30th September 2019
Rosh Hashanah 5780/2019
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
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!”
Rabbi Elana Dellal