19th September - Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon
CREATED IN GOD'S IMAGE
Eternal Our God, Lord of the Universe, Adonay, Adonay, El Rahum veChanun...
It's us, the Jews. Your people.
This is the time of the year when You usually hear from us. And I mean all of us.
There are those of us who pray regularly. There are not that many, but they do exist. You hear from them every day. Over the last few weeks, they have been preparing themselves for this day, adding prayers to their routine and blowing the shofar at the end of the morning prayers.
For them, today is a very special day. Each year they go to synagogue on Rosh ha Shana as if it were a meeting with an old friend.
Then there are also those who rarely come to shul. Honestly: they are the majority of Your people. But even if they are not shulgoers, this is the time of the year when they think of You, Eternal Our God. They may see You as a distant relative to call, once or twice a year. And each time the conversation is formal, repetitive, perhaps boring. It's difficult to find the words. Nonetheless, even for these lazy Jews, who as a rule avoid shul and are not familiar with prayers, the conversation with You is much needed. So they come to shul, once or twice at this time of the year, just to be sure, because they feel they have to do it, like they have to visit a Relative.
Except that this year there are no synagogues.
Not for the regulars and not for those who come once or twice a year. Not for anybody.
This year synagogues are empty, Almighty God.
It is such a strange feeling. We are used to synagogues as places of hope, but now we are afraid of synagogues. They are places where we look for comfort but now they make us anxious and fearful.
So we have moved our activities, our prayers and our learnings online, outside of the synagogues. Now we pray, we worship and we learn in the virtual space.
We have become familiar with these strange things called Zoom, or YouTube, which means that we do not meet in person; rather we see each other through computer screens.
We see faces. If and when the person on the others side of the screen allows us to glimpse into his or her private space, this is what we see. No more crowds or groups of people. No. Just faces on screens.
Our faith has a strange relationship with faces.
We do not know Your face, Eternal Our God. No one has ever seen You. You have forbidden us even to imagine You. You don't have a body and a face. In Judaism, there is no such thing as the face of God.
But we know that You have created the human beings in Your image, Eternal Our God. Therefore we see Your face, Your image, in the face of every human being. In human faces, there is a sparkle of Divine, an element of You,
There is holiness in the faces that we see on the computer screens.
This is a challenge—humanity associates beauty with power. The more one is powerful, the more we are likely to see him or her, as beautiful and attractive.
In the society in which we live, there is enormous pressure, on men but especially on women, to look attractive, to conform to canons of beauty and appearance.
We worship the gods of beauty.
But You, the Jewish God, has commanded us to find the beauty, the sparkle of Divine, not in the exceptional individual but in every human being.
If we were good Jews, we would look at the faces on the screens, and see a Divine sparkle, a bit holiness, of kedusha.
Because this is what You have commanded us. Not to follow the way of the Greeks, with their wonderful statues and pleasant images, and not to behave like the Romans, who always portrait their emperors and leaders as young, beautiful and attractive, because for the Romans, beauty was power, and Power was Beauty.
And let's face it; it still works in this way in the society we live in.
We Jews ought to be different.
In the faces of the human beings, we are commanded to find an element of Divine. We ought to see the presence of God, the Shekhina, in the faces, the very faces of real people, of the members of our community that we see on the screen right now.
Yet, this is not what is happening.
Not as a community. The community is good. Our community indeed has much to be proud of.
We in Brighton have set up an admirable network of reciprocal help and support.
We British Jews have been able to defeat a dangerous demagogue. That is for the benefit of all our fellow British citizens. What would have happened had Jeremy Corbyn been Prime Minister in these times of pandemic. Without our mobilisation, he may well have ended up in power.
At the international level, Israel is entering a new stage of its history, with the Muslim States now lining up to sign treaties. The very same Muslim States that a few months ago were committed to the destruction of the Jewish State.
So, as a community, we have performed well, and despite adversities and obstacles, we have accomplished so much, and we have much to be proud of.
But as individuals? As Jewish people? As human beings?
Have we always been able to look at the faces of our fellow Jews and see in them that sparkle of Divine whom we are commanded to see?
Or rather we look at each other, and we see a threat, a danger, or at best an ally for some power-play?
How often in the last few months have we failed to keep the moral standards that You have set for us?
How often was the person behind the screen of the computer not aware of our real thoughts and feelings, of our intentions and machinations?
This is the kind of question we do not want to hear, Eternal Our God, because we know the answer. And it is not the answer that You wish from us.
Despite the success and the cohesion of our community, admirable and indeed admired, we are aware of many of our own failures and imperfections, mostly in our private life.
We enter into this season, the High Holidays, the Yamim Noraim, knowing too well that there are many sins and many transgressions we have to be forgiven for.
We ask for Your help to discover what we can do to spiritually improve, to avoid other transgressions, to see You in the faces of our friends, and of our relatives.
Including those with whom we have had misunderstandings or disagreements; those we clashed with; those whom we have disappointed and those who have disappointed us.
And we want to be able to say, precisely to that person who at the moment do not even want to talk to, "shalom!" peace.
We want to be able to see Your face, holiness, a sparkle of Divine in the faces of our fellow Jews, those faces that we see on the computer screens, right here, right now.
This is, Eternal Our God, what unites us, the Jews, Your people. Whether we are that kind of Jew, who prays every day, or the kind of Jew who comes to shul just a few times a year, or one of the too many who have forgotten how to address You, o God.
We all want to be better. Better Jews, better human beings, and better members of our community.
So we ask for Your help to look into ourselves honestly, without excuses or compromises.
Almighty God, help us to find the strength and the courage to admit our failures without blaming others, or the circumstances, or the pressures or... whatever.
We want to be honest because we want to be good Jews. And being a good Jew means knowing that every human being has been created in Your image; therefore he or she is worthy of dignity and respect.
This is what we ask from You, o Eternal our God. For strength and courage. For strength to admit our failure and to ask for forgiveness, and courage to forgive, to draw a line, to turn the page.
Grant us strength and courage, o God and we will use these gifts for the benefit of our community, and to rebuild our relations with other human beings created, just like us, in Your Holy image.
May this be Your will and let us say Amen.
20th September - Rosh Hashanah Sermon
Long ago, I was told a funny story by a member of this congregation, who I hope is watching this service right now.
There were these two Jehova's Witnesses who, during their missionary round, happened to visit a house where some Jewish students lived.
The two Jehova's Witnesses have probably never met a Jew before, so they happily accepted the students' invitation to sit down for a chat.
They all sat around the table. The missionary duo went into their usual spiel: the Bible and end of the world. Jehova's Witness stuff.
Taking advantage of one of their pauses, a Jewish student jumped in to the conversation and said: "You've told us about your religion, which was very interesting, thank you. Now let me explain our religion to you. We are Jewish. Everything begins with a knife."
The two missionaries ran away very quickly, and I suspect they have never visited another Jewish home since.
But the Jewish student had a point. It is true that "in Judaism, everything begins with a knife".
Think of the bris, the circumcision. It is the first commandment that a male Jew observes in his life. Literally, everything begins there.
But, also, "everything begins with a knife" can refer to the Akeidat Itzak, the binding of Isaac, the part of the Torah we have read this morning. That knife that started everything in Judaism can be the knife that Abraham was holding in his hand when he was on the point of killing his son Isaac. Everything began there.
This is a terrible part of the Torah; the Akeidat Itzak. It's so difficult to talk about it, isn’t it? It's a barbaric idea: God who orders a father to offer his son for sacrifice. It's horrendous.
We would probably be more at peace with ourselves and our heritage if this terrible chapter were not there, in our Holy Book.
Nonetheless, it is there, and we have to read it on one of the holiest days of the year. Why? Why must we be exposed to this horrific idea, that we worship a God who once demanded a man to sacrifice his own child?
To answer to such a question, we must consider what Rosh ha Shanah is about. We take it for granted that Rosh ha Shanah is the Jewish New Year Day, but this is not accurate. According to the Bible, the first month of the Jewish year is actually Nisan, the month of Passover (Pesach). The Jewish year begins with our liberation, with the Exodus from Egypt.
Rosh Hashanah is not a Jewish event. It is the anniversary of the Creation of the world. It is the New Year's Day for the entire Universe, not only for the Jews (but only the Jews know that!). On Rosh haShana, we acknowledge God as a Creator and Ruler of the world. The prayers are all about God as a ruler and as a sovereign. Think of Avinu Malkheinu: yes there is the Avinu, the "our father," (more of this later), but especially there is the Malkheinu, the "our King" to whom we ask to record our names in the Book for salvation, to abolish the oppressive laws, to nullify, that is, to change the hard decrees (gezarot kashot), the unjust legislation.
Think of Unetaneh Tokef: it speaks about the Throne of God; it calls God the one and only King. It describes all the creatures trembling in fear of the decision of their Sovereign, because no one can stand His judgement "when the great shofar is sound".
The shofar is also a symbol of sovereignty; a symbol of the power of God as a King and as a Ruler. In Biblical times it used to be blown on the day of the coronation of new kings. Its sound was the sound of power, of royalty's power.
This day is all about God as a King and as a ruler. The prayers are about acknowledging God's Power and Authority. But then, in the midst of such a day, we open the Ark, we take the Scroll out and read... what? Not about God's power and might. There are many of these parts: whoever wrote the Book called the Bible loves to describe how powerful and majestic the main character, God, is. But we do not read from any of these passages.
We read a part of a family story. The Akeidat Itzak, the binding of Isaac. The editors of our prayer book correctly point it out: this chapter is part of a larger story. How that couple Abraham and Sarah, struggled to become parents, the attempts to have children through Hagar, the birth of Ishmael etcetera.
How can we reconcile these family stories, very intimate, very personal, with the general picture, the mood of the day, which is about God as a Kingdom and Sovereign over the entire Universe?
Think again of the Avinu Malkheinu, Our Father, our King.
We have seen what sort of King God is.
But what sort of father is God? Which sort of parents does God want us to be?
We can make all the jokes that we want about Jewish mothers and Jewish parents. I know some of them, but the point is that when you become a parent, you have to make space for your children. Just like God, who was filling the whole Universe, and at a certain point, decided to contract himself, with a movement that the Kabbalists call tzimtzum, contraction. In that space that God has emptied, the Universe was born.
God made space for His Creation, just like we make space for our children. We know how mixed are our emotions and feelings are when we see our children growing up, blossoming into adults, passing through the infuriating and worrying (for us) stages of rebellions. That is how God feels towards us, the rebellious people called Jews, who quite often seem not to want to grow up, to move into adulthood.
We Jews cannot see our God. But we can feel the same feelings and emotions which God Himself, our Father, Avinu, experiences and feels.
The most difficult thing to understand, as parents, is this: our children do not belong to us. They are not our property; they are not our "emanations".
That was what Abraham had to learn when God ordered him to offer Isaac as a sacrifice; that his son did not belong to him.
Father and son, like the mother, like all the family, belong to God.
Of course, the idea of offering a son as a sacrifice is repellent and hateful. But let me ask a question: when we teach our children, through example, often inadvertently, to worship the gods of money and success, aren't we offering them as a sacrifice to another god? When we allow them that extra hour glued to the screen of their iPhone, aren't we sacrificing them to the altar of fashion, and competition?
That is the challenge of Akeidat Itzhak: learning that your children do not belong to you, that they belong to God. And this is the duty of the Jewish parents: to teach to their children that we all belong to God, that other deities, or idols, are vain.
Civilisations based themselves on different values. The Romans built their civilisation around power and worshipped their Emperors as if they were idols. And so it has been for a number of Empires after that, Britain included. Perhaps the Royals are not to be worshipped, but the Church of England has special places for them in its hierarchy.
We probably now live in a civilisation whose main value is to see and to be seen, (on social media or on the news), and the gods and idols are those who are seen, or "liked" more than others.
The Jewish civilisation has other values at its core. Judaism was built around this extraordinary idea: that God, the Malkheinu, the Sovereign and King of the Universe, is also Avinu, father. In the often constrained and narrow space of the Jewish family, we are like God and God is like our children and like us. And they will also grow up and become like God themselves, creators of life and of their personal, beautiful, unique, Jewish Universe.
May we all see the next generations of the Jewish people grow and blossom.
27th September - Kol Nidre Sermon
Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father, our God.
It’s us, Your people, the Jews.
Like every year, on the holiest day of our calendar, we turn our thoughts to You.
Like every year, this evening we prepare ourselves for the fast, the songs and the prayers.
Yes, the prayers. Even those Jews who call themselves atheists, who do not even know the language of prayers, even they, this evening, are thinking of You.
It happens every year. That's the beauty of Kol Nidre, isn't it? The melody which moves even the hearts of the most cynical sons of Your people.
Kol Nidre is the night when even the atheist prays.
This year there are more prayers than the last years.
There are more prayers, but there are less Jews.
There are less Jews in synagogues: one reason is we cannot access the synagogues. There are almost no Jews strolling in the streets of Jerusalem, those streets that on Kol Nidre are usually crowded and buzzing with life. Not this year.
And there are less Jews, Eternal Our God, because many are dead.
Each of us knows someone who has been struck with that sinister illness, COVID 19. And each of us knew someone who did not survive. How many names have we added to the yahrzeit list, this year.
This is the reason why this year You, Eternal our God, are likely to hear more prayers, and to feel more devotion from Your people.
Because we are in pain.
I know, I know: it's wrong.
It's probably the most common of our sins. In times of prosperity, when we mistakenly feel safe and healthy, we tend to forget You. And in times of distress and needs, our thoughts turn to you and our prayers become more intense.
How childish, Thinking of God only when we need to.
We never learn, do we, that You are always and everywhere, that we should constantly think of You.
But we do not, we pray to You only when we suffer, only when we feel weak.
And indeed we pray during these weeks.
We pray. We turn our thoughts to You from the hospitals. There, doctors and nurses work tirelessly night after night, and day after day. They work very long hours, for very little money. They risk their lives to save others. Too often there are not enough resources, not enough testing kits, not enough medical supplies, not enough gloves or sanitising gel.
We pray. We turn our thoughts to You from the barracks in Israel, where soldiers watch over the borders of the Jewish State; the very place that was attacked, one night in 1973, on Kol Nidre, like this night. We won that war and now those Countries that were our enemies are becoming our friends. We won that battle. Eternal our God, Protect us in this fight too.
We pray; from our homes, where we do not feel safe even if we "socially isolate" as carefully as we can. We wonder and we are afraid of what is going to happen to the economy. What will we have to renounce, to give up and for how long? Will we return to live as we were used to before? How safe we were, or we thought we were, only a few months ago. Now a single sneeze, a small cough, is enough to make us shiver with fear.
We live in the terror of the second spike and each day we look at the numbers and we see a worrying increase. That cruel illness still seems invincible.
From wherever we are, Avinu Malkeinu, Eternal Our God, Your people pray.
We pray because we are losing hope.
We know that it is a serious transgression. A Jew must have hope, despite everything.
But we have seen the most frail and the most pious sons and daughters of Your people, succumbing to the illness. And we see, the hard work of nurses and doctors being poorly rewarded.
We thought the illness had been defeated and then came the news of a second spike. Cruel irony; precisely from Israel that had performed so well at the beginning of the pandemic.
So we ask: where has the hope gone?
We were hoping to celebrate, healthy and safe, the new peace with the Arab States and with the Muslim people.
We were expecting to pack the synagogues anew at the beginning of this year 5781 and see each other in person and rejoice.
We were dreaming of journeys, trips, visits and outings. We were planning to catch up with all the simchas that we had to cancel or postpone and already making lists of people to invite and to be in touch with.
Instead, we have to slow the pace down, and perhaps another lockdown is around the corner. And our hopes are fading.
This is what we ask from You, Avinu Malkeinu, Eternal Our God.
Give us hope.
Give hope to the medical staff and to the scientists that are working so hard to give to all humanity a means to contrast and halt the virus.
Give hope to the volunteers who walk the extra mile to support the weakest members of our community and to give them hope too. Give hope to the citizens of Israel, those who protest because they have no hope, and those who react with anger to the protests: they also are losing hope.
Give hope to the sons and daughters of Your people, who look at their future in anguish.
Give hope to grandparents who long to embrace the grandchildren.
Etermal Our God, renew hope in our hearts. That hope that has sustained us for millennia.
Give us hope, Avinu Malkeinu
Because we are Your people and You are God.
28th September - YOM KIPPUR MORNING:
THE BEST WE CAN DO
Sometimes bosses are difficult people. Henry Kissinger was probably one of the most difficult ruthless bosses to deal with, according to his speechwriter Winston Lord.
The story goes that one evening Winston Lord once prepared and submitted a "first" draft of a speech to Kissinger. The next morning Kissinger called Lord for feedback on the speech and asked: "Is this the best you can do?"
Lord replied, "Henry, I thought so, but I'll try again."
Lord then went back to his desk, tweaked, revised and resubmitted another draft a few days later.
The next day, Kissinger called Lord into his office and again asked: "Are you sure this is the best you can do?"
Lord perplexed and irritated answered "Well, I really thought so. I'll try one more time."
This goes on for eight times; eight drafts; each time Kissinger's feedback was the same: "Is this the best you can do?"
Lord returns to Kissinger's office with the now ninth draft and awaited his response.
Surely this was good enough but Kissinger called Lord in the next day and asked him the same question, "Is this the best you can do?"
Lord, now completely fed up, furiously replied "Henry! I've beaten my brains out – this is the ninth draft! I know it's the best I can do; I can't possibly improve one more word!!!"
Kissinger then looked at Lord and nonchalantly said: "Well, in that case, now I'll read it."
These are the kind of things that happen in the workplace, if not with the boss, perhaps with customers. In our professional life, we are always required to do the best that we can do.
But: what about outside the workplace? In our life; with our friends and family; with our community. As Jews, and as human beings, do we always do the best that we can do?
Now, that's a tricky question. Because in the society we live in we are not encouraged to ask this kind of question to ourselves.
We do not see ourselves as adults and responsible human beings. According to science, or (better), for some scientist, there is no such a thing as free will. We do not cheat on our spouse because of our choice. No, we do so, because we have the gene of infidelity somewhere.
There is also the gene of thievery. Thieves are not really guilty of theft. Their nature is just so. They cannot be anything else than thieves, it's in their genes.
And when we spread lies and gossips on social media, it is not because we are eager to ben noticed and we love it when our prejudices are validated. There must be a gene of gossip which we have taken from our families.
Once I saw a cartoon. There were two men, a burglar and his victim. The burglar points the knife at the terrified victim and says: "I must apologise, it is not my choice, I cannot take responsibility. I was educated in this way.
This is the rule in this day and age. No one takes responsibility anymore. When we commit any transgression, we are encouraged to believe that it was inevitable. Because of nature: because of the genes. Because of our culture: because we have been educated this way. It's never our choice; we have always been forced to do so.
We cannot do our best. We just can do what our brain, our DNA, our genes allows us to do.
In the ancient world, people believe in astrology. The pagans did not believe in free will. They thought that human beings were ruled by planets, with their movement through the constellations.
Certain contemporary scientists are no different. They do not believe in astrology, nor do they think that human beings are influenced by stars, planets or objects that are far away from us. But according to their views, we human beings are influenced, by infinitely small things and cells that we call genes. Our destiny is not in our hands, we are predetermined by our genes and our DNA.
Judaism has a different approach. We can see it from a small world, in the opening of one of the prayers we recite today, Ashamnu.
"Our God and God of our fathers and our mothers, do not turn away from us. We are not so arrogant to claim that we are righteous people, that we have never sinned. But (aval) we know that we, and our fathers and our mothers before us, have sinned". And then, as you know, there is a list of transgressions, in alphabetic order. Ashamnu Bagadnu, Gazalnu etc. "We have abused, we have destroyed, we are false..."
The keyword is that aval, but. We know we should not, BUT, aval, we did it. You preordained us to act in a certain way, Eternal Our God. But we acted differently, and we transgressed, and we sinned.
It's a powerful concept.
It was countercultural thousands of years ago when people believed that human life is written in the stars and cannot change. It is countercultural today when scientists maintain that in our lives, we can do what we have been programmed to do and nothing more. Judaism states that, on the contrary, we human beings can choose that we are free: free to do wrong, when it happens; and free to repent, and free to do better.
We human beings cannot choose when we are born, and we cannot decide when we die. But we can decide what to do in between. Either to live like robots, influenced by the stars or by impulses that we cannot control. Or to affirm our freedom, to choose for good, and when we realise we did not do good, to repent and to change.
Judaism teaches that human beings are free. On Yom Kippur, we proclaim that we have the freedom to change and to become better a person.
That we can be better relatives, better friends and better members of our communities. That we can be better Jews and better human beings.
In other words, Yom Kippur is the day that helps us to do the best that we can do. Even if our boss is not Henry Kissinger, but Someone infinitely more potent than any American politician.