Rosh Hashanah Sermon – We live in a participatory universe

L’italiano segue l’inglese

The 11th Century Andalusian Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pakuda was the author of the first Jewish system of ethics in his book known as The Duties of the Heart”  “Hovot HaLev”. He introduced his book saying that many Jews only seemed to care about the outward observances, the rituals, the duties to be performed by the parts of the body “Hovot HaEvarim” – but not those of the inner mind or the driving ideas and values of the Jewish tradition.  Bachya wanted to explain that Judaism was more than ritualistic or habitual behaviour, more than a mechanistic performance – he taught that Judaism is the embodiment of a great spiritual truth.

This truth is not folkloric or magical, but based on reason, on revelation, on the search for God through Torah. He wrote that there was a great need for the many ethical rabbinic texts to be brought together into a coherent system, in the hope that mechanistic Judaism would give way to a more thoughtful and deeper way of living the religion.

It is an unfortunate reality that for many Jews, mitzvot are categorised as being EITHER Hovot HaEvarim (duties of the limbs) OR Hovot HaLev (duties of the heart).

Rav Soloveitchik taught that one can see mitzvot as being both – in his words mitzvot are both “enacted” (Hovot HaEvarim) and “fulfilled” (Hovot HaLev), and, should we perform the mitzvah on one plane but not on the other, then we are not in fact completing the mitzvah.

Soloveitchik used the mitzvot of prayer and of repentance to demonstrate his meaning. We can turn up at the synagogue and say all the right words, but if the words have no effect upon us, then they are empty of purpose and we have not done our work.

Prayer – also known as avodah she’balev – the work of the heart, is much more than the reciting of formulae either in community or alone. Teshuvah, the act of repairing and returning, has no power if it only puts a patch over a problem without changing us and changing our future behaviour.  How do we avoid habitual words that our mouths may say or our ears may hear, but that do not reach and change our hearts?

Bachya wrote that most people act in accord with our own self-interest, with what he saw as selfish and worldly rather than with any higher or more selfless motivation. He wanted us to reach further than our own needs and wants, to willingly and joyfully serve God, whatever God demands of us.

Soloveitchik was interested not only in the doing, but the knowing of God. He wrote: “To believe is necessary but it is not enough- one must also feel and sense the existence of God”.

Both these profound thinkers can help us on the journey we are taking through the Yamim Noraim, as well as into the future. Soloveitchik created the paradigm of the repentant person, the one who returns to God, in this way- “The person embodies the experience which begins with a feeling of sin, and ends in the redemption of a wondrous proximity to God. Between these two points, human beings stand as a creator of worlds, as we shape the greatest of our works – ourselves”  I am not sure I fully agree with Soloveitchik, but where I most certainly concur is his statement that we do indeed shape ourselves through our choices and our actions – and our inaction too.

We are creators of worlds! Jewish thought has always placed human beings in this role. Bible teaches from its earliest chapters that we partner God in the ongoing creation of this world. With Adam then Noah, then Abraham the partnership is increasingly formalised until the covenant with Moses and the whole people Israel – all who will ever be or who will ever become. Rabbinic tradition bases itself on the texts describing the Sinai Covenant and teaches that there are two Torahs given there – the written (torah she’bichtav) and the oral (torah she’b’al peh). The oral Torah is not a transmitted teaching per se, but the route to interpreting the written Torah, which is open to a multiplicity of meanings.

As Nachmanides wrote ““For it was in accordance with the interpretations that the Rabbis would give, that God gave us the Torah.” “Would give” – leaving open to the future times, to new understanding, to continued creation.

For the whole of time that Judaism has evolved there is an important directive for us all – The continuing creation of the world depends not just on God, but on us.  Why is this so?

Perhaps the most developed – but certainly not the only -nor even the most important theory- is that of 16th century Lurianic Kabbalistic theory. It teaches us that our work is to gather the sparks of the divine from wherever they are embedded in the world, in order to bring about a full tikkun – to repair and restore the world to its original state of primordial unity in relationship with God

Now whether we want to return to the primordial binary state of purity and dross, unmixed and tightly boundaried, is a moot point, but certainly the Jewish world-view wherever one looks in our tradition, is that this co-creating partnership is our reason to be. It is the way that we build relationship with God, and this relationship is seen as the foundational aspiration of humanity; Our tradition tells us that this is an equal aspiration for God. God wants us – God’s creations – to become creators ourselves. To make something of our time in the world, to change it even if only a little, and to leave it a better place for our being here. As the Chasidic tradition would have it “nothing is more precious to us than that which we create through hard work and struggle. The brilliance we pull out from the dust, the beauty we can make from broken pieces…to take the things we are given, the damaged and broken, even our own lives which may be hurt and fragile, and to make them whole. This is the foundation of our worlds existence, the purpose by which it was thought into being- the Creator’s wish that those created would themselves become creators, and partners in the perfecting of Gods world” (maamar bechukotai)

What our texts are pointing towards can also be found in quantum mechanics –

According to the rules of quantum mechanics, our observations influence the universe at the most fundamental levels. The boundary between an objective “world out there” and our own subjective consciousness blurs… When physicists look at the basic constituents of reality— atoms or photons – what they see depends on how they have set up their experiment. A physicist’s observations determine whether an atom, say, behaves like a fluid wave or a hard particle, or which path it follows in traveling from one point to another. From the quantum perspective the universe is an extremely interactive place, and all possibilities exist, at least until they are observed. In the words of the American physicist John Wheeler, “we live in a “participatory universe.””

Now I am not a physicist, nor I guess are many of you, but it fascinates me how the same ideas can emerge from both science and religion.

“We live in a participatory universe.”

Judaism teaches that our actions matter, that even small changes in our behaviours can potentially cause major change both to ourselves and to others; that how we behave in the world can have transformative effects. It asks us to be aware of our environment, of how we treat the stranger and the vulnerable. It reminds us that the earth belongs not to us but to God, ultimately everything is on loan to us, we will take nothing when we depart this world. “The earth is Gods and all its fullness”, says the psalm (24),” and all who live upon it.”

(לַיהוָה, הָאָרֶץ וּמְלוֹאָהּ –

But while we are here, we have the responsibility of creation – the world is not a separate entity untouched by our presence, we live in a participatory universe.

Bachya, Soloveitchik, Lurianic Kabbalah, quantum physics – all remind us that we exist in relationship to others and to “the other” as well as to ourselves. What we do, how we act – it matters to more than just our own conscience or our own feelings. We are each of us part of the continuing creation of our world.

Bachya famously wrote “Days are scrolls, write on them what you want to be remembered”. What exactly did he mean by this? Is he referring to the Talmudic “book of life” where everyone’s deeds are recorded for the benefit of the heavenly court as well as for themselves? Is he referring to the library of history, so that while each of us lives and dies, something of us remains and can be accessed in order to remember us? Is he saying that we write only on our own scrolls or is he referring to the way we impact on others “scrolls”, how we treat them being written into their own experience, maybe to be dealt with in the future by a therapist or to be held onto as supportive help in difficult times?

During the Yamim Noraim we tend to reflect on our own lives, our goals, our hopes, our mistakes, our feelings…. We think about how we have acted and how we can repair what we did, how to make ourselves better. It is important work, reflecting on the way we are living our lives, working to become the people we would like to be.

But there is another aspect to the work of the Yamim Noraim. We belong in a participatory universe, we are the creators of worlds.

Days are scrolls. And scrolls embody the words and the experiences, the teachings and the mistakes, the learning and the doing not only of our own selves, but of our people, and ultimately of our shared humanity. What will we write in our own scrolls for the coming year? What will we write in the scrolls of others? Will we participate in the work of completing creation or will we close down the possibilities of change? Will we become more conscious of the rest of the world impacted by our choices or will we shut out the clamouring voices of environmentalists, refugees, people caught up in famine, in war, in poverty?

We begin the ten days towards return – teshuvah. What will it look like? And what will the days and weeks and months look like after we close this festival period and no longer be quite so conscious of the trails we make on the pages of life.

Days are scrolls. We make our marks whether we choose to or not. We write and we read, changing not only our own life trajectory but also potentially those of others. What will we write on the scrolls in the coming year? What will we mark on the scroll of our own life and what will we mark on the life scrolls of others?

We live in a participatory universe, we create each day anew. Today is the beginning of a new year in a number of areas where we check our accounts and rebalance what we will do going forward. Let it also be the beginning of a new way of our being aware of what each of us is creating and is contributing to creation.

Sermone per Rosh HaShanà           Viviamo in un universo partecipativo

Di Rav Sylvia Rothschild, Lev Chadash Milano 2019

Il rabbino andaluso del XI secolo Bachya Ibn Pakuda fu l’autore del primo sistema ebraico di etica, nel suo libro noto come “I doveri del cuore” “Hovot HaLev“. Introdusse il suo libro dicendo che molti ebrei sembravano preoccuparsi solo dell’osservanza esteriore, dei rituali, dei doveri che devono essere eseguiti dalle parti del corpo “Hovot HaEvarim“, ma non quelli della mente interiore o delle idee guida e dei valori della tradizione ebraica. Bachya volle spiegare che l’ebraismo era più che un comportamento rituale o abituale, più che una performance meccanicistica: insegnò che l’ebraismo è l’incarnazione di una grande verità spirituale.

Questa verità non è folcloristica o magica, ma basata sulla ragione, sulla rivelazione, sulla ricerca di Dio attraverso la Torà. Scrisse che c’era un grande bisogno che i molti testi etici rabbinici fossero riuniti in un sistema coerente, nella speranza che l’ebraismo meccanicistico lasciasse il posto a un modo più ponderato e più profondo di vivere la religione.

È una  sfortunata realtà che per molti ebrei le mitzvot siano classificate come Hovot HaEvarim (doveri degli organi) o come  Hovot HaLev (doveri del cuore).

Rav Soloveitchik ha insegnato che uno può vedere le mitzvot in entrambi i modi, nelle sue parole le mitzvot sono sia “messe in atto” (Hovot HaEvarim) che “appagate” (Hovot HaLev), e quando si esegue la mitzvà su un piano ma non sull’altro, in realtà non stiamo completando la mitzvà. Uno degli esempi di Soloveitchik in questo saggio sono le mitzvot della preghiera e del pentimento. Possiamo presentarci alla sinagoga e dire tutte le parole giuste, ma se le parole non hanno alcun effetto su di noi, allora sono prive di scopo e non abbiamo adempiuto il nostro obbligo. La preghiera, nota anche come avodà shebalev, il servizio del cuore, è molto più che la recitazione di formule sia in comunità che da soli. La teshuvà, l’atto di riparare e tornare, non ha alcun potere se mette solo una pezza su un problema senza cambiarci e cambiare il nostro comportamento futuro. Come possiamo evitare che le parole abituali che le nostre bocche possono dire o le nostre orecchie sentire, manchino di cambiare i nostri cuori?

Bachya ha scritto che la maggior parte delle persone agisce in accordo con il proprio interesse personale, con ciò che vede come egoista e mondano piuttosto che con qualsiasi motivazione più alta o più altruista. Voleva che arrivassimo oltre i nostri bisogni e desideri, per servire volontariamente e gioiosamente Dio, qualunque cosa Dio richieda da noi.

Soloveitchik era interessato non solo al fare, ma alla conoscenza di Dio. Scrisse: “Credere è necessario ma non è abbastanza, bisogna anche sentire e percepire l’esistenza di Dio”.

Entrambi questi profondi pensatori possono aiutarci nel viaggio che stiamo facendo attraverso gli Yamim Noraim, così come nel futuro. Soloveitchik ha creato il paradigma della persona pentita, quella che ritorna a Dio, in questo modo: “La persona incarna l’esperienza che inizia con un sentimento di peccato e finisce con la redenzione di una meravigliosa vicinanza a Dio. Tra questi due punti, gli esseri umani si ergono come creatori di mondi, lì, mentre modelliamo la più grande delle nostre opere, noi stessi ”Non sono sicura di essere pienamente d’accordo con Soloveitchik, ma certamente concordo sulla sua affermazione che in effetti modelliamo noi stessi attraverso le nostre scelte e le nostre azioni, e anche la nostra inazione.

Siamo creatori di mondi! Il pensiero ebraico ha sempre posto gli esseri umani in questo ruolo. La Bibbia insegna fin dai suoi primi capitoli che collaboriamo con Dio nella creazione in corso di questo mondo. Con Adamo, poi Noè, poi Abramo, la collaborazione è sempre più formalizzata fino all’alleanza con Mosè e l’intero popolo Israele, tutti quelli che ci saranno o che lo diventeranno. La tradizione rabbinica si basa sui testi che descrivono l’Alleanza del Sinai e insegna che ci sono due Torà che lì sono state date: la Torà scritta (Torà shebichtav) e quella orale (Torà she’b’al pè). La Torà orale non è di per sé un insegnamento trasmesso, ma il percorso per interpretare la Torà scritta, che è aperta a una molteplicità di significati.

Come scrisse Nachmanide “Perché era in accordo con le interpretazioni che i Rabbini avrebbero dato, che Dio ci ha dato la Torà”. “Avrebbero dato“, lasciando l’apertura ai tempi futuri, a nuove comprensioni, alla creazione continua.

Per tutto il tempo in cui l’ebraismo si è evoluto, esiste un’importante direttiva per tutti noi: la creazione continua del mondo dipende non solo da Dio, ma da noi. Perché è così?

Forse la più sviluppata, ma certamente non l’unica, e neppure la teoria più importante, è la teoria cabalistica lurianica del XVI secolo. Ci insegna che il nostro lavoro consiste nel raccogliere le scintille del divino da qualsiasi parte del mondo esse siano incorporate, al fine di creare un tikkun completo, per riparare e ripristinare il mondo al suo stato originale di unità primordiale in relazione con Dio.

Ora, se vogliamo tornare allo stato binario primordiale di purezza e scorie, non mescolate e strettamente circoscritte, siamo a un punto controverso, ma certamente la visione ebraica del mondo, ovunque uno guardi nella nostra tradizione, è che questa collaborazione di co-creazione è la nostra ragione d’essere. È il modo in cui costruiamo una relazione con Dio, e questa relazione è vista come l’aspirazione fondamentale dell’umanità; La nostra tradizione ci dice che questa aspirazione è uguale per Dio. Dio vuole che noi, le creazioni di Dio, diventiamo noi stessi creatori. Fare qualcosa del nostro tempo nel mondo, cambiarlo anche se solo un po’ e lasciarlo un posto migliore per il nostro essere qui. Come vorrebbe la tradizione chassidica “niente è più prezioso per noi di quello che creiamo attraverso il duro lavoro e la lotta. Lo splendore che estraiamo dalla polvere, la bellezza che possiamo ricavare dai pezzi rotti … prendere le cose che ci vengono date, le cose danneggiate e rotte, persino le nostre stesse vite che possono essere ferite e fragili e renderle intere. Questo è il fondamento dell’esistenza dei nostri mondi, lo scopo con cui è stato pensato, il desiderio del Creatore che quelli creati diventassero essi stessi creatori e partner nel perfezionamento del mondo di Dio”. (Maamar BeChukotai)

Ciò a cui puntano i nostri testi può essere trovato anche nella meccanica quantistica.

Secondo le regole della meccanica quantistica, le nostre osservazioni influenzano l’universo ai livelli più fondamentali. Il confine tra un “mondo là fuori” oggettivo e la nostra coscienza soggettiva sfuma … Quando i fisici guardano i costituenti di base della realtà, atomi o fotoni, ciò che vedono dipende da come hanno organizzato il loro esperimento. Le osservazioni di un fisico determinano se un atomo, per esempio, si comporti come un’onda fluida o una particella dura, o quale percorso segua nel viaggio da un punto all’altro. Dal punto di vista quantistico l’universo è un luogo estremamente interattivo e tutte le possibilità esistono, almeno fino a quando non vengono osservate. Nelle parole del fisico americano John Wheeler, “viviamo in un” universo partecipativo”.

Ora, io non sono un fisico, e credo che neppure molti di voi lo siano, ma mi affascina come le stesse idee possano emergere sia dalla scienza che dalla religione.

“Viviamo in un universo partecipativo.”

L’ebraismo insegna che le nostre azioni contano, che anche piccoli cambiamenti nei nostri comportamenti possono potenzialmente causare grandi cambiamenti sia a noi stessi che agli altri; che il modo in cui ci comportiamo nel mondo può avere effetti trasformativi. Ci chiede di essere consapevoli del nostro ambiente, di come trattiamo lo straniero e il vulnerabile. Ci ricorda che la terra non appartiene a noi ma a Dio, in definitiva tutto è in prestito per noi, non prenderemo nulla quando lasceremo questo mondo. “Al Signore appartengono la terra e tutto ciò che essa contiene”, dice il salmo (24), “e tutti coloro che vivono su di essa”.

לַיהוָה, הָאָרֶץ וּמְלוֹאָהּ –

Ma mentre siamo qui, abbiamo la responsabilità della creazione: il mondo non è un’entità separata non toccata dalla nostra presenza, viviamo in un universo partecipativo.

Bachya, Soloveitchik, la Kabbalà lurianica, la fisica quantistica, tutti ci ricordano che esistiamo in relazione con gli altri e con “l’altro” e con noi stessi. Cosa facciamo, come agiamo – è importante per qualcosa di più della nostra sola coscienza o dei nostri sentimenti. Ognuno di noi è parte della creazione continua del nostro mondo.

Ciò che ha scritto Bachya è rinomato: “I giorni sono pergamene, scrivi su di essi ciò che vuoi venga ricordato”. Cosa intendeva esattamente con questo? Si sta riferendo al “libro della vita” talmudico in cui vengono registrate le azioni di tutti a beneficio della corte celeste e per se stessi? Si riferisce alla biblioteca della storia, così che mentre ognuno di noi vive e muore, qualcosa di noi rimane e vi si può accedere per ricordarci? Sta dicendo che scriviamo solo sui nostri rotoli o si riferisce al modo in cui influenziamo gli altri “rotoli”, come li trattiamo mentre vengono scritti nella loro stessa esperienza, forse per essere trattati in futuro da un terapeuta o per essere trattenuti come aiuto di supporto in tempi difficili?

Durante gli Yamim Noraim tendiamo a riflettere sulle nostre stesse vite, i nostri obiettivi, le nostre speranze, i nostri errori, i nostri sentimenti … Pensiamo a come abbiamo agito e come possiamo riparare ciò che abbiamo fatto, come migliorarci. È un lavoro importante, che riflette sul modo in cui viviamo la nostra vita, lavorando per diventare le persone che vorremmo essere.

Ma c’è un altro aspetto nel lavoro degli Yamim Noraim. Apparteniamo a un universo partecipativo, siamo creatori di mondi.

I giorni sono pergamene. E i rotoli incarnano le parole e le esperienze, gli insegnamenti e gli errori, l’apprendimento e il fare non solo di noi stessi, ma della nostra gente e, in definitiva, della nostra umanità condivisa. Cosa scriveremo nelle nostre pergamene per il prossimo anno? Cosa scriveremo nelle pergamene degli altri? Parteciperemo al lavoro di completamento della creazione o chiuderemo le possibilità di cambiamento? Diventeremo più consapevoli del resto del mondo influenzato dalle nostre scelte o elimineremo le voci clamorose degli ambientalisti, dei rifugiati, delle persone coinvolte nella carestia, nella guerra, nella povertà?

Iniziamo i dieci giorni verso il ritorno, la teshuvà. A cosa somiglierà? E come saranno i giorni, le settimane e i mesi dopo la chiusura di questo periodo delle festività quando non saremo più così consapevoli dei sentieri che tracciamo sulle pagine della vita.

I giorni sono pergamene. Lasciamo il segno che scegliamo oppure no. Scriviamo e leggiamo, cambiando non solo la nostra traiettoria di vita ma anche potenzialmente quella degli altri. Cosa scriveremo sulle pergamene nel prossimo anno? Cosa segneremo sulla pergamena della nostra vita e cosa segneremo sulla pergamena della vita degli altri?

Viviamo in un universo partecipativo, creiamo ogni giorno nuovamente. Oggi è l’inizio di un nuovo anno in una serie di settori in cui controlliamo i nostri conti e riequilibriamo ciò che faremo in futuro. Facciamo che sia anche l’inizio di un nuovo modo di essere consapevoli di ciò che ognuno di noi sta creando e sta contribuendo alla creazione.

Traduzione di Eva Mangialajo

19 Elul – reorienting ourselves in order to see our lives more clearly

19th Elul

No sin is so light that it may be overlooked. No sin is so heavy that it may not be repented of. –Moses Ibn Ezra

There are times when we might feel satisfied with our teshuvah, we have worked and reflected and surely that is enough. There are times when we feel that what we have done cannot be undone, and this weighs heavily on us and may sap our will to teshuvah.

But every morning we wake  up to a new day, the morning prayer reminds God and us that we were born with a pure soul, that creation is remade each day, that there is always a way back however many imperfections we may embody.

Indeed our imperfections are part of our humanity. We are not angels, we have free will and that includes the ability to make choices which are not necessarily the best ones for us or for the world.

The word for “sin” is freighted with meaning that is not part of the Jewish understanding. “Hata’a” is a term used in archery for missing the mark that is aimed at – and the arrow landing elsewhere instead. Teshuvah – return – is about reorienting one’s aim to get closer to the target, albeit further on in our life than originally hoped for.

Reflection, regret, re-orienting ourselves will help us in the coming year to become more of our best selves. There is nothing in our way but ourselves.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

15th Elul – teshuvah as transformation

15th Elul

Teshuvah – Repentance / Return to God is a curious phenomenon of Jewish tradition.  It is an act of mercy which defies natural law, a phenomenon that does not exist outside of this religious and spiritual realm.  For any other legal code, what happened – immutably happened, history is history.  Expressions of regret by the perpetrator may be greatly appreciated, but they do not have the power to erase the guilt or bury the act of transgression.  In fact, human justice embodies this very principle.  Once a crime has been committed, the mere expression of regret and repentance is not sufficient to protect the criminal from conviction, (though it might be a mitigating factor when meting out punishment).

Repentance, then, and its ability to wipe the slate clean and return a person to a state of purity and innocence belongs not to the realms of justice or of law, but to that of mercy.  God, in infinite mercy redeems our undeserving selves from the results of our actions, relying on our change of heart (“the cancellation of will”) to effect a change in history (“the cancellation of the act”). So Teshuvah is not ever to be seen as a right, rather it is a privilege given to us by a merciful God.

And rabbinic tradition does not leave it there. The Talmud tells us (Kiddushin) that teshuvah me’ahava (repentance out of love; i.e., heartfelt regret) results in the transgressions being transmuted into merits, whereas teshuvah miyir’a (repentance out of fear) results in transgressions being transmuted into shegagot – unintentional lapses, for which forgiveness is effectively automatic as blame does not attach in the same way as deliberate acts of transgression.

Think of that: Repentance that is done out of love – real true regret for our actions – not only seems to erase them from the book of punishment, it actually is said to transform them into positive merits.

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.

12th Elul: repentance is not a substitute for responsibility

The official ideology of Yom Kippur is found in the words of Resh Lakish, a third century Talmudic sage, and can be found in the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 86b–“Great is repentance, for the deliberate sins of one who repents become as inadvertent ones.”

In effect the argument is that Teshuvah, the action of repenting, causes the person to allow their real self to emerge, and as they move into a new direction they show that true self. The person therefore who sinned deliberately can be understood to have been not really themselves, and so, when they become their real self, those sins are clearly inadvertent – and inadvertent sin cannot be punished or judged in the same way as deliberately flouting the rules of behaviour.

It is a theology of new beginnings and a clean slate, teaching us that renewal is always possible; counteracting the guilt and despair we may be feeling about the bad choices we have made with the belief that good intentions for the future must redeem us and make up for the past.

It is certainly an attractive proposal, but the reality is that we can’t rely on Teshuvah to remake the world exactly as it was or should be. Teshuvah may be a potent force but it is not an all-powerful one. Even if it can change our deliberate sins into the more manageable and less terrifying category of inadvertent ones, it cannot erase the effects of those sins. If we were to truly face reality we would have to say that repentance is not, and never can be a substitute for responsibility. And more than that, we would have to acknowledge that some things cannot be rectified, however mortified and ashamed we may be to have committed them. What is done cannot always be undone, and the mark it leaves on our lives (and those of other people) will not be erased.

The word Kippur is related to the verb “to cover over”. When we try to make Teshuvah and to uncover our real and ideal self as we turn towards a good way of being in the world, we also cover over the mistakes we made and the bad actions we did. They do not go away, but we take away their power to hold us back, through our shame or our fear. I do like the notion of Teshuvah providing us with a new start, of the freshness of starting again unencumbered by a past that has the power to haunt us, but I shudder a little at the notion of a rebirth. For we are not in any way born again through our actions over the Yamim Noraim, we continue to live and continue to remember and continue to be the person who has real responsibility for our lives, but at the same time we cover over and leave behind the place that is stopping us from going forward into our new and more true way of being. Repentance is not a substitute for responsibility – repentance gives us the means to become much more responsible for who we are, and the power to use that responsibility to change not only ourselves but also the world around us.

 

Ekev: justice and mercy, individual and society, unity and interdependence from the Shema to the Days of Awe

Ask most Jews to explain the Shema and chances are they will think only of the first paragraph. They will speak of the Affirmation of the unity of God, the centrality of that belief to Judaism. Many Jewish commentators wax lyrical about the Shema as confession of faith through the ages. There are stories of those who die “al Kiddush HaShem”, prolonging the words of the Shema until they expire, leaving this world with the proclamation of their belief in the one God. Others speak of  the duty to love God that is spoken of in the prayer, the requirement to keep Gods commandments and to teach our children to do so. They remind us of the awareness of God that is to be present at all times and in everything we do – whatever we look towards, whatever our hands are busy with.

So central to Jewish theology is this prayer, that the early leaders of the Reform Movement made a deliberate policy to highlight it during the services, and hence many progressive congregations would stand whilst the first paragraph is being recited, and some even open the ark so as to further underline the point.

But the Shema itself is actually comprised of three paragraphs, and in our zeal to highlight the first we have cast the other two into shadow. We are aided and abetted in this by our own siddur which offers other passages for reading in silence as well as the full text of the shema.

It is not surprising that the reformers were less keen to proclaim the sentiments of the second paragraph, for whilst the first has an underlying principle of Loving God, this one had as its essence the principle of Fearing God.

Here we have the God of Righteous Retribution. The powerful God of Justice whose requirement and commandments must be fulfilled on pain of death. No room for negotiation here, only unswerving dedication and acceptance of the mitzvot will do. This time God is perceived as rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. There is no middle way and there is no way out. If you truly listen go God, love and obey completely, the rains will come at the right time and the land will be fertile and productive.

If however your heart strays to other gods, then there will be no rain, the land will not produce and disaster will come

The equation is simple and horribly clear. Obeying God means remaining in the land which is lush and fertile; disobeying means the likelihood of a horrible death from famine.  Jeremiah, describing one such drought wrote: “Judah is in mourning, her settlements languish. Men are bowed to the ground and the outcry of Jerusalem rises. Their nobles sent their servants for water; they came to the cisterns they found no water. They returned their vessels empty. They are shamed and humiliated, they cover their heads. Because of the ground there is dismay, for there has been no rain on the earth. The ploughmen are shamed they cover their heads. Even the hind in the field forsakes her new-born fawn because there is no grass. And the wild asses stand on the bare heights, snuffling the air like jackals. Their eyes pine because there is no herbage”( Jer 14:1-6)

Rain in its due season, life giving water, is a gift from God. God may choose to withhold it and so cause wholesale death as punishment. This is the theology of the fundamentalist  who blames the difficulties we experience as punishment for someone’s (usually someone else’s) sin . It is a perception of God that is both childlike and horrific, a god without mercy who dispenses reward and punishment with machine like efficiency and no extenuating circumstances to be taken into account.

Small wonder the Reform Movement had no desire to weight this paragraph with the same glory as its predecessor. Small wonder the MRJ siddur took to printing it out only once, and in other places laconically writes “during the silence the second and third paragraphs of the Shema may be read, or the following” and then gives us uplifting selections from Isaiah, Proverbs or the Holiness Code in Leviticus.

Traditionally the three paragraphs are printed in full whenever the Shema is to be read, and the rabbis of old had other way of dealing with this rather frightening aspect of the almighty. Prayers for rain in their due season are recited in services, the principle prayer being recited during Musaf on the last day of Sukkot and from then until Pesach the sentence “mashiv ha ruach umoreed ha geshem” is inserted into the Amidah (who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall). After Pesach another prayer for dew is recited and there are several other petitionary prayers recited at the appropriate times of the year.

The prayers for rain are amongst the earliest of all the liturgical texts and are clearly a response to the fear of divine threat that would withhold rain as punishment. If these prayers do not work, then the Mishnah lays down another response – that of fasting. The structures become greater the longer the period without rain, from people of merit fasting during daylight hours for three days to eventually the whole community fasting a total of thirteen days, with no washing, little business transacted and so on. The bible may describe certain punishment, but the rabbis modified it to take account of repentance.

Other responses take account of the fact that we do not often see the righteous rewarded nor the wicked punished in everyday life, though the development of the idea of an afterlife is later than the text here in Deuteronomy but once it appears in our philosophy, it means that punishment need not be tied into the agricultural year.

The book of Job was written as a response to the convention wisdom that all who are afflicted in life have in some way deserved it. Maimonides coped with this threat of divine retribution by writing that people should first serve God for a reward in order to learn to serve God without any motive – he took the view here (as with the sacrificial system) that ideal worship has to be learned and will not come without a process of weaning away from other forms. Hence this was a necessary stage in the history of the development of the relationship of the Jewish with God.

A more modern attempt to cope with this difficult second paragraph is to look at it in context with the first. In the first paragraph the underlying principle is love and the wording is in the singular – you will love God and do God’s commandments.  In the second paragraph the underlying principle is that of fear, and through the fear will come the acceptance of the yoke of the commandments – most of which cannot be done without other people.

The wording is in the plural precisely for that reason. One can fulfil the first paragraph alone, but for the second paragraph to be valid, other people are vital. The shema moves from the relationship of the individual with God to relationships within society. For these relationships to work there must be rules and sanctions, boundaries must be set in place for the security of all concerned. Love alone will not enable a society to function smoothly – courts of laws are needed to.

We are moving towards a time of the year when the image of God as Judge is becoming stronger. Soon we shall be entering the moth of Elul with its lead up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Nachmanides wrote that Rosh Hashanah is a day of judgement with mercy and Yom Kippur is a day of mercy with judgement. Either way both mercy and judgement are part of the unity of God, interdependent and of equal importance just as we see in the full shema.

There is a Midrash that before God made our world God first made and destroyed other worlds. Some were made only with justice but no one could survive. Some God made only with mercy and love but the inhabitants were anarchic and constantly destroyed each other. Finally God made a world with a blend of the two, an imperfect but pragmatic world that worked. And that was when God knew that it was good.