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Rosh Hashanah 5783/2022

Happy Birthday! 

According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is the day on which God created Adam and Eve. In other words, Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of humanity. So, happy birthday to all of us!

Birthdays are supposed to be happy occasions, but many people feel sad. Birthdays can be overwhelming. This phenomenon has the name - ‘birthday depression’ - feeling unhappy when you are supposed to celebrate your big day.

Here are just a few things that people say to describe their feelings: being upset about getting older, being upset about not being old enough, being disappointed for not having enough gifts, being upset for other people spending too much money, being unsatisfied with your accomplishments since your last birthday, being upset about accomplishing too much and not spending enough time with family and friends, being scared that you might not have enough people who remember you, and being upset about being the centre of attention for too many people. There is something fundamentally wrong with planning the day to be joyful but achieving the opposite result.

 A similar phenomenon happens in other areas of life. George Orwell introduced the term ‘doublethink’ in his 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. It describes an authoritarian regime which forces people to accept two conflicting realities simultaneously. The three slogans of the Party in the book’s narrative are good examples of doublethink — War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength.

The book is full of such examples. The Ministry of Truth is really concerned with lies, the Ministry of Peace is concerned with war, the Ministry of Love is concerned with torture, and the Ministry of Plenty is concerned with starvation. 

Doublethink is not just fictional. You do not need to look far for examples in our world. Some people today seriously try to achieve peace by launching a war, people try to achieve coexistence by building fences and walls. Others try to look after refugees by sending them away or supporting the poor in time of economic crisis by cutting taxes, that mainly help the rich.

One form of doublethink is to believe in the power of people and gradual social change, and at the same time, look for a strong leader to come and solve all our problems. Life should not be defined only by milestones, strong leaders, and big days; life happens every day. Even if it is a regular day with nothing special in it, it is still life.

Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk once asked his students: What was the hardest part of the Akedah for Abraham? Some said it was the initial call or the long walk to Moriah, knowing what was coming next. Others said it was the binding. The Rabbi said that the hardest part was coming down the mountain. In peak moments of our lives, the immediacy, the rush of adrenaline, often carries us through. What happens afterwards is the true test of sincerity, for we must live with the consequences of our actions. 

The hardest part of Rosh Hashanah, and indeed life, is not the prayers and New Year resolutions we make. The hardest part is six months later when we are supposed to live by our promises. The hardest test of life does not happen in the moment of crisis but after the crisis has passed.

In a Rosh Hashanah address, a Rabbi once asked his community an important question - Why does God need so much praise from people? Is The Almighty unsure of His own powers?… God does not need praise by people, but God knows that when people cease to praise God, they begin to praise one another too much…. 

The main purpose of religion is not to praise or please God, but to remind people that they are not gods. We cannot perform miracles and make all problems disappear, and neither can God. The main purpose of this season in Judaism is to confront doublethink and make sure that we do what we promised and stop pretending. 

Liberal Judaism’s promise to its members is to create a religion where people believe in what they say and practice what they believe. Religion without sincerity is empty, prayer without action is deception. It does not mean we can solve all problems in the world, but at least we can try.

This year almost 100 million people had to leave their homes. 100 million people were forcibly displaced because of conflict, violence and human rights violations.  The data shows that this number will only grow. We have to accept this reality and say to ourselves - we can do better! We must build a better system of helping refugees. One day it can be you.
This year the world is experiencing the highest number of violent conflicts and wars since the end of World War II – almost 30 wars are happening right now  – we can do better. Human life is too high a price to pay for any ideology and disagreement. Pretending that it does not exist is doublethink.
In London alone, over 8000 people slept rough on the street in the last year.  –This number is too high for such a rich, inclusive, and diverse city. We can do better.

We might not be able to solve all the problems in the world, but it does not mean we should do nothing. Even if we know that we cannot make this world perfect during this year, we can still look back and reflect on the past year and see where we can make a small step toward a better future for us and generations after us. Sometimes you do something good not to solve the problem, but because without you, it will be even worse.

‘It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.’ This is what Viktor Frankl said in his timeless ‘Man's Search for Meaning.’ 

In the words of Prophet Micah:

הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־יְהֹוָ֞ה דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ 
כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃

People tell you what [they think] is good… But [remember] what God requires of you: do justice, love compassion, and walk humbly with your God.

Life is not about reflecting God’s glory in your life and looking for a messiah who will come and save the world; it’s about looking at your reflection in the mirror without thinking that you are god and without being ashamed.
It’s not about saying ‘I don’t do enough;’ it’s about saying, ‘We can do better.’
It’s not about achieving power; it’s about what you achieve with your power,
It’s not about presenting yourself; it’s about being present with yourself.
It’s not about the years in your life; it’s about the life in your years. 

So far, the months preceding the new year did not give us many reasons to hope; let’s prove it wrong. The power of community is stronger than every one of us. There are many people in the UK and around the world who need us.  Together we can do it. 

Shanah Tovah! And Happy Birthday!

Rabbi Igor Zinkov

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783/2022

Last week, sitting at a dinner following a wedding blessing, a fellow guest turned to me and asked, ‘What keeps you awake at night?’ Anxious about the future of Leo Baeck College, the progressive rabbinical seminary, where Rabbi Igor and I and over 170 Liberal and Reform Rabbis have been ordained since it was founded in 1956, I was bending the ear of my neighbour, an art historian and trustee of a significant academic library collection of Judaica and hoping he might offer some pointers for the precarious future of the College.

But I have been reflecting on his question all week. What keeps me awake at night? And wondering, too, what is it that might keep many of us awake at night?

Since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, when we closed the synagogue and conducted services from our homes, gradually returning to the Sanctuary over the succeeding months, speaking to a virtual congregation, introducing recorded music from loyal and devoted musicians who stayed with us throughout Covid-19, hoping, praying that as things became a little easier, people would be encouraged to return to live worship rather than livestream, I have felt discomfited repeatedly by the close-to-the-bone words of one of the evening prayers that forms part of our daily, Shabbat and festival liturgy. It touches on what keeps me awake at night.

The prayer is formulated as a blessing - the second blessing following the Shema and immediately preceding the Amidah.  It begins with these words, sung so beautifully just a few moments ago to a Sephardi tune: 

Hashkiveinu, Adonai Eloheynu, l’shalom, v’ha’amideynu Malkeinu, l’chayyim - ‘Grant, Eternal God, that we may lie down in peace, and let us rise up to life renewed’ (Machzor Ruach Chadashah, p. 61)

The blessing is part of what the Talmud calls ge’ulah arichta - ‘a long Redemption’, implying that this blessing is an extension of the previous blessing, in which we refer to the Exodus from Egypt:

‘You have freed us from oppressors and delivered us from tyrants; You led us out of Egypt for ever to serve You in freedom’ (MRC, p. 60).

But merging these two blessings into one long blessing is to misunderstand their full import: one is a blessing of praise for redemption in the past – a reference to coming out of Egypt, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds - God’s redemptive activities with Israel. While the second blessing, known simply by its opening word Hashkiveinu – ‘Cause us to lie down’ is a supplication to guard us from those things that keep us awake at night and to help us fall into a deep and undisturbed sleep, free from anxiety.

[The precise origin of all our prayers is something of a mystery, but we can discern a biblical reference that might have been the inspiration for this longer prayer.  It is a single verse in Psalm 4, which perhaps served as a simple prayer on going to bed at night:
B’shalom yachdav esh’k’vah v’ishan, ki-attah Adonai l’vadad la-vetach toshiveyni -‘Safe and sound, I lie down and sleep, For You alone, O Eternal One keep me secure’ (Psalm 4:9).]

The blessing is mentioned in the Mishnah of Rabbi Judah the Prince, edited at the beginning of the 3rd century (m.Berakhot 1:4), and again in the Talmud, yet scarcely merits any kind of discussion or analysis. And this is surprising, because unlike the blessings of praise, thanksgiving and acknowledgement of God as Creator, Giver of Torah and Redeemer that are recited either side of the Shema, this blessing is a prayer of petition.

As its opening words indicate, we ask God to protect us through the night, to ‘spread over us the shelter of [God’s] peace’ and to ‘be our help.’  But it is the middle of the blessing that makes us tremble; and I am grateful to Rabbi Tony Bayfield who, in a recent talk, articulated exactly what this part of the prayer means to him and what I have long felt about its words.  The blessing continues with this entreaty: V’haseir mé-aleynu oyeiv dever v’cherev v’ra’av v’yagon.  The translation in our Machzor says simply: ‘Shield us from sickness and war, from famine and distress…’ But the literal translation gives us a little more: ‘Remove from us [the] enemy, [the] plague, [the] sword, hunger and sorrow.’

Here is how Rabbi Bayfield interprets these ‘close-to-the-bone’ words using another translation:

‘“Disease” simply screams pandemics: the Black Death, the Great Plague, the ‘Spanish’ flu pandemic that carried off my great-grandfather in 1918 and COVID 19 which carried off my own father in 2020. 

‘“Violence” howls equally loudly war - not just the war in Ukraine but the appalling cloud of terminal weaponry hanging over Taiwan, China and the West.

‘“Famine”, equally loudly and equally insistently, points to the terrifying crop failures and devastating floods resulting from climate change’ (Talk on Personal Theology, given at a joint meeting of the Liberal Conference and Reform Assembly of Rabbis on 13 September 2022).

Each time we recite these words – ‘sickness and war…famine and distress’, it is as though the prayer holds up a mirror to our own world. And even now, with the threat of Covid less acute than it was one and certainly two years ago, the mirror frightens me yet again.

Hilary Mantel, whose premature death just last week, has left us bereft of a highly intelligent, imaginative artist of words, writes this on loss:

‘The pattern of all losses mirrors the pattern of the gravest losses. Disbelief is followed by numbness, numbness by distraction, despair, exhaustion. Your former life still seems to exist, but you can’t get back to it; there is a glimpse in dreams of those peacock lawns and fountains, but you’re fenced out, and each morning you wake up to the loss over again’ (‘Rereading C.S. Lewis,’ The Guardian, 27 December, 2014).

Here Mantel is speaking of grief in her rereading of C.S. Lewis’s slim volume A Grief Observed, written after the death his wife. But as Lewis observes in his opening line, ‘No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.’

Covid-19 left us both grief-stricken and fearful, grieving the loss of loved ones, mourning our own lost pre-pandemic lives, those former lives that Mantel says, ‘you can’t get back to’. Even before we can process those lost years and what they meant to us personally, we find ourselves confronted repeatedly with an absence in our world of imagination, compassion, empathy, understanding, a deficiency of justice and equity. And in their place: there is war, famine, hunger and the appalling wedge of inequality that has been driven further between rich and poor in our own country. 

These are the things that keep me awake at night, that sicken me and paralyse all good intentions, all ambition to reclaim a world that might bring peace, blessings and hope for those most in need.

I said that this is the blessing that discomfits and holds up a mirror of dark reality to our moral sickness, to the war waged by Russia, to hunger, food banks, homelessness, and the wretchedness of people’s desperation and sorrow.

And yet, it is also a blessing that offers us comfort. It asks that we may lie down in peace, but also that we may rise up to life renewed. For each day is a new day, and each year, like this year whose threshold we have just crossed, a new year. It is this prayer, more than any other in our daily, Shabbat and festival liturgy, that also gives us a quiet hope.  It is a blessing that nurtures faith in a Presence that is gracious and merciful; it makes us believe that our existence matters, that we must look forward to ‘life renewed’, it stills our anxious spirits and steers us away from wrongdoing. It is a blessing of spiritual comfort and moral responsibility. 

As we enter this New Year of 5783, may we open ourselves to the discomfiting purpose of prayer when we are too complacent, to prayers that will inspire us to use our gifts for the good of all humanity. May we derive comfort and hope from this act of coming together as a community in prayer, reflection, and determination not to lose hope in the future. Let us place our trust in God’s presence ha-poreis sukkat shalom aleynu v’al-kol-yoshvey tevel – ‘whose sheltering peace descends on us and all who dwell on earth.’ Amen.

Rabbi Alexandra Wright

Oxford Three Faiths Conference on Climate Change. God, Creation and Us: From Theology to Action. Sermon by Rabbi Dr Michael Hilton, delivered at the LJS on 25 March 2022

It is a very particular pleasure to be part of a service led by my friend and colleague Rabbi Igor Zinkov, who has been putting his Russian language skills to such good use in our currently unfolding European crisis. It’s just five weeks ago tonight that, led by Igor, LJS hosted a solidarity service with the Ukrainian Jewish community, featuring our colleague Rabbi Julia Gris from Odessa. The trauma Ukrainians have been going through is utterly horrendous. But if the Jewish community is anything to go by, it does seem that in a Europe at war faith groups are able to reach across national divides, to gather in and understand different perspectives, and to begin the grasp the enormity of the issues – death, flight, exile, and environmental and economic consequences which are going to affect us all for many years to come.

In addition to our members and visitors tonight, it is a special pleasure to welcome online those gathered at Wycliffe Hall Oxford for our Three Faiths Conference this week on climate change, an event which has brought together Jews, Christians and Muslims to consider a theological and practical approach to making the world a sustainable place for future generations. Most of the world’s population identify with a religion, and we started planning the conference with the thought that faith leaders have to be on board if we are to get the world’s population on board with the issue. As Leo Baeck College student Shulamit Morris Evans put it so well yesterday, “Having a faith identity enables you to speak more directly to your community, because you speak from within. Worldwide this is huge.”

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sixth report, published earlier this month, makes sobering reading. Climate, ecosystems, biodiversity and human societies are interdependent on each other: the big issues of our time all interlock. The nearly 4000 pages of the report give highly detailed evidence of what is happening to our world, and the ability of human and ecosystems to adapt. Climate change has caused substantial damage, and irreversible losses, on both land and water ecosystems, with the extent and depth being larger than estimated in previous assessments.

This incredibly long and detailed report has been drowned out by the drums of war. The global co-operation which is so vital for the future of our planet is not even on the agenda in Europe now. But ordinary people are still building peace. As they wait patiently to cross the border out of Ukraine, refugees have found food stations set up by local churches. For those who have managed to escape westwards, faith communities are helping across Europe. The work that we do, and the compassion that we show, are signs of hope. For centuries past, philosophers and theologians have debated the merits of the vita contemplativa, a life of thought, versus the vita activa, the life of action. Our conference is based around the idea that thought has to lead to action. Our Torah reading this week includes the familiar dietary laws which govern our kosher food, and it has often been said that the purpose is to teach us self-discipline, that we were not put into this world simply to take and grab all that we can.

Such a lesson is also taught by the idea of shabbat, the day of rest, when we stop working in the world and tilling the earth, and spend time walking in the world and enjoying its produce. In our tradition we have not just a seventh day of rest but a seventh year of rest, and this very year is counted as such a year, when the earth too has to take a breather. What’s more all our faith traditions, as Jews Christians and Muslims point out how we must replace what we take from the earth.

Three of our Muslim speakers independently quoted the same text. I looked it up and found it. Anas ibn Malik reported: The Messenger of God, peace be upon him, said, “Even if the last day the day Resurrection comes to one of you while he has in his hand a sapling, let him plant it.” (Source: Musnad Aḥmad 12902 Grade: Sahih (authentic) according to Al-Arna’ut)

إِنْ قَامَتْ عَلَى أَحَدِكُمْ الْقِيَامَةُ وَفِي يَدِهِ فَسْلَةٌ فَلْيَغْرِسْهَا

in qaamat ‘ala ahadikum alqiyaama wafee yadihi fasla, falyagh-ris-haa

There is a similar and probably older saying in the rabbinic work, Avot de Rabbi Natan, in the B text not known until published by Solomon Shechter in 1887:

אם היתה נטיעה בתוך ידך ויאמרו לך הרי לך המשיח. בוא ונטע את הנטיעה

im hay’tah netiah betokh yadekha, veyom’ru lakh harei lekha hamashiach, bo v’nata et hanetiah

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai taught: “If you have a sapling in your hand, and someone says to you that the Messiah has come, stay and finish the planting, and then go to greet the Messiah.” If you listened to the Arabic and the Hebrew they even had the same sentence structure. Even the shift from “you” to “he” is in both the Muslim and the Jewish saying. And there is a similar quote attributed to Martin Luther: “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant my tree.” This afternoon, we have been hearing how Jews Christians and Muslims, mayors and governments work together across the middle East to increase the supply of fresh and safe water. Faith communities can work across divides on green issues in the Middle East, just as they work across divides helping refugees in Europe. Listening to the discussions at our conference yesterday and today, it is clear to me that there people of faith can be really good at bringing people of difference together. Many might point out that the world’s great faiths have historically not been good at preventing war. It’s true, but the world’s great faiths have also been in the lead at building peace and caring about our planet. as Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg put it at our conference yesterday: “Lobbying is an essential part of what faith communities have to do, and if we do it across faiths it is more powerful. We have to talk values to power and be persistent and courageous and outspoken.” Or as Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith put it this afternoon: “Encounters with strangers can be amazing gifts, moving from the tension to the exchange and the friendship.”

As those of you who attend our adult education programmes in this synagogue know, Dr Harith Ramli and I have been teaching a series called “Judaism and Islam: A Shared history.” I find it fascinating to discover the texts and traditions we have in common. But our conference this week is not about a shared history, but a shared future, inspired by our common tradition and those little sayings we didn’t even know we shared. I happen to believe that our Abrahamic faiths, Judaism Christianity and Islam, are only at the start of our journey together, and that our tangled and often tragic past can become an intertwined and harmonious future. We cannot solve the world’s problems overnight, but when day dawns we can plant a tree together. In that which we share, let us see the common prayer of humanity; where we differ, let us wonder at human freedom; in our unity and our differences let us know the uniqueness and unity that is God. May our meeting with past and present bring blessing for the future.

Shavuot Birkat Kohanim, Shabbat Naso 5781

There is little cause for celebration of the ceasefire between Israel and Gaza that took effect early on Friday morning, although we are thankful that the killing has stopped.  A cessation of military operations is not the same as a political resolution for what remains an intractable problem between two peoples with the same claim to land and sovereignty.  Until the Occupation of the West Bank comes to an end, the conflict between Israel and Palestine will remain a festering sore with further outbreaks of hostilities, endangering innocent populations, uniting Palestinians and depriving both sides of the security they need and yearn for.  Last Sunday, on Erev Shavuot, we witnessed despicable acts of antisemitism and misogyny here in St John’s Wood, in Hampstead and Golders Green, when a convoy of four cars, draped in Palestinian flags, drove through north-west London, broadcasting messages of incitement and hate through a megaphone.  In recent days, there have been a series of antisemitic messages and hostile statements posted on social media as well as threatening language used against students and others. Such acts are serious and fearful triggers for many in the Jewish community and must be condemned, as must anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia.  They are repulsive acts, but we need to be careful not to detract our attention from the fundamental need to support movements in Israel and Palestine, working collaboratively for peace, that seek to end inequality and injustice between Arabs and Jews.

It is perhaps of symbolic significance that your beautiful reading this morning, Nora, included the Priestly Blessing.  I think many of us heard it not only as part of the instructions from Moses to Aaron as High Priest in the Book of Numbers, but as a heartfelt prayer for peace.  I know that you have family in Israel and over the past eleven to twelve days, there has been huge concern for all those deeply affected by the thousands of rockets that have pounded parts of Israel.  One of the most moving, almost unbearable-to-watch videos I saw this week, was the Israeli progressive rabbi, Galit Cohen-Kedem, giving a sermon via Zoom to the North Western Reform Synagogue, Alyth Gardens last Shabbat.  Abandoning her desk and her sermon notes, she had taken refuge from rockets landing in a bomb shelter in Holon. Those listening could hear clearly the sound of explosions nearby as she was speaking.  How significant, she said, that the Torah teaches us nothing about sovereignty.  We come out of Egypt, we wander for forty years in the desert, we end up on Mount Nebo, but we never make it into the Promised Land. And she ended her D’var Torah with these words: ‘I am asking for your spiritual support, empathy and sympathy for the pain that is outside my bomb shelter and to be attentive to the various voices and not just the ones that shout the loudest. There are so many beautiful attempts here in Israel these days to keep this fragile coexistence together and it seems like hate is almost winning…  We have been told by our ancestors that God is love and that the biggest choice is having love in our lives. And I choose to love.’  She told us about the 1000 Arab and Jewish women who attended a spontaneous event via Zoom with prayers for peace, as well as other endeavours that are countering the voices of hatred.  ‘I am asking you to be part of the commitment to be part of these voices that aren’t giving up on peace and hope.’

At the end of last Shabbat, Liberal Judaism organised a Zoom gathering for its congregations all over the country.  In small break-out groups, there was an opportunity with a facilitator to express our anxieties and worries about the most recent outbreak of violence, the mortality rate in Gaza and Israel, the numbers wounded, and the resulting effect on social media and on the streets here in the UK.  

In the group I attended, one man confessed, ‘I am ashamed of being Jewish. The killings, the destruction of homes and hospitals in Gaza, the disproportionate attacks against civilians make me ashamed.’  I think many of us may share such painful feelings of distress and deep anxiety about the effect of the Occupation on Palestinians and the cost to Israelis. But do I feel humiliation and shame for being Jewish?  Shamelessness would be a poor response to the events of the last eleven days: brazen, arrogant and untruthful.  So perhaps I do feel a sense of shame and dishonour that the politicians who lead the Jewish State do not seem willing to interrogate themselves in the light of Jewish values: the saving of human life, truth, humility, justice, compassion.  Perhaps I am ashamed that I have hidden myself from certain truths that lie within the complexity of the conflict, that I have colluded in remaining silent when I should have spoken out. But I am not sure that I feel the self-hate that is the root of shame. 
But to feel ashamed of being Jewish?  To lose my respect for our Jewish heritage, for its values and the texts from which we can learn so much?  I cannot feel shame for these, for what we have brought to the world through traditions and texts such as the Priestly Blessing with its prayer for peace that you have just read to us, Nora, with such reverence and beauty.  

It is a source of wonder that the words of this blessing go back at least to the sixth century BCE, towards the end of the First Temple period, and perhaps even earlier. We know this because in 1979 archaeologists discovered two tiny silver rolled amulets in a burial cave at Ketef Hinnom in Jerusalem.  When the amulets were unrolled in laboratories in the Israel Museum, one measured 9.7 by 2.7 cms, just a little bit longer than the length from my wrist to the top of my palm and in breadth less than the span of two of my fingers held together.  The second one is less than half its size.  The words are incised with a sharp, thin stylus, no thicker than a hair’s breadth which can only be deciphered under a microscope.  The inscriptions on these minute silver scrolls are almost identical to the priestly blessing which you read this morning, Nora.  

This invocation to God for a blessing of peace found its way into the Torah; it migrated into our Siddur and Machzor and became a significant part of our prayers: in our home ritual on Erev Shabbat with our blessing for each other, as a blessing at the end of services, in our festival prayers, our ceremonies of brit milah, baby blessings, marriage and other significant life cycle moments.  

In ancient times, it was not uncommon to find the blessing on amulets for protection, and its structure seems almost magical: the three-line formula, the three repetitions of the divine name, a line of three words, then five, then seven, its musical rhythm and repetitions.  But beyond the magic of numbers lie the significance and value of its message: blessing, protection, favour, graciousness, and peace.  That is what we seek from God for our own lives and for the lives of all human beings.  I cannot feel ashamed of being Jewish, when these are the values that lie at the very heart of our Jewish heritage; these are the words that call out to us from the pages of the Torah, from our liturgy, from two tiny amulets two and half or more thousand years ago.  They testify to the eternal value of our Jewish teachings, not as some ideal, but as attributes to be embodied in our own lives.  May we aspire to be worthy of God’s graciousness and love in our courageous partnership with others, in our shared experiences and words and in our willingness to build bridges of hope.  And in time, perhaps we will merit the ancient blessing of shalom – wholeness and peace.  Keyn yehi ratzon.  Amen.

Rabbi Alexandra Wright










You can also click HERE to view the amulets

A Prayer for Israel - 14th May 2021 Shabbat B'Midbar/ Shavuot

Eternal God, shelter of peace for all nations, we turn to You at this time of conflict and danger for the State of Israel and all who live there.  Protect all those who are living under rocket fire and in the midst of riots and violence in the cities of Israel.  As Shabbat begins, we pray for a cessation of all hostilities for the sake of those who are fearful and traumatised, for those who wish to live their lives in quietness and peace.

In the shadow of death, we associate ourselves with those who are bereaved – families who have lost parents, children, partners, brothers or sisters.  Strengthen them and console them with the warmth of Your compassion and love.  Bind up the wounds of those who have been hurt; be with them in their pain and help them towards healing and recovery.

We stand together with all those who cherish a vision of freedom, justice and peace, who work for equality and understanding and seek to remove enmity and hatred. Eternal God, we pray in the words of the prophet and psalms: Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more.  We pray for the peace of Jerusalem. May peace be found within her walls and safety within her borders. V’yiggal ka-mayyim mishpat,u’tzedakah k’nachal etan – ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.’

And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Alexandra Wright

Erev Shabbat B'Midbar 5781/2021

Leo, I know that your Bar Mitzvah comes a year after your thirteenth birthday and that, because of the pandemic you, like many of our other students, chose to postpone the date.  And so tomorrow you will read, not our weekly parashah which is B’Midbar, but your original parashah Shemini, the story of the death of Aaron’s two sons. They died in a tragic conflagration inside the Sanctuary soon after their ordination as priests.  This story and its repercussions seem particularly relevant in the light of the tragic events we are witnessing in Jerusalem, throughout Israel and in Gaza this week.

Last night, I watched a briefing from our sister movement, the Israel Movement for Reform Judaism.  Progressive Israeli colleagues who serve communities spoke about their experiences of living under constant rocket fire and as witnesses to the riots and violence in cities throughout Israel.  And I was struck, not by their despair and hopelessness, but by the very real questions they raised and a sense of empowerment to bring about change: how does one deal with the trauma of this latest round of hostilities without falling into the pit of hatred, asked Rabbi Galit Cohen Kedem from Holon?  Others spoke about a sense of solidarity between the progressive communities Israel, northern congregations reaching out to those in the southern and central parts who are coming under rocket fire, offering them invitations to stay with them and so give them some respite from the constant threat of danger and the noise of rockets and sirens.  In many cities, Arab and Jewish mayors have come together in reconciliatory and peaceful ways to ask for calm and to show how it is possible to live peacefully together, striving for the same outcomes.

In Haifa, Rabbi Ofek Meir, Principal of Leo Baeck Education Centre, two of whose students joined us for a special service marking Yom Ha-Atzma’ut – Israel’s Independence Day - a few weeks ago,  issued a joint Arab-Jewish statement on behalf of Arab and Jewish head teachers in Haifa, acknowledging the ‘voices of hatred, polarisation and division in the social fabric of [the] country’ but re-affirming their commitment to building an educational system which has the power to produce a different kind of discourse in Israeli society, ‘one of mutual respect and pluralism.’  ‘The role of education,’ they wrote, ‘is to remind students and communities of our shared destiny, and the power and beauty of living together.’

In three days’ time, we will be celebrating the festival of Shavuot – z’man mattan torateinu – the season of the giving of the Torah.  In ancient times, Shavuot was a harvest festival of indeterminate date, known as Chag Ha-Katzir – the Feast of the Harvest – and a festival of first fruits.  In the Torah, the rituals of this sacred occasion are linked with our moral responsibilities towards the poor and stranger: ‘When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Eternal One am your God.’

This commandment which is found in several passages in the Torah informs another book in Tanakh which is read at Shavuot, the Book of Ruth.  Ruth, a Moabite woman who has been left a widow by her Israelite husband in the land of Moab, follows her mother-in-law Naomi back to Judah.  Destitute, widowed and a foreigner, dependent on the kindness of others, Ruth gleans in the fields of a kinsman of her late father-in-law, Boaz, and following the gleaners, picks up the fallen sheaves they have left behind for her in accordance with the laws of the Torah.

But what is so interesting about the Book of Ruth is the underlying attitudes towards the land of Moab and the Moabite people that exist in the Torah.  As the descendants of an incestuous union between Lot and his daughter, a people who refused to allow the Israelites to traverse their territory as they were making their way through the desert, and Moabite women who enticed Israelite men to idolatry, the Torah is not well-disposed towards Moab and its people.  Deuteronomy forbids any marriage to take place between Israelites and Moabites with the words: ‘No Moabite shall enter the assembly of the Eternal One…’ (Deut. 23.23.)

And yet, along comes Ruth, a woman from Moab, a country that Israel regards as its arch enemy, who is treated kindly and generously by Boaz, the Israelite man whom she marries.  And more remarkable is the fact that she becomes the great-grandmother of no less a figure than king David.

I am comforted by this book, by the way its author, whoever he or she was, subverts the traditional Torah narrative and transforms enmity into friendship and even love.   I imagine those first encounters between Ruth and Boaz, the way he offers her protection against the interference of his young men in the fields, his open hospitality, sharing food and water and her response: ‘You are most kind, my lord, to comfort me and to speak gently to your maidservant…’

These are such small steps: physical protection, food and water, friendship and then kinship. In the cities of Israel, where Jews and Arabs live side by side, let us pray for the continuation of solidarity and friendship.  And, between Israel and her Palestinian neighbours in Gaza and the West Bank, we pray too that small steps of acknowledgement of pain and hurt may come soon.  May fear be transformed into trust and enmity into kinship and may God’s presence dwell on both peoples, Arab and Jewish, and bring them security and peace. Amen.

Rabbi Alexandra Wright

Erev Shabbat Mattot-Mas’ei 5780/ 17th July 2020

It seems almost unbelievable that by tomorrow we will have read two full books of the Torah since the lockdown.  The first Shabbat that Rabbi Igor and I broadcast live was on 21st March from the Sanctuary – the last time we held our services in the synagogue.  It was Shabbat Vayakheil-Pekudei, the last double parashah of the Book of Exodus.  Since then we have covered the sacrificial and cultic rituals of the priesthood, dwelt on the Holiness Code and laws of the land in Leviticus, and navigated the Israelites’ rebellions in the Book of Numbers.  Today we read the last double parashah of Numbers and although we are planning our return to the Sanctuary towards the end of August, we will be in exile a little longer in Deuteronomy before entering the Promised Land.

One of the most striking laws of the last parashah of Numbers concerns the provision of forty-eight towns to be build for the Levites, the priestly clan, once the Israelites enter the land of Israel.  Without any territory assigned to them, the Levites are given the cities and surrounding pasture for cattle and other animals to graze.  Of the towns that are to be assigned to the Levites, six are designated as ‘cities of refuge’ – in Hebrew arei ha-mik’lat.  The Hebrew word mik’lat means ‘refuge’ or ‘asylum’ and is found only here at the end of Numbers, in Joshua and Chronicles and refers to specific cities where a person guilty of manslaughter can find refuge from anyone seeking take revenge against the manslayer.

‘The cities shall serve you as a refuge from the avenger, so that the killer may not die unless he has stood trial before the assembly’ (Numbers 35:12).

We should note several things about this verse.  Firstly, the protection is afforded to the one who was guilty of manslaughter – not murder, not an intended assassination, which is dealt with separately in the chapter, but an accidental death for which there still needs to be a just process of trial and sentence.  Secondly, the city would need to ‘absorb’ the one who has fled; its citizens would have to protect the accidental manslayer and keep the blood-avenger from doing any harm (Abarbanel).  That is quite a responsibility.  Indeed, the one who has fled is permitted to remain in the city of refuge and he remains the responsibility of the citizens of the town.  If the manslayer ventures beyond the limits of the city of refuge and he encounters the ‘blood-avenger’ and is killed, the Torah states that the citizens bear no guilt on his account.

While the manslayer is protected in the city of refuge, the murderer who has struck someone intentionally with a tool of stone or wood that causes death, is to be sentenced to death.   The Torah and the  Talmud emphasise the difference between these two killings: one is accidental, the other with an instrument that will inevitably kill the victim – as the Talmud says  שהברזל ממית בכל שהוא  ‘an iron instrument of any size kills’ (Sanhedrin 76b 12).

I mention this because tomorrow will mark the twenty-sixth anniversary since the bombing of AMIA - Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, the Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, in which 87 people were murdered and over 100 people injured.  The July 18th 1994 bombing came two years after a car bomb exploded outside the Israeli Embassy in Argentina’s capital, killing 29 people and injuring 250 others, including Israeli diplomats, children, clergy from across the street and passersby.

Despite several investigations into both bombings, no one has ever been brought to justice for the murder of the victims. In 1998, Argentina expelled six Iranian diplomats from the country following an intercepted call from the Iranian Embassy in Argentina that demonstrated that Iran had been involved in the Embassy attack. But it was never determined which individuals had been responsible.

In the twenty-six years since the bombing of AMIA, there has been neglect, wanton mistreatment and abuse of the case, incriminating evidence burnt, information withheld, poor handling, charges directed against former presidents of Argentina relating to concealed evidence, abuse of authority and obstruction of justice.  The special prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, on the eve of exposing Iranian leaders who had orchestrated the attacks and names of Hezbollah operatives as well as Iran’s terror cells in South America, was found dead in his apartment.

There have been trade deals between Iran and Argentina that have included agreements to sweep the AMIA bombing under the carpet, cover-ups and abuse of power – and all this, in the words of Federal Judge, Claudio Bonadio, ‘to the detriment of justice, the victims and punishment of the accused.’

Justice for those victims has been thwarted.  It was Aleksander Solzhenitsyn in his Gulag Archepelago who wrote, ‘In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand-fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.’

When individuals criticise the Hebrew Bible and its idea of God as purely a God of justice in contrast to the ‘God of love’ in the New Testament, I want to say firstly, that they are wrong; that there are hundreds of references in the Hebrew Bible to a God of love, compassion, lovingkindness, patience and forgiveness. But secondly, I would want to add, yes – our God is a God of justice and you cannot have love without justice.   For injustice is repellent; injustice should cause us outrage and indignation; it should prompt us towards action that counters the abuse of power, the restrictions of freedom, dishonesty and corruption and the uneven distribution of wealth. 

How have the victims of the Embassy and AMIA bombings been vindicated?  What about their lives and the lives of the surviving families? Justice would have gone some way towards mitigating the trauma of loss or injury.  The Argentinian Jewish community was massively changed after 1994; the grief and anger are still palpable as the perpetrators elude justice.

This Shabbat – the Shabbat on which we read about the arei miklat – the cities of refuge and justice served – let us remember the victims of the bomb attacks in Buenos Aires.  Justice is vital to all societies and failure to pursue justice shatters the very foundations of the society in which we live. 

The Torah teaches firmly this lesson that we can only thrive when we live by its moral imperative to pursue justice: Tzedek, tzedek tir’dof – ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue.’

Rabbi Alexandra Wright

Kol Nidre 5780/ 8th October 2019

In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Viktor Frankl explores his own personal response as a prisoner in Auschwitz. Frankl was a professor of neurology and psychology and observed his own experiences and those of his fellow camp mates to understand the meaning of suffering, hope and survival.

The first half of his book is a retelling of his time in Auschwitz. In his memoir he shares this powerful account of an experience he had while on a march:

“My mind still clung to the image of my wife. A thought crossed my mind: I didn’t even know if she were still alive. I knew only one thing—which I have learned well by now: Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases, somehow, to be of importance. I did not know whether my wife was alive, and I had no means of finding out… but at that moment it ceased to matter. There was no need for me to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and the image of my beloved. Had I known then that my wife was dead, I think that I would still have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of her image, and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and just as satisfying.”

The image of his wife and his love for her, gave him meaning and gave him the will to survive.

The second half of his book explores his philosophy named logotherapy. According to his theory the purpose of life is to make meaning.  Unlike many of his contemporaries who were focused on life being a means to fulfillment or happiness, to Frankl the end goal must be meaning. His philosophy is complex but the approach that he prescribed to meaning making is three fold:
One must invest themselves in accomplishing a work or a task.
One must experience and give love.
One must find their own approach to unavoidable suffering.

Meaning making through sacred work, love and finding strength in suffering.

I found myself thinking about meaning making as I approached this season of repentance and teshuva. During these ten days of repentance we do the hard work of self-reflection. Where have we missed the mark? Who have we wronged intentionally or unintentionally? How have we been ungrateful to those who have given of themselves to us, how have we been callous with the feelings of others? We focus our energies on thinking of how we can be better in partnership with our loved ones, with those closest to us and with those we pass along the street. We may think about specific errors and how we could have gone about them better, what we would do differently next time.

Yet, I think this framework of meaning making can provide deeper engagement in this Day of Atonement that we are entering. Perhaps we need to not think only about our specific behaviours but instead use this next day, this day of the opening of our souls, to think about the narrative that we are writing for ourselves. To think big picture, and to set intentions for the coming year. Not just what we have done wrong but how we can better focus our time and our efforts for meaning making, how we can better focus ourselves so that our actions are reflections of the story we are writing about ourselves. What is the framework we use to understand ourselves and how does that need to be tweaked?

This meaning making is different for each of us. As Frankl writes:

“As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognise that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”

Put simply, Frankl argues that rather than asking “What is the meaning of life?” We must instead ask “What is the meaning we want to put into our own life.”

There is a chassidic story of Rabbi Zusya, who died and went to stand before the seat of judgement. He grew nervous thinking about his life and imagined God asking him, “Why weren’t you Moses? Why weren’t you Solomon? Why weren’t you David?” But Reb Zusya was surprised by God’s question, “Why weren’t you Zusya?”

This approach begs us at this time of year to ask ourselves: What have I been responsible for? Is this a reflection of my priorities, if not how can I better frame my time and efforts so that I am responsible for that which is meaning making and important to me? How am I answering for my own life, this life that only I can uniquely live?

Rabbi Simcha of Bunim, a leading chassidic theologian of the 18th century, taught that every person should hold in their pocket a piece of paper with the words Bishvili nivra haolam; for me the world was created.

We inhabit this earth and are responsible for one another, but each of us has our own lived experiences and our own meaning making that are unique to us.

Bishvili nivra haolam.

I want to take this question further and ask how can Judaism play a role, uniquely, for each of us in our meaning making? My guess is that most of us, myself included, make resolutions at the end of December as we start a new secular year. But the resolutions we make on Yom Kippur are different, because they are made within our community, using our traditional rituals and are made in relationship with God.
And so I challenge each of us, this Yom Kippur, to ask ourselves: how can I better set my priorities to make meaning in my life and how can Judaism play a role? As we all know, the Jewish identity is one of complexity and nuance and it looks different for each of us. We share a text and a communal history and an ethical framework, but each of us has our own unique relationship. Probably once a week in conversation with someone I hear them say, “I’m a bad Jew…” The start of the sentence is followed by many varying responses. “I’m a bad Jew…I don’t attend synagogue. I’m a bad Jew….I don’t believe in God. I’m a bad Jew…I don’t keep Kosher.” I want to break down this notion of being a bad Jew because one doesn’t connect in traditional ways.

There are so many beautiful ways that Judaism can play a role in your meaning making. Rather than feeling guilty for not being connected enough I would hope that this Yom Kippur you can see greater connection as a means to meaning making, and you can think creatively about it. This community that we share is a passionate, compassionate community with so many ways to engage. If you find meaning by supporting those in need, volunteer in our refugee drop-in centre, volunteer in helping to serve meals for our Restaurant Tuesday, volunteer for Phone a Member and reach out to other members who aren’t as able to come and attend synagogue. If you find meaning through spiritual experiences, come and be a part of our regular worship. If you find meaning through learning about our sacred text, the same text that we have been struggling with and challenging and finding meaning in and meaning from, come and participate in our adult education programming. If you find meaning in passing on our traditions to future generations then get involved with Rimon, our Shabbat morning religion school.

There is the joke told about the two friends Ari and Ethan who attend synagogue. Ari attends to speak to God, and Ethan attends to speak to Ari. And both are equally sacred and can be a part of a framework of meaning making. 

Bishvili nivra haolam, the world was created for me.

However, this is only half of Rabbi Simcha’s teaching. He actually taught that we should keep two pieces of paper in our pockets at all time; and take out the one that we need to be reminded of. Bishvili nivra haolam- for me the world was created” and V’anokhi afar v’efer - I am nothing but dust and ashes. A reminder of our importance and also a reminder of our insignificance.

In this season we think not only of the importance of our own existence but our liturgy also encourages us to think about our finiteness, our mortality and our insignificance. Each of us is a world within ourselves, and yet we are a speck on please God a long history of humanity, and a significantly longer history of this world. We must live in a way where our meaning making does not come at the expense of others, in a way that allows for us to be comforted by knowing that when we are but dust and ashes, that our life will have paved the way for others to be more free to make meaning, to engage in sacred work, to share in love and to find comfort in suffering.

In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Hillel shares the often quoted framework of caring for self and others with his teaching “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself what am I? And if not now, when?”

When our sacred texts were written, there is no way they could have conceived of a time like the one we are living in now. A time when the lucky on this earth are living in a way that is making the world inhospitable for the rest of the world, where the privileged of today’s world are making their meaning and living their lives in a way that threatens the world that our children and children’s children, will live in.

In his book “The Uninhabitable Earth”, journalist and author Wallace-Wells shares these words:

“It is worse, much worse, than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes to us bundled with several others in an anthology of comforting delusions: that global warming is an Arctic saga, unfolding remotely; that it is strictly a matter of sea level and coastlines, not an enveloping crisis sparing no place and leaving no life undeformed; that it is a crisis of the “natural” world, not the human one; that those two are distinct, and that we live today somehow outside or beyond or at the very least defended against nature, not inescapably within and literally overwhelmed by it; that wealth can be a shield against the ravages of warming;  that the burning of fossil fuels is the price of continued economic growth; that growth and the technology it produces, will inevitably engineer a way out of environmental disaster; that there is any analogue to the scale or scope of this threat, in the long span of human history, that might give us confidence in staring it down.”

We are living in unprecedented times. We see storms that were once rare occurrences ravaging parts of our world, regularly, forest fires destroying sacred trees and land, water levels rising, drought, hunger, famine. The facts are all there. We can no longer turn a blind eye to the very real damage we are causing to our world and to all those who inhabit it now and in the future. Our children and our children’s children will want to know what we did to stand up against the destruction that we are causing to their world.

In Midrash Rabbah, we are given this chilling story:  A group of people were travelling in a boat. One of them took a drill and began to drill a hole beneath himself. His companions said to him: “Why are you doing this?” Replied the man: “What concern is it of yours? Am I not drilling under my own place?” Said they to him: “But you will flood the boat for us all!”

In what ways are each of us holding a drill and making a hole in our boat? We have no other boat to move to, and this boat holds everything and everyone, and our future.

Pikuach nefesh, saving a life, is the greatest moral obligation. In Leviticus 19 we are taught that “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour.” In Deuteronomy we are given the obligation to care for future generations in the Torah text we will read tomorrow. “Choose life, that you and your descendants may live.” In a few weeks we will read Bereishit, the story of creation. In our Genesis narrative God creates the world and reflects on it saying it is tov meod; very good. The waters, plants, air and animals were all in balance. Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah shares that God showed Adam around the Garden of Eden and said to him. “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are…see to it that you do not spoil and destroy my world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”

We cannot be like the ostrich, burying our head in the sand. This is terrifying, and hard to comprehend and easier to ignore than to combat…but there is nothing more important than this. This is the ethical call of our day and we must listen. There are so many actions that we can take as individuals and as a community. Each of us must do our own research and decide how we will combat this. But here are some ideas:
Significantly decrease or eliminate your consumption of meat, especially beef. The meat industry contributes more greenhouse gasses than cars. Compost your waste. Use public transport whenever possible. Minimise the number of flights you take. Reduce home energy use.
Avoid products with excessive packaging. Be mindful of how you engage in the culture of fast fashion. Buy second hand clothing, toys and goods whenever possible. Make a commitment to minimise consumption of single use plastic. Minimise your food waste food. Educate yourself as much as possible on the environmental issues we are currently facing. If you have children, make sure they spend time in nature and learn to respect and protect our world. Advocate for further government policies on waste, pollution and carbon emissions. Join or support movements or organisations lobbying for change. There are so many more actions that can be taken.

I wish I could stand in front of you and share that I engage in all these acts, that the drill is not in my hand, that my actions go only towards fortifying our shared boat. Al Chet shechatanu lifanecha, I have sinned, I need to be better. Let’s help one another, let us hold each other accountable. Let us join together and face this existential threat with courage and vigor. We have no other choice.

In the words of the wise young prophet Greta Thurnberg, “Solving the climate crisis is the greatest and most complex challenge that Homo Sapiens have ever faced. The main solution, however, is so simple that even a small child can understand it. We have to stop our emissions of greenhouse gases. And either we do that or we don’t. You say nothing in life is black or white. But that is a lie. A very dangerous lie. Either we prevent a 1½ C of warming or we don’t. Either we avoid setting off that irreversible chain reaction beyond human control-or we don’t. Either we choose to go on as a civilisation or we don’t. That is as black or white as it gets. We can create transformational action that will safeguard the living conditions for future generations. Or we can continue with our business as usual and fail. That is up to you and me.”

Last week we entered into the year 5780, what will the world look like in 5880? What will be our communal legacy? This can all be overwhelming, in order for us to be the advocates we need to be we must also continue to care for ourselves. And this is why I wanted to start this sermon by focusing on meaning making. Each of our lives, our individual lives is sacred and important and we are given the holy task of making meaning with our time. It is not unethical to care for ourselves and to focus on our own desires and hopes. In fact, it is only if we focus on ourselves and our ethical framework that we can have the courage and strength of spirit to do the holy work that is needed to repair our world.

May this coming year be a year of holy meaning making for you and your loved ones, and may our meaning making happen while also responding to the terrifying cry of future generations. 

I want to end with a prayer by Reb Nachman of Bratslav, the holy sage who found himself most spiritually called amongst nature.

“Grant me the ability to be alone; may it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass – among all growing things and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer, to talk with the One to whom I belong. May I express there everything in my heart, and may all the foliage of the field – all grasses, trees, and plants – awake at my coming, to send the powers of their life into the words of my prayer so that my prayer and speech are made whole through the life and spirit of all growing things, which are made as one by their transcendent Source. May I then pour out the words of my heart before your Presence like water, O God, and lift up my hands to You in worship, on my behalf, and that of my children!”

Shanah Tovah

Rabbi Elana Dellal

Rosh Hashanah 5780/ 30th September 2019

Dear Friends,

it is uplifting to know that so many of us have come together to welcome in this Rosh Hashanah, this New Year of 5780.  Upstairs, our little ones have been listening to stories, singing, reciting blessings and dipping their apple into honey; in the Montefiore Hall, some of the young people from Rimon have been leading the service and some of the music with Rabbis Elana Dellal and Igor Zinkov and listening to the sound of the Shofar as we, too, will listen to it in a few moments.  I feel immensely grateful to both my colleagues and blessed; they bring a fresh, compassionate, warm, engaging and youthful energy to our community.  I am so thankful for their care and thoughtfulness and their desire and passion to engage with our younger families and members. After this morning’s service, Rabbi Elana will be inviting families to join her and her young family in Regents Park for Tashlich and time together – weather permitting.  While Rabbi Igor will be welcoming younger members and guests, (he mentioned the ages 20-35), upstairs in the Assembly Hall with tea and honey cake at 1.00 pm and you are invited to join him so that he can introduce himself to you.  I am only sorry that those who are live streaming will miss out on the honey cake!

It is tempting to begin this sermon with a lament.  But laments are for fast days, for remembering destruction and exile, for despair and mourning.  And Rosh Hashanah is not a fast day; it is not yet a day for beating our chest, but a festival of renewal and return.  It is a day of new beginnings and opportunities, of hope and optimism.  A day on which we solemnly examine the record of our actions and resolve to try and change the habits and patterns of our lives.  It is a day of choice – of choosing how to live with the human freedom that we possess, choosing, in Viktor Frankl’s words ‘one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.’ On Rosh Hashanah we choose the path we wish to take in the future.

And so let us turn away from lamentation and angry outburst, from that relentless and unending plot-line of our public life that meanders like a bad dream towards nowhere; let us put to one side for a few moments the events of the world outside and turn instead to a story that, in many ways, is closer to home.  The story of a family that experiences great elation and joy, but also then finds itself pained by rivalry and conflict.

A mother, who has waited so many years to conceive a child, is remembered by God and blessed with a little boy whom her husband names Yitzchak – ‘laughter,’ recalling the moment he heard his wife ‘laugh within herself’ as she heard the news that she, ‘an old woman’, would conceive.  Sarah basks in her new motherhood: ‘God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me…’

The boy grows and is weaned and Abraham throws a party to mark the occasion.  And here, perhaps, the biblical author might have ended his story; the long wait for Abraham and Sarah’s posterity is over; no longer will the aged patriarch need to question his God, saying – where is the son you promised me, the offspring you said will become as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sand on the sea shore?  The anxiety of not knowing whether there will be a generation after him to keep the faith, cultivate devotion to the Hebrew religion and pass it on to the next has, momentarily, subsided or been set aside.  But it is only momentary; for anyone who has children will know that the anxieties of parents never disappear; we will always worry about our children’s happiness and well-being, whether they are teenagers or married with their own children. And we wonder too whether our Jewish faith will continue or whether they will turn away to secular pursuits.

The stories of our own lives rarely move in straight lines and the story of Abraham and Sarah’s family is no different. The Torah does not deal with fairy stories, where human relationships are straightened out, where love conquers all, the kiss of a prince awakens the sleeping princess, the wicked Carabosse is banished.

A shadow falls on Sarah’s contentment in the form of her slave girl, Hagar’s son – the son conceived with Abraham, at Sarah’s bidding.   Seeing the son of Hagar ‘playing’ – m’tzacheik – a pun on Isaac’s name, the text suggesting that Ishmael might, perhaps, be seeking to usurp the place of Yitzchak – Sarah orders Abraham to throw out the slave girl and her child.  All expectation of kindness, generosity, the flexibility of being able to live in a blended family is swept away in what becomes a story of oppression and exile.  Hagar and her son are cast out by Abraham and Sarah, the slave girl wanders aimlessly, the child cast under a bush to die without food or water.

Let us pause for a moment and consider the trajectory of this narrative.  We have reached a moral crisis; the world darkens, goodness and generosity in the heart of this new mother is eclipsed by the object of her fierce love, Isaac.  There is only room for one certainty in Sarah’s world – Isaac must have sole inheritance and nothing must be done to endanger his future place in this story.

The vulnerability and loneliness of Hagar and her child, her loud cries, are shocking and unbearable.  She symbolises the abused woman, the outsider weeping; the victim of domestic violence, the collateral of war, a woman whose home has been reduced to dust, whose children are starving and near death. She is a mother in Syria or Yemen; a woman trafficked, trapped in a cycle of poverty and homelessness without any kind of safety net.  And of course, she is the inverted prefiguration of Israel in Egypt – her name, Hagar, means ‘stranger’ – here the Egyptian slave is oppressed by Israelites; later on the Israelite slaves will be oppressed by her people, the Egyptians.

‘Stories,’ says Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, ‘are the way we detect meaning in the world.’  But what meaning should we attribute to this story of cruelty and oppression? What purpose does a story serve when it takes us into a dark crevice of unkindness and harsh immorality?  How can we reconcile the figures of Abraham and Sarah as loyal and faithful servants, walking with God, with the actions towards their Egyptian slave girl and her son?  How can we reconcile the ruthlessness of this early God who instructs Abraham to ‘listen to Sarah’s voice,’ with our belief in the goodness of a God who cares for all humanity?

‘Stories are the way we detect meaning in the world.’  What are our stories? What meaning can we ascribe to the story of these times in which we are living now?  We tell ourselves stories all the time; we relive significant moments of our lives – the moments of elation and happiness, the times of trauma and sorrow.  We find words and memories to make sense of our losses and the celebratory or chaotic moments in our lives.  We relive all these by creating our own narratives and we tell them to ourselves, to each other, again and again.  We inject them with meaning, sometimes with humour.  We capture our own narratives to share them with others, to comfort ourselves, to laugh, to attempt to understand and to build precious memories and to help us, sometimes, change the direction of our lives.

And we build meta-narratives for our own times as well. The Jewish people have been adept at creating stories – the story of the creation, the flood, these stories from the patriarchal narratives, the birth of Moses, the Exodus from Egypt; exile and return, oppression and displacement – our Judaism is created and formed from these stories, told from generation to generation, bringing to life a narrative of survival for our children and grandchildren. Stories help us to exert control, to find redemption and hope – they are what link us to our past and help us map out a pathway for our future.

I have been wondering about the story we are living through now? And asking myself, what is its meaning? How is this chaotic and uncertain narrative going to end?  All the institutions and values in which we put our faith – democracy and pluralism, tolerance, the dignity of the individual, the sanctity of human life, respect for leadership, truth, humility, all seem to be shuddering and breaking apart in what appears to be a frenzied anti-narrative without resolution or end.  We are living in a blur; the story of our own time deconstructs itself again and again, as we return to the beginning to find a new path, as we zig-zag back and forth. To paraphrase Nietzsche, it is as though we are condemned to live this life, not once, but again and again, innumerable times.

The landscape in which Hagar and her son find themselves – the desert, the bush, no water or bread, the heat, the lack of life – all these, too, in our own time, become symbols of the dried up, burnt and ruined earth on which we live.  Hagar’s desperation and fear of annihilation symbolises our own anxiety about what our future might look like. And like Hagar in the desert, we are in danger of giving into a sense of demoralisation, confusion and helpless inaction. This story of ours possesses no artistry, no form or order; it is a meaningless anti-narrative, peopled by hard-hearted Pharaohs, obdurate figures, sinister in their determination and narcissism.  This is the anti-story of our age; it has no end and it renders us – like Hagar – exhausted, grief-stricken and helpless at the state of the world.

I said that it was tempting to turn this sermon into a lament and if we allow ourselves to remain in that moment of abandonment in the desert we would, like Hagar, lift up our voices and weep.  But, even in her own particular set of circumstances, there comes a point at which Hagar, chooses her future – not to deliver herself and her child to death, but to live.  Some thing or some Being rouses her and forces her on to a path of life and hope. Revelation, hope, order and meaning, for the moment, are restored; darkness and uncertainty are lifted – there is life and the boy, too, will become a great nation.

Out of the disorder and confusion of our own time, we need to rouse ourselves and create a new and redemptive narrative for the future if we are not to be tossed around in the turbulent currents of our political or personal waters.  All of us have a role to be a witness to people’s stories; to listen, to help each other frame narratives of hope within a greater cycle of nature, of history, of our Judaism.  ‘You are my witnesses,’ declares the Eternal One, ‘My servant whom I have chosen…’

As human beings we search for meaning through the stories we create.  How crucial it is at this season of Rosh Hashanah, of new beginnings, to hold back from delivering ourselves to the current narrative of depredation and ruin.  This life demands more from us.  Our story must be a story not about the ravages of the human spirit, but about courage, hope, survival.  It must be a story about the sanctity of human life and the sanctity of all that fills the earth; it must be a story about the preciousness and beauty of the natural world; it must be a story about decency, honesty and truth, it must be a story that repudiates violence and conflict and uses kind and tender words. It must be a story of healing and reconciliation.

That is my prayer for this Rosh Hashanah.  May we find the strength to write the narrative of our own lives, to choose the pathway of faith and goodness, of resilience, patience and hope.  And may we add our Jewish voice to the story of the time in which we live; a story that is built on the values and meaning that lie at the heart of our Jewish faith and tradition: justice and compassion, humility and truth, reverence for each other and for our God who has given us the gift of free will and who judges us and remembers us in love at this season.  Keyn yehi ratzon.  Amen.

Rabbi Alexandra Wright

Wed, 27 September 2023 12 Tishrei 5784