Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Rosh Hashannah 5775 - Stephen Sotloff, the Binding of Isaac, The Last Thing and Adjust

This sermon is offered in the memory of Stephen Sotloff of blessed memory

 

Stephen Sotloff was murdered in the area under the control of IS, just a few weeks ago. You would have seen that photo, I’m sure, of a man dressed in orange, kneeling at the foot of a murderer. God help you if you saw the video and moving images, as well as still ones, are scorched on your mind.

Sotloff isn’t the only Westerner, and certainly not the only human whose life has been brutally cut short in the name of ISIS, but Stephen Sotloff was a Jew. You might have caught that in the news, and that truth scorched that image a little more deeply in my mind.

Stephen attended a Reform Temple pre-school in a suburb of Miami. You might have picked up a mention of the Synagogue’s Memorial Service attended by 700 friends family and local dignitaries.

You probably didn’t pick up anywhere that Stephen made Aliyah and studied at the IDC in Herzlia. That only made the Israeli papers after his death was confirmed.

Did anyone else pick up that Stephen Sotloff played rugby for a club in Ranaana?

I’ve been a little obsessed, trawling the internet in search of a possibility of shaking a particularly discomforting association from my mind.

 

Because the association that that photo triggers in my mind is a Second Day Rosh Hashanah association. I see a bound Isaac, kneeling at the foot of Abraham waiting for his fate; waiting for the stretched out knife. And I find nothing redemptive or comforting in that association. It’s not comforting to associate ISIS’s barbaric, pathetic justifications for murder with a story at the heart of my religious faith. It’s not comforting to associate the murderous ‘Jihadi John’ with Avraham Avinu. And there’s nothing comforting in the aftermath the encounter with an outstretched knife. In the Biblical narrative the next thing that happens is that Sara dies. The Rabbis suggest her heart couldn’t cope with the possibility that her son could have been killed.

My heart breaks for Stephen’s parents visited by the greatest nightmare that could ever befall a family. The strength it must take, simply to put one foot in front of another, is a strength I cannot and never want to know.

 

So this is what I did with the images scorched in my mind, and the discomforting associations that disturb me so. I did some Chavruta. I picked up the phone to speak with the Rabbi of the Reform Temple in the suburb of Miami and asked how he was doing. Rabbi Terry Bookman was gracious and generous with his insights and time.

 

What had he shared with the family, I wanted to know, ‘was there any contextualisation, and framing of their suffering that had made a difference?’ ‘Not really,’ he told me, ‘I just tried to be present in their suffering and focus on the practical things.’

‘And what about you?’ I asked. Was there any moment of wisdom, any Torah verse or Rabbinic idea that allowed the Rabbi to be present in this most holy and most painful Rabbinic work?

‘Not really,’ he shared again, ‘I’m not that kind of a Rabbi. I just try and offer myself as a rock onto which their tears can fall.’

He shared that the family is starting to think about what to do honour Stephen’s memory. ‘My job is to wait and support them as they think that piece through.’ he added. ‘There’s no body of course.’

‘Of course’ said I.

I’m sure there was nothing higher or more effective Rabbi Bookman could possibly have done for this grieving family. No pre-prepared A-B-C of comforting the bereaved is going to be effective in a situation like this.

 

But I still hadn’t got anywhere with these scorching images and discomforting associations.

I asked Rabbi Bookman about Isaac and that image. Of course he knows this story and its commentaries as well as I. The Torah never tells us what Isaac is thinking, or even what he understands about what is happening but Rabbinic commentary guides us to understand Isaac accepting he knows that his life is to come to an end and accepting this as his fate. We are called to recognise, in Isaac’s ascent of the mountain together with his father, a heroic strength, an archetypal moment of Gevurah; self-discipline and acceptance. Over Rosh Hashanah and particularly next week, on Yom Kippur, we repeatedly lay claim to the spiritual inheritance of this act. ‘We aren’t much ourselves,’ we intone, ‘but look what Isaac was capable of! Give us a break O’ God. Forgive us in the merit of Yitzhak Avinu.’

 

It was this poise in the face of the outstretched knife – this powerful encapsulation of Gevurah – that struck me so in the context of that photo of Sotloff’s murder. I’ve never seen a man kneeling stand so tall, head unbowed, undefeated even as he was overpowered, exuding strength and a life-force even as his life was ended. Perhaps a strength that can only be known in face of horrors the like of which most of us, thank God, will never know.

 

The Talmud[1] tells the story of the death of Rabbi Akiva, murdered by the Romans. He is burnt alive in the sight of his students, and as he burns he smiles. His students cannot understand the smiles and enquire. The Rabbi, from the flames, responds, ‘all my life I wanted to know if I could truly love God, even as my life was coming to an end. And now I know.’ Even at the point of death, perhaps most especially at the point of death, perhaps only at the point where any kind of variance of a severe decree becomes impossible, there is a might that can be displayed; a life-force that can be brought to bear on a moment.

 

My mind went to Victor Frankl’s extraordinary memoir of his time in Auschwitz, Man’s Search For Meaning. Frankl knew, knew so clearly, the savagery humanity is capable of, but refused to despair. He had this to say of the experience of the death camps, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms” wrote Frankl, “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” And through holding onto this last thing Frankl found a way to survive not just physically, but existentially. He found a way to hold to the possibility of living a life of meaning, even in the midst of murder.

 

This is the correct meaning of a much misunderstood line at the heart of our Rosh Hashanah liturgy. I know I’ve made the point here before but the line ‘Teshuvah Tefillah UTzedakah Maavirin Et Roah HaGezeirah’ simply does not mean that changing our life for the better, praying and acting justly will change a severe decree. The Hebrew grammar simply cannot be translated to suggest this, frankly, untrue oversimplification. Rather the Hebrew suggests Teshuvah Tefillah UTzedakah take some of the pain away from the decree – whatever the decree might be.

If you are going to die, you are going to die, says this awesome prayer. But

Teshuvah - If you die having healed any fracture in the relationships between you and your fellow and you and God it will hurt less.

U’Tefillah - If you die having stood honestly, and as a Jew, before the One Who Spoke and Created the World, it will hurt less. I will have more to say about Tefillah – prayer - later.

U’Tzedakah – And if you die having performed acts of charity and justice, it will hurt less.

I don’t want to die either. I don’t want the slightly fanciful notion of a severe decree hurting less because I gave some Tzedakah. I want to live, long and healthy and happy.

But Mi Yichiyeh U’Mi Yamut – Who will live and who will die? I don’t get to control that.

The only control I have is how I respond, how I meet the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

 

Whether I stand tall even as I am forced to kneel.

Whether I smile as I understand that, though tested, I can still hold true to the values I hold dear.

Whether I continue to treat myself and those around me as creations in the image of God even as I face barbarity and woe.

Stephen, like Isaac back in the mists of time, never lost the power over the last thing we have to control – the ability to decide to stand tall even in the most horrendous of circumstances, even here there is this last thing.

 

And for that inspiration, for that charge which I accept when facing the, frankly, paltry challenges that cause me moments of weakness, Stephen Sotloff, of blessed memory, thank you.

 

And one other thing.

U’Tefillah – And prayer is held to be one of those things that sweeten the decree, even as we experience it.

It seems that Stephen Sotloff prayed, even during the two years of captivity that preceded his murder. The Israeli newspaper Yedidot Aharanot interviewed someone who spent time with Steven during his initial captivity in Syria. “Stephen used to pray secretly in the direction of Jerusalem,” the friend said, “He would see in which direction (his Muslim captors) were praying and adjust the angle.”

I find that an extraordinary line – he would adjust the angle.

 

Forgive me please, I’m about to unleash two assumptions about how Stephen prayed, one small, one large. In truth I have no idea how Stephen prayed, but go with me.

 

My small assumption is that Stephen prayed to be released, to be reunited with his loved ones and to carry on with the pursuit of truth that had been the marker of his life till his capture. It’s said there are no atheists in foxholes. Surely we would all pray for redemption if, God forbid, it were us. But you don’t need to ‘adjust the angle’ to pray for a release from captivity. In fact if what you really want is release, the smart thing to do is - nothing out of line, play nice, keep your head down. If God’s minded to release you from captivity God will hear your prayer whether you face Mecca or Melbourne.

 

If you adjust the angle, and this is my bigger assumption, you are trying to do something else. If you adjust the angle you are trying to hold true to yourself, even as so much is stripped away. If you adjust the angle you are trying to remind yourself of how differently you stand before God when compared to the murderous kidnapping thugs surrounding you. If you adjust the angle you take all the fear you must, surely, have of being discovered to be a Jew, an Israeli even, and nonetheless hold tightly to these most basic parts of your ethnic and ethical identity. If you adjust the angle you do so because you care about Jewish values and the way we, as Jews, understand our part in the world and our responsibilities towards our fellows and our Creator.

 

In fact, in so many ways, adjusting the angle is the very heart of what it means to be a Jew. When God first called Abraham to ‘Go,’ the first thing Abraham does is cross the river, to stand on the side. Jews have adjusting the angle and standing on the other side of the river for over 3,000 years. It’s interesting to consider the power of adjusting the angle on this Second Day of Rosh Hashanah. It takes that extra bit of commitment to walk away from work, from school, from the life out there. It takes that extra twist to adjust the angle away. As we adjust, we become more particular, more clearly rooted in our Jewishness. And it’s only in this adjustment that we align ourselves to our true selves.

 

This is a message I hear from Stephen, never heed the call to fall in line with everyone else. Never think that falling in line with everyone else will save us. It wouldn’t have saved Stephen. Instead, it is through adjustment that his integrity, our integrity, can shine through. It’s through our willingness to be different, to align ourselves with our faith and peoplehood, that we come most close to being truly alive.

 

Adjust the angle.

 

Remember that ‘everything can be taken from a man but one thing – the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’

 

And adjust the angle.

 

Do these insights alleviate my discomfort? No.

Do they bring Stephen back? Of course not.

Do they bring ISIS to their knees? Sadly no again.

But they might make me live better in my life, in Stephen’s memory and in his honour.

And if it might help you, then perhaps all is not lost.

 

There is always that one last thing, to choose our attitude in any given set of circumstances.

And there is always to opportunity to adjust the angle, so we stand before God on our own terms.

 

L’Shannah Tovah



[1] Talmud Yerushalmi Brachot 67b and parallels.

Rosh Hashanah 5775 First Day - Israel and the Countervoice

Israel and the Countervoice

 

A teacher of mine once taught told me the job of a Rabbi is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I’ve been wrestling with this wonderful charge particularly this year, because I want to talk about Israel.

 

And it seems there are two ways to talk about Israel.

 

You can talk about that terrible organisation Hamas and its desire to destroy the one nation of our people merely 70 years after the end of the Holocaust. You can talk about the sole desire of Israel being the defence of itself and its citizens. You can talk about the disproportionate coverage of Israel in the media, and you can talk about the mealy mouthed connivance of so many in this country, of Jews even, who criticise and accuse a State whose realities they do not understand and whose destiny they fail to take sufficiently seriously. You can talk about Israel from the perspective of someone who cares pre-eminently about its physical security – the welfare of its body.

 

And then you can talk about Israel in a different way. You can talk about the disproportionate loss of innocent life in Gaza and insufficient justification for the destruction of entire neighbourhoods. You can talk about the failure to strengthen moderate Palestinian peace partners and ‘land grabs’ that make peace ever harder to achieve. You can talk about a country whose connection to its Jewish heritage means it is obliged to do more than simply strike back harder any time someone strikes it. You can hold Israel to a higher standard than Syria or Russia because you believe Jews should aspire to a higher standard. You can talk about Israel from the perspective of someone who cares pre-eminently about its ethical security – the welfare of its soul.

 

And here’s where the piece about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable comes into sharp focus.

When you talk about Israel from the physical security perspective you comfort those who are pre-eminently concerned with physical security and at the very same time you afflict those who are pre-eminently concerned with ethical security.

When you talk about Israel from the ethical security perspective you comfort those who are pre-eminently concerned with spiritual security and at the very same time you afflict those who are pre-eminently concerned with physical security.

And the temptation, very quickly, becomes the temptation simply not to wander into that particular lions’ den. Not to talk about Israel at all. To talk about Israel is increasingly to drive a wedge between Jew and Jew. Oy.

 

A Rabbinic colleague told me that they couldn’t remember the last time she had had a genuine conversation about Israel. Instead, she reported, she finds herself continually engaging in ‘allegiance confirmations’. Surely she agrees that such and such, or surely she has no time for this and that. I’ve felt similar tensions here. Israel has become less that which unites us and more the prism through which we test whether other people are acceptable, it depends on whether they agree with what we already know to be the case. We are retreating into silos, surrounding ourselves increasingly only with the voices that confirm what we wish to hear. And that’s not good.

 

The greatest gift of Judaism has always been our ability to suffer our intense disagreement with our fellow Yiddim. The greatest Rabbis of the Talmud are traditionally listed in pairs because where one finds in one direction, the other finds in the opposite direction in the very same moment; and not about trivial matters either. Rabbinic Judaism thrives on difference. Rabbinic Judaism is about the ability to drive back the desire we all have to surround ourselves with one opinion, the opinion that I am right and anyone who disagrees with me is wrong.

Two examples, one from the first text traditionally taught in the Yeshivah, the second virtually the last words in the last major work of our founding Rabbi, Louis Jacobs, on this the 50th year of our foundation.

 

“Two disputants come before the Bet Din,” the Mishnah in the tractate Baba Metzia begins, “both holding onto the same cloth. Both claiming that they found it first and it’s all theirs.”

 

The very opening salvo of Rabbinic Judaism involves disputants seeking to claim ‘all,’ eviscerating entirely the claim of the other. You will not be surprised that the Rabbinic solution to this impasse results not in a fistfight, but a compromise. Both sides get heard, both sides get valued.

 

The other example comes from the end of Beyond Reasonable Doubt, the last significant work of our founding Rabbi. Following a typical tour de force encapsulating a two thousand year chain of tradition Louis remarks, ‘I have tried to show that when Jewish thinkers speak of normative Judaism they tend to affix the label to those aspects of the tradition to which they are personally attracted.’ In other words we call what we agree with true and we claim that which we disagree with untrue. The only problem is … truth doesn’t work that way. When it comes to the will of God we can’t know, we don’t know. A little more humility, a little less certainty is called for. And not just when it comes to matters of the State of Israel.

 

The great marker of Jewish difference, for thousands of years, was always that we stuck at it, even in our disagreements and our bickering and our Broiguses. We find a way to hold close and fight back at the same time. We love our differences. There’s a truth behind the suggestion that the difference between an antisemite and a Jew is that an antisemite hates Jews, but Mr Cohen who lives next door is OK. The Jew on the other hand, loves all Jews, but Mr Cohen next door is a real …

 

You can disagree with the other, but you can’t walk away. You have to love even as you  disagree. Not only does Judaism desperately need disagreeing Jews to stick together, but Jews need disagreeing Jews to stick together. You and I need those who differ from us around us. That’s the purpose of community. It’s not to surround ourselves with people just like us, it’s to surround ourselves with those who take opposite opinions, who force us to see things from perspectives we don’t find immediately attractive or ever will. We need the other to remind us that we can’t have things all our own way. The other is a walking provoking reminder of the insufficiency of a totalitarianisng position – the sort of position in which we comfortably consider our own position entirely right. The tradition of Rabbinic difference, the value placed on difference, the necessity of living and even loving in the difference; this is the essence of what it is to be a Jew, certainly what it means to be a Jew in a community like New London.

 

And this is what makes the whole subject of Israel such a microcosm for the work of Rosh Hashanah.  Rosh Hashanah calls us out of our silos and commands us to view just how far short we fall from being all-right. Rosh Hashanah insists we destabilise the narratives we create to make us feel comfortable and secure in our normal lives. In normal life we justify ourselves; we claim our views, our behaviours, our moods and even our slips are all fundamentally fine. In normal life we prove to ourselves that we are correct – not that anyone is listening, not that anyone is going to be particularly impressed.

But on Rosh Hashanah we are called to consider our claims from the position of those who are hurt by our insistence on our right-ness. And even more terrifying we are called to consider our claims from the position of HaMakom – God, the cosmos, infinity; we are called to consider our claims from a perspective we cannot claim to grasp.

 

We can’t grow, we can’t change if we retreat to silos and surround ourselves only with the voices that tell us we are all-right. We can only grow when we go to the place that challenges us, we need to cherish provocation more than comfort.

 

I’ve had some problems with my neck this past year. I went to see the osteopath who told me it’s been 20 years a-brewing. The problem, it seems, is that I kept twisting my spine around to avoid putting myself in a painful position. And eventually I ran out of a place to twist. And healing comes from bending back towards the pain. I need to bend back to the source of the provocation to heal. I suspect we all do.

 

So how can we bend into the pain? Or, and let me make the challenge a little more real – where is the space to encounter otherness without losing our own identity? How do we make space for others without becoming simply a wishy-washy nodding donkey who speaks up for nothing because they are so confused by the multiplicity of everything? Because I’m certainly not advocating we become wishy-washy nodding donkeys.

 

A story;

There were two great Rabbis who hated one another. And a third who was trying to make the peace. The first Rabbi protested against the failings of the second, he accused, he pointed out the inconsistencies, the failings everything. And the third Rabbi listened. Eventually the litany of accusations came to a halt and the third Rabbi asked, ‘Why this need to speak so ferociously?’

‘It’s a Mitzvah’ can the reply, ‘Hoche’ach Tocheach – you shall surely rebuke your fellow,’ he protested. He’s right, there is a verse in the Torah that commands reproach – Lev 19:17. But then comes the response from the peacemaker;

‘If it’s a Mitzvah – a good thing – to speak so ill of your fellow,’ he queried, ‘then your Yetzer Hara, your evil inclination, should want you want to stop doing it.’

 

I love this story. Here you have the Rabbi who thinks they’ve got it all right, and they think that this gives them the right, nay, they think they are thereby obliged to rebuke and castigate anyone who doesn’t agree with them. They think it’s a Mitzvah to lord it over their fellow. But if it’s a Mitzvah then the powerful voice of the evil inclination should be telling them not to do it.

 

It’s only good to critique when you can feel the countervoice. Making another suffer can indeed by justified; but the test of the acceptability of any justification is not how right you think you are, but how attuned you are to the countervoice that calls you to stop.

 

And this goes for those who feel comfortable defending the physical security of Israel. Do we hear the countervoice that worries about blighted Gazans who want only the same peace and tranquillity as so many in Israel?

 

And this goes for those who feel comfortable calling for Israel to behave with ever greater awareness of its spiritual obligations. Do we hear the countervoice that tells us, enough compromise and surrender already – these people are not our friends, after two thousand years of oppression it’s time to look after number one a bit?

 

The veteran Israeli commentator, Yossi Kelin Halevi recently quoted a senior colleague whose son had been fighting in Gaza, ‘I have two nightmares about a Palestinian State’ he recalled, ‘That there won’t be one – and that there will be one.’ That’s not wishy-washy nodding donkeyism, that’s listening out for the countervoice; it’s sophisticated, thoughtful and probably entirely fair.

 

And this listening out of for the countervoice is, of course about more than our relationship with Israel. It’s an important call for those of us with parents, who drive us nuts, or partners who are clearly mistaken, or children or work colleagues, or friends, or strangers with whom we just can’t be bothered to engage because we know they are wrong already.

 

We should listen a bit more closely, stick with it a bit longer, look for the places where their narrative can become our countervoice.

We need to pay enough attention that we are provoked into facing our discomfort.

We need not to associate what we believe with a truth we cannot truly know.

We need to develop ways to share a contested Tallit recognising competing claims.

We need to find ways to love, even though we disagree – even because we disagree.

We need to be prepared to be afflicted in our comfort if we genuinely want comfort from our afflictions.

 

That’s my message for this most holy of days; listen out for the countervoice, treasure that which makes us doubt more than we treasure our desire to be ‘right’ all the time. And in so doing we will learn to heal broken relationships, become better members of our families, our community, this human race and, please God, more worthy of the gift of a year of sweetness, health and most of all peace for which we, all of Israel, and I dearly believe, all of humanity, wish.

 

May it come to us all,

Shannah Tovah Tikateivu,

 

Observations from the Accident and Emergency Room

All humanity comes from dust, and ends in dust; like a broken clay shard, withered grass, a shrivelled flower ...

 

My eldest son put his hand through a glass window on Monday evening. Lots of blood. Off to hospital. The plastic surgeon thinks everything looks OK, but wants to have a closer look under anaesthetic. We have to go back. In the meantime my son’s fine, back at school with a bandage and sling for now, but I’m still a little shaky.


There is nothing like hospital to remind us we are dust, in those extraordinary words of the Unataneh Tokef prayer. In the words of Charles du Bos, it is a ‘reveil mortel’ – an alarm call reminding us of our mortal condition. This is the great message of Rosh Hashanah. Who will live, who will die? I cannot know. Who will be enriched, who will become poorer? Beyond my ken. Who in sickness and who in health? My, how fragile this life is.

 

We are called, for these two precious days, to acknowledge our mortal existence and asses what mark we are really making on this world. How do we make those around us feel, are there interpersonal relationships to address? And what of our engagement with the cosmos and its creator? There is an irony in the notion that we think most clearly about the quality of our lives when we come close to death.

 

It is a huge honour to be able to lead this special congregation over these most special days. I look forward with celebrating, reflecting and healing with you all.

For those times this past year when I have failed, I offer my apologies.

And for all your support I am most grateful,

 

L’Shannah Tovah,

May we be blessed with a year of sweetness and health,

 

Rabbi Jeremy

Friday, 19 September 2014

With wishes for a puntastic Tashlich

(I understand that this list was originally put together by Rabbi Richard Israel z"l to whom I owe thanks)

A Baker’s Guide To Tashlich

a.. For ordinary sins, use - White Bread
b.. For exotic sins - French or Italian Bread
c.. For dark sins - Pumpernickel
d.. For complex sins - Multi-grain
e.. For truly warped sins - Pretzels
f.. For sins of indecision - Waffles
g.. For sins committed in haste - Matza
h.. For substance abuse - Poppy Seed
i.. For committing arson - Toast
j.. For being ill-tempered - Sourdough
k.. For silliness - Nut Bread
l.. For not giving full value - Short Bread
m.. For political chauvinism - Yankee Doodles
n.. For excessive use of irony - Rye Bread
o.. For continual bad jokes - Corn Bread
p.. For hardening our hearts - Jelly doughnuts
q.. For speed limit violations - Russian Bread
r.. For bad temper - Crusty Bread
s.. For having a hole where your heart should be - Bagels
t.. For flaunting wealth in the form of fancy cars - Rolls
u.. For acting like a mad person - Crackers
v.. For cutting remarks - Sliced Bread



Thursday, 18 September 2014

Ki Anu Amecha V'Atah Eloheinu - 'For we are Your people and You are our God'

This is the opening line of one of the most beloved sections of the Slichot service. It will be sung, and sung with gusto, this Saturday evening and throughout Yom Kippur. It speaks of a closeness and the possibility of a meeting. ‘We are Your flock and You are our shepherd... We speak of You and You speak of us.’

 

But for this meeting, this alchemy, to work we need to place ourselves inside the system. The standoffish type, who is really too busy for all this singing doesn’t get to play. The invitation isn’t elitist. It’s open to everyone, but you have to turn up, and you have to bring yourself.

 

The Rosh Hashanah journey begins this Saturday night with our Slichot service at 9:30. The first night of Rosh Hashanah is Wednesday. Come on Friday, come Thursday evening, come early bring yourself, for it is only by bringing yourself that the possibility meets of a relationship. By staying outside, physically or metaphorically we only remind ourselves of what we already know and another year will pass with our lives unchanged.

 

Oh, and one more thing. Tell someone else. Growing up every Jew I knew had a Shul and even went to that Shul, at least on three times a year. Either my circle of acquaintances or the nature of Anglo Jewry has changed. I keep meeting Jews who have no relationship with pews. We believe our services, at New London, offer the best of our liturgical tradition combined with an open-minded quest for truth and integrity. We believe our services are accessible and spiritual. If you want traditional, we have traditional. If you want egalitarian, we have egalitarian. And if you have anyone you think should join us, please pass this appeal on to them, together with the link by which they can purchase tickets – they can click [here] http://www.newlondon.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&layout=edit&id=164. All most definitely welcome,

 

Shabbat shalom, Ki Va Moed – the sacred time is coming,

 

Rabbi Jeremy

 

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Written on a Hat - Rabbinic Reflections on Ellul and Manmade Fibre

I bought what was once called a woolly hat, back in the days when hats were made from wool. This hat, made out of some fancy manmade material, comes with a ‘legend’ printed on the label.

 

‘Polartec (registered trademark) is a series of high performance fabrics that enable you to control your Body Climate (trademark protected) and stay comfortable regardless of the weather or activity. Believe In What Your Wear! (trademark protected).’

 

Oh dear. How very un-Ellul. At this time we are called to acknowledge our fragility and the lack of true control we have over our lives. The winds blow and not even the most impressively engineered high performance fabric will keep us comfortable. “All flesh is grass,” teaches Isaiah, in verses that influence the most powerful prayer of the Rosh Hashnaha season, “ and all its grace is as the flower of the field; The grass withers, the flower fades. Only the word of our God endures forever.”

 

Believing in What We Wear is no more advisable than believing in the idolatrous power of an icon. We do better to place our trust, perhaps counter-intuitively, in that which cannot be trademarked, purchased and owned – we do better to place our trust in a God we cannot understand and have never seen. In part because even in our lack of true comprehension we can still intuit calls to care, be holy and kind. But perhaps even more importantly, by placing faith in that which lacks concrete certainly we are forced to tread more gently. If we are foolish enough to Believe In What We Wear - if we think that a hat, or a burglar alarm or 90 minutes in the gym actually offer any kind of real protection from life and its intransigencies, we are likely to care less about the myriad of encounters that make our life worthy of being saved. Being worthy of being saved, while less superficially attractive than the guarantee of comfort regardless of the weather or activity, does at least has the ring of truth about it.

 

The problem isn’t just hats. The problem is that wherever we turn we are being sold, quite literally, the ability to be Masters of the Universe. We live in a world so infused with hyperbole, deceit and vanity that looking beyond the nonsense of legendary hats and their like is actually a challenge. It takes effort, we need to nurture the ability to see the reality beyond that which is day-after-day imprinted on our senses. Let me suggest three ways to develop a more profound way to see the world.

 

This coming Tuesday we are offering an evening of exploration around Rosh Hashanah. More details at http://www.newlondon.org.uk/index.php?option=com_dpcalendar&view=event&id=gc-1-22ieuut3r5if0as0l56drjqv78_201409161900, it will be an opportunity to reflect and open the mind. All welcome.

 

Next Saturday evening (20th Sept) at 9:30pm we being our liturgical preparation for Rosh Hashanah, our Slichot programme will allow prayer and music to open our hearts – and I’ve pulled all the nepotistic strings I can to bring a very special guest to join me for a pre-service conversation. More information at http://www.newlondon.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&layout=edit&id=202

 

Finally Friday week (26th Sept) – the second day of Rosh Hashanah. The first day is fine, lots of people we haven’t seen for a while and lots of prayer stuff, but it takes the first day to quieten down the Shuk of the world outside. The true moments of insight come, I promise, on the second day. For tickets please go to http://www.newlondon.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&layout=edit&id=164.

 

Shabbat shalom,

 

Rabbi Jeremy

Thursday, 28 August 2014

On Teshuvah and Love

Elul is here – Rosh Hashanah cannot be far behind.

 

With the New Moon of Tuesday night we entered the Hebrew month of Elul.

With the next New Moon we will enter a New Year.

May it come to us, and all, for good and in peace.

 

We are counting down to Rosh Hashanah.

The evening of the first day is 24th September. This is month when we begin to assess the work of the coming days. Perhaps we could all benefit from starting with this idea.

 

In a process known as Notarikon, the Rabbis play with the Hebrew word, Elul – Aleph Lamed Vav Lamed, taking the letters of the word and matching them up against a verse from the Song of Songs – Ani LeDodi V’Dodi Li – I am my beloved and my beloved is mine. The point is this – Teshuvah is built from a foundation of love and reciprocrity. True Teshuvah can only happen gracefully and in relationship with our Creator and our fellow human beings.

 

A graceful relationship with our Creator involves accepting we are created in God’s image. We are invested with a spirit and – should we be so fortunate – the possibility to breathe, see, smell, think, and change. How extraordinary, how beyond any machine-created possibility! And if our relationship with our Creator has gone a little rusty, if we have taken our creation, or our inheritance as Jews too much for granted, the possibility for renewal and transformation exists. The Rabbis teach that when sacrifices were offered in the Temple the flame from the altar would rise and it would meet a flame descending from the heavens. We are met in commitment to live next year differently from the year past.

 

A graceful relationship with our fellow human beings involves opening our heart to the notion that we are not perfect. It’s always easy to ascribe blame or see fault in others. But in this month of Elul we should treat others with the sort of grace we usually reserve for considering our own failures, and put in our own mouths – and hearts – the graceful words we would wish to hear from others ‘sorry,’ ‘no, it was my fault,’ ‘let me do that.’

 

By treating the world and its inhabitants more gracefully, more lovingly we increase the amount of decency in this poor battered world. We might even find more grace and love coming our way in return.

 

Early wishes for a sweet and healthy year to all,

 

Shabbat shalom,

 

Rabbi Jeremy

 

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