Tisha b’Av – the low point of the Jewish year and lessons we can learn

On Tisha b’Av we remember and  commemorate the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem. A culmination of a three week period of mourning, which begins with the Fast of the 17th Tammuz, commemorating the first breach in the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the destruction of the First Temple.   In the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:6) we read that “Five things happened to our ancestors on the 17th Tammuz, and five on the 9th Av (Tisha B’Av). On the 17th of Tammuz the tablets [containing the Ten Commandments] were broken; the daily sacrifice was discontinued; the walls of Jerusalem were breached; Apustamus, a Greek officer, burned a Torah scroll; and an idol was erected in the sanctuary of the Temple. On the Ninth of Av it was decreed that the generation of the desert would not enter the Land of Israel; the first temple was destroyed; the second temple was destroyed; Betar, (the last Jewish stronghold after the destruction of Jerusalem), was conquered; and Jerusalem was ploughed under. When the month of Av enters we diminish our joy.”

It is quite a list. The tradition is to cluster bad things together on one date, rather than to spread the pain of Jewish history throughout the year, colouring our days with mourning. So there are texts that tell us that on Tisha B’Av the First Crusade began, Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain, and to bring us more up to date the First World War broke out on Tisha b’Av. There is a good case for observing Yom HaShoah on this date in years to come, adding the cataclysm of our times to the tragedies of our ancestors.  Others would like to explicitly add Kristallnacht, which took place on the 9th of November, the eleventh month, a sort of secular resonance with the 9th day of Av.

We need a day to focus on our mourning, a day for remembering the violence and pain of our history. And one day each year is really enough, it contains what would otherwise be uncontainable and which could overlay our national narrative and suffocate us with grief. As a Reform Jew for whom the traditional yearning for the return of the Temple is problematic, I find the only way to deal with Tisha b’Av is to place it in the context of the three weeks of increasing sadness known as “bein ha-metzarim” – within a narrow and constrained place, and then to reflect on our history, remember, acknowledge, and move on. It is no surprise to me that the 7 weeks of haftarah readings from Tisha b’Av towards Rosh Hashanah are all about hope, about return to God, about opening out to possibility and the future – we move from between the straits (bein ha-metzarim) into the wide open space of freedom to think, feel, remember and explore . Then comes Rosh Hashanah, time to make a new start, a new promise to our best selves, a new commitment to the future.

The Talmud asks the question: “Why was the First Temple destroyed?” and it answers itself thus: “Because of three things that occurred in it: Idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed…” But then it goes on to develop its thought -“the Second Temple, where they occupied themselves with Torah, Commandments and acts of kindness, why was it destroyed? Because there was a prevailing practice of baseless hatred (sinat chinam). This teaches that baseless hatred is equated with three sins: idolatry, immorality and bloodshed.” (Yoma 9b)

Sinat Chinam is equivalent to three huge sins together. It caused the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of the Jewish people from their land for almost two thousand years. So what do we do about the hating without cause, the prejudging of others, the gratuitous dislike of the other. This is not necessarily an overpowering feeling that we are in thrall to, a visceral and ancient reflexive response that we can do nothing about. The responsa indicate that sinat chinam can be about simple ignoring of the humanity of the other, about not bothering to talk to them, to meet with them, to find out about them. Through sinat chinam we diminish the goodness in the world, as we refuse to recognise the goodness in each human person, to see them as valuable and possessing intrinsic worth. We have seven weeks now to reflect on how we treat others, both those we know and those we share our living spaces with – be it on the daily crowded train commute or the queue at the till, the person at the other end of the telephone or member of our own circle. We have seven weeks after Tisha b’Av to try to notice the humanity of each person we meet, and so to think about how we behave towards them. This is good work of teshuvah, for in meeting the other and recognising the spark of God within them, we become ready to face the spark of God within ourselves, the voice that reminds us that on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we will stand in the presence of the heavenly court as we judge our lives so far, and the perspective of that court will be mediated with our own attempts to be the best person we can really be.

The work of the yamim noraim – our teshuvah and the teshuvah of God

The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur always have such a strange quality about them.  On the one hand there is the imperative for active introspection – to search, to think, to pray, to critically examine our behaviour over the past year. There is the knowledge that we should be going out of our way to make things better – and at the same time the slight embarrassment about our trying to do exactly that.  Then there is the  awareness that whatever is going on in our heads and our private worlds,  out there in the world people are continuing exactly as normal, indulging in office politics say, or scheming and manoeuvring to be the first or get the most. Salesmen still offer their inflated claims for their products, school bullies continue to rule the playground – whatever our good intentions, the world isn’t going to change because of what we Jews are doing.

We even know that – after all, what is the kol nidrei prayer except an exercise in apologetics, in effect we are saying – “dear God, we are only frail human beings, please don’t hold us to all those good intentions, those promises that we were really going to change this year.”

It is such disjointed time, during which our minds are holding such incongruous ideas, that it is a wonder we don’t simply explode with the effort required to make sense of things; that or give up. Each of us has had our own pain over the past year – whether it was the fracturing of our lives through the deaths of family or friends, illness or lost relationships or work – our worlds can change abruptly and apparently randomly and it surely makes us question the whole point of what we are doing, this uniquely Jewish process of setting aside time for spiritual catharsis and divine forgiveness.   What is the point if we can’t change much, if we can’t protect our loved ones from a seemingly capricious power, if we can’t persuade God that we deserve a measure of guardianship from suffering, if we can’t see a reward for all our hard work?  What kind of God are we returning to when we make Teshuvah? What kind of religion are we affirming as we join together and recite texts which include the apparent attempted murder of a son by a father desperate to show loyalty to God, which include the images of the book of life and the book of death, which include a graphic martyrology section.

We may be uncomfortable with the welter of different ideas all living and growing in our minds.  We may be questioning our reason for being here today, drawn by an atavistic need to be with Jews as the dread day of Yom Kippur begins.  We may be confused or angry with God, we might even be embarrassed by our presence here today, viewing it as a superstitious ritual with no real relevance to our own lives, yet here we all are, and it is our very presence together that matters – it means that we haven’t quite given up, whatever the pressures and the temptations to do so.

Ever since I was quite small I used to wonder, what does God do on Yom Kippur? I used to try to imagine for myself – ‘Is God sitting like some ancient law lord, presiding over the panelled celestial courtroom as each life is weighed in the balance?  Is God enthroned in majestic glory, watching the sad grey souls parade in front of him like sheep?  Will God really know what I am thinking, will God know all the little cheats and lies that I have been party to, and if so what will happen to me?’

It took me years to move behind some of the imagery of the machzor, to stop focussing exclusively on my own petty guilts and to dare to attempt a little dialogue.  But when I did that I began to understand something different about this day, began to forgive a little more.

What does God do on Yom Kippur?

The clue to answering this question is found in the timing of the festival, and is also reflected in the choice of our Torah reading which includes some verses which echo through and through the liturgy.  Yom Kippur is biblically given as a date, the tenth of Tishri, described as a time designated as a day for atonement, for afflicting our souls.  In Temple times it became the focus of a major priestly ritual connecting the people of Israel with their creator.  Since rabbinic times we have used it more personally as a time for reflecting with humility on our lives, upon the fractured nature of our relationship with God – broken, we begin to understand, because of our own behaviour, our own pride and refusal to engage with God.  But this practise of introspection and of trying to make good isn’t an explicitly biblical command – in fact it isn’t all that clear in the bible what Yom Kippur is really for.  Unlike the other biblical festivals it isn’t an agricultural date celebrating the safe ingathering of a harvest, nor does it commemorate an historical or even an obvious theological event.  But there is one tradition – a very early one, (Seder Olam Rabba – 2nd century),  which tells us that the tenth day of Tishri  is the date on which Moses brought down from Sinai the second set of the tablets of the law.

This then is understood to be the date when, after the Children of Israel had sinned with the Golden Calf having feared that Moses had died, and after Moses had returned and angrily thrown down and destroyed the first set of the Ten Commandments, God gave us another chance – and we gave God another chance too.

So what does God do on Yom Kippur? Just like us, God makes Teshuvah – God forgives us for the mistakes we have made, and God creates the opportunity for us to add our pardon to that of the divine creator.

God making Teshuvah – it is a strange, almost frightening concept, yet it is also a vital one if we are to maintain a relationship with God. We do not live in the cosy world of childhood which tells us that if we are good nothing bad can happen to us, that if our parents are present no evil thing can frighten us.  We live in an imperfect world, where disease and accidents can happen, where we do our best to make sense and order but still have to live with the nonsense and disorder that are part of real life.  We live in a world of imperfectly understood mechanisms, of sudden floods or terrible droughts, of bad things happening to good people, of innocent people caught up in situations not of their own making.  We live in such a world because it is an inevitable concomitant of our functioning as full human beings.  If we did not, we would still be in the Garden of Eden and God would still be protecting us by not allowing us to experience our world fully, or take decisions, or be responsible or adult.

In the tradition of the mystic literature, the analogy is made that God has withdrawn or shrunk Godself from our world to make space for us to be in it without being overwhelmed by and subsumed into the presence of God.  And with that lessening of the total presence of God there come the inevitable consequences.

But while it might be said that God is slightly apart from our world, we also know that God has given us abilities and understanding – texts which teach us how to increase the presence of God in the world through our own efforts, souls which contain the spark of God within them, the ability to communicate, to feel, to make relationships with each other, to support and comfort each other, self awareness, moral discrimination, the ability to choose how we are in the world – all these things are gifts from God, and all of them are double edged – we can choose not to use our gifts, or we can choose to distort them or be distorted by them.

We live in an imperfect world because we live in a human one, and that is painful for us as I believe it is for God.  God, having created us and having given us independence of spirit waits for us to seek God.  And at Yom Kippur as we feel the urge to somehow come back, to make Teshuvah, to understand a little of our what our lives  may be about, God too feels the need to turn to us, to help us as we go through the process of self examination, to make the journey that is too hard for us, to make Teshuvah as well.

God forgives us for the mistakes we have made in the past year, allows us the opportunity to acknowledge them, to make amends, to put them behind us. Our scripture tells us about what happened immediately after the episode of the Golden Calf. It would have been so easy for God to give up on us then, to start again with another group, to allow the pain and anger and frustration to dictate the end of the relationship, but that is not what God did.  And it is not something that we can do either.  Confused or angry,  doubtful or deeply hurt – Yom Kippur calls us back to God and demands that whatever our feelings we must engage, must enter the dialogue, must enter the presence of God and struggle with what that means.  As we begin the 25 hours of Yom Kippur, acknowledging that all of us have failed, acknowledging too that we will make mistakes again in the future, wondering what the point might therefore be, it is important for us to simply take the time to consider that the point might reside simply in our actively being here, might be found in our refusal to accept all that the machzor sets out for us, might inhabit our doubts and our negative feelings as much as any sense of spiritual satisfaction.  On this day we turn to God and find that God is already turned towards us, waiting for our engagement with the fundamental issues of our identity, willing us to forgive and to be forgiven, comforting us as well as challenging us, demanding that we live our lives the best way we can, reflecting our creator and bringing about much needed repairs to ourselves and to our fundamentally damaged world.

 

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.

Va’etchanan and Nachamu:In approaching God with our desires we may yet find comfort and the chance to rebuild

The Shabbat where we read parashat Va’etchanan is named for its haftarah: it is Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of consolation.

After three weeks of haftarot that speak of rebuke, that have ratcheted up the anxious anticipation of the forthcoming cataclysm that is Tisha b’Av, we now begin the seven weeks of consolation, leading us to the possibility of a new start with God at Rosh Hashanah, reminding us that whatever the catastrophe, God is still there for us.

For a period of ten weeks we are liturgically reminded that it is time to put in the work to repair our relationship with God.

Va’etchanan begins with Moses reminding the people of his asking for God’s graciousness, asking to be allowed to enter the land that his whole life has been dedicated to guiding the nascent Jewish people towards.  He says “I besought God at that time saying, Adonai Elohim; you have begun to show your servant your greatness, the strength of your hand. For which god in heaven and earth can exist who does like you do? Please let me cross over so that I will see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and the Lebanon.  But God was angry with me because of you (the way you behaved) and did not listen to me and said to me, ‘Enough, do not speak more of this matter’…  Go up to Pisgah and look [in all four directions] …and command Joshua and strengthen him and encourage him….”

Va’etchanan ends an era, albeit with the pain and frustration of Moses played out publicly before the people. A line has been drawn; it is time for the next leader, the next stage of the people’s history.

Nachamu begins with the repeated imperative to “Comfort yourselves”. It goes on to speak to the heart of Jerusalem to say that that her time of service is over and her guilt paid off, that she has received from God double for all her sins.  A voice is calls: Clear the route of God in the wilderness, make a highway in the desert for our God. Every valley shall be raised, every mountain and hill diminished, the rugged will be levelled, the rough places smoothed.  And the glory of God will be revealed and everyone shall see it, for the mouth of God has spoken it”

One can read the Isaiah as a counterpoint to Va’etchanan, a response to Moses’ anguish that he will not be there to guide and escort the people in the land they are ready to enter: – Isaiah stresses the point that while yes the people will stray, God will still be there for them. The pathway that has led from Egypt to Mt Sinai, and from Mt Sinai to the Promised Land in a wandering and circuitous route, will become clear and defined and will link the people and God in a pathway that is easy to see and to tread.  The repetition of the imperative “Nachamu” echoes the repetition of the angel calling to Abraham at the site of the Akedah, reminding us that when we are so involved in our own ideas and world view it takes more than one call to drag us out of our intense concentration to be able to see a bigger picture.

But I think the Isaiah speaks not only to past time, but to present and future time. The passage speaks of a change in the landscape so that all the landmarks we are used to have gone, a levelling so that the valleys and mountains are brought together to one flat plain where no one and nothing can hide. It erases the peaks and the troughs, the domains of the heavens and the earth which shall never quite meet. Instead it speaks of human mortality and the eternity of the word of God. It speaks of catastrophic worldly and political change and of the consoling continuity of our relationship with God.

Whose is the voice calling in the wilderness demanding proclamation?  Whose is the voice asking what should be proclaimed?  Like the voice of the shofar at the revelation of Mt Sinai, these voices are ownerless in the text; we can claim them or project onto them.

The voices can be ours, demanding justice, demanding fairness, demanding relationship with God. Just as we are told that “the mouth of the Eternal has spoken” we are given a voice to speak back, to have a dialogue not only with each other but with our creator.

We are in the liturgical run-up to the Days of Awe, when God is said to be more present in the world, more willing to listen to us, more focussed on repairing the gaps that have emerged between us. As Isaiah reminds us “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever…. O you who tells good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with strength, lift it up and be unafraid, say to the cities of Judah “Behold your God”. Behold the Eternal God will come…even as a shepherd who feeds his flock, who gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them in his breast…”

Immediately after Tisha b’Av in the shock of the loss it commemorates, it is important to re-orient ourselves from mourning to life, to repair our own lives and to work for the greater good of our communities so that the glory of God is to be revealed, so that everyone shall join the work of repairing our world.

Sermon for Rosh Hashanah at the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague

My father was the son of Walter, the son of Alice, the daughter of Leah, the daughter of Rosalie, the daughter of Abraham, the son of Gitel, the daughter of Isaac, the son of Jacob, the son of Meir the son of Shmuel, the son of Yehoshua, the son of Rabbi Pinchas Halevy Horowitz, for whom this synagogue is named and grandson of Aharon Meshulam Horowitz it’s founder: my eleventh great grandfather.

So in a strange sort of way, I feel this Rosh Hashanah that I am coming home.

pinkus synagogue pinkus synagogue4

This family link got me to thinking about the roots and connections, and about the nature of Jewish history which in bible is framed within the structure of ‘toledot’ – generations. Judaism has traditionally passed on its defining ideas and ways of being within the family home and within the extended family we call community. The teaching goes from one generation to the next, the identity formed by watching and doing as much as by any formal learning.

( That said, from earliest times the idea of Judaism being a family tradition alone doesn’t really have traction. Abraham and Sarah famously “made souls” in Haran before leaving on God’s instructions ‘Lech Lecha’ – go, leave your ancestral land and go to the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:5). These souls are understood to be people they had converted to their faith; in other words, birth is only one doorway into Judaism, and the formation of Jews happens in a wider context than family alone.)

So I was thinking about the genealogical line between me and Pinchas Halevy Horowitz, the 13 generations between us, eight of whom were rabbinic families whose history I know only sketchily, and I wondered about what this relationship might mean, how his life fed ultimately into mine. I wondered too about how Judaism had developed in the almost 400 years since his death, what had changed, what had endured. For the truth about Judaism and about families is that they are not monolithic, they do not stay the same and their natural state is of flux and of change.

So if my ur-ancestor Pinchas was sitting here today in the synagogue that bears his name, what would be familiar to him? What would be radically changed? And what would be the golden thread, the Shalshelet haKabbalah, that ties his community to us, the latest in the toledot line?

There is a famous story in the Talmud (Menachot 29b) “Rabbi Yehudah said, “Rav said, “When Moses ascended to the heavens, he found the Holy One, sitting and attaching crowns to the letters. He said to God “Sovereign of the Universe! What are you doing? God said to him, “There is one man who will exist after many generations, and Akiva the son of Yosef is his name, he will in the future expound on every crown and crown piles and piles of laws.” Moses said “Sovereign of the Universe! Show him to me.” He said to him, “Turn around.” He went and sat behind the students in Rabbi Akiva’s Beit Midrash, and he did not know what they were talking [about]. He became upset but when he heard the students ask “Our teacher, from where do you learn this?” And heard Akiva answer “It is a law [that was taught] to Moses at Sinai” he calmed down.

This very early Talmudic story sets the rabbinic principle that Judaism evolves, and that what was understood or necessary in one generation was not written in stone. Just as Moses would not understand the teachings of Akiva, so would Pinchas Halevy Horowitz not recognise much of the Judaism of the 21st century.  Yet there is a great deal he would recognise. The great themes of this service have remained the same since the Rosh Hashanah liturgy was instituted and the mussaf service in particular is explicit about the leitmotifs of the festival – Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot – the Coronation of God, the time for both we and God to Remember each other, and the blowing of the Shofar. Essentially, the service we have today stays true to the ancient themes of Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Hashanah has a number of different names: it is Yom Teruah, the day of blowing of the shofar; Yom haZikaron, the day for remembrance; Yom haDin, the day for judgement; and less well known it is also Yom haKesseh, the day of concealment. The first three are clear to us, we hear the shofar calling us to attention, and speak of standing before God (and also in our own eyes) in order to judge ourselves. We think back over our lives and our actions in order to be able to put things right where possible. But what is the concealment of which our liturgy speaks when we recite “Tiku ba’chodesh shofar, ba’kesseh l’yom chageinu. Ki chok l’yisrael hu, Mishpat lelohei Yaakov. (Psalm 81:4-5) Sound the shofar at the new moon, at the [Kesseh] concealed time for our feast day. For this is a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob.”

It would make sense in the poetic structure for Kesseh to be the parallel of Chodesh and mean the new moon, and so the psalmist would be speaking of blowing the shofar when the moon is so new it could barely be seen, Rosh Hashanah is the only festival to be celebrated at the beginning of a month rather than at the full moon or later. But Kesseh is an unusual word to use and so it draws our attention. And suddenly the work of this season becomes clearer, though ironically the clarity we gain shows that the work of the Yamim Noraim is to both make transparent and then to obscure some of our past behaviour.

The core meaning of the word Kesseh is to cover or to conceal; the meaning of Kapparah is also to cover over, to hide or even obliterate. We are in the season of concealment – but who is doing the hiding, what is being concealed, where does it go and to what purpose?

One of my favourite teachings of how Jews do teshuvah, the work of this penitential period is that we do not expect to wash clean all our past actions as if they never existed, and start again as if we were newly born souls. Instead we have time to reflect on our past, to face all the things we did that we wish we had not, and all the things we did not do that we wish we had done, and to own up to them, to accept our own actions. We admit to ourselves under the watchful gaze of God, and we repent – an active behaviour in Jewish law that requires us to try to make good the damage we have done, to ask for forgiveness from those we have hurt, to resolve to change how we will act in the future when faced with the choices again. And then, when we have done all we can to repair our past, we are able to let go of it – not to deny it or to disown it, but to cover it (kapparah) to conceal from view (Kesseh) all the things of which we are ashamed and of which we have repented. We know that if we do this, God too will forgive us, the page will turn on our heavenly record so that a clean sheet shows going forward, although the previous pages of the book remains written, just hidden from view and not holding us back in hopelessness. We are shaped by our past but our future is not distorted because of it.

Reading recently about transitional justice I came across an interview with Vaclav Havel and was struck by the similarities in his views. Speaking of dealing with the political past and its effects, he said “It is important to find the right balance, the right approach, one that would be humane and civilized but would not try to escape from the past. We have to try to face our own past, to name it, to draw conclusions from it, and to bring it before the bar of justice. Yet we must do this honestly and with caution, generosity and imagination. There should be a place for forgiveness wherever there is confession of guilt and repentance.” Transitional Justice: Country Studies v.2: How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes: Country Studies…Dec 1996 by Neil J. Kritz

Jewish tradition holds that the work of this season – teshuvah – requires us to bring to mind the harsh realities of our failings, to go through a process that ends with us no longer held back by the pain or the shame or the fear of what we have done, and to move forward in our lives. We leave behind, concealed from view but not forgotten or denied, the actions and inaction that stained our souls, that had imprisoned us. This is what we are doing here today, it is what the Jews of this community were doing when this synagogue was built. While some of the language may have altered and some of the prayers been edited, Rabbi Pinchas Halevy Horowitz would recognise what we are doing were he to join us today. As would those whose names are inscribed on the walls, and all the Jews of the generations between the two. We are joined to them by the liturgy of this day, by the shared understanding of the meaning and work of this season, by the timelessness of the tradition that speaks of repentance and return to God, of forgiveness and of moving on, of not denying the past but not being held captive to its power.

The Jews who came before us are held with us in a chain of tradition, their wisdom and experience passed on through the generations and through the communities which welcome people into Judaism We in modernity will one day pass into history, leaving behind a name, some family stories, some wisdom and some love, maybe some descendants, and hopefully a physical memorial of some kind. On that memorial will no doubt be the acronym also found on the walls of this synagogue over the names of those Prague Jews taken and murdered in the camps  ת’נ’צ’ב’ה  It is taken from a verse in Samuel via the memorial prayer and which speaks of the soul being bound up in the bundle of life, an image rather like an unending piece of fabric or carpet, in which the souls of those who came before are part of the weave, necessary to anchor and to hold the structure which will go on being woven as new souls come into the mix. In this image, the lives of those who came before are an integral part of the fabric of our lives, as our lives will help shape the world of those to come. And this knowledge brings both a sense of rootedness and of responsibility to those who came before and to those who will come after.

For the fabric to be strong, the lives must be connected, and even when one thread physically ends, its existence provides the anchor for the later ones. For that anchor to be solid, there must be regular teshuvah, the reflection and balance, the bringing to mind and naming of what went wrong in order to face it, to learn and understand, to apply compassionate and proper justice, and to bring about a conclusion, an end to the pain or bitterness or anger in order to let go, to cover over and to move on with the weave. Whether that image is about each of our individual lives, or scaled up to the life of a family or of the Jewish people as a whole, the lesson and the work remains the same. We reflect and remember, we admit and repent, we try to repair, we do our best to make good, and then we let go and go out into life ready to write on a new page of our Book of Life.

Our Rosh Hashanah Liturgy quotes not only the psalmist but also Isaiah (65:16-17) who describes God as saying “So that the one who blesses in the earth shall bless by the God of truth; and the one that swears in the earth shall swear by the God of truth; because the former troubles are forgotten, and because they are hid from Mine eyes. For now I create new heavens and a new earth, and the past need not be remembered, nor ever brought to mind. Be glad and rejoice in what I can create.”

The work of remembering, of making transparent, of repenting and repairing and of letting go in order to go move on is holy work. The Kesseh or Kapparah of this season mirrors the divine work of creation. This season is the season of penitence in which we wear white; Yom Kippur a joyful fast rather than a time of misery and gloom. The sound of the shofar reminds us of the work we do alongside God, the concealment and covering of a reasonably resolved past nudges us forward to do the work God expects from us. We are tied into the past and we honour from where we came. We are tied into the future, and in order to help bring about the best one we can, we are here together. As links in the shalshelet haKabbalah, the chain of tradition, the golden thread that brings us close to all who prayed the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, it is our turn to Remember, to Repair, to Repent, and to Return. May all who came before us bless us, and may we in turn be a blessing to those who journey with us and those who come after.

From Rosh Chodesh Ellul, the pace picks up – time to brush up our souls

Yomtov never seems to arrive on time. Early or late, it catches us by surprise. And yet – the date never changes and the calendar has a number of events to remind us. The month of Elul comes as a powerful prompt to wake up and, if not smell the coffee, then at least taste the teshuvah.   Elul is the month before Rosh Hashanah, the month of preparation and repair. It is said to be the month when God is most accessible to us, hinted in the acronym forming its name “Ani le’dodi v’dodi li” I am my beloveds and my beloved is mine” – a reference to the intimacy we can create at this time. The shofar is blown in morning services, waking us from our complacency and dream-like existence. Selichot, the poems of pardon, feature in the liturgy towards the end of the month.  The haftarot of comfort are in full swing. So why are we often so surprised at the timing of the festivals? What more can persuade us to get going on our repentance, apologise for our misdemeanours and try to make good the damage in our lives and relationships? How do we guard against being caught out when the Days of Awe begin in Tishri? As a child my parents bought my new winter outfit in time for Rosh Hashanah.  Preparing to ready oneself to stand in front of God called for a new garment. As a kittel-wearing adult this particular ritual is less important to me, but the idea behind it stands.  We want to be renewed, for our souls to look less shabby, and that takes a positive act to make happen.  Elul stretches in front of us – time to make those phone calls, write those letters, give back the things we took from others, repair our corner of the world. It may be that we are so busy with our teshuvah and reparations that Yomtov sneaks up on us anyway, but with the work in progress it won’t be such a surprise.

Parashat Vayikra HaChodesh: organising time and encountering nature. Or “our experience of nature reflects and enhances our experience of God”

“This month shall be for you the beginning of the months, it shall be for you the first of the months of the year.” (Exodus 12:2)

This is the very first commandment given in bible to the entire nation of Israel and rabbinic tradition understands that it commands us to sanctify each new month, and gives us the authority to declare which is the first day of the month. This declaration was done originally through the examining of witnesses by a Beit Din – rabbinic court – in Jerusalem. Talmud gives very detailed instructions about this activity, not surprising given that this declaration and authority over the calendar by the Rabbis is said even to bind God – the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 8b) declares that the verse in psalms (81:4-5) “Sound the shofar on the new moon for our feast day, for it is a law for Israel, and a ruling of the God of Jacob” (a piece that is central to our Rosh Hashanah liturgy), means that the Court Above does not enter into judgment on Rosh Hashanah until the Court Below has declared the new month of Tishri.

This commandment gives the Jewish people the authority to decide about time. The whole Jewish year, all of Jewish Time, including deciding the date for legal or taxation or deciding ages or festival observance, is dependent on the Court declaring the new month, having listened to and examined all the witnesses who came to speak of having seen the new moon. This control over deciding time is extraordinary, giving the Rabbinic Court a power akin to God’s, Who created time. Being able to control one’s time means being free in a very powerful way – slaves do not manage their own time, and in modern times the balancing of work/life is a critical part of how we experience our lives.

The declaration of the new moon was one of the three activities seen as fundamental to Jewish identity and therefore banned by the Seleucid Empire, against whom the Chanukah revolt took place. The other two were the observance of Brit Milah (circumcision) and Shabbat.

There are two rituals today in which we are able to observe the turning of the month. The first is familiar to many, the Birkat haChodesh read out in synagogue on the Shabbat before the New Moon (except the new moon of Tishri) to remind the community of the fact. Along with the announcement of the date the New Moon would be seen we read: “May it be Your will, our God and the God of our ancestors, that You bring this month to us for goodness and for blessing. May You give us long life – a life of peace, a life of goodness, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of physical health, a life in which there is fear of heaven and fear of sin, a life in which there is no shame nor humiliation, a life of wealth and honour, a life in which we will have love of Torah and fear of heaven, a life in which our heartfelt requests will be fulfilled for the good. May the Holy One, Blessed is God, renew it for us and for all Your people, the Family of Israel, for life and for peace, for joy and for gladness, for salvation and for consolation, and let us say: Amen.”

But there is another ritual called Birkat haChodesh – and sometimes (wrongly) called Kiddush Levanah – the Sanctification of the Moon, when we bless God as we stand under the night sky in the presence of the new moon. The ritual comes from Talmud, where in Tractate Sanhedrin we find the text of the Blessing: “Praised are you, O Eternal our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who created the skies with Your word, and all heaven’s host with the breath of Your mouth. You gave them appointed times and roles, and they never miss their cues, doing their Creator’s bidding with gladness and joy. God is the true creator who acts faithfully, and who has told the moon to renew itself. It is a beautiful crown for the people carried by God from birth (Israel), who will also be renewed in the future in order to proclaim the beauty of their creator and God’s glorious majesty. Praised are you, O God, who renews new moons.”

Around the Talmudic text we find the idea that the ceremony should take place on a night when the moon is growing (not necessarily the New Moon), preferably on Saturday night when the celebrant will be wearing their best clothes and will be happy. There was a custom of showing one’s joy by dancing and leaping towards the moon, raising the body on tiptoes three times while reciting the formula “As I dance towards you, but cannot touch you, so shall none of my enemies be able to touch me!” and everyone should say to each other “Shalom Aleichem”: “Peace to You”

I have taken part in this ritual within a community exactly five times in my life, but each time have become more aware of the praise of nature and of God’s role as the creator of nature, which is something that we lose often in our liturgical mainstream. Each time the symbolism of the moon, which waxes and wanes, which sometimes hangs low and almost tangible in the night sky and which sometimes is hidden; the moon which influences our world so powerfully but so invisibly – from the flow of the tides to the stable axial tilt; from the comfort of light at darkest night and darkness of a moonless night – the moon symbolises so much more than just a satellite orbiting the earth and lit by the sun. It symbolises continuity, growth and renewal, weakness and ending followed by increase in strength and fulfilment. It is no wonder that Jewish texts liken the people Israel to the moon, with our fluctuating history and our constant return to life – the moon symbolises hope, renewal, constant change within a clear set of parameters. Talmud tells us that Rabbi Yochanan said “reciting the blessing over the moon at the appropriate time is like being in the presence of the Shechinah (Divine Presence).. and the school of Rabbi Ishmael said “if the Children of Israel are privileged to greet their father in heaven once a month, it is enough”. Now while I am not advocating a connection with Jewish ritual only once a month, it is a powerful reminder that our experience of nature reflects and enhances our experience of God. And we can experience nature at any moment – currently the blossom is out on the trees and the spring bulbs are flowering. The encounter with nature only takes for us to open our eyes and see – and from that looking at our world we can feel hope and a sense of the continuity through the changing world. Be it the moon, be it other aspects of creation, be it the Creator, the privilege of perceiving this hope must be enough.

Image by Eric Teske (CC BY-NC 3.0)