Rosh Hashanah Sermon – We live in a participatory universe

L’italiano segue l’inglese

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We live in a participatory universe.”

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

(לַיהוָה, הָאָרֶץ וּמְלוֹאָהּ –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermone per Rosh HaShanà           Viviamo in un universo partecipativo

Di Rav Sylvia Rothschild, Lev Chadash Milano 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Viviamo in un universo partecipativo.”

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

לַיהוָה, הָאָרֶץ וּמְלוֹאָהּ –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traduzione di Eva Mangialajo

27 Ellul: From certainty to doubt – the journey of faith that prepares us for the Yamim Noraim via psalm 27

It has become traditional among Ashkenazi Jews to read psalm 27 in the morning and evening prayers from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Hoshanah Rabbah, a custom first mentioned by Jacob Emden in his siddur published 1745. One suggestion for why this psalm became so important to this long period of reflection is the first line – “God is my light and my salvation” which was glossed by the rabbis as referring to Rosh Hashanah (Light) and Yom Kippur (Salvation), and the further reference to the sukkah in verse 5 leads to the extension of the period of reading.

It is an extraordinary psalm, turning on its head the traditional journey of penitential prayer from darkness to light, and instead begins with great confidence before descending into fear and anxiety, and then the psalmist seems to force himself into a more hopeful frame of mind.

The psalm divides into three sections, each with its particular mood and style.  The first six verses show an almost superhuman faith and confidence that God will support the psalmist against whatever comes to try to harm him. But then from verse 7 doubt begins to creep into psalmist’s mind. Beginning by asking God to hear when he calls, he descends into his terror of abandonment – not only by his own parents but by God’s face also being hidden from him. By verse 12 he is fearful, begging  God not to deliver him to his enemies. False witnesses are rising against him, there is the prospect of terrible violence. In this middle section the psalmist speaks directly to God in the second person, unlike the bookended sections where God is spoken of in the third person. And yet, even as he addresses God directly, it is clear that he cannot be certain God is listening.

The third and final section does not take us to any uplifting certainty – indeed the rather complacent faith of the beginning of the poem has been stripped away, and the psalmist is left with the need to remind himself of the need for courage, to hope for a salvation that may or may not come.

קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְה֫וָ֥ה חֲ֭זַק וְיַֽאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְ֝קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְהֹוָֽה:

The final line, with the psalmist telling himself to be strong and to strengthen his heart/ mind, bookended with “wait in expectation for God” is about as high an aspiration for Elul as can exist.

 

The earliest confidence of the psalm is that of the unthinking believer, who simply never questions and who holds the kind of faith that is unsustainable when it meets reality. The doubt and fear that enter the heart of the psalmist in the middle section are reasonable responses to the crises and everyday pains of life – We can feel alone and abandoned, God does not answer our prayers as we would like, and it is the qualified confidence, the need for hope, the expectation of a better outcome that feels real and normative.

 

The very middle of the psalm has a line that is so ambiguous it almost defies translation, yet clearly is the pivot of the piece. In verse 8 we read

לְךָ֤ ׀ אָמַ֣ר לִ֭בִּי בַּקְּשׁ֣וּ פָנָ֑י אֶת־פָּנֶ֖יךָ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֲבַקֵּֽשׁ:

 

It is variously understood to mean

“On Your behalf, my heart says, “Seek My presence.” Your presence, O Lord, I will seek” or

“My heart says to you “Seek me out”—[because] I am seeking you out God.”

Or (Rashi’s understanding) “on Your behalf my heart says ‘Seek out My face”, and the second half of the verse is the psalmists response “I will seek Your face”

Or “To You my heart spoke, my face sought out your face God”

Or ““Of You my heart said “seek My face”, Your face God I do seek” (Robert Alter)

Who exactly is speaking in this verse? Is God sending a message to humanity via their hearts, calling on them to reach out for God? Is this a reciprocal statement where we ask God to seek us because we are seeking God?

The ambiguity speaks to the moment. There is no real clarity in faith, no real certainty that all will be well. Communication with God is often realised after the event, when we recognise we were praying, or when we feel comforted without fully being aware of when or how that comfort came about.

There are so many reasons given why the Ashkenazim read  this psalm 100 times in 50 days, from the idea of salvation in verse one, to the  “coded message” of the word  לׄוּלֵ֣ׄאׄ

in verse 13, (It spells Elul backwards). Whenever there are many answers to a question, we can know only that the answer is not known. But I think this psalm has a powerful capacity to challenge us at this time, to remind us that blind faith is complacent and childish, that doubt and fear are reasonable and normal human responses to life, and that the only real way through is to strengthen one’s self, to hope, to believe and know that hope is a reasonable tool to deal with doubt and fear. And with that message ringing in our ears we travel through Ellul onto Rosh Hashanah and the Yamim Noraim….

10th Elul – the sin of giving in to despair

In the vidui, the confession to be recited so many times at this season, we find the phrase “Al cheit she’chatanu lefanecha b’tim’hon ley’vav – For the sin we have committed before you by giving in to despair.”   It slips by almost unnoticed most of the time as we recite a catalogue of misbehaviours by rote. But is despair really a sin and can we repent of it and actively change our attitudes? R. Nachman of Bratslav is credited with crystallising the concept, saying “there is no such thing as despair” and even, on his death bed: “Assur l’hit’ya-esh  – It is forbidden to despair – never give up hope” (Likutei Moharan ll.78).

In our machzor the phrase comes in a set which includes the sins of plotting against others, hard heartedness, arrogance, and giving in to our evil impulse and secrecy.   It is a strange positioning – The giving in to despair is sandwiched between a sense of our own arrogance– literally eynaim ramot – raised eyes, and our own yetzer ha’ra – our selfishness and base inclination.  This placing seems to suggest that when we choose not to engage with reality, either by refusing to see what is around us or by allowing our internally constructed world view to dominate us – that is when despair creeps in.

Nachman also wrote Im atta m’amim she’y’cholin lekalkeil, ta’amin she’y’cholim le’taken: – If you believe that it is possible to break things, you must also believe that it is possible to repair things”.   So whatever we have broken in the past year let’s not despair, but know that it is time to repair by really noticing what is happening around us rather than living in the bubble of our own self constructed realities.

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

After prayer, introspection, critique and teshuvah, the time for action is now

The Jewish year has a number of cycles, and one cycle has just concluded – from the seventeenth Tammuz which happens three weeks before Tisha b’Av in the early summer time, till Shemini Atzeret /Simchat Torah, the conclusion of the Yamim Noraim, more than thirteen weeks later, we have been focusing on how our behaviour impacts upon the world, how what we do really matters. The destruction of the Temple and the Exile from Israel in the year 70CE was caused, according to our tradition (and firmly based in the historical narrative) on “sinat hinam” – acts of causeless hatred, where Jews betrayed other Jew; Individuals did not value others; Greed and selfishness overtook care and compassion. With the effects of the destruction of Jerusalem resonating in our souls we go through the summer and on to the high holy days mindful of the words of Talmud Sanhedrin 37a    “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if they destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if they saved an entire world.” The text goes on to make clear that the destruction and the saving are not necessarily of the life itself, but of the quality of that life.

Simchat Torah ends this particular cycle – while of course also beginning another, that of the weekly progression of readings from the scroll. But Simchat Torah now also marks for us the greater focus on the outcomes of the Yamim Noraim – the importance of repairing the world, of righteous behaviour and of acts of compassion – the three Jewish principles of Tikkun Olam, of Tzedek and of Gemilut Hasadim.

For a quarter of the year, from the middle of Tammuz, through Av, Ellul and more than half of Tishri we have been prompted through liturgy and festivals to consider repeatedly about how we are behaving in the world, reminded again and again that there are consequences and impacts arising from our choices. We have drilled down from the sweep of Jewish history into the capacities of each individual soul to enact change both for themselves and for the world. And now, with Simchat Torah and the return to the beginning of bible, which reminds us of our universalistic beginnings, of God as Creator of the whole world, interested in every person and every action, it is time to change our focus back to the wider world in which we live. We have thought hard about our own failings and tried to make ourselves better, now it is time to try out our newer better selves, to go into the world and try to make a difference. As the new year of Torah readings begins, they nudge us to find something new and pertinent in the familiar. There is much to do close to home – be it working for our communities so that everyone feels valued and becomes connected. Be it working for more fairness in the workplace, for the safety and security of those who find themselves lost or in poverty, or homeless. And from within our own community we can also work to help those further away, the refugees currently risking their lives while fleeing terrible circumstances in their own country, the dispossessed and isolated because of war or disease. We can add our voices to those who protest where humanity is cruel or thoughtless to others, we can demand of our leaders that they behave according to the values they say they espouse.  We remind ourselves of the teaching in the Talmud Sanhedrin 37a    “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if they destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if they saved an entire world.” The text goes on to make clear that the destruction and the saving are not necessarily of the life itself, but of the quality of that life.

olive harvest rhr

The time for contemplation is over, the time for action is now

image from rabbis for human rights co-ordinating volunteers to help Palestinian farmers harvest their olives.

VOLUNTEERS NEEDED THIS WEEK FOR THE OLIVE HARVEST IN THE OCCUPIED TERRITORIES!
We need folks to sign up to join us for the harvest THIS Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. For those of you who have already signed up, now is the time for you to work with our office to specify a date. Please email info@rhr.israel.net or call 02 678 3876 to sign up. Dates are also available until Nov 6th.

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.

Ki Tavo: Moses’ words echo today – what of us will echo in the future?

Ki Tavo includes the famously difficult passage known as the tochecha, the red lines of society’s expectations laid down mainly in the form of the cursing of the one who disobeys, but there is a great deal more in this speech which is part of the series given by an increasingly anxious Moses as he approaches his death. The whole thrust of the book of Deuteronomy is given life by Moses’ desperate wish to help the Israelite people continue on their journey with God after he is no longer around to help them. So here we have the ritual of sacrificing the first harvested fruits of the land to God carefully spelled out – the fruits should be put in a basket, taken to a specific place of worship, given to the priest of the time – and one of the earliest bits of liturgical speech is also given here – the people must say to the priest “I profess this day to the Eternal­­­­­­­­­ your God that I am come unto the land which the Eternal swore to our ancestors to give us”. The priest will take the basket and place it at the altar, and then the speech is to continue: “A wondering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great mighty and populous. And the Egyptians dealt badly with us and afflicted us and laid upon us hard bondages. And we cried to the Eternal the God of our ancestors, and God heard our voice and saw our affliction and our toil and our oppression. And the Eternal God brought us out from Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness and with signs and with wonders, and God brought us into this place and has given us the land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And I have brought the first of the fruit of the land which you O God have given me”.

The whole script is prescribed – and after it what shall happen – you will then worship God, you will rejoice in all the good that God has given to you, and so on.

The text is familiar to even the most distanced of Jews – it is the basis for the text of the Haggadah that we read at Pesach. Word for word Moses’ script is recited when we remember the Exodus from Egypt at the Seder each year. The actual figure of Moses may never have been allowed into the Haggadah in case people should begin to believe that it was his leadership rather than God’s that took us on our journey into peoplehood and covenant, but that becomes irrelevant when we realise that something far more important has been imported untouched by the editorial process of the book – the direct prayer of Moses is embedded in the text as if in amber. The rabbinic statement that a scholar does not ever die fully if his teachings are remembered – phrased evocatively as “his lips move in the grave when his words are recounted” – means that Moses’ teaching really has been passed down the generations and his humanity and presence really do remain among us.

As we move towards the Yamim Noraim we are prompted to remember those who taught us our religious and ethical values, and it is a custom in this period to visit the graves of those family members and teachers who have died. We are going to be facing our own ‘day of judgement’ to spend at least one day looking at our lives from the perspective of our own death as we abstain from food and drink and the normal everyday activities we do every other day of the year. We weigh up our actions in the past year and maybe further; consider who we have been, what lessons can be inferred from how we have lived our lives. So the question we have to ask of ourselves now is – how have we done? How are our actions an expression of our values? Will we have been a strong link in a chain or an irrelevant and vestigial structure appended to the community without much adding to it?

Every year our liturgical calendar gives us time to consider whether our lives are going in a direction we can be proud of, whether our lived lives are an valuable addition to the world we care about or not. So will the text of our lives be read in the generations to come or as we pass into eternity will we also be forgotten, no stories remembered with warmth and love, no wisdom or behaviour of ours held close to those still in the world? Our legacy does not have to be high profile or high achieving. But how we lived our lives should matter.

vati grave

illustration is the grave of Walter Rothschild in Jewish Cemetery Lausanne