself, his anger is ultimately stronger than him, and because he doesn’t seem to believe any more that he should rein his emotions in to prevent doing damage around himself, his leadership will come to a premature end.

Anger is not in and of itself a negative emotion.  Anger against an injustice can be a powerful propellant for change.  It can be a constructive force leading to a different way of being in the world.  Jewish tradition does not judge anger negatively, nor does it preach a tradition of humility for the sake of it.  If anything the two sentiments are simply different sides of the same coin, and either of them used to the exclusion of the other are likely to produce unfortunate events.  But anger that is allowed to dominate, anger that clouds the vision to such an extent that nothing else can be seen, is a very dangerous quality, and not even Moses could be allowed to indulge himself in it.

The thread that runs through the narrative here in Chukkat is that of the limits to a life.  Einstein wrote that “there is a certain satisfaction in the fact that natural limits are set to the life of an individual so that at its conclusion it may appear as a work of art”, and certainly in retrospect one can often discern a pattern that may not have been obvious during the living of the life – a pattern that suddenly shows a completeness not otherwise seen.  This is certainly the case both with Aaron and with Miriam, who leave nothing of importance undone by the time of their deaths. But for Moses this is sadly not true – he never deals fully with that all consuming rage and so it breaks out repeatedly in his life – one can even see traces of it in his resistance to dying and to passing on his authority to Joshua.  One lesson we learn is that length of life is not necessarily the same as fully lived life – in 120 years Moses is still unable to resolve his issues satisfactorily and even God becomes weary.   Moses limits his own life because he pays attention only to his own feelings and not to those of the people around him. It remains a flaw in his character to the end, and something that niggles us as we read torah to this day.  How come Moses wouldn’t – or couldn’t – overcome it? And if he couldn’t do it – what chance do we have with our own character flaws?

I suppose the answer lies in the continuation of the story. After Moses’ outburst God tells him that because of it he will not be leading the people into the Promised Land. At that point Moses would have been justified in giving it all up, but instead he seems to have picked himself up and found a way to continue leading the people to their destiny – even while knowing that he would not now share in it.

He shows that his vision can still be clear, that he can get over his attacks of despair or of rage and function as a proper leader, leaving his own needs to one side.

The story of Moses’ striking of the rock challenges us to look at our own characters, our own willingness to forgo humility in favour of some more selfish need, our own repeated patterns of behaviour.  It reminds us of the needs for limits – both those which emerge from a sense of an ethical God, and the boundaries around our own existence – both of which should contain any excesses we might otherwise consider.  The story reminds us too of the force that anger has that can mask any self awareness or awareness of the other, the way we can forget the humanity of the people around us – with tragic consequences should we go on to act on that ignorance.  And it reminds us of the power of keeping going, even when the future may seem dark and hopeless, for in that keeping going some redemption may come.

Bein HaMetzarim: The Days of Distress to which we are still contributing

The three weeks that separate the fast of the 17th Tammuz, the date that the walls of Jerusalem were breached, and the 9th Av, the date on which we commemorate the destruction of both the first and second temple are known as “bein ha’metzarim – בֵּין הַמְּצָרִים – within the straits.” It is a phrase taken from the third verse of the book of Lamentations which speaks of the desolation of post destruction Jerusalem, and of the exile and wanderings of her surviving displaced people.

The three weeks have become a discrete period of time, characterised by mourning customs and by an increasing sense of danger, and have their own flavour and liturgical reminders – the three haftarot of rebuke which take us up to Tisha b’Av are related to the date rather than the Torah reading for example, and many Jews forgo eating meat or drinking wine and eat more simple meals. The idea is to immerse in the mourning, to give up the ordinary joys of good meals or new clothes. Instead we are supposed to be reflecting on our mortality, on the limited time we have to act in this world. We are supposed to be finding a way through all the busyness of life to the core business of being alive – to connect to each other and to the world, to make the world a better place for our being in it.

The quasi mourning customs for the three weeks increase in intensity up till Tisha b’Av itself, from 17th Tammuz till Rosh Chodesh Av, from Rosh Chodesh Av till the end of the 8th day, and then the black fast itself. There are different traditions in different parts of the Jewish community to signify the mourning period, but an awareness of the period of bein ha’metzarim thrums in the background. In a time of mourning for the unity and safety of the Jewish people in their ancestral and promised homeland we are all that bit more thoughtful, aware of each other and their sensitivities, aware of the Talmudic description (Yoma 9b) of sinat hinam – that Jerusalem was destroyed because of Jewish disunity and the baseless hatred the Jews of the time had for each other.

So here we are bein ha’metzarim, in the days of distress, the narrow straits of danger and fear where we are supposed to be reflecting on our own contributions to sinat hinam. And it comes as no real surprise that the disunity in Israel is growing, that the gap between rich and poor, haves and have nots, men and women, Jews and others, Haredim of all hats and footwear, Dati’im (people very strict in Jewish law) and those who have other ways of being a religious Jew, Religious and secular – the gap is widening; There is quite the opposite of a physical bein ha’metzarim growing in Israeli society – there is a gulf between people and peoples, but sadly the sinat hinam is still there and flourishing, contributing to that abyss that separates the human beings.

On Rosh Chodesh Av, the women of the wall went, as they do every Rosh Chodesh except that of Tishri, to pray at the foot of the wall that retains and supports the Temple Mount, the Kotel. They have been praying on Rosh Chodesh there, early in the morning, for over a quarter of a century. Women who come together from the very orthodox through the religious spectrum through to the cultural and feminist women who support their sister’s needs. For the last few months, having been forbidden to use a Torah scroll from the many that are kept at the Kotel, they have brought in their own. They have had to smuggle their scroll into the Kotel, as now no one is supposed to bring their own scroll for their own use, an exercise of power and control by the ultra-fundamentalist group currently in charge of the Kotel plaza. There is no religious meaning behind this rule – women can read from scrolls and do so all over the world.

And on Rosh Chodesh Av this year, Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, a board member of Women of the Wall, was arrested not at the checkpoint, but after she had entered the Kotel Plaza with a scroll in her backpack. The arrest warrant reads: “The suspect was arrested on 17.07.2015. From her hands was confiscated a Torah scroll in the colours of blue and gold which was involved in the conducting of the crime. Also confiscated was an orange and grey rucksack.”

On Rosh Chodesh Av, the date on which the mourning intensifies for the nine days that lead to Tisha b’Av, a woman was arrested and handcuffed and taken to the police station at the Kotel, and the warrant also apparently arrested the Torah Scroll “which was involved in the conducting of the crime”

Words fail me at this point. We are truly bein ha’metzarim, in the days of distress, of narrow vision, of causeless hatred.

We managed, with the help of God, to leave Mitzraim – the place of slavery, the doubly narrow place, the slavery in Egypt. But having left Egypt and having returned to the Land, we have brought the narrowness of vision, the narrowness of self-interest, the narrowness of a failed empathy and imagination with us.

Will we be able to leave it again?

photo of Rachel Cohen Yeshurun with her arrest warrant taken from facebook wall of Women of the Wall Nashot haKotelrachel cohen yeshurun with her arrest warrant

How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.

As human beings we are programmed not to understand our own mortality. Few of us believe it to be true; most of us shy away from thinking about it for more than a few moments at any one time. Whenever I am privileged to be part of someone’s final journey I am reminded that I too will have to take this path, and yet somehow the knowledge does not penetrate too deeply for very long. As is traditional in Judaism, we have a powerful focus on life, on what we do in this world. In Pirkei Avot (4:21) Rabbi Jacob (2nd Century CE) describes this world as “a corridor to the world beyond.” We prepare ourselves in this world so as to be in good order to appear before God.

What does the preparation look like? One theme I have come to recognize is that what we do in this world is hugely important, yet it doesn’t always look important. As I write the funeral eulogy for people I see that sometimes a quietly lived life, loving others and caring for them has had extraordinary impact on a small corner of the world. Sometimes working at a particular profession has a powerful long lasting effect  – healing the sick, teaching skills, creating gardens…. Sometimes there have been numerous honours bestowed by the world, but no family or good friends who care enough to come to mourn. What I have learned is that a life well lived can look different depending on who has lived it, but there is always an impression of that life left on the universe when it has been lived fully.

When Dylan Thomas advised us to “not go gentle into that good night”,  he thinks in part of those wise people who, “because their words had forked no lightning, they/ Do not go gentle into that good night”.

I have been privileged to meet many people whose words have, indeed, forked lightning – albeit in a gentle and undramatic way. And one of these is my own sister, who, while on chemotherapy for breast cancer some 16 years ago, started a fundraising quiz which has now raised over 80 thousand pounds. Initially the money was for equipment for her local hospital that would mean that other women would not have to have so intrusive a treatment as she herself suffered, later the money was directed to the Macmillan cancer charity.

She had just turned 40, had started a new and demanding job, and her two children were both under ten when the diagnosis came out of the blue and her world collapsed and she was parachuted into that parallel universe that is the domain of the seriously ill. As she surfaced through what felt to her like “the cold waters of fear, anxiety and confusion” she coped by deciding to focus on doing something that would make things easier for the women coming after her, and to distract herself and set her mind down a different path than fear for the future, she devised a cryptic quiz that she would sell to family and friends. The quiz, selling for £2 a copy, took on a life of its own, with its recipients selling it on to their family and friends, and her target of £500 was surpassed four fold.

Every year after that she, her husband and an old school friend created, sold, marked, the new quiz. It has now become a fixture in many homes, something to do over the Christmas period, with the possibility of a small prize to the winners. Hundreds of people now contact her for a copy of the quiz, a JustGiving page allows people to donate and many offer more than the requested £2.

When I asked her about it recently, she wrote to me “Facing your own mortality head on and so bluntly, actually sharpens your thinking about what is important once you do come up for breath.  It also makes you realise how short a time we are on this world anyway – cancer or not.”

So – if you want to know more and would like to take part in this year’s quiz (with a botanical theme), please e mail her at Joycerothschild2@hotmail.co.uk or contact me via the blog and you too can take your part in one of the myriad small and unsung actions that go on across the world and leave a definite  and positive mark on the world.

also see http://www.solihullnews.net/news/local-news/solihull-woman-queen-quizzes-6740209