8th October 2019
Kol Nidre 5780
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, draught, hunger, famish. 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 1.5 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!”
Rosh Hashanah 5778
Shanah Tovah: a very warm welcome to members, friends and guests who have joined us here at the LJS for this Rosh Hashanah service b’yom ha-zikkaron u’v’yom ha-din – on this day of remembrance and judgement. It is the theme of remembrance that gives rise to our Torah portion for this morning, Genesis 21, not only God’s remembrance of Sarah as promised – V’Adonai pakad et Sarah – ‘And the Eternal One remembered Sarah’, but – with the arrival of Isaac – the promise of one family’s hope and the Jewish people’s future.
At the heart of this reading is the story of a birth, a son born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. Isaac brings laughter, (Yitzchak, Isaac’s Hebrew name, comes from the root meaning to ‘laugh’) – the laughter of joy at the prospect of a future secured, but also laughter at the absurdity of the circumstances of his birth – his parents well past the initial age of collecting their pensions, Abraham 100 and Sarah a mere ninety! God’s early promise to Abraham that his offspring will be as numerous as the stars of heaven and that Sarah will give rise to nations, although not quite fulfilled, is at least partly accomplished.
But the arrival of Isaac and the attention devoted to him is not straightforward. For Abraham has an older son by another woman, the Egyptian maidservant Hagar. It is Sarah, herself, who suggests to her husband that he consort with her maid at a time when she has yet to bear a child: ‘Perhaps I shall have a son through her,’ she says to Abraham, words that I cannot now read without thinking of the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian vision of the future in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ We are told that ‘Avram heeded Sarai’s request.’ These words are to return to haunt Abraham later on, as God tells him to ‘listen to Sarah’s voice’ and expel Hagar and her son, Ishmael.
Of course, we know in which direction this story is going; for it is our story – the story of the Jewish people who trace their text-line back to Abraham and his descendants, Isaac and Jacob, whose descendants will be expelled by Egyptians into the wilderness of Sinai, the very inverse of Abraham and Sarah’s expulsion of the Egyptian handmaid and her son. Ishmael, himself, will become the father of the Arab peoples and history will take him in a different direction. But the truth is that the human dimension of this story is indecent and humiliating and Abraham knows this, for as we are told: ‘The matter distressed Abraham greatly for it concerned his son’ (Genesis 21:11). There is cruelty in the way both Hagar and Ishmael are treated; their expulsion into the desert will almost certainly result in their deaths once food and water have run out.
We can understand Sarah’s possessiveness and jealousy on behalf of her son, Isaac; comprehend a surrogacy that goes wrong; forgive the dysfunctional family that does not blend well and we can empathise with Abraham’s conflicted feelings as a father of two sons, whose futures will take them in different ways. Sarah’s concern is to maintain rights for herself and her son, while Abraham considers not only his fatherly duty, but his duty to a greater Cause.
This is the Cause, taken up some twenty-five years earlier, a Cause that seems repeatedly to ask that he upset or break the human relations he has with his family: first to leave behind his parents and homeland and move to another place, then to eject his firstborn son and Hagar into the wilderness. And this is going to happen again, when that Cause tests him further and asks him to offer up his younger son, Isaac, as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah.
Family relations are sacrificed on the altar of – what? Is it Abraham’s relationship with his faith that requires an unmitigated sense of duty and obedience? Or is it an as yet unformed vision of a larger family, a community, a shared history and destiny still yet to unfold through the pages of the Torah and history of the Jewish people?
Last year, a new teacher joined the staff of Rimon, our Religion School, a young man in his early twenties, who had been brought up within the strictly orthodox Satmar sect in Stamford Hill. The eldest of ten children, highly intelligent and curious, he describes himself as a rebel, with a questioning mind. Growing up within the confines of the sect, he was forbidden to read any kind of secular literature or to engage with any aspect of non-orthodox life. At eighteen, he left his family, the community, the God they worshipped and set out on his own, teaching himself English in a year and gaining the necessary GCSE’s and A-Levels to secure a place to read Philosophy and Politics at Bristol University. For the few who break away from Haredi sects, the break is emotional and painful. Izzy says he is fortunate; ‘My parents are good people,’ he told me. Unlike many who have left the ‘path’, he meets regularly with them and his youngest sister, who is not yet aware of her eldest brother’s ‘apostasy’. But he has not seen any of his remaining siblings to whom he was close, or his grandparents since he left the sect. I mention this because the fundamentalism and closeted nature of strictly religious groups exemplifies this conflict between ideals that we see in Abraham: the loyalty and love for family and his obedience to a Cause or a Truth, which had called him to move away from the homeland and idolatry of his parents.
Abraham and Izzy, to an extent, are transitional figures. Abraham, if we can refer to him in such terms, is trying to find a culture that gives life a divine value; Izzy is working out a different relationship to his Judaism and to his future, asking himself how he can be a Jew within a secular framework, among those whose way of life and attitudes are different from that of his birth community. Abraham may still be caught between an idolatrous world where women and children have little value, on the one hand, and on the other, a new world in which he attempts to shape a new expression of religion and faith.
How do people like Abraham or Izzy, living in times of personal or global transition, standing at the liminal edges of their communities, frame their future? Although some of us may not have made such dramatic moves, we are living in a period of great upheaval and transition. Earth, oceans and weather systems surge tempestuously with tragic consequences, the political and economic outlook lurches from one day to another, terrorism crushes our spirit and fractures hope. A hope that requires us to ask the question: what do we want our values to be in twenty or forty years from now? How do we want to see our Jewish existence? How do want to maintain and renew our communities so that they remain vibrant and relevant for the next generation?
I spoke recently from this pulpit about the report by the Board of Deputies and Institute of Jewish Policy Research, published this year and entitled, ‘Synagogue membership in the United Kingdom in 2016.’ Without repeating the fine details, this significant and disquieting report, reveals an overall 20% loss of Jewish household membership of synagogues in the last 25 years, a reduction from 100,000 households, to 80,000. While ‘Central Orthodox’ remains the largest denomination, claiming 53% of all household memberships, it has nevertheless declined by 37% due to ageing congregations and what the authors of the report call ‘leakage’ to non-orthodox congregations as well as non-affiliation. Reform synagogues represent 19% of all membership, Strictly Orthodox 13%, Liberal 8%, Masorti 3% and Sephardi 3%. The most staggering statistic is the growth of Strictly Orthodox households by 139% since 1990, due to the birth rate among Haredi families.
8% is a small figure in the great scheme of things and some would say that Liberal Judaism punches above its weight. But the figures, as I indicated a few months ago, do not allow us to be complacent. For while the data indicate that a significantly higher number and proportion of mainstream Orthodox affiliated Jews have moved ‘leftwards’, towards more non-Orthodox or progressive movements, they are not swelling our numbers, because we are still losing those who no longer wish to be affiliated with us.
The demographic landscape of Anglo-Jewry could look very different in 20 years if the Strictly Orthodox sects continue to grow at the same rate, central orthodoxy continues to shrink and Liberal Judaism fails to push up its numbers. And that means that the values that we hold dear as Liberal Jews, the questioning, open, inclusive, imaginative, dialogical form of Judaism that we embrace, will become driven to the margins, because the dominant expression of Judaism will be the orthodoxy of Izzy’s parents, content to educate the rest of their children in schools that fall under the radar of the local authority, where children emerge without qualifications to enter the job market and are too inward looking to engage with anyone beyond their own families and communities.
The growth of our synagogue and movement may be a strategic aim for us in this coming year and further on into the future. But growth in numbers needs to be accompanied by something else. Because whatever we do or don’t do will shape Judaism for the next generation and if we don’t do something, then, as my colleague and friend, Rabbi Willy Wolff has said, it will go off in a direction that we may or may not like. The future is always unpredictable.
Abraham’s cause was his faith in a commanding God, whose vision for the Jewish people was a covenant, a binding contract of loyalty and love to be a ‘kingdom of priests, a holy nation’. For some of us, that faith and covenant is still an immediate and significant part of our lives – a voice of conscience that urges us to engage in issues of social justice and action; a sense of amazement and wonder at the intricacies and beauty of the world, a profound appreciation of our Jewish heritage. God is not a word that I find helpful for the breath and vitality of humanity, for the heartbeat of the earth, for our connection and love for each other, for the privileged astonishment I feel as I stand with you here to celebrate these Days of Awe that stretch back into our history as a people. But it will do, because whether this force, this breath, power and vitality, this Eternal Presence is part of your life or not, it does not take away the very fact of our Jewish existence and our survival.
For Izzy, by his own admission, there is no God, but there is a rich and growing Jewish life that he is discovering as a self-confessed secular Jew, alongside his new-found knowledge in art and literature, music and maths, physics and philosophy. His loss of faith in that ancestral God of Abraham has not meant a desertion of Shabbat or the Chaggim, life cycle events or community life. He remains passionate about Jewish learning and observance, ardent in wanting to pass on a more open expression of Judaism to his young students.
If we care about the shape of Liberal Judaism into the next century, perhaps we need to think a little more carefully not about our rights, as Sarah did in relation to herself and her son, but our duties, as Abraham did as he accompanied Hagar and Ishmael into the desert. We have a duty to cherish our family and friends – that goes without saying – but we also have a duty to cherish our community here at the LJS. For there is a bigger picture beyond the immediate present – a world and a future – that, I believe, require our passionate and necessary contribution: to ensure that our shared spirituality and creativity survive, that we nurture a passion for exploring Jewish traditions, texts and values to be passed on to and to enrich future generations, that the obligation to live ethically and to build relationships, with all the challenges and turbulence around us, remain foremost.
At the beginning of this New Year, may each one of us take upon ourselves the duty and responsibility to sustain and develop the sacred task of the Jewish people: to be the spiritual architects of a moral, ethical and Jewishly observant future in our own homes, in this congregation and to add what we can to create a just, compassionate and peaceful world. Keyn yehi ratzon. Amen.