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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traduzione di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

28th Ellul: The soul is Yours and the body is Yours. A reminder to God that we are as God made us; a reminder to ourselves that we are as God made us.

28th Ellul

הַנְשָמָה לָך וְהַגוּף פְעֳלָך חוּסָה עַל עָמָלָך

The soul is Yours and the body is Your work, Have mercy on the fruits of your labour”

This pizmon (extra-liturgical prayer) is part of the Sephardi rite on the evening of Yom Kippur (Kol Nidrei) and is a favourite in selichot prayers in Elul.

Referencing the verse in Genesis “Then the Holy One formed the human from the dust of the ground, and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living soul”the writer of the prayer is reminding both us and God that essentially we are formed by God and belong to God, we rely on God and will return to God.

The prayers for mercy and for forgiveness, for an end to suffering and the dawn of a better time, are integral to this period – known collectively as “selichot” and designed to ask forgiveness for the people Israel, and to remind us and God that we are in relationship.

The selichot are a literature that developed between the 7thand the 16th century –, and are found in every strand of Jewish tradition, though how and when they are used varies according to different minhagim. On Rosh Hashanah they tend to focus on themes such as the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac) on Creation, and on the Judgement of Yom HaDin, whereas on Yom Kippur they are more often themed around human frailty, on confession, on the forgiveness of God, and on the suffering of the people.

I’m particularly fond of this pizmon – the reminder that our bodies and our souls belong to God is echoed in the Adon Olam and used in night prayers – “In Your hand I lay my soul, and with my soul my body also, God is with me, I shall not fear”. I like how it reminds God that we are created as reflections of God’s being, that God has some responsibility for how we turn out; And how it reminds us that we are created as reflections of God’s being, that, in the forming of human beings the verb used vayitzer has the letter yod  twice.

וַיִּ֩יצֶר֩ יְהֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה וַיִּפַּ֥ח בְּאַפָּ֖יו נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים וַיְהִ֥י הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה:

The Eternal God formed the human as dust from the earth, and blew into its nose the breath of life, and the human became a living soul.

The midrash tells us that that two yods refer to the two “inclinations” in humanity – the inclination to be selfish and the inclination to be selfless, the yetzer ra and yetzer tov. Both of them are valid and necessary impulses, but must be kept in balance for us to be our best selves. They reflect us in so many ways – selfish/selfless; individual being/communal being; thoughtful/needy; driven/reflective – all the aspects that make us up as human beings including of course body/soul.

A reminder of the divine creation of human beings with all the possibilities to build the world, is helpful for those of us who feel ourselves to be simply dust and ashes. A reminder that God is responsible for us, that the words for work are used twice in this short pizmon reminding God that we are God’s created work – that helps us to remember we are, in the words of the rabbis, the children of the sovereign.

As Ellul nears its end, and we face the more intense days ahead, to be reminded that we were created for a good purpose and that God has a stake in us achieving such a good purpose, is a useful and salutary thing.

 

 

 

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….

26th Ellul- learning to forgive ourselves as God forgives

In the Talmud (Ta’anit 25b) we have the origin of the great confessional prayer of the Yamim Noraim, the Avinu Malkeinu.  “Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanos, the great teacher and pious scholar descended before the Ark in order to serve as prayer leader on a fast day because of a terrible and prolonged drought.  He recited 24 blessings but was not answered. Then his student, Rabbi Akiva descended before the Ark and simply said “Avinu Malkeinu, Ein lanu melech ele atah, Avinu Malkeinu lema’an’cha rachem Aleinu: (Our Father, our Ruler, we have no sovereign other than You. Our Father, our Ruler, for Your sake, have mercy on us.”

Immediately the rains fell. The Sages began whispering among themselves that Rabbi Akiva was answered while his teacher, Rabbi Eliezer, was not. A Divine Voice emerged and said: It is not because this Sage, Rabbi Akiva, is greater than that one, Rabbi Eliezer, but that this one is forgiving, and that one is not forgiving. God responded to Rabbi Akiva’s forgiving nature in kind by sending rain.”

Rabbi Eliezer was known for his fierce temper, and indeed was excommunicated when his colleagues could no longer deal with his domineering and strict viewpoints – though interestingly both he and his learning were always held in great respect and he is one of the most quoted rabbis in Talmud. But he was not a person who found forgiveness easy to do, nor did he find it easy to let go of his anger – indeed the story of his wife Ima Shalom who supervised his prayers after the excommunication in order to prevent his anger overtaking the world is a powerful end to the story of the oven of Achnai, and a reminder that when someone is so certain of the rightness of their view that there is danger for us all.

But Akiva, the one who could forgive others, had a simple prayer answered;  a prayer that did not even mention the desperate need for rain, but asked God for mercy for God’s own sake.

This is the origin of Avinu Malkeinu – and also of the extraordinary – and powerfully resonant – last lines of the prayer.

Over the year many additions have been made to this prayer. Sephardi machzorim generally have 32 petitions, the Ashkenazi ones can go up to 44. Some requests are particular and some are universal, some ask directly for favours, others remind God of the vulnerability of the people. But the last lines are different, they special and are specially loved – so much so that we have changed the longstanding tradition of saying them quietly but instead lustily and happily remind God to be merciful as is God’s nature, because we have no good deeds to bring. All this to a joyful tune, quite different from the solemn and rather serious tune of the rest of the prayer.

The Dubner Maggid tells the story of the person who goes shopping, excitedly adding more and more items to their “buy” list. All the petitions are in effect  us saying “I’ll take that, and that, and give me that too please”  And then when we get to the till, we find we cannot pay for everything we have taken, and in embarrassment have to say to the cashier – can you help me? Can you give me some credit and I will try to pay you in the coming year.  As long as I have a good year – please add a good year to my basket…

The embarrassment referred to in the story of the Dubner Maggid is all but disappeared today. Instead we proudly and clearly stand before an open Ark and list our requests to God. The Avinu Malkeinu is in each of the services; it is one of the last prayers in Neilah, the evening of Yom Kippur. We have spent the day reflecting, we have spent the month before on Heshbon Nefesh, considering our previous behaviour. And on Yom Kippur we may fast and afflict our souls, but we also know that if we are more like Rabbi Akiva, able to forgive others, God will forgive us. Yom Kippur is the white fast for a reason – the colour is both the colour of mourning and the colour of joy. We can have both serious reflection and happy anticipation in our lives – and both are deserved.

16th Ellul: the gates of repentance are always open

16 Ellul

In the introduction to “Orot haTeshuvah” (14:4), Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook writes: “The main reason for our failure to repent is that we do not believe how easy repentance can be”. He notes: “On the one hand, repentance is a divine command that is so easy to perform because the mere intention to repent is already considered repentance. Yet, on the other hand, it is an extremely difficult commandment because the act of penitence is not complete until it has been executed thoroughly in the outside world and in our own lives”

Tradition teaches that the work of teshuvah has two different strands. In Elul the focus is on the teshuvah known as “bein adam l’havero” – between people. When we reach Yom Kippur, that work is meant to have been done, we have reflected on our behaviour and made sincere apologies; where we can we have righted wrongs, or recompensed for them. Repairs have been made to the dislocated and torn relationships we have ignored or abused. We have sought forgiveness from those we have hurt, and we forgive those who seek our forgiveness for their hurt to us. This is important because Mishnah (Yoma 8:3) teaches:  “For the transgressions are between human and the divine, Yom Kippur atones; for the transgressions that are between human and human, Yom Kippur does not atone until one has appeased the other.” (Yoma 8.3)

The personal acts of atonement between human beings are the most critical for us – when we come to Yom Kippur the liturgy – with its collections of confessions, of reflections, of warnings and welcomings –will take us on a different path.

But the best guidance comes – as so often – from Maimonides. The process of Teshuvah is logical and clear for him. First we must reflect and think about what we have done. Then we must actively regret our actions, and move towards the other in order to repair the damage and apologise with sincerity. After that is the requirement that we reject our own behaviour, resolving to no longer choose to act as we have done before. We will behave differently when faced with the same opportunity to sin as before.

Rav Kook had it right – it is both extremely easy and extremely difficult to perform teshuvah. How we act in the world may not always match up with our intentions, and that is painful to acknowledge. But it is interesting to me that teshuvah is one of the seven things said by the rabbis to have been created before the world was created. It means that built into our humanity is the expectation that we will make mistakes, behave selfishly or meanly or thoughtlessly. Yet teshuvah is always available – as the midrash tells us (Midrash Rabbah, Devarim) “ Rabbi Channanya bar Papa asked Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman, what is the meaning of the verse (Psalm), “As for me I will offer my prayer unto You in an acceptable time “? He replied, “The gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, but the gates of repentance are always open.”

Or in the words of Franz Kafka “Only our concept of time makes it possible to speak of the Day of Judgment by that name; in reality it is a summary court in perpetual session”  (Reflections on Sin, Pain, Hope and the True Way 1917-1929).

The opportunity is ever present that we can become our better selves small act by small act as the days go by. The month of Elul may prompt us, but every day is an opportunity for teshuvah – and we should take it.

 

 

 

 

14th Elul: manageable teshuvah in bitesized portions

14th Elul

Reb Shmelke said “basing myself on the Talmudic tradition that if everyone repented together the messiah would come, I decided to do something about it. I was convinced that I would be successful, but, where to start? The world is so vast I shall start with the country I know best -My own.  But my country is so very large; I had better start with my town.   But my town itself is large, so I had best start with my street.  No, with my home.  No with my family. Reb Shmelke pondered a little and said “never mind, I’ll start with myself”  (Chasidic)

We stop ourselves very often from progressing, or from doing what we intend to do, by defining the terms of reference too widely. The month of Elul, the whole progression of the liturgical year from the haftarot of rebuke to Tisha b’Av to the haftarot of comfort to Rosh Hashanah, takes us on a journey – We ignore God’s warning and find ourselves in catastrophe. We are aware of God’s proffered comfort but find The Great Day of Judgment that is Rosh Hashanah awaiting us. We will spend the ten days of return trying to focus before Yom Kippur is upon us demanding the fruits of our work, and then Sukkot offers a breathing space……

Maybe we should just do our teshuvah in more manageable and less impressively indigestible chunks, so that we actually get some done.

12th Elul: repentance is not a substitute for responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tu b’Av: an especially joyful festival to be reclaimed

The three weeks that lead from the 17th Tammuz (breaching of the walls of Jerusalem)  to the 9th of Av (Tisha b’Av) are traditionally a period of mourning, known as bein hametzarim – in the narrow straits. So it is all the more surprising that just one week after Tisha b’Av comes an especially joyful festival – the full moon of Av brings us Tu b’Av – when we are told:

Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel said: Never were there any more joyous festivals in Israel than the 15th of Av and the Day of Atonement, for on them the maidens of Jerusalem used to go out dressed in white garments – borrowed ones, however, in order not to cause shame to those who had none of their own. These clothes were also to be previously immersed, and thus the maidens went out and danced in the vineyards, saying: Young men, look and observe well whom you are about to choose; (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8)

The rabbis of the Gemara are perplexed – ““On the 15th of Av and on the Day of Atonement,” etc. It is right that the Day of Atonement should be a day of rejoicing, because that is a day of forgiveness, and on that day the 2nd tablets of the Law were given to Moses; but why should the 15th of Av be a day of rejoicing?”

And so begins a fascinating rabbinic journey into what is behind the celebration of the fifteenth (Tu) of’Av :

Said R. Yehudah in the name of Samuel: “On that day it was permitted to the members of the different tribes to intermarry.” Whence is this deduced? Because it is written [Num 36: 6]: “This is the thing which the Eternal has commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophehad,” they claim that “this is the thing” implies the decree was only for that generation, but for later generations the decree doesn’t apply.

  1. Joseph in the name of R. Nachman said: On that day the members of the tribe of Benjamin were permitted to intermarry with the other tribes, as it is written [Judges 21. 1]: “Now the men of Israel had sworn in Mizpah, saying: Not any one of us shall give his daughter unto Benjamin for wife.”

Rabba bar bar Hana said in the name of R. Johanan: On that day the last of those who were destined to die in the desert died, and the destiny was thus fulfilled;

Ulla said: “On that day the guards appointed by Jeroboam to prevent the Israelites from coming to Jerusalem were abolished by Hosea the son of Elah, and he said: ‘Let them go wherever they choose.'”

  1. Matnah said: “On that day permission was given to bury the dead who were killed in battle at the city of Beitar”

Rabba and R, Joseph both said: On that day they ceased to cut wood for the altar, as we have learned in a Baraita: R. Eliezer the Great said: “From the fifteenth day of Av the heat of the sun was lessened and the timber was no longer dry, so they ceased to cut wood for the altar.”

There is a golden rule in rabbinic exposition – the more explanations given for something, the less likely it is that anyone knows what the explanation actually is. Clearly a celebration on the 15th of Av, which coincided with the beginning of the grape harvest, is part of the custom and practise of the Jews by the time of the Talmud, but its origin is already lost in the mists of time.

Let’s look briefly at the Talmudic explanations before looking at the festival itself.

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is told in the book of Numbers- a rare piece of case law in that book and a powerful piece of text about women confronting Moses in order to attain fairness under the law. Zelophehad is dead, he had 5 daughters and no sons, and according to the rules of inheritance at that time, the girls would be left without anything. They approach Moses and argue their case, including the fact that their father will be forgotten in his tribe. Moses has to ask God about the merits of the case, and God tells him that the case of these daughters is valid; they should indeed inherit from their father. Later a problem arises, the leaders of the tribe of Manasseh – which the family of Zelophehad belong to – also bring a petition to Moses. Should daughters inherit when there is no son, and then marry into another tribe, the inheritance and land that would normally stay within the tribe will be given to the tribe that the woman marries into.

So the law is amended – such women who inherit land from their fathers must marry only within their own tribe – a limiting phenomenon that itself causes problems. So Rabbi Yehuda quotes Samuel by saying that tribes may now intermarry freely – and the date of this decision was the fifteenth of Av on the last year before the Israelites entered the Land of Israel.

The second explanation in the gemara is from a much darker story found at the end of the book of Judges, where a woman staying overnight in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, was gang raped until she died. The other tribes went to war against the Benjaminites who would not give up the criminals for justice, and a ban was proclaimed which meant no one could marry into that tribe. This ban was eventually lifted on the fifteenth of Av. One assumes that this idea comes from the commonality of Tu b’Av to the statement in the Book of Judges ““And see, and, behold, if the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in dances, then come out of the vineyards, and let every man catch  his wife of the daughters of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin.” (21:21)

The third explanation – This comes from a midrash found in the Jerusalem Talmud amongst other texts, which say that the generation who were to die in the desert because of their connection to the sin of the Golden Calf expected to die on Tisha b’Av. This would cause a problem – if there were to be so many deaths on one day, then who would be able to dig the graves and bury the people? So Moses sent out a decree: On Tisha b’Av everyone must dig their own grave and sleep in it. Those who would die would die, and the survivors would simply have to fill in the graves with the bodies already in them. But many did not die who felt that they too were destined for this fate, and so they continued to sleep in the graves they had dug for themselves until they saw the full moon of Av and realised that Tisha b’Av was well and truly behind them. They would live!

The fourth explanation: King Jeroboam (c900BCE) had challenged Rehoboam the son of Solomon, because of his authoritarian rule, and took the ten Northern tribes with him to his capital Shechem. He built two temples as rivals to the one in Jerusalem (Bethel and Dan) and banned his people from going to worship in Jerusalem.  Fifty years later, the last King of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, rescinded the ban – on Tu b’Av – and the joy that ensued is encoded in the festival.

The fifth explanation also involves graves, in this case the ones slaughtered in the rebellion against Rome led by the false messiah Shimon bar Kochba in 135. The massacre of the Jews by the Romans was estimated by one Roman historian as being at least 580 thousand dead and many more taken captive into slavery in other parts of the empire. The majority of the Jewish population was exiled from the land and the land given a new name by the Romans – Syria Palestina – to try to sever the connection between the land and the Jews. Tisha b’Av saw the final destruction of Temple and hopes, and the fortress of Beitar was breached and its inhabitants murdered and left unburied. So Rav Matnah’s explanation for Tu b’Av is that 6 days after the tragedy (some stories say a year and six days), the Romans finally permitted the burial of the slaughtered Jews – on Tu b’Av.

After such dramatic explanations the final one in the list is more prosaic, but also most likely to be the case. Simply that the full moon of Av is around the summer equinox, the days are beginning to shorten and one might be less sure of enough dry weather for the wood cut down for the Temple sacrifices to be sufficiently prepared for its use, and any wood cut down later would be liable to smoke unpleasantly. This explanation is bolstered by the fact that we know of customs in the near East whereby the end of the season for cutting wood is marked by celebration including dancing and music.

So having established that Tu b’Av was being celebrated in Mishnaic times, that the young women would go out into the vines wearing white dresses they had borrowed so as not to be identified by their clothing, that they danced and sang and that clearly a shidduch market was in full swing on that date – the young men would chase them and choose their brides – the rabbinic tradition tried to explain the event using stories of rape, graves, massacre, orphaned women claiming economic rights and hence losing the right to marry outside of their tribe, civil war and rebellion against both internally among the Jewish people and also against an oppressive occupying power. One has to wonder why.

I am reminded of a recent “tweet” that asks why a prominent politician is tweeting terrible racism, and suggests that the deflection is to stop people paying attention to something worse – the statutory rape of underage girls.  Here the rabbinic tradition has a clear story of strong young single women in public space, helping each other with their clothing and “seductively” dancing and singing among the grape vines, with their symbolism of wine and wealth and fertility. So immediately there is a deflection – Beitar! Bnot Zelophehad! Possibly the darkest story in bible of a young concubine gang raped and murdered, whose fate was to be cut into twelve pieces each of which was sent to one of the tribes of Israel! Sin and death and lying in the grave! Rebellion and Massacre!

It seems to me that the Tannaim (the rabbis of the Mishnah, c50-200CE) were fine with the celebrations of Tu b’Av and the fact of young girls out on a summer evening enjoying their bodies, their strength and their music, but the Amoraim (the rabbis of the Gemara c200-500CE) were decidedly not. So Tu b’Av became a date more often ignored than celebrated. The single attention was liturgical – Tachanun (the penitential section of prayers of supplication and confession) are not said on Tu b’Av. Only since the modern State of Israel has been established has Tu b’Av been celebrated – it has become a kind of Jewish “Valentine’s Day”, a day for love, for weddings, for romance. The 19th century Haskalah poet Judah Leib Gordon wrote about its celebration in the newly planted vineyards and certainly for the more secular Israelis this is a Jewish festival to take to their hearts.

It’s worth noting the framing of the Mishnah where Tu b’Av is recorded. It is mentioned in the same breath as the most solemn day in the calendar – Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the white fast. On this day people traditionally wear kittels – the white shrouds they will be buried in. The day is a day of joy as well as penitence, because when we have truly repented, God will forgive us. We leave the day lightened by our activities and return more able to continue with living our lives.

There are real similarities between the two festivals, albeit one is a day out of time “as if dead” and the other a day of sensuous delight. Each reminds us of the importance of living our lives as fully and as well as we can. Each reminds us about living” in the now”, each helps us create our future selves.

So – let’s reclaim Tu b’Av, the full moon that follows three weeks of mourning,  that takes place 6 days after the blackest day in the calendar. Let’s remind ourselves that life must continue, joy must be part of our living, that relationships with others matter and that the future is ours to create

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 So what is happening?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

In memoriam Jackie Alfred. September 1940 – January 2017

 

 

 

 

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.