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Sermons

Rosh Hashanah 5784/2023

I must confess that I have found it difficult to know what and how to speak to you this Rosh Hashanah morning. Should I address the state of our world, the disasters that have occurred this past week in Morocco and in Libya, where tens of thousands are feared dead and more are displaced? Should we call to mind the earthquakes, cyclones, hurricanes and storms, the burning temperatures and fires that have devastated parts of Europe, Canada and Hawaii this past year?  Or the damage done to the delicate ecosystems that have been ravaged by intensive industrialisation, the warming of our climate, rising sea levels, the risk – the frightening risk – that our actions or inactions now and in the immediate future, may all but lock us into some existential catastrophe befalling future generations? 

In a few minutes we will recite the mediaeval poem known as the Unetanneh Tokef – ‘Let us proclaim the holiness of this day, a day of deepest awe.’  Our Machzor may have redacted its central paragraph because of the disturbing, fatalistic ring of its message, or because we struggle with the idea of a transcendent and powerful God as the agent of natural disaster and disease.  But its words, that compel us to consider ‘how judgement is formed on Rosh Hashanah and how judgement is sealed on Yom Kippur,’ are deeply resonant:

‘for all who pass away and all who are born, for all who live and all who die, for those who complete their normal span and those who do not – who perish by fire or water, by the violence of man or the beast, by hunger or thirst, by disaster or execution…’

They are a true and tragic reflection of the loss and sadness that beset families when someone dies before their time, of catastrophes in villages and cities in coastal areas or in mountainous regions, in times of warfare, and in the daily struggle for survival by so many.

Perhaps it is timely to address the instability and inequalities in our own nation, the image of crumbling schools, hospitals and theatres, or the extremes of wealth and poverty, the crisis of immigration and how to care for the thousands who put their lives in danger by sailing through perilous waters to seek asylum in this country.

Closer to home for us as Jews, it is hard to avoid addressing the precarious situation in Israel. Since January 7 of this year, Israelis have taken to the streets and squares in cities every week after Shabbat to protest against the reform of Israel’s judiciary; legislation that would limit the power of the Supreme Court and the government’s legal councillors and grant the governing coalition a majority on the committee that appoints judges. As the court hearing began on Tuesday of this week, considering the constitutionality of the law to eradicate the reasonableness standard, Israel’s fragile democracy, the principles of separation of powers, the rule of law and human rights, are in jeopardy. The Court will hear additional written arguments over the next weeks before it gives its final decision.  If the Court strikes down the law, says Orly Erez-Likhovski of Israel’s Religious Action Centre, ‘we [will] have to wait for the next case in which the reasonableness standard would be applied by the court to see whether the government would respect that.’

Perhaps on Rosh Hashanah, there is an expectation to address the state of our own Jewish community here in the UK – our spiritual and moral health, as well as the increase in the number of antisemitic incidents recorded this year – the sixth highest ever recorded. They include vandalization of tombstones, an increase in online abuse, incidents in schools involving children both as victims and perpetrators, the most common of these discourses making reference to Hitler, the Nazis or the Holocaust.

And more relevant to these festivals is the searching in our own heart for our failures and fears, for our indifference and indolence, for our selfishness and silence in the face of injustice and wrongdoing. The unanswered questions, what more could we be doing?

In looking back at the past year, we cannot be indifferent to what we see around us, and our collective and personal responsibilities and yet, we must not leave our service today burdened by the weight of the world’s woes, by guilt, by the stress and anxiety that we are living in a world at risk from the disintegration of moral values or, at worst, existential risks to our planet, to our society, to the State of Israel, to the Jewish people, and to ourselves.

So what are the messages of hope we can share with each other at the beginning of this New Year? How can our own Jewish teachings instruct us to mitigate against those risks, to safeguard our future and to plant seeds of optimism and faith?

That we read the story of the birth of Isaac and the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael on Rosh Hashanah is a curious tradition, although not the oldest.  We might have expected the Torah reading, prescribed in the earlier text of the Mishnah, to come from Leviticus 23:23-25, part of the calendar of festivals referring to the first day of the month of Tishri as zikhron t’ruah mikra-kodesh - ‘a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts’ (Leviticus 23:24).

On the other hand, when we consider that creation is the major drama of Rosh Hashanah, perhaps the Torah reading should have been the first chapter of Bereshit – Genesis – and the creation of the first human being ‘created in the divine image, in the image of God, male and female’ (Genesis 1:27).  This, surely, would have been more consistent with Rabbi Eliezer’s statement in the Talmud B’Tishri nivra ha-olam – ‘In Tishri the world was created,’ or the verses in the Machzor – ha-yom harat olam – ‘This is the birthday of the world.’

Instead, we have, not a cosmic drama, but the crisis of a failed surrogacy, a domestic dysfunction that ends, at this moment, in a sense of loss for each character in the story: Abraham loses his son, Ishmael; Isaac and Ishmael lose each other as brothers; Sarah loses any sense of the possibility that this family can be integrated or blended in some way; and Hagar, who casts her son under a bush, waiting for him to die, remains disempowered, tied to her son, potentially the victim of oppression.

It is perhaps unusual to draw on mystical traditions of the Kabbalah in a Liberal synagogue, but they allow for a different and powerful reading of optimism, so please bear with me as we search for those seeds of hope.

In mystical, kabbalistic traditions, Abraham, whose tent was open on all sides, represents the quality of chesed – lovingkindness, an expansive and generous hospitality. His love and obedience to God is without restraint or limits – to the point, somewhat countertuitively, of being willing to see the death of both his sons. Isaac, on the other hand, represents gevurah – strength, judgement, the power to set limits and boundaries, withstanding, as he did, the test of the Akedah.  The two are diametrically opposed, but one entity, two sides of the same coin. For the mystics, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, set against the great cosmic drama of creation, is a journey to discover how these two forces, exemplified in two of our patriarchs, can co-exist in the world, how to create a harmonious balance between them, how to nurture kindness, hospitality, generosity and love, but also to give attention to our boundaries and limits, allowing both to be integrated in ourselves and in the world.

Perhaps it is this theological structure of balance that is required when we think about the trajectory and speed of our evolution and discoveries, whether in agricultural science or artificial intelligence, computer science or technology, medical advances, warfare, or space discovery.  The arc of history will not suddenly come to an end; the human species is intelligent, curious, restless and sometimes selfish and greedy. The quality of chesed knows no bounds, but must, at times, be restrained and regulated by the attribute of gevurah. The harmony and integration of both may allow us to lessen the risks to our environment, to mitigate against the unknown and mighty potential of artificial intelligence, to create a society of welcoming and hospitality, where strangers can realise their true selves, not by being dependent on the state but through work and purposeful activity.

At the heart of what is seen as an existential struggle for democracy in Israel is this requirement for a balance between unrestrained power and authority on the one hand, and on the other, the limits that must be set by an independent judiciary. We must not lose hope that this struggle for integration will take place, but it requires an end to the oppressive and violent steps that the Israeli government is taking towards the annexation of the Occupied Territories. As an Israeli friend said some weeks ago, Israel is a young state, it does not have the benefit of an eight-hundred-year old Magna Carta of human rights; it will take time and determination for democracy and freedom to become established, and perhaps even longer for a pluralist and peaceful state to be created where Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side and not in unequal, fortified enclaves.

Where we can take heart is from the recent developments of our own progressive movements here in the UK. It has taken nearly 120 years to bring together Liberal Judaism and Reform Judaism in a step that surprised, but also uplifted us just a few months ago. During these past decades, many of us wondered why we needed two separate progressive organisations and, from time to time, there were initiatives, both rabbinic and lay, to talk about uniting, to confederate, or even merge. As I said at our meeting with the CEO’s of our two movements, Rabbi Charley Baginsky and Rabbi Josh Levy, there is a PhD thesis to write about the relationship between Liberal and Reform Judaism in matters of status, conversion, divorce, liturgy, theology and communal politics. Today, there is a hair’s breadth, if that, between us on these issues.

A new movement for Progressive Judaism, embracing both our movements and our synagogues, opens up huge spiritual and moral possibilities, giving us a larger platform for our voices to be heard on a host of different issues, including social justice, Israel, spirituality and many of the subjects I have touched on this morning.

We do not need to fear that the uniqueness of our own community will be compromised. Communities do not aspire to be uniform, but to carve out their own individuality – in prayer and music, in learning, social action and pastoral care. This integration of our two movements into one, should give us great hope and optimism not only for progressive Judaism in the future, but for our fragmented world.

As we hear the cry of the Shofar, the boldness and brokenness of its notes, may we too find a way to contain and integrate the qualities of chesed – lovingkindness, generosity and open-handedness with gevurah – the need for restraint and for boundaries in our own lives.  May we begin the New Year with optimism and hope, that if the two attributes are balanced within each one of us, so they will find their equilibrium and integration in the world about us.  May God grant you and all your dear ones a healthy and peaceful New Year.  Amen.

Rabbi Alexandra Wright

 

U’v’chein… - ‘And so…’ Erev Shabbat Shuvah 5784

I am sure you are familiar with the structure of our Shabbat liturgy – the Kabbalat Shabbat introduction to the fixed prayers of the Shema and the Tefillah on Friday evenings; and on Shabbat mornings, the introductory prayers known as Birchot Ha-Shachar and Pesukey d’Zimra – ‘Morning Blessings’ and ‘Psalms of Praise.’ On Shabbat, the Tefillah, also known as the Amidah, is composed of seven blessings: the first three, known as Avot – the ancestors, Gevurot – power, and Kedushah – holiness, are blessings of praise.  The last three are blessings of thanksgiving and peace, the fourth and middle blessing gives thanks to God for holiness of Shabbat.

On festivals, these seven blessings are amplified by additional material relevant to the occasion. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, three additional paragraphs are inserted into the Kedushah, the third blessing of the Amidah.  Each paragraph, striking a bell-like note at the beginning with the word U’v’cheyn – ‘And so’ or ‘Therefore.’

These three paragraphs are first found in Seder Rav Amram, a compendium of prayers by the Babylonian Gaon Rav Amram, composed sometime in the ninth century CE. This is the earliest known prayer book, which originated in a responsum to the Jewish community of Barcelona. From there, it spread throughout Spain and then to other countries, and it forms the basis, not only of our daily and Shabbat prayers, but also our festival Machzor.

However, these three paragraphs are thought to be much older and connected with the special prayers and verses recited in the Shofar service on Rosh Hashanah, already mentioned in the Mishnah – the third century CE code of Jewish law.

What do these paragraphs say and how are they relevant to us today?  Perhaps the first thing to say about them is that they reflect a classical rabbinic theology.   God is a transcendent God – majestic, powerful, holy, inspiring awe and fear.  God is a king ruling over heaven and earth, exalted by justice, sanctified by righteousness. And God is fearsome, setting fear and dread on every human being and every creature on earth.  This language of fear – in Hebrew pachad, reminds us of Deuteronomy, the prophets, Esther and Job.  This is not Yirat Adonai – a sense of awe when standing before God, but something more visceral, that makes us tremble in the presence of God’s strength and might. 

The translation in our Machzor, which begins with the words U’v’chein ten pach’d’cha, is softened by interpreting this word pachad as ‘awe’ – ‘And so, Eternal One our God, inspire all Your works to be in awe before You, and let all creatures tremble at Your presence.’  Other translations refrain from shying away from this gentler interpretation and reflect the true meaning of the two words pachad and eymah (‘dread’) – ‘Therefore, our Living God, set such fear on every human being and such dread on all Your creatures…’  (Forms of Prayer, Erev Rosh Hashanah Machzor Draft Edition). These two different translations raise the question – how do you mediate the literal meaning of these ancient Hebrew texts for a Jewish community today? We may have experienced awe and wonder, perhaps when we have been in the presence of something wondrous and beautiful, in nature or in human life – a rainbow, a terrific storm, a sunset, a newborn baby, even death.  But fear and dread are something different, something dark and threatening, something that evokes – not humility and awe – but a sense of being overwhelmed and crushed. We might think of a different way of understanding the prayer as reflecting sometimes our own state of mind, our emotions.

The second half of this first paragraph is magnificently universal, envisaging in Hebrew – agudah achat – ‘a single fellowship’ of all humanity who will come together to do God’s will. The use of this image and the word agudah – ‘fellowship’ – is powerful because it reminds us of the Haftarah reading for the morning of Yom Kippur, in which we are required to hateir agudot motah – ‘to free those bound in the chains of ‘the yoke’ (or perhaps injustice’) (Isaiah 58:6).  Our prayer takes the biblical meaning of agudah, meaning ‘chains’ or ‘fetters’ referring to slavery and inverts its significance to signify the oneness of humanity.

The second paragraph moves from the universal to the particular, focusing on God’s people and the land of Israel.  If the first paragraph is about fear and dread, the second is about happiness and joy, anticipating the beginning of redemption and a messianic age in the land of Israel and in Jerusalem – a time of peace and harmony.

The third paragraph returns to the universal and the wish that ‘violence shall rage no more, and evil shall vanish like smoke; the rule of tyranny shall pass away from the earth…’ Once again, we hear the echoes of biblical passages, railing against the presumption of idolatry, brutality and bloodshed.

It is in these words that we find significance for our own time, in a prayer that beseeches God to sweep away violence and evil and the abuse of power from our midst.  And it is also a prayer that reminds us, in its closing words, that we are not passive onlookers to moral degenerateness in the world.  For if God is exalted by justice and sanctified by righteousness, then we too, created in the image of God, have a moral responsibility to work for justice and righteousness.

We may not be able to solve the world’s injustice and unrighteousness, but through our prayers, through our observance of Shabbat and the festivals, through our learning of Torah and all that it encompasses, we are led to an understanding that can begin in small ways, in our own lives, to bring about change, and so infuse into the environments in which we live holiness and righteousness.  

Rabbi Alexandra Wright

 

Forgiveness - Kol Nidre 5784

‘Men and women ain't lumps of sugar.
They don't melt because the water is sometimes warm.’
Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her?

It will be two years at the end of November this year, since I moved out of the house, where I had lived for thirty-four years. The task of downsizing, of clearing the belongings I had amassed over those years, was one that did not, in general, grieve me, although I would be lying if I did not tell you that in saying farewell to the piano that had belonged to my late, paternal grandmother, felt like an act of betrayal to her memory and was the only sad moment in the weeks leading up to my move.  My new home would be much smaller and certainly not able to accommodate even half of what lay stored in kitchen cupboards, or on bookshelves, and none of the records of classical music I had collected as a teenager to play on my gramophone, or the CDs and videos cherished by my children over the years.

So, it was with some smugness that I watched what was left of my belongings, down to my toothbrush, being loaded, not on to one of those huge removal vans, but a smaller, medium-sized van, everything packed away and ready to go by lunchtime. All that remained were the clothes in which I stood, by now covered with dust and a small box of Hebrew books, in case I had not unpacked the rest of my books in time to prepare the Torah reading and write a sermon for the following Shabbat.

Only one problem remained as I stood in the front garden on that freezing cold day in November, a biting wind scouring my face. It had been a year-long process between exchanging on my house with the buyers, finding somewhere to live and the day of completion. But by 1.00 pm, there was still no news from the buyers’ solicitor, an elusive fellow called Mendy, that completion had occurred.

The removal men had taken off for lunch, my house in their van. It was about ten minutes later when a phone call from my solicitor informed me that the buyers would need another week to complete as they still had some ‘legal forms’ to complete.  To be honest, I felt somewhat detached and rather alienated from the whole process – this wasn’t something I had done very often on my own – if at all.

After several hours of hopeless phone calls, it was clear that no completion was going to take place on the day planned.  I couldn’t unpack everything back into my house, and I couldn’t go into the new place. At 4.00 pm, the removal men said, ‘That’s it for the day. We’re finished.’ And off they went with my bike, my toothbrush, my Shabbes clothes and every single item I owned, except for the box of books.

Thankfully, my supportive and kind family took pity, and I decamped into the bedroom of one of my nephews who had recently moved out of the family home.  It was only later on, standing in a queue in Brent Cross buying necessities that I didn’t need because they were on the van, that I felt angry and resentful towards the buyers who had (or had not yet) bought my property.

There was no communication, and I had no idea when I would be able to move or reclaim my belongings from storage. Then one evening, a week later, came a ‘phone call from my solicitor - completion had taken place.  I could move the following day.  Within minutes, a text popped up on my mobile phone.  ‘I want to ask you Mechila [forgiveness] for the distress and discomfort my delay caused you.’ it was from the buyer, an orthodox Jewish man who was not unaware of my profession.

How do you forgive?  How do you let go of anger, resentment, the inconvenience of being without even your basic belongings, the embarrassment of imposing yourself for a week on family with their own pressures and concerns, and the uncertainty of not knowing how events would unfold?

The Mishnah teaches that even if an assailant gives the victim all the required payments for their injury, their sin is not forgiven until they request forgiveness, and if the victim refuses to forgive, they are deemed to be achzari – ‘cruel’ (mBava Kamma 8:7).

Maimonides takes this further, saying that it is forbidden for a person to be cruel and unforgiving, for they must be easily appeased but hard to anger; and when a sinner implores his victim for pardon, they should grant pardon wholeheartedly and with a willing spirit. A person is forbidden to be vengeful or to bear a grudge (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:10).

What was my obligation to the buyer in response to his texted request for mechilah?  Would I be considered cruel and unforgiving if I did not text back – Salachti kid’varecha – I have forgiven according to your word?  I regret to say that at that moment, I did not feel appeased.  I felt as though an insult had been added to my injury, as though the inconvenience and humiliation I had experienced could be wiped away with a quick text message fulfilling the halakhic instruction to apologise for wrongdoing.

The halakhah might prescribe forgiveness from the person wronged, but the Rabbis of the Talmud themselves were not always quick to forgive.

The Talmud tells the story of a disagreement between two Sages, Rabban Gamliel, who was Nasi – the religious head of the Jewish community in Israel - and Rabbi Joshua. As they could not agree, the matter is brought to the academy and Rabbi Joshua’s opinion upheld. Rabban Gamliel accepts the situation and goes to seek out Rabbi Joshua to become reconciled with him. As he approaches his house, he sees that the walls are black and filthy, and says, somewhat tactlessly, to him: ‘From the walls of your house, I can see that you are a blacksmith.’ 

Now, before I tell you how Rabbi Joshua responded – there is a bit of history to the story, because this was not the first time that Gamliel had humiliated his colleague.  In another disagreement about the day on which Yom Kippur should fall, Rabban Gamliel used his position as Nasi and ordered Joshua to appear before him with his staff and money on the day on which he (Joshua) believed Yom Kippur should fall. Distressed that the head of the Sanhedrin had forced him to desecrate Yom Kippur, Rabbi Joshua is comforted by his colleagues and persuaded to appear before Rabban Gamliel, who stands up, kisses him on his head and addresses him with the words Bo v’shalom rabbi v’talmidi - ‘Come in peace, my teacher and my student’ (mRosh Hashanah 2:8-9). There, the Mishnah comes to an end, so we don’t know how Joshua was left feeling – whether he felt humiliated and angry, or whether he was reconciled to Gamliel.

Against that painful experience for Joshua, let us return to Rabban Gamliel’s words as he enters the house of his colleague.  I see, from the state of your walls, which are completely black that you are a blacksmith.  How does Rabbi Joshua respond?  He says: ‘Alas for this generation whose leader you are supposed be, that you are unaware of the difficulties of Torah scholars, how they make a living and how they feed themselves.’  He delivers a sharp and just rebuke, letting this wealthy Nasi know that he can barely scrape together a living as a blacksmith. Rabban Gamliel sees that he has insulted his colleague and replies immediately: ‘I insulted you, forgive me [m’chol li].’  Rabbi Joshua says nothing. Gamliel asks him again: ‘Do it in deference to my father’ - Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, one of the leaders of Israel at the time of the destruction of the Temple. The Talmud tells us Joshua is appeased (bBerakhot 28a).

On first reading this story, I assumed that Joshua forgave Rabban Gamliel.  But looking further into the meaning of the word piyyes – to pacify, to conciliate, to persuade, to appease – I am not sure if forgiveness took place. What if Joshua was so hurt and so damaged by Gamliel’s words to him and by previous experiences, that he simply couldn’t say, ‘I forgive you’?  What if he felt that Gamliel hadn’t really understood how deeply he had insulted a fellow scholar; or that Gamliel hadn’t truthfully expressed remorse or shame, he hadn’t learnt from his mistake?  Perhaps all that happened was a defrosting of the relationship, enough to allow the two to become reconciled, Joshua’s anger and hurt pacified, but the insult not fully wiped away.

Sometimes it is too hard simply to forgive, to obliterate and cover over harmful words or actions. Perhaps they do not merit forgiveness, but a restorative process between individuals, between nations. There is no forgiveness for unconscionable transgression, for the lives murdered during the Shoah. No forgiveness for the humiliation and oppression of slavery, for apartheid and torture.  When the victims are no longer alive, there is no one to say, I forgive, and we should never, ever presume to forgive on behalf of those who are no more.  And some hurt is so deeply cut into the psyche of an individual or people, that it will take generations for healing and restoration to take place.

I was indignant enough at the time not to respond to the buyer of my house who asked me to grant him mechilah [forgiveness]. It was a cheap and humiliating shot, thinking that he could do penance that quickly.  But I did not bear a grudge; nor did I cut off all communication with him. I wondered at his understanding of how repentance works – how the heart needs to go through a process of shame, self-abasement, remorse; how it must struggle to overcome pride and stubbornness. Sometimes that can take years before a real acknowledgement of hurtful behaviour or words. And it can take years before we can let go of or even forget the hurt and injury done to us. Sometimes it is simply too hard and even impossible, to forgive. And sometimes it would be dishonest to forgive, when the heart remains wounded, when confidence is dented, when there is no evidence of teshuvah – repentance.

It is a great privilege to be a Rabbi, to enter the homes and worlds of families and individuals at times of rejoicing or sadness, to be part of something intimate across the generations, the naming and blessing of a new baby, the burial of our dead, joining partners in marriage or blessing.  But in the thirty-seven years I have been a Rabbi, I have witnessed too many estrangements within families – fallouts over the legacies of parents, bitter squabbling over money and sometimes the arguments that are so distant in the past, no one can remember why one person refuses to speak to another.

Why is it so difficult to do teshuvah – to take ourselves honestly through the process of remorse, shame, acknowledgement of guilt or wrongdoing – in order – not necessarily to ask forgiveness or forget the harm that is done – but at least to seek some kind of peace, some wholeness in our own hearts.  Is it better to protect ourselves from further pain by cutting ourselves off from family or a friend who has upset us?  Or is it better to heal the brokenness in our hearts, to die peacefully when our days are complete, knowing that relationships have been restored, that we have sought, perhaps not forgiveness which may be too hard, but reconciliation, reciprocity, affirmation and a letting go of hatred and resentment.

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester shared this very moving responsum by Rav Gilad Strauss, where he responds to a question regarding being unable to forgive because of the pain caused.  Rav Strauss writes:

There is no obligation to forgive someone who does not ask you forgiveness. But when someone asks you for forgiveness, you do not have to take it lightly.  You need to explain to them that in order for you to grant forgiveness, they need to know how much they have hurt you and how hard it is to forgive.  If they are really interested in reconciling, they will demonstrate this deep desire and that will allow you truly to forgive.

The important thing, he concludes in his responsum, is that after a while (about a year), one should try to eliminate the anger and hurt caused.  Just as mourning ends after a year, so anger and hatred should end, regardless of who hurt you.

‘You need to know that your anger hurts and damages you. So for your own good, you should remove these things from your heart, and maybe even let them know (somehow) that you may not and do not want to forgive, but you are trying to forget.’

My own first world experience did not leave me hurt or damaged or bearing a grudge.  But the truth is no matter how sincerely we forgive, it does not completely uproot the past. A perpetrator must acknowledge the profound pain caused to person they have wronged and recognise that no one can wholly purify their heart. Our human nature is often flawed and blemished, but we are also capable of being sensitive, loving compassionate and kind and I have met many more families where the bonds of love and loyalty, shared pain and happiness, are forgiving, generous, compassionate and unbreakable.

I pray that this year, we can recognise our own blemishes and shortcomings and work to overcome the estrangements and quarrels in our lives, and so seek to repair what is broken in our relationships with each other.  And where that is not possible, may we cast our burden upon God and allow restoration and repair to occur in our own hearts and bring us a year of inner peace, healing and love. Keyn yehi ratzon.

Rabbi Alexandra Wright

 

 

Writing the Book of Your Life - Yom Kippur 5784

Two years ago, instead of writing a High Holy Days article for the LJS News magazine, Rabbi Alex and I interviewed each other. One of the questions from that piece still makes me think. Rabbi Alex asked me:

The theology of the High Holy Days often seems challenging: the Judge who sits, watching over us, inscribing us in the Book of Life – or not, pardoning us if we merit forgiveness. How do you interpret this theology for our congregation in the 21st century?

It is questions like this that challenge your integrity. Do you believe in what you are saying in services? Do you practice what you preach?

You may take a classical rabbinic approach and say that wise people in the past wrote our prayers, and we must trust them. There must be a meaning in it. But this approach – blind trust in the wisdom of the past generations  – can lead to positions like in the following short story:

A man hangs a horseshoe above his door for good luck. When his friend saw it, she asked if he believed it would bring him luck. The man replied, ‘No, but I've been told it works even if you don't believe in it.’

Do we, modern Jews, read prayers with the same approach? Sometimes, religious leaders feel satisfied with people who think ‘it works even if you don't believe in it.’ This should not be the way for us. We must not be complacent to the big questions and challenges people struggle with today. Blind trust in past wisdom or current leadership can be dangerous. In the best-case scenario, it can lead to disillusionment and disengagement.

High Holy Days have a very complicated theology. Yom Kippur is the most challenging festival for a person in the 21st century.

בראש השנה יכתבון וביום צום כיפור יחתמון

On Rosh Hashanah, it is written, and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed.

We are told that God has a book where your decree is written, and your fate is determined for the following year. Some people talk about two books – The Good Book and The Bad Book. On Rosh Hashanah, they are opened, your name is written in one of them, and you have 10 days until Yom Kippur to change the severity of the judgment. Taken literally, this idea is hard to accept. You need to read this as poetry, as a metaphor, and then you might be able to reconcile with this prayer.

Let us take a historical approach. The High Holy Days liturgy was written a long time ago – the earliest Machzor we know of is Machzor Vitry, the 11th-century manuscript with many prayers we still read today. On the one hand, there is beauty and meaning in this timeless connection. It is nice that generations of Jewish people have been reading prayers like Unetaneh Tokef, Avinu Malkeinu, and Zochreinu Lechayim for the last 900 years.

On the other hand, these texts were much more powerful and relevant in the 11th century than they are today. We live in a different world with different challenges and issues. For example, in the 11th century, people lived in a time when Kings ruled over all countries, and their power was unchecked and often unlimited. Therefore, the image of God, more powerful than any earthly human King, would be very meaningful to people. 11th , 12th, and 13th centuries was the time of the Crusades and Inquisition, the time when Jewish people often were a target of violence and persecution. Therefore, the idea that such suffering was a part of a large God’s master plan was very appealing to Jewish people. Even in the midst if all this horror, they stil ended their prayer with hope - U’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah, ma’avirin et roah’ hagezerah: Repentance, prayer and charity avert the evil of the decree.

Today, when you read about a God who sits on a throne and writes people down in books, you might not relate to this metaphor. Today, when you read about an anthropomorphic God who sits on a throne and writes people down in books, you might think, ‘Why King and not Queen?’ or ‘Why King and not Prime Minister or President?’.  And yet, those people who come to the synagogue once a year choose this day to come – the day with ancient metaphors that require a history lesson to be understood. (Well, possibly, this is why some people only come once a year.)

Modern Jewish liturgy should convey the key message of ancient texts but be relevant and contemporary. This year, I suggest a slight change. Each time you read ‘God’ in the prayerbook, replace it with ‘me’ or ‘my conscience.’ This way, when you ask for forgiveness, it is not God who needs to forgive you, but you need to forgive yourself.

This year, when you read about God opening the Book of Life, it will be addressed to each of us individually. Imagine having a Book of Your Life where you could be honest with yourself and list everything you have without the need to pretend. This list will have all your achievements, victories, and happy moments, and all the people you love. This Book would also need to have a list of all your regrets, your failures, and your dark secrets. In practice, these two lists will become an Introduction to your Book of Life, and each year, you will add another chapter to it. This way, the prayer will be transformed into a simple message: let me be the author of my own life.

Let’s develop this thought a bit further. What if we were to write a Book of Life, but for the whole of humanity? In it, we would list many achievements in medicine, technology, art, and other fantastic victories of the human mind and spirit.  But we would also list many transgressions and mistakes.

What is happening too often is skipping this last part - listing our mistakes. The search for external enemies usually replaces this part. People all over the world are spending a lot of time and energy trying to find a monster who puts an obstacle to a good and happy future. Instead of focusing on the inner failures and spending time reflecting on them, we look for somebody else to blame – immigrants, AI, social media, conspiracy theories. Instead of being honest about our shortcomings, we blame others. Instead of using our mistakes to become better, we are satisfied with the fact that many others are worse than us. Instead of spending energy to become better, we spend resources to hide our mistakes.

‘Whoever fights with monsters should be careful not to become a monster themselves. And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.’ 

This is one of the most famous quotes by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (from ‘Beyond Good and Evil’). He believed that metaphorically or physically, humans are constantly fighting for their ‘place under the sun.’ In this struggle, people encounter various ‘monsters’: evil, suffering, lies, weakness, etc. However, you might become one of them if you are not careful. Nietzsche warned that one shouldn't succumb to the temptation of revenge and hatred towards one's enemies but should strive for a ‘superhuman’ ideal. Even if you understand that this ideal is unachievable, pursuing it still holds value.

Nietzsche also spoke about how people must be willing to ‘look into the abyss’ - that is, into their consciousness and subconscious depths, where their personality's darkest and most fearful aspects reside. It is important to know that the abyss also looks back at you - exerting a reverse influence that affects your behaviour and choices. Learning about your dark side means that you should embrace your nature, not fear your instincts and desires, but use them not to harm yourself and others. One must try to turn them into tools to do something good.

Over the last year, I took a project of interviewing people involved in the war in Ukraine – soldiers, religious leaders, refugees, politicians, teachers, etc. Maybe one day, it will become a book or collection of educational recourses, but for now, I would like to reflect on one of the themes many Ukrainians spoke to me about – the dark side of human nature. When the war came to their home, many people realised that violence and evil are natural to all humans – many Ukrainians started to hate and wish death to their enemy.

We are all human. All of us have both good and bad, blessings and curses, the ability to give life, and the ability to take life. When darkness comes to your home, there is a temptation to give up and give way to the dark side of your nature. After speaking with some of the people who just came from the war, I think that an important condition of human existence is to struggle with their dark nature. It is to try to remain a person, more than just an animal part of being human. In this sense, God embodies and symbolises the human ability to overcome your dark side. The fact that the dark side exists in all of us does not mean that one should surrender to it.

In Judaism, there's the concept of ‘Tzimtzum’ - an idea that suggests God contracted or diminished Themself to make room for the creation of the world and the existence of other beings. This idea is mentioned in an early Midrash Shemot Rabbah (34:1). It states that when God descended to dwell in the newly built Tabernacle, God contracted and fit into a space the size of one cubit.

Later, in medieval Kabbalistic texts, this idea was developed further. According to Kabbalah, God actively limited God’s infinity to allow for the existence of the world and human free will.

According to this concept, humanity gained freedom of choice, but God's active presence in human life was diminished in exchange. It's impossible to live in a world where God controls everything and for people to choose their destiny. Therefore, the main question we should ask is not "Why does God allow war, injustice, and bloodshed?" but "Why does humanity allow wars, injustice, and bloodshed?"

In 1971, Professor Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment. 24 volunteers were divided into two groups: prisoners and guards. They were supposed to live in a specially equipped university basement for two weeks, following the rules and their assigned roles. The guards were granted the authority to punish the prisoners, including the use of electric shocks. The experiment was terminated after six days due to increased violence and psychological pressure that guards directed to prisoners. This experiment has a very important message. Any person can change under the influence of social circumstances. Anybody can lose empathy for the suffering of others, becoming cruel and forgetting compassion.

Does this mean that evil resides within each of us? Does it imply that any person can become a potential wrongdoer? Most likely, yes. However, it doesn't mean everyone is destined to commit something horrendous. On the contrary, acknowledging and recognising one's capacity for evil is the best way to keep it under control.

One of my interviews was with Ukrainian-born Rabbi Miriam Klimova. Miriam was born in Ukraine, lived in Russia, studied in Poland, and currently is a Rabbi of the Russian-speaking community in Haifa, Israel. This community today has both Russian and Ukrainian immigrants.

I asked her, ‘How do you see your role as a Rabbi and the role of religion during this war?’ She shared this story of her visit to Lviv in February 2023, one year after the war began. She said:

I had the opportunity to conduct a memorial ceremony at a kindergarten for both Jewish and non-Jewish Ukrainian children. After the ceremony, one of the educators came up to me. She started crying and approached me with a sense of shame. She said she was a Christian and that recently, she had gone to her church and prayed to hasten the destruction of all the enemies. She felt ashamed about it afterwards and needed some guidance.

How do you respond to this? How do you respond to someone who lives through this daily, whose kindergarten was closed because displaced Ukrainians lived there? What do you say to someone who taught children to run to the basement during bombings?

Rabbi told the teacher the story of Berurya, the wife of Rabbi Meir:

הָנְהוּ בִּרְיוֹנֵי דַּהֲווֹ בְּשִׁבָבוּתֵיהּ דְּרַבִּי מֵאִיר וַהֲווֹ קָא מְצַעֲרוּ לֵיהּ טוּבָא. הֲוָה קָא בָּעֵי רַבִּי מֵאִיר רַחֲמֵי עִלָּוַיְהוּ כִּי הֵיכִי דְּלֵימוּתוּ. אָמְרָה לֵיהּ בְּרוּרְיָא דְּבֵיתְהוּ: מַאי דַּעְתָּךְ — מִשּׁוּם דִּכְתִיב ״יִתַּמּוּ חַטָּאִים״, מִי כְּתִיב ״חוֹטְאִים״? ״חַטָּאִים״ כְּתִיב.

There were hooligans in Rabbi Meir’s neighbourhood who caused him a great deal of anguish. Rabbi Meir prayed for God to have mercy on them, and that they should die. Rabbi Meir’s wife, Berurya, said to him: What is your thinking? On what basis do you pray for the death of these hooligans? Do you base yourself on the verse, as it is written: “Let sins cease from the land” (Psalms 104:35)? Do you interpret it to mean that the world would be better if the wicked were destroyed? Is it written, “let sinners cease?” No! It is written, “Let sins cease,”. One should pray for an end to their transgressions, not for the demise of the transgressors themselves.

All this woman truly wanted was the end of the daily horror. She was relieved to hear that not all enemies had to die for the war to end.

At the end, Rabbi Klimova said: ‘Our goal is to try to hear every person, understand, and stand in solidarity with their pain. Religion is one of the few things in this world with this power. To show people more than one perspective – that, I believe, is our task and the role of religion.’

We live in a society that creates lists and books of enemies, of someone or something to blame for our problems, challenges, and struggles. But the list we need to make is not a list of excuses and external enemies. Instead, we must try and look inside and write the Book of Our Life – with our achievements, victories, happy moments, and people we love. We should not stop there. This Book must also list our regrets, failures, and dark secrets. This list must be honest, and we must take this task seriously. Otherwise, we will keep finding excuses and keep doing what we don’t believe in and think that it will work even if we don’t believe in it.

May this Day of Atonement become the beginning of the next chapter of Your Book of Life. May this chapter be honest, sincere, and meaningful. May this chapter be full of hope, life, dreams, visions. May our failures be an inspiration for us to become better and to make this world a better place.

G’mar Tov! Have a meaningful Day and a very good year.

Rabbi Igor Zinkov

 

Fri, 24 May 2024 16 Iyar 5784