Being a People, creating community, bringing light and warmth into our world: Rosh Hashanah Sermon Lev Chadash 2022

Rosh Hashanah 2022 Sermon Lev Chadash

L’italiano segue l’inglese

Once there was a small mountain village where a small Jewish community lived.There was no electricity and each home had a wood burning stove to give warmth and small candle lamps to give light, and any time the Jewish community wanted to meet, they did so in each other’s homes. One day, the people decided to build a synagogue, so that they could observe Shabbat and holidays together,  celebrate b’nai mitzvah and baby namings and weddings together, and be together to pray, because small as the community was they were too big for anyone’s home. They  though hard about what they wanted and they told the rabbi:

“It must have enough room for everyone in the village to dance the hora, without stepping on anyone’s feet.”

“But it must be small enough that no one ever has to feel like they are sitting off in a corner, alone.”

 “It must have a very big wooden stove, so that we can keep warm in the long winter months.”

“But it must have huge windows, so we can air it out in the summer months.”

But soon, they ran up against a problem. The lights. There was no simple way to light the new synagogue. There was no electricity in this village, and so there was no easy way to light the whole room. Because the synagogue had to be big enough for everyone to dance the hora without stepping on each other’s toes, if they put a lamp in the middle of the room, the corners would be dark, and if they put a lamp in the corners of the room the middle of the room would be dark. And there wasn’t enough money left in the budget to do both. Not to mention, how would they pay someone to keep all of the lamps lit all the time?

At long last the synagogue was ready and the people came a Shabbat evening dinner and service, so everyone arrived at the new building just before sunset. They waited and whispered outside in the snow, holding their lamps that would light their way home in the dark.

“I hope it’s big enough for a hora.” One villager said.

“I hope it’s small enough so that no one feels alone in the corner.” Another responded.

“I hope there’s a stove.” Said one.

“I hope there are windows.” Said another.

And there were a lot of people who said, “I wonder how they are going to keep it lit up through the night.”

Finally, the doors opened and all of the people poured in to have a look around. It was big enough for a hora, small enough for an oneg, with a big wood burning stove in the centre and huge windows on the side. But one thing was missing. As the sun started to dip lower in the sky, signalling that Shabbat would be here soon and along with it another long, dark night, they realized that there were no lights in the building at all.

The people gasped, “What are we going to do with a synagogue with no lights?”

“Did we run out of money?” Asked one.

“How am I supposed to see my prayerbook in the dark?” Asked another.

“How are we supposed to serve food in the dark?” Asked one.

“Are we just going to have all of our services in the daytime?” Asked another.

They looked around for the lights. And then they noticed – all along the four walls of the synagogue were brackets, big enough to hold the lamps they used to light their own homes . There were dozens of them, one for every person in the village.

The rabbi took her own lamp she had brought from home and put it in one of the brackets on the wall. “This is how we will light the synagogue. Each of you will bring your own lamp from home. When you are all here, this room will be full of light for us to eat and pray and dance by. And when you are not here, we will see that the room is darker, and we will miss you. And when you are at home, wondering whether or not to set out in the cold, dark night, you will remember that, without you, our synagogue will be that much darker.”

I found this story in a collection of folk tales and wanted to share it with you today. The whole period leading up to the Yamim Noraim began some weeks ago. After the month of Elul when we are expected to reflect on our lives, on our priorities and our actions, to repair what we can of our inevitable mistakes and to try to live more closely We are in a time of reflection and of self-judgment, of separating ourselves from bad habits and attempting to habituate ourselves to good ones. It is a time of renewal of our selves and of the way we live our lives, a time where we consider what is to be repeated and what is to be changed.

In many ways this is always going to be a highly personal and individual process. Like prayer it is an action we do both for and by ourselves. We stand in the presence of God but no one else can see or hear our inner monologue.  And yet –

– And yet this is a process that is enhanced by community. We stand amongst everyone else who is praying or reflecting or confessing or pleading or denying or avoiding the work of this season. Others walk alongside us just  as others have walked these paths before and yet others will walk them long after our own time.  This highly personal and individual process of tefillah and teshuvah is reliant for its success on the support of the community around us. The nudge to reflect that is incorporated in our liturgy and our calendar is amplified by the actions of the community. The words we can say out loud together – each of us confessing to everything so that those of us who need to say those words can do so in the safety of the collective confession. The pull of family or community – asking us what we are doing for the festivals, sharing their insights or reading suggestions or meals or even tasks to make us ready for the Yamim Noraim. We help each other along this path, often without even being aware of our contribution to the general good.

Asher Tzvi Hirsch Ginsberg, better known as the essayist “Achad Ha’Am” (literally meaning “one of the people” (1856-1927) was a founder of what became known as cultural Zionism who argued with the theories of political Zionists such as Herzl, and instead worked for Eretz Yisrael to become a spiritual exemplar for Jews in the Diaspora, something that would bring Jews across the world together as one people with shared values and spirituality, rather than fragmented communities – he wanted  what he called  “A Jewish State, and not just a State for Jews”.

He wrote: Judaism did not turn heavenward and create in heaven an eternal habitation of souls. It found ‘eternal life’ on earth, by strengthening the social feeling in the individual by making them regard  themselves not as isolated beings with an existence bounded by birth and death, but as part of a larger whole. As a limb of the social body…I live for the sake of the member. I die to make room for new individuals who will mould the community afresh and not allow it to stagnate and remain forever in one position. When the individual thus values the community as their own life, and strives after its happiness as though it were their individual wellbeing, they find satisfaction and no longer feel so keenly the bitterness of their individual existence, because they see the end for which they live and suffer. (Achad Ha’Am Asher Hirsch Ginsberg 1856-1927)

For Achad Ha’Am being part of the community gives meaning to our lives. Although he himself was secular, he is speaking from the foundational texts of Judaism – we are first and foremost “Am Yisrael” – a People [called] Israel

The word   Am עם is found hundreds if not thousands of times in the Hebrew bible. It is used to mean a nation or a group of people, though it has a secondary meaning of “a relation/relative”. Both the Hebrew root and its Arabic cognate appear to have had an original meaning of “father” or “father’s family” which is later expanded to kinsman or clan, and eventually to “nation”. The root  עמם from which it derives also means  “to join, to connect”, from where we also get the word im עם meaning “with”.

We learn in Mishnah Avot 2:5 that Hillel taught “do not separate yourself from the community” – both in its celebrations and in its difficulties we are part of this group. This  is also the reason we pray together, traditionally some of our liturgy demands we form a community before we can pray it – because the rabbis taught that “ For when one prays by himself, he might ask for things that are detrimental to some. But the community only prays for things which are of benefit to everybody. A reed on its own is easily broken but a bundle of reeds standing together cannot be broken even by the strongest winds.”

Community lies at the heart of Judaism. Jewish peoplehood is our overarching identity – whether we see ourselves as religious or secular, Ashkenazi, Sefardi or Italki, believers in God or sceptics, Orthodox Reform or Masorti – it is Jewish peoplehood that binds us, Jewish community that is the structure that we exist in symbiosis with, that we create wherever we go and that sustains us in return.

I think all of us know the slogan – or is it a prayer? – “Am Yisrael Chai”.  While it is unclear where this phrase originated, a recording of the liberated Jews in Bergen Belson concentration camp singing “Hatikvah” in April 1945 also contains the voice of Rabbi Leslie Hardman, the first Jewish Chaplain to the British Army to enter that camp two days after it was liberated,  calling out “Am Yisrael Chai” into the silence that followed the Hatikvah. It was a challenge, a prayer, a statement of intent rolled into three short words. Leslie Hardman supervised the burial of over 20 thousand victims in the camp, trying to give them the dignity in death that had been so lacking in life and saying kaddish over the mass graves. He circumcised babies who had been born in the camp, he even conducted a wedding of a survivor to a British soldier – he was determined in the face of so much death and horror, that Am Yisrael Chai – the people Israel would continue to live. He went on to minister to Jewish communities and made a lasting impression on many who knew him. Even today I occasionally meet people who toward the end of their lives want to reconnect with their Jewishness and who say to me “Leslie Hardman did my barmitzvah”!

The power of community, and the power of the people who believe in community is immense.

Everywhere we look in Judaism we see the imperative to community. In a few short weeks we will be celebrating Sukkot, and using the arba’a minim, the Four Species, in our services. There is a famous midrash on this ritual object  – together these different plants represent the fullness and diversity of every Jewish community. – “As the etrog has taste and fragrance, the palm taste  but no fragrance, the myrtle fragrance but no taste, and the willow neither taste nor fragrance, so some Jews have learning and good deeds, some learning but no deeds, some deeds but no learning, and some neither learning nor deeds.  Said the Holy One ‘let them all be tied together and they will atone one for the other (Midrash Leviticus Rabbah)

All together we can help each other to atone, but not only that – together we help each other to grow, to live, to thrive. At the centre of our torah is the injunction to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. As Israel Salanter (1810 – 1883) writes:  – “The Torah demands that we seek what is best for our fellow human beings: not by repressing our hatred or rejection of them, nor by loving them out of a sense of duty, for this is no genuine love.  We should simply love our neighbour as we love ourselves.  We do not love ourselves because we are human beings, but our self-love comes to us naturally without any calculations or limits or aims.  It would never occur to someone to say ‘I have already fulfilled my obligation towards myself!’ The same way we should love our fellow human beings naturally and spontaneously, with joy and pleasure, without limits or purposes or rationalisations”

In the folk tale I began with, the picture is painted of the contribution each and every one of us makes to making our community brighter and happier, supportive and challenging, warmer and kinder.

Today we might have electricity to light our synagogue but we still count on each and every one of you to bring your own light in a different way. When you come to be part of the community at prayer or in study, come to share simchas and sorrows, when you join in with the singing or the prayer, when you reach out and enfold each other under the tallit for the blessing of nesiat kapayim, then our synagogue is full of light and warmth. And when you are gone, everything feels a little darker because you are not here. The same is true in every community you take part in.

And so we pray, as this new year begins, that our lights will shine brightly and we will bring them to share with each other, and  everyone we join with in community – even if only for a short time -will be blessed by our light and warmth.

 And we pray too that like those long ago villagers, we will bring our lights with us wherever we go, and that we will find the places to fix our lights and let them shine out an warm our community.

In the words of the blessing of nesiat kapayim –“ ya’er Adonai panav elecha “– may the face of God shine on you; And in the vernacular of the Jewish community, may we each represent the face of God to each other, join with our communities and offer ourselves to brighten each other’s lives whenever and however we can.

Rosh Hashanà 2022: Sermone per Lev Chadash

di Rav Sylvia Rothschild

            C’era una volta un piccolo villaggio di montagna dove viveva una piccola comunità ebraica. Non c’era elettricità e ogni casa aveva una stufa a legna per riscaldare e piccole candele per illuminare, e ogni volta che la comunità ebraica voleva incontrarsi, lo faceva nella casa di qualcuno.

            Un giorno le persone decisero di costruire una sinagoga, così da poter osservare insieme lo Shabbat e le festività, celebrare insieme b’nai mitzvà e dare il nome ai bambini, fare i matrimoni e stare insieme per pregare, perché, per quanto piccola fosse la comunità, era troppo grande per la casa di chiunque.

            Pensarono molto a quello che volevano e dissero al rabbino:

            “Deve avere abbastanza spazio perché tutti nel villaggio possano ballare la hora, senza calpestare i piedi di nessuno”.

            “Ma deve essere sufficientemente piccola, che nessuno debba mai sentirsi come se fosse seduto in un angolo, da solo”.

            “Deve avere una stufa a legna molto grande, in modo da poterci riscaldare nei lunghi mesi invernali”.

            “Ma deve avere finestre enormi, in modo da poter arieggiare nei mesi estivi”.

            Ma presto si imbatterono in un problema. Le luci. Non c’era un modo semplice per illuminare la nuova sinagoga. Non c’era elettricità in questo villaggio, quindi non c’era un modo semplice per illuminare l’intera stanza. Poiché la sinagoga doveva essere abbastanza grande da permettere a tutti di ballare la hora senza pestarsi i piedi, se avessero messo una lampada in mezzo alla stanza gli angoli sarebbero stati bui, e se avessero messo una lampada negli angoli della stanza il centro sarebbe stato buio. E non c’erano abbastanza soldi nel budget per fare entrambe le cose. Per non parlare del fatto di come avrebbero pagato qualcuno per tenere tutte le lampade accese tutto il tempo.

            Alla fine la sinagoga fu pronta e le persone vennero per la cena e il servizio serale dello Shabbat, quindi tutti arrivarono al nuovo edificio poco prima del tramonto. Aspettarono e sussurrarono fuori nella neve, tenendo in mano le loro lampade che avrebbero illuminato la strada verso casa nell’oscurità.

            “Spero che sia abbastanza grande per danzare la hora”, disse un abitante del villaggio.

            “Spero che sia abbastanza piccola in modo che nessuno si senta solo nell’angolo”, rispose un altro.

            “Spero che ci sia una stufa”, disse uno.

            “Spero che ci siano finestre”, disse un altro.

            E ci furono molte persone che dissero: “Mi chiedo come faranno a tenere acceso per tutta la notte”.

            Alla fine le porte si aprirono e tutte le persone si riversarono all’interno per dare un’occhiata in giro. Era abbastanza grande per una hora, abbastanza piccola per l’oneg, con una grande stufa a legna al centro ed enormi finestre sui lati. Ma mancava una cosa. Quando il sole iniziò a calare nel cielo, segnalando che lo Shabbat sarebbe arrivato presto e con esso un’altra lunga notte buia, si resero conto che nell’edificio non c’erano affatto luci.

            La gente sussultò: “Cosa faremo con una sinagoga senza luci?” “Abbiamo finito i soldi?” chiese uno. “Come faccio a vedere il mio libro di preghiere al buio?” chiese un altro. “Come dovremmo servire il cibo al buio?” chiese uno. “Avremo tutti i nostri servizi durante il giorno?” chiese un altro.

            Si guardarono intorno in cerca delle luci. E poi si accorsero che lungo le quattro pareti della sinagoga c’erano delle mensole, abbastanza grandi da contenere le lampade che usavano per illuminare le proprie case. Ce n’erano a dozzine, una per ogni persona del villaggio.

            Il rabbino prese la sua lampada che aveva portato da casa e la mise in una delle mensole del muro. “Così illumineremo la sinagoga. Ognuno di voi porterà la propria lampada da casa. Quando sarete tutti qui, questa stanza sarà piena di luce per mangiare, pregare e ballare. E quando non ci sarete vedremo che la stanza è più buia e ci mancherete. E quando sarete a casa, chiedendovi se partire o meno nella notte fredda e buia, vi ricorderete che, senza di voi, la nostra sinagoga sarà molto più buia”.

            Ho trovato questa storia in una raccolta di racconti popolari e volevo condividerla con voi oggi. L’intero periodo che ha preceduto gli Yamim Noraim, i Giorni Solenni, è iniziato alcune settimane fa. Dopo il mese di Elul, in cui ci si aspetta che riflettiamo sulle nostre vite, sulle nostre priorità e sulle nostre azioni, per riparare ciò che possiamo dei nostri inevitabili errori e per cercare di vivere più da vicino, siamo in un tempo di riflessione e di auto-giudizio, in cui ci separiamo dalle cattive abitudini e tentiamo di abituarci a quelle buone. È un momento di rinnovamento di noi stessi e del modo in cui viviamo la nostra vita, un tempo in cui consideriamo cosa ripetere e cosa cambiare.

            In molti modi questo sarà sempre un processo altamente personale e individuale. Come la preghiera, è un’azione che facciamo sia per noi stessi che da soli. Siamo alla presenza di Dio ma nessun altro può vedere o ascoltare il nostro monologo interiore.

Eppure questo è un processo che viene potenziato dalla comunità. Siamo tutti tra coloro che stanno pregando o riflettendo o confessando o implorando o negando o evitando il lavoro di questa stagione. Altri camminano al nostro fianco proprio come altri hanno già percorso questi sentieri e altri ancora li percorreranno molto dopo il nostro tempo. Questo processo altamente personale e individuale di tefillà e teshuvà dipende per il suo successo dal sostegno della comunità che ci circonda. La spinta alla riflessione che è incorporata nella nostra liturgia e nel nostro calendario è amplificata dalle azioni della comunità. Le parole che possiamo dire ad alta voce insieme: ognuno di noi confessa tutto, in modo tale che quelli tra noi che hanno bisogno di dire quelle parole possano farlo nella sicurezza della confessione collettiva. L’attrazione della famiglia o della comunità: chiederci cosa stiamo facendo per le solennità, condividere intuizioni o pasti o persino compiti, leggere suggerimenti per prepararci per gli Yamim Noraim. Ci aiutiamo a vicenda in questo cammino, spesso senza nemmeno essere consapevoli del nostro contributo al bene generale.

            Asher Tzvi Hirsch Ginsberg, meglio conosciuto come il saggista “Achad Ha’Am” (che letteralmente significa “uno del popolo”), fu uno dei fondatori di quello che divenne noto come il sionismo culturale, che confrontò con le teorie dei sionisti politici come Herzl. Lavorò invece per Eretz Yisrael, affinché diventasse un esempio spirituale per gli ebrei nella diaspora, qualcosa che avrebbe riunito gli ebrei di tutto il mondo come un unico popolo con valori e spiritualità condivisi, piuttosto che comunità frammentate: voleva quello che ha chiamò “Un Stato ebraico, e non solo uno Stato per gli ebrei”.

            Scrisse: “L’ebraismo non si è rivolto al cielo e non ha creato in cielo una dimora eterna di anime. Ha trovato la ‘vita eterna’ sulla terra, rafforzando il sentimento sociale nell’individuo, facendogli considerare se stesso non come essere isolato con un’esistenza delimitata dalla nascita e dalla morte, ma come parte di un tutto più ampio. Come membro del corpo sociale… Vivo per il bene dei membri. Muoio per fare spazio a nuovi individui che plasmeranno di nuovo la comunità e non le permetteranno di ristagnare e rimanere per sempre in una posizione. Quando l’individuo valuta così la comunità come propria vita, e aspira alla sua felicità come se fosse il proprio benessere individuale, trova soddisfazione e non sente più così intensamente l’amarezza della propria esistenza individuale, perché vede il fine per cui vivere e soffrire”.

(Achad Ha’Am Asher Hirsch Ginsberg 1856-1927)

            Per Achad Ha’Am far parte della comunità dà un senso alle nostre vite. Sebbene lui stesso fosse laico, parla dai testi fondamentali dell’ebraismo: siamo prima di tutto “Am Yisrael”, un popolo [chiamato] Israele.

            La parola Am עם si trova centinaia se non migliaia di volte nella Bibbia ebraica. È usata per indicare una nazione o un gruppo di persone, sebbene abbia un significato secondario di “relazione/parente”. Sia la radice ebraica che il suo affine arabo sembrano aver avuto un significato originale di “padre” o “famiglia del padre”, poi successivamente esteso a “parente” o “clan” e infine a “nazione”. La radice עמם da cui deriva significa anche “unire, connettere”, da essa proviene anche la parola im עם che significa “con”.

            Impariamo in Mishnah Avot 2:5 che Hillel ha insegnato “non separarti dalla comunità”: sia nelle sue celebrazioni che nelle sue difficoltà siamo parte di questo gruppo. Questo è anche il motivo per cui preghiamo insieme, tradizionalmente alcune delle nostre liturgie richiedono di formare una comunità prima di poter pregare perché i rabbini insegnavano che “perché quando uno prega da solo, può chiedere cose che sono dannose per alcuni. Ma la comunità prega solo per cose che giovano a tutti. Una canna da sola si spezza facilmente, ma un fascio di canne che stanno insieme non può essere spezzato nemmeno dai venti più forti”.

            La comunità è al centro dell’ebraismo. Il popolo ebraico è la nostra identità generale: che ci consideriamo religiosi o laici, ashkenaziti, sefarditi o Italki, credenti in Dio o scettici, riformati, ortodossi o masortì, è il popolo ebraico che ci lega, la comunità ebraica è la struttura con cui esistiamo in simbiosi, che creiamo ovunque andiamo e che in cambio ci sostiene.

            Penso che tutti noi conosciamo lo slogan (o è una preghiera?) “Am Yisrael Chai”. Sebbene non sia chiaro da dove abbia avuto origine questa frase, una registrazione degli ebrei liberati dal campo di concentramento di Bergen Belsen che cantavano “Hatikvà” nell’aprile 1945 contiene anche la voce del rabbino Leslie Hardman, primo cappellano ebreo dell’esercito britannico ad entrare in quel campo due giorni dopo la liberazione, che grida “Am Yisrael Chai” nel silenzio che segue l’Hatikvà. Era una sfida, una preghiera, una dichiarazione di intenti racchiusa in tre brevi parole. Leslie Hardman ha supervisionato la sepoltura di oltre ventimila vittime nel campo, cercando di dare loro la dignità nella morte che era stata così mancante nella vita e dicendo il kaddish sulle fosse comuni. Ha circonciso i bambini che erano nati nel campo, ha persino organizzato il matrimonio di una sopravvissuta con un soldato britannico: era determinato, di fronte a tanta morte e orrore, a far sì che Am Yisrael Chai, il popolo di Israele, continuasse a vivere. Ha continuato a servire le comunità ebraiche e ha lasciato un’impressione duratura su molti che lo conoscevano. Persino oggi incontro occasionalmente persone che verso la fine della loro vita vogliono riconnettersi con la loro ebraicità e che mi dicono “ho fatto il bar mitzvà con Leslie Hardman!”

            Il potere della comunità e il potere delle persone che credono nella comunità è immenso.

            Ovunque guardiamo nell’ebraismo vediamo l’imperativo della comunità. Tra poche settimane celebreremo Sukkot e utilizzeremo le arba’a minim, le Quattro Specie, nei nostri servizi. C’è un famoso midrash su questo oggetto rituale: insieme queste diverse piante rappresentano la pienezza e la diversità di ogni comunità ebraica. “Come l’etrog ha gusto e fragranza, la palma ha sapore ma non fragranza, il mirto ha fragranza ma non ha sapore e il salice non ha né sapore né fragranza, così alcuni ebrei hanno istruzione e buone azioni, alcuni sono dotti ma non compiono atti, alcuni compiono atti ma senza nessun apprendimento, e per alcuni non vi sono né apprendimento né azioni”. Dice l’Eterno: “Siano legati tutti insieme ed espieranno l’uno per l’altro” (Midrash Levitico Rabbà)

            Tutti insieme possiamo aiutarci a vicenda per espiare, ma non solo: insieme ci aiutiamo a vicenda a crescere, a vivere, a prosperare. Al centro della nostra Torà c’è l’ingiunzione di amare il nostro prossimo come amiamo noi stessi. Come scrive Israel Salanter (1810 – 1883): “La Torà esige che cerchiamo ciò che è meglio per i nostri simili: non reprimendo il nostro odio o rifiuto nei loro confronti, né amandoli per senso del dovere, perché questo non è un vero amore. Dovremmo semplicemente amare il nostro prossimo come amiamo noi stessi. Non ci amiamo perché siamo esseri umani, ma il nostro amor proprio ci viene naturale senza calcoli, limiti o obiettivi. A qualcuno non verrebbe mai in mente di dire ‘Ho già adempiuto al mio obbligo verso me stesso!’ Allo stesso modo dovremmo amare i nostri simili in modo naturale e spontaneo, con gioia e piacere, senza limiti, scopi o razionalizzazioni”.

            Nel racconto popolare con cui ho iniziato, c’è l’immagine figurata del contributo che ognuno di noi dà per rendere la nostra comunità più luminosa e felice, solidale e stimolante, più calorosa e gentile.

            Oggi potremmo avere l’elettricità per illuminare la nostra sinagoga, ma contiamo ancora su ognuno di voi per portare la propria luce in un modo diverso. Quando venite a far parte della comunità in preghiera o in studio, venite a condividere simchà e dolori, quando vi unite al canto o alla preghiera, quando vi proteggete e vi avvolgete l’un l’altro sotto il tallit per la benedizione di nesiat kapayim, allora la nostra sinagoga è piena di luce e di calore. E quando ve ne siete andati, tutto sembra un po’ più oscuro perché non siete qui. Lo stesso vale in ogni comunità a cui prendete parte.

            E quindi preghiamo, all’inizio di questo nuovo anno, che le nostre luci splendano brillanti, così le porteremo a condividerle tra tutti, e coloro con cui ci uniamo in comunità, anche se solo per un breve periodo, saranno benedetti dalla nostra luce e calore.

            E preghiamo anche che, come quegli abitanti del villaggio di tanto tempo fa, porteremo le nostre luci con noi ovunque andremo, e che troveremo i posti dove fissare le nostre luci e farle risplendere e riscaldare la nostra comunità.

            Nelle parole della benedizione di Nesiat Kapayim: “ya’er Adonai panav elecha” –  

”possa il volto di Dio risplendere su di te”; E, nel vernacolo della comunità ebraica: possa ognuno di noi rappresentare il volto di Dio l’uno per l’altro, uniamoci alle nostre comunità e offriamo noi stessi per illuminare la vita gli uni degli altri quando e come possiamo.

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

A Tree of Life – and life giving trees: Tu b’Shevat

“One day Choni the circle maker was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree; he asked him, How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit? The man replied: Seventy years. He then further asked him: Are you certain that you will live another seventy years? The man replied: I found [ready-grown] carob trees in the world; as my ancestors planted these for me so I too plant these for my children”.            ( Talmud Bavli: Taanit 23a)

Trees are deeply important in our tradition, and also have their own relationship with God. They are prominent in our texts – mentioned at the Creation, vital to the narrative in the Garden of Eden; the Hebrew word for tree appears in the bible over 150 times and more than 100 different kinds of trees, shrubs and plants are named. The Mishnah follows suit, naming hundreds more plants in its legal codification. In all more than 500 different plants are named in our traditional texts.  Trees are a signifier of the connection the Jews have with the land, and reflect the relationship that we have with the Land of Israel – Moses repeatedly reminds us that we must care for the land and treat it well, and not only land but people – otherwise we will be driven out from there as other nations apparently were before us.  

Trees have a special place in how we create awareness of God. For they are not only part of the natural world, they are also used repeatedly in our texts as a metaphor for humanity, for life, for reaching upwards to God and rooting the self in the world.  Trees symbolise so much, they have a quasi-divine element, a quasi-human element. They feed us, they provide shelter, they bridge the generations, and they act as a bellwether for our moral state.

We read in Deuteronomy “ When you will besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy the trees by wielding an axe against them; you may eat of them, but you shall not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged by you? (20:19)

This image, comparing the fruit tree to human beings, powerfully reminds us of the damage that can be inflicted in a war between people, and in obliging us to protect the trees reminds us of what we have in common with them. If we should not cut down the fruit bearing tree, how much more so should we consider the safety of the people being besieged?

We are about to celebrate the festival of Tu b’Shevat – the fifteenth day of the month Shevat. Originally Tu b’Shevat was simply the way by which the age of trees was measured for purpose of tithing and of orlah (the first three years when the fruit was considered strictly God’s property and not to be eaten by anyone). In effect it marks the boundary of a tax year.

After the destruction of the second Temple in the year 70CE the taking of tithes from fruit trees fell into disuse, but the date remained special in our calendars. The Mishnah recorded four new years  and their dates: – Rosh Hashanah le’ilanot (Tu b’Shevat) for trees, Rosh Hashanah for years, Rosh Hashanah lema’aser behemah for tithing animals, and Rosh Hashanah le’mel’achim for counting the years of a king’s reign.

The date of Tu b’Shevat has stayed in our calendar throughout the time we were without our land, celebrated and noted by communities all over the world. The Kabbalists of Sfat in the 16th and 17th century developed a ritual – the Tu b’Shevat Seder – to represent our connection to the land of Israel and also to reflect the mystical concept of God’s relationship with our world being like a tree.  The Seder consisted of eating the different types of traditional fruits grown in Israel and connecting the different types of these fruit with each the Four Worlds of Kabbalistic theology, drinking four cups of wine that were each mixed with different proportions of wine with each cup of wine symbolizing one of the four seasons, and reading texts about trees.

The mystics understand Tu B’Shevat as being the day when the Tree of Life renews the flow of life to the universe.  And they taught that by offering blessings on Tu B’Shevat, a person can help in the healing of the world. From this came the belief that since on Tu B’Shevat we offer a blessing for each fruit before we consume it, the more fruits we eat, the more blessings we can offer to help heal the world.

In more modern times Tu b’Shevat has been a gift to the Zionist movement and the return to the Land. They have used it as an opportunity to plant trees in Israel as a way of transforming  the land, as well as re-attaching ourselves to the physical Land of Israel. And most recently the Jewish ecological movements have adopted the day to remind us in  powerful messages of our obligation to care for the environment.

All these themes bound up in Tu b’Shevat are important and helpful to our own Jewish identity and spirituality. There is an overarching theme of healing the world through our connections with nature, of the importance and symbiosis of our relationship with the natural world. And in our relationship with nature, we express our relationship with God. Caring for our world is a sacred task. As we read in Proverbs (3:18)

עֵץ־חַיִּ֣ים הִ֭יא לַמַּחֲזִיקִ֣ים בָּ֑הּ וְֽתֹמְכֶ֥יהָ מְאֻשָּֽׁר׃ 

[Wisdom] is a tree of life to those who grasp her, And whoever holds on to her is happy.

Our tradition asks: “How can a person of flesh and blood follow God? … God, from the very beginning of creation, was occupied before all else with planting.  Therefore … occupy yourselves first and foremost with planting.  – Midrash: Leviticus Rabbah 25:3

It reminds us that  “If you have a sapling in your hand and people tell you that the Messiah has come, plant the sapling and then go and greet him” (Avot de Rabbi Natan)

Yom Kippur Morning 2021: Sermon Lev Chadash Milano

In “the Mirror and the Light”, the finale to Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell, she has him say while contemplating his own diminished future “We are all dying, just at different speeds”

Yom Kippur is a day that reminds us not only to consider how we are living our lives in the light of our values and hopes, but it speaks to us of our own mortality – it is a day out of time, a day we travel through as if dead, with no food or water, no ordinary business to transact etc. Yom Kippur is a dress rehearsal for death.

To be clear. We are not supposed to feel dead in the sense that we might feel nothing, or no longer care for the things of this world; rather we can take twenty five hours where we subsume the wants or desires of the body into the perspectives and expression of the soul.

As close as we can be, we become disembodied. We pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that are usually drowned out in the busy-ness of everyday living. The tradition is that we wear white – the colour of purity. Many of us wear a kittel – quite literally the shrouds that will wrap our bodies in the coffin. We are practising a death of the body in order to free the life of the mind or the soul.

Judaism is famously a religion of life. We toast each other “Le’chaim” – to Life! We focus on our actions in this world, and leave unexamined what may happen beyond this world. But we build into our practise this one extraordinary day when we rehearse our dying, in order to understand our world a little differently.

The point of Yom Kippur is not to remind us that we are mortal, that, as Mantel says we are all dying, just at different speeds. It is to remind us to think about how we are living our lives – specifically how are we living them in relation to the teachings and expectations of our traditions.

Rabbi Eliezer famously taught that one should: “Repent one day before your death.” So his disciples asked him: “Does a person know which day he will die?” Rabbi Eliezer responded: “Certainly, then, a person should repent today, for perhaps tomorrow he will die—so that all his days he is repenting.” (Talmud, Shabbat 153a)

In my work as a hospice chaplain I recently had a long conversation with a patient, a strict Catholic woman, who was terrified that she might not die in a state of grace, and that if she was not entirely absolved of her sins she would not be allowed to enter heaven. I was so perturbed by her distress and her certainty that the gates of heaven might be still closed against her even though she had made her final confession, received full absolution from her priest, and had had no obvious opportunity for further sinning given the frailty of her health, that I rang her priest to see what else could be done. There was nothing more to do, he told me, it was all in the hands of God.

It got me thinking back to Rabbi Eliezer. He is not talking about dying in a state of grace, not suggesting that we need to get our timing right so that we die shortly after repenting our sins. He is talking of being in a continuing state of teshuvah, not so much its colloquial meaning of “repentance” as its real meaning – “returning” or “turning towards God”. Eliezer is not terribly interested in the purity of our souls at any given moment, but in the fact of our being engaged in some kind of understanding of our purpose in this world, some kind of intention and action towards making ourselves and our worlds a better place.

Taking a day away from our routine, blocking it off in our diaries and using it for introspection and for the evaluation of our lives in the light of the values and teachings and the expectations of our tradition is a valuable and important activity. Doing it from within our community with a liturgy that provides a map for our journey of return is a supportive and sustaining factor in the day. Knowing that across the world Jews are coming together in real meetings and these days in virtual communities too, gives us the strength to keep going during the times when the prayers seem endless or pointless or inappropriate or trivial.  A day set aside in order to consciously attempt teshuvah, turning ourselves and our lives around in search of meaning, in search of God, is a gift to ourselves, the gift of time and of space to hear the needs of our souls which have so often been ignored or silenced in our quest for material success or even just to get through the daily routines we must complete.

When Rabbi Eliezer tells us to repent one day before the day of our death this is not a rhetorical flourish, but a reminder of the value of our lives. He is not suggesting that we live each day as if it were our last, cramming in all the things we might like to have done as we tick off as much as we can from our bucket list,  or fearful of a coming darkness and doom. He is saying we should live each day as well as we can, maybe not procrastinate so much, maybe say the words that need to be communicated to others, maybe enjoy the moment of sunshine playing on our skin or watch the clouds scooting across a beautiful sky. He is reminding us that each day we live we should strive for the understanding that this day is unique, it is providing us with an opportunity that may not return on another day to do the things that this day makes possible. How do we turn towards God today? How will we demonstrate our love for the Divine in our behaviour towards other human beings? And how will the choices I make today shape me and my relationships in the world? Am I making sure to appreciate what each day offers, to acknowledge the blessings in my life, to show that appreciation in my actions?

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said that “if you are not a better person tomorrow than you are today, what need do you have for a tomorrow?”

Each day we try to work on ourselves, try – in the words of the prayer – to bend our will to do God’s will.

The work of the day of Yom Kippur can be done on any day, it is simply helpful for us to block out the time to do it together with our community. And the day of Yom Kippur is not just one of prayer and of teshuvah, not only about atonement and about considering our lives from the outside as if we are dead.  It is a day that signifies the endless possibility of rebirth. The sound of the shofar at the end of the service is the cry of the reborn, it is our signal to go back into the world refreshed and renewed to do the work we are here to do.

There is a famous inspirational quote found on many a social media site “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” – and essentially that is what Yom Kippur is also helping us to understand and enact. But never forget, that if today doesn’t work out, there is also tomorrow, and the day after that.  

But don’t wait too long. Live every day searching for teshuva, for closeness with God, for aligning our will with God’s will, and then when the day of our death finally comes we will be able to say that we tried to live as fully as we could, we have no more need of a tomorrow.

15th Elul: Which God do you not believe in?

Elul 15 23rd August

A discussion among my colleagues – “What does one say when someone says to you “Rabbi, I don’t believe in God””

One answer – “I always ask them which God they don’t believe in”.

My teacher Rabbi Dr Jonathan Magonet used to bemoan the fact that so many Jews give up serious Jewish education at bar/bat mitzvah. They had, he used to say, a thirteen year old god. And as they grew and matured, their idea of God was frozen in time, adolescent and unbelievable.

Jews are the people of Israel – literally the ones who struggle with God. We are not required (despite the Maimonidean doctrine) to believe in God. Indeed earliest rabbinic Judaism was not so much interested in what people believed about divinity, but talked instead about shared narratives. Slightly later we have the extraordinary rabbinic midrash on the verse in Jeremiah (16:11) “They have forsaken Me and not kept my Torah”   – “If only they had forsaken Me but kept my Torah!” (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 5-7th Century)

Rabbinic Judaism is far more interested in how people behave, in the keeping of mitzvot, in action rather than in belief.

Since the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai on the way from slavery in Egypt to freedom in their ancestral land, Jews are a people who are commanded – who are under a chiyyuv, and obligation – and whose live are traditionally framed by the observance of mitzvot.

Of course the idea of commandments does somewhere require there to be a commander, but while we may have an historic metzaveh in our texts, the doing of mitzvot is in and of itself integral to our religious life. So for example Rabbi David Polish wrote that “When a Jew performs one of the many life acts known as mitzvot to remind themselves of the moments of encounter, what was only episodic becomes epochal, what was only a moment in Jewish history becomes eternal in Jewish life”[i]  His examples of the lighting of shabbat candles or of sitting at a Pesach seder are some of the examples he gives of our connecting with Jews across the world and across time.  The meaning and purpose of mitzvah for him is in part a way of sharing history and experiences across Jewish people hood, something that strengthens us in the world, and that momentarily allows us to transcend the mundane into the spiritual. 

There are many rabbinic names and descriptors for God. There are ways of understanding God not as a noun but as a verb – we are not tied to a thirteen year old god, some kind of supernatural being to whom we have to speak in stilted and formalised language. My very favourite name for God is “haMakom” – literally “the place”. Not a geographical location but a space where things can happen.

Israel – Jews – are named for struggling with God. Struggling with the ideas, the ethical demands, the behaviours that are required of us to be in covenant with God. The struggle is ongoing. If you find it hard to believe in the God of your childhood, then it is up to you to search the texts and find God with whom you can have a dialogue.


[i] ” Gates of Mitzvah: A Guide to the Jewish Life Cycle, ed. Simeon J. Maslin [New York: CCAR Press, 1979]

5th Elul – auditing the ethical accounts

Elul 5 13th August 2021

Elul is the time for us to do cheshbon nefesh, the accounting of our soul. The language is curious – it feels more like the language of commerce than that of spirituality.  Yet the tradition is replete with such language and metaphor for our spiritual cleansing.

In Pirkei Avot we read “Rabbi (Judah haNasi) said: which is the straight path that a person should choose for themself? One which is an honour to the person adopting it, and [on account of which] honour [accrues] to him from others. And be careful with a light commandment as with a grave one, for you do know not the reward for the fulfilment of the commandments. Also, reckon the loss [that may be sustained through the fulfilment] of a commandment against the reward [accruing] thereby, and the gain [that may be obtained through the committing] of a transgression against the loss [entailed] thereby. Apply your mind to three things and you will not come into the clutches of sin: Know what there is above you: an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all your deeds are written in a book.” (2:1)

There is a clear sense that our lives become balance sheets, with credit and debit columns that can be examined and checked against us.  Spiritually we can both make profits and losses.

So with this metaphor in mind, Elul is the time for us to look at the balance sheets and make a plan so that next year we will look more spiritually solvent.

What will bring us honour and what will only bring us satisfaction? When we choose our path through the next year, tradition reminds us that there are bigger needs than our own immediate gratification. At some point there will be a reckoning – better to have the annual audit and make our adjustments gradually towards a more honourable life.

For after all, as we also find in Avot (2:15) “The day is short and the work is great, the workers are lazy and the reward is great and the Ruler of the House is insistent”

4th Elul – holy texts holy people

Elul 4 12th August

On this day in 1553 Pope Julius the third ordered the confiscation and burning of the Talmud.

‘Once these books are removed,’ an advisor to the Roman Inquisition had written, ‘it will soon be that the more that they are without the wisdom of their rabbis, so much more will they be prepared and disposed to receive the Christian faith and,’ what he calls, ‘the wisdom of the word of God.’

The Inquisitors confiscated every copy of the Talmud in Italy; On Rosh Hashanah 5314 (9 September 1553), that the Talmud and many other Jewish books were burnt in the Campo dei Fiori in Rome.

On 12 September 1553 another papal decree was issued, demanding that all copies of the Talmud throughout the Catholic world be gathered and destroyed. In Venice – then the world centre of Hebrew printing  – the order was interpreted to include other Jewish books as well. On Saturday, 21 October 1553 , 3rd Cheshvan 5314 all  the books gathered were burned in Piazza San Marco.

Other Hebrew books were burned in 1568 in Venice.

Throughout the remainder of the sixteenth-century, a complete edition of the Talmud could not be found anywhere in the region.

Later, the printing of Hebrew books was permitted once more, but under censorship. They were checked and licenced by the authorities (licenza dei Superiori)  whose imprimatur can be found in all Hebrew texts printed in Venice from the second half of the 16th century onwards.

The Talmud is the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and studying it has shaped Jewish thinking. Those of us who have read a page a day (daf yomi) for the seven and a half years it takes to complete the books  will attest to a change in how the world is perceived. Yet the ideas of a people do not only reside on the printed page, and the burning of their books did not destroy the Jewish people.

Judaism resides in the spirit of the Jewish people. Ideas may be suppressed, people may be martyred, but as Leo Baeck wrote centuries later “A people only dies when its spirit dies”.

On the plaque recording the great burning in Rome there are two quotations. One from the Talmudic story of the martyrdom of Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradion, who, wrapped in a burning torah scroll called out “The parchment is burning but the letters fly up to heaven”, the second from the lamentation Sha’ali Serufah ba-Esh, a kinah by Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, written in the 13th century after the Disputation of Paris led to the destruction of almost every copy of the Talmud in Europe. The question is directed at the Torah, how can the text given in holy fire be destroyed in worldly fire?  “My question, burned in the fire, about the welfare of mourners” (Sha’ali Serufah ba’Esh, leshalom avelai’ich”

For all that study of our texts has sustained and nourished us, informed and shaped our thinking, allowed us to express our reality and pursue ideas to their sometimes extraordinary conclusions, the texts themselves repeatedly tell us that it is the ideas they embody rather then the physical artefacts that matter. What is given in holy fire cannot be destroyed in worldly fire. It is our interaction and engagement with the ideas of Judaism that keeps our spirit alive, and keeps our people alive.

This coming week, month, year find some texts and engage with them. It can be bible or siddur, Talmud or commentary. Let yourself be touched and changed, discover for yourselves the holy fire.

Rosh Chodesh Elul

1st Elul  2021 Rosh Hashanah Le’ma’aseir Behema    9th August

Mishnah tells us there are four New Years, and the 1st of Elul is the New Year for the accounting purposes of tithing domestic animals.

While this is a date for a Temple practise and therefore has no practical significance today, the date has been glossed in order to publicise the Jewish value of Tza‘ar Ba’alei Hayim  – of preventing the suffering of animals.

The phrase originates in a Talmudic discussion about the treatment of domestic beasts, their loading and the conditions they must work under (BT Bava Metzia 32b).

Hebrew uses a number of words for animals – in Genesis animals, like humans are “Nefesh Chaya” – living souls. Biblically we see behema/ot are domesticated animals, Chaya (literally “alive” the word for wild animals (in modern Hebrew the generic word for animals, while wild animals are chayat bar, animals of the wild). But this  Talmudic  phrase Ba’alei Hayim not only recognises that animals are living, but that they are quite literally the masters or owners of life.

What does it mean to be an owner of life? And how does seeing our domestic animals as such figures influence how we think of them and treat them?

Judaism generally treats God as the Owner of Life – the One who gives and takes away life. We read in Talmud (Berachot 60b) the prayer familiar to all who read the morning service, the Elohai Neshama…:

When one awakens, one recites:
My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure.
You formed it within me,
You breathed it into me,
and You guard it while it is within me.
One day You will take it from me and restore it within me in the time to come.
As long as the soul is within me, I thank You,
O Eternal my God and God of my ancestors, Master of all worlds, Possessor of all souls.
Blessed are You, O Eternal who restores souls to lifeless bodies.

While it is clear that the Talmudic phrase “Ba’alei Chayim” is referencing animals that are in the service of human activity, it uses a lens we frequently ignore or even deny. Animals, even those who work for us or are farmed and herded in order to provide food for us, have a level of existence and meaning that also reflects the Creator of Life. We humans may have accorded ourselves the highest level in the creation story, the ones who name the animals and who will use them for our own benefit, but animal life too is important and has a spark of divine force, and it is not enough simply to avoid unnecessary cruelty.

Talmud tells us (BTBava Metzia 85a) “Once a calf being led to slaughter thrust its head into the skirts of Rabbi [Yehudah HaNasi]’s robe and began to bleat plaintively. “Go,” he said, “for this is why you were created.” Because he spoke without compassion, he was afflicted [at the hand of Heaven].(the midrash tells us he suffered toothache for 13 years)

Then one day, his maidservant was cleaning his house and came upon some young weasels. She was about to chase them away with a broom, when Rabbi Yehudah said to her, “Let them be, for it is written: ‘God’s tender mercies are upon all God’s works'” (Psalms 145:9). They said [in Heaven], “Since he is merciful, let him be treated with mercy.” [Thereafter, his pain ceased.]

This day, Rosh Chodesh Elul, is the day to consider the value of Tza’ar Ba’alei Hayim and ask ourselves, how do we value Creation in our daily lives.

Tetzaveh:

The interface between God and human beings is fraught with potential both creative and destructive. It is uncharted territory where we wander, sometimes alone and sometimes with companions and while we might pay attention to the stories told by those who have more recently gone before us, our constant and most useful guide is Torah.

Torah teaches us the boundaries others have met, the pathways our predecessors have taken, gives us a glimpse into what we might be looking out for.

To some extent, we could call Torah a manual for those who wish to undertake a spiritual journey. But it is a limited manual. It offers no guarantees about reaching the desired destination, it offers some advice sketches out some road signs and extends the hope that as others have done, then so maybe can I.

This limited manual can be a great comfort, but it also creates many problems for us. We have a desire to know “how to do it”, we want to be told that if we behave in a certain way we will reach such-and-such a place. We often want to have concrete guidelines like all those recipe books and television programmes that state very clearly “if you follow my instructions you will have a perfect cake every time”. Increasingly I am asked how to do something or is something allowed or forbidden, not out of curiosity and a genuine need to explore, but because people are seeing religion as the repository of the skills needed to achieve – or rather they are seeing rabbis and priests as the people who hold the secret and can either open or close the door to God.

There is a second problem in modernity – we have forgotten how religious language works, we are so goal centred we pay too little attention to the process, we have lost understanding of symbolic language and our sensitivity to metaphor and allegory is blunted in our need for certainty. The chain of tradition in which generations told the stories they had heard from their ancestors and fed their descendants with the ‘hiddushim’ the innovations they had found, has been disrupted and dislocated. The multiple varieties of ways to understand the torah text that can be seen in Midrash, in the aggadic texts recorded in Talmud, in the rabbinic commentaries on bible and on each others works – they might be recorded but their meaning is often either misunderstood or completely lost.

I am not talking here about the knowledge of Hebrew – indeed there are certainly many more people fluent in the language alive now than ever before – but rather about the understanding of religious process, of symbols and thought processes and of whole concepts that unspokenly underpinned the midrashic and aggadic texts .

Rather than admit to ourselves that our understanding is weakened, it seems to me that we have created structures that make sense to our modern minds and our need to know the recipes, and we try to ignore or dismiss the rest of our tradition as being archaic or irrelevant or magical thinking.

So how does one get back into the living meaning of Torah in order to be able to delve deeper into our spiritual search and come closer to the God who revealed Godself with such clarity to our ancestors that it seemed they were meeting almost face to face.

One way certainly is through studying the Hebrew text, examining the original words both with and without the overlay of rabbinic commentaries in order to reveal the clusters of meanings that are embedded in those words.

Another way is to personalise the text, to find its echoes resonating within our own souls and to extend the meanings into our own experience.

In traditional rabbinic exegesis, these two methods go hand in hand, creating a dynamic and relevant understanding of Torah, to help us use the ‘guide book’ in our own spiritual journey.

Sidra Tetzaveh is, on the surface, a continuation of the instructions about the Mishkan, the physical structure erected by the Israelites in the desert as a constant symbol and reminder of the presence of God.  There are instructions about the building followed by the details of the priestly garments, the anointing of the priests and the offerings they are to bring.

The challenge is to find the relevance to us – progressive Jews who have given up the special status of the Cohanim, who have a real revulsion against animal sacrifice, who have expunged the prayers for its return and for the return of the Temple with all of its offerings, hierarchies and structures from our prayer books.

The relevance to us can be found once we begin to look past the minutiae of the detail of the ritual and let the text speak to us. We are dealing here with the creation of symbols that speak of the presence of God and of the boundaries that will prevent us from getting too close to a power that could overwhelm us so that we lose our own self. We are looking at creating a conduit, to find ways to relate to God. And this is an age old problem every generation must address.

In Sidra Tetzaveh we see the making of a structure that will operate through time and space, connecting the outer world and the inner one, involving both action and prayer, uniting us as one people while at the same time connecting each one to God. It was a structure for its time, one we can hardly comprehend, yet we continue to read it because it has things to teach us still.

The verse which begins the sidra “v’ata tetzaveh et b’nei Yisrael, v’yikhu elecha shemen zayit zach katit l’maor leha’a lot ner tamid”  You shall command the children of Israel that they will bring pure beaten olive oil for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually” is an important one for us. Each of us has a responsibility to keep alight a ner tamid, a continually burning light. Each of us has the responsibility to do it for ourselves, to keep a spark alive in our own souls and our own lives.

The ner tamid in a synagogue is usually explained as being a symbol of the continuing presence of God, and we have taken the idea of externalising it by having one in every synagogue, hanging over the Ark. A light is kept burning in every synagogue to be an outward sign of the light that is burning in every Jewish soul.

Sometimes the symbolism can take on a new and even painful dimension – I remember hearing a survivor of the Shoah, Hilda Schindler, describe how after Kristallnacht in Berlin she saw the ner tamid of the Fasanenstrasse Synabobe burning brightly on the ground.

There are other symbols in this sidra – the anointing and ordaining of the priesthood whose special task is to take care of the boundaries between the Jews and God, and whose economic and functional dependence on the Israelites only points up their special task rather than diminish it – a task that we now have in our own homes and study houses. There is the focus on the garments of the High Priest, on which we model the clothes for the Sefer Torah, and so once again remind ourselves that people and objects can function at the interface of God and humanity.

Our texts speak in many languages in order to make their meaning available to us. It is improper of us to try to distil down the lessons, to accept that there is only one accepted meaning that is taught by someone else and should not be challenged. The beauty of traditional Judaism and the beauty of contemporary progressive Judaism is that we have refused to join in the process of passively accepting the judgements of others.

My first synagogue President, Mervin Elliot z”l used to say that for us Reform Jews tradition had a vote but not a veto. I liked the pithiness of the language when I first heard it,  but now some thirty years later I appreciate more the acceptance of the past and the willingness to explore the present and the future that is embedded in it.

When we come across texts like those in Tetzaveh we can either treat them like a manual or recipe book, decide that those people who are descendants of the Cohanim must have some special power and role that we cannot decipher, and walk away from the challenges of how we build the bridges and the protective structures whereby we can come close to God in this day and age. Or we can take up the challenge, see a product of its time have something that can speak to us today, transmuted perhaps or extended or even echoed, and create the Judaism that does the same work today that the mishkan and priesthood did in biblical times.  We can remind ourselves that we are supposed to be (as we read only a few chapters earlier) “a nation of priests and a holy nation”. Each of us can take on the role, keep alight the ner tamid in our own places and lives, and find that each of us has something to teach, each of us has something to offer the community, each of us protects and nurtures the spark of divine in the world.

(sermon given 2017 lev chadash)

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.

 

Sermon for Yom Kippur Shacharit: ki vayom hazeh – on this day

Ki vayom hazeh y’chaper aley’hem, le’taher et’chem; mikol hatotey’chem lifnei adonai tit’haru. (For on this day atonement will be made for you to cleanse you, of all your sins before God, you shall be cleansed”  (Lev 16:30)

On Yom Kippur, when the High Priest entered the inner Temple, dressed in special robes and breastplate, the priestly garments including the frontlets on his head, the vestments of fine white linen, he would repeat this biblical verse in each of the three confessions he made.  And the people would crowd around outside in the temple courtyard, listening hard, and when they heard the the glorious and awesome four letter name of God we write as yod hey vav hey, the name which would be uttered only by the High Priest, only within the Holy of Holies, only on Yom Kippur, only as part of the confession ritual, then they would bow down with their faces to the ground and respond with the blessing of God’s name. This annual ritual of confession and sacrifice was a dangerous one, surrounded by mystery, perfumed by the incense, veiled from the community.  Tension mounted as the confessions grew, as the animals were sacrificed and the hopes pinned upon them being favourably received reached some form of expression.

My sympathies have always been with the high priest, upon whose shoulders rested the burden of so much expectation.  The fate of the whole people seems to have been given over to this one man on this one day – so he had better get it right.   The ritual was complicated, the choreography of washing and changing clothes, of sacrifice and prayer awesomely elaborate,  the consequences of making a mistake unthinkable.  We don’t know much from either biblical sources or first temple texts, but by the time of the Second Temple the Day for Atonement was focussed on the actions and intentions of the High Priest, and the role of the people was to listen, to be awe-struck, and to hope that he got it right.

That was then, but since the Temple days Yom Kippur has developed a different set of rituals, and while we re-enact part of the Avodah, the temple service of Yom Kippur, during the mussaf service, experiencing just the echo of the thrilling gravity and overwhelming power of that ceremony, our own liturgy and imagery takes us to a different  religious place.  Yom Kippur is no longer the Day for Atonement for the people Israel, it is by far a more personal and individual experience for we children of modern times.  The High Priest has long gone, the sacrificial system consigned to a stage post in history that no longer speaks to us of religious action, and the corporate nature of the people Israel has been changed as we have become a different category altogether – Jews, and while we consistently create community we see ourselves in the main as individuals, individual Jews.

The structure of the ritual and the philosophical underpinnings of the day have undergone a radical transformation, and so, I would posit, has the meaning of what Yom haKippurim means to us.  While we still translate this obscure name using the invented composite word ‘at-one’, we have changed both meaning and purpose of the day for our own spiritual needs.  I would even go so far as to say that the day is not really about sin and atonement any more – how would we even define those terms today? – but that Yom Kippur for us is about something quite other –  Time. Yom Kippur is about our use of time, about our location in time – it is in particular a day for us to focus on our own mortality.

Interspersed in our machzor with the major themes of sin and repentance, of forgiveness and atonement, we hear the insistently repeated motif of life and death. We talk for example about the Book of Life, we read the Martyrology, we recite a service of Yizkor, our traditional clothing for this day is to wear shrouds and we are called to abstain from the physical  pleasures of living, eating, drinking or washing.  We take a day right out of time and act as if the world outside is irrelevant to us, as if we are, for the moment, temporarily dead.

What message do we take from the prayers and texts as we sit through Yom Kippur.  It is probably true that we examine our lives and find our behaviour wanting.  It is probably the case that we make our stumbling attempts towards recognising and harnessing our own spirituality, yearning as we do for a sense of meaning, for a firm belief in a greater being.  It may well be that we feel momentarily inspired to change some part of our lives, or that we experience the satisfying of a need for connectedness which tends to be submerged during the busy weeks of the rest of our lives.  As the day rolls on, the ancient formulae about sin and loss swirl around us, as do the equally ancient phrases about return and forgiveness.  We know that we are less than perfect and we look for ways to deal with both the knowledge and the reality.   But we cannot retreat into the Yom Kippur of the Temple period and leave the whole religious business to someone else.  The Yom Kippur of our time looks us in the face and says – you are mortal, you only have a limited time on this earth – and you do not even know how limited it may be – so what are you going to do about your life?

Yom Kippur is no longer a day simply of general and ritual atonement. It is a day for us to restructure our lives, to reconcile our realities with our requirements.  Loud and clear through the prayers comes the reminder – we are mortal, we, and those around us do not have all the time in the world, and so if there are things we want to do, we should be planning to do them now, if there are things we need to change, we should be arranging to change them now, if there are things we want to say, we should be saying them now.

Nothing is so precious as time, nothing is so consistently abused. We waste time, we kill time, we fill in time – rarely do we actually use time appropriately.  Yet our tradition has been able to transform a day of communal awe and professional ritual activity, and give it to us in a new form – personal time for us to spend reconciling and reconstructing the lives we are living with the lives we already know we could be living.

As a community rabbi I have sat and listened so many times to the laments which begin ‘if only’, I have witnessed the rapprochements which have sometimes come too late, I have heard the stories of fractured relationships which have entailed years of lost possibilities;  I have met broygas individuals (note for translater – people who have taken offence)  who are determined that the other person should make the first move towards reconciliation – sometimes about an argument the reason for which is lost in history.  We don’t tend to use the word ‘sin’ for such behaviours, but surely to fail to make or maintain relationships in this way is one of the biggest sins we currently commit.   We all live within the constraints of time, we all know what is truly important to do in that time, yet most if not all of us regularly fail to acknowledge that we should be making our priorities so that when the time runs out – be it our own time in this world or the time of a loved one – we have done what was important and responded appropriately, addressing the most meaningful issues of our lives rather than reacting to what is presented as the most urgent.

On the tenth of Tishri the bible tells us to come together as a holy assembly for Yom haKippurim.   It is clearly to be a day of repentance, of hard thinking, of reconciliation and reconstruction of relationship.  We are used to the imagery that reminds us that we are to reconcile and reconstruct our relationship with God, and parts of us are able to do so. And we manage it without the intermediary of the stylised actions of the high priest.  We sit and think and pray, hear the voices inside us as they speak of loss and pain, of comfort and of peace.

But today isn’t only about our working on our relationship with God, it is about using that work and the understanding brought about by such a relationship so that we make substantial changes to our relationships with others.  As Morris Adler wrote:

‘Our prayers are answered not when we are given what we ask, but when we are challenged to be what we can be’ .

Yom Kippur has been many things for we Jews during our history.  The most solemn day of our calendar it is described as ‘shabbat shabbaton’ – the Sabbath of Sabbaths.  There is a tradition that when God had finished creating the world, God created the Sabbath, and scripture tells us “uvayom hash’vee’ee shavat va’yinafash” (Exod. 31:16-17) And on the seventh day God stopped all work and restored his soul.  This word va’yinafash is a strange one – often translated as “God rested” it really means something to do with restoring the soul.  From it comes the idea that on Shabbat we are given an extra soul or measure of soul, with which we can discern and taste the world that is more usually hidden from us, we can experience something outside of normal sensation.  If we have an extra dimension of soul on Shabbat, how much more so on shabbat shabbaton – today, Yom haKippurim?  On shabbat we use it to experience a taste of the world to come, but today we can use it for something else entirely – we can use it to understand more about this world and our place within it.  The liturgy of today reminds us about time, about the fleeting nature of our life in this world, about the end which all of us will face.  Yom Kippur gives us the time and the space to consider our part in our world, gives us the extra measure of soul we need to really consider and construct our lives as we mean to live them.  We have about another seven hours today, and the real world will begin to crowd in once more and drown out the world of prayer and thought we have created.  We do not know how much time we will have after that.  So today let’s face the time and let’s spend it wisely, rather than profligately allowing it to run away.   Who knows how many tomorrows there will be?

“Ki vayom hazeh y’chaper aley’hem, le’taher et’chem; mikol hatotey’chem lifnei adonai tit’haru. (For on this day atonement will be made for you to cleanse you, of all your sins before the lord, you shall be cleansed” says our machzor, quoting the book of Leviticus.  There is no High Priest to do the cleansing, only ourselves and our dedication and our desire, and of course this very special and holy block of time – today.