We currently have three Thought for the Week pieces; one for shabbat, one for Rosh Hashanah and one for Yom Kippur
You can also read the Rosh Hashanah message from our President, Rabbi Dr Andrew Goldstein here.
We have also collected a range of High Holy Day sermons and thought pieces from our rabbis which you can read here.
9 September 2018
The house is usually quiet at night; the only sounds the water gurgling its way through the pipes, the rain on the windows, the wind rustling through the leaves on the trees. Lulled into that late night, other-worldly pace as I sit at my desk, the neighbours sleep and the earth beds down for a night of windless peace, I am disturbed by high-pitched screeches, punctuating the night silence from the end of the garden. Is it a fox staking out its territory or locked in an autumn fight? Or has it perhaps mistaken the seasonal night temperature for its winter mating season?
Painful and continuous, the animal sounds as though it is in distress. And yet, I discover that these ‘screams’ convey neither pain nor anguish, but are the fox’s ‘love song’, the cry of mating. Later on, I think of another raw, unmediated sound that comes from the Shofar at Rosh Hashanah and ask myself – is this the cry of humanity’s aching pain at the condition of the world or a love song to God?
Maimonides hears the Shofar as an alarm, awaking sleepers from their slumberous indifference to the world. ‘Do not be like those who miss reality in the pursuit of shadows and waste their years in seeking after vain things which cannot profit or help. Look well into your souls and consider your acts; forsake each of you their evil ways and thoughts, and return to God, so that the Eternal One may have mercy upon you.’
Sa’adiah Gaon offers ten reasons why we are commanded to sound the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah, among them that it is a cry of self-reproach for our wrongdoing, a reminder of Sinai and the covenant, of the prophets and their warnings of destruction. He hears it as an echo from the past – the battle-cries of enemies and the weeping over lives lost, of our fearfulness and humility before God and of the great day of judgement still to come.
But the sound of the Shofar as a love-song? Is the sound of the Shofar our people’s once-upon-a-time love-song for God – the God who courted them in the wilderness and took them as His own people? Is it a love-song for our Jewish heritage, for its highest teachings of loving kindness and compassion? Or is it the sound of love we have for our families and friends; the tenderness we feel when we see those hurting and suffering because of their circumstances – the old and the young, the lonely and the unfriended.
Perhaps it is a love-song for the universe – a yearning for a world in which beauty is unspoiled, where humanity is hospitable, where cities and their inhabitants grow and flourish and are not flattened by war and conflict.
Even if the many words we speak in prayer may not address our own concerns and yearnings, perhaps simply by listening to the sound of the Shofar as we come together on Rosh Hashanah, we will hear something of that aching love-song for a world of lightness, hope and peace.
May you and your dear ones be blessed and inscribed for a year of health and peace.
14 September 2018
So have you sinned today? I don’t want to impugn your good self but I think you would be in a tiny minority if you haven’t. Though I suspect you would be part of a far larger group of people if you feel that you haven’t sinned today… or for that matter, sinned very much at all in the past year. Which makes these days of Repentance and Yom Kippur a really difficult spiritual exercise.
Most of us try to deny uncomfortable facts. I am reminded of the typical way young children act when faced with something that they have done wrong. ‘It wasn’t me’, they say, ‘who scribbled on the wall, it was my hand’. ‘It wasn’t me, they claim, ‘who deliberately tripped the baby up, it was my foot’. As if the hand and the foot had wills of their own.
Then the next stage. ‘It wasn’t me, it was an accident. I did not mean to hurt you through leaving my toys where you were bound to trip so I don’t have to feel sorry that you have a bruise on your arm’. Unless there was real premeditated, provable, malevolent intent, then there is no blame, no need to apologize.
And then, perhaps one of the most irritating phases of all; the time when the children have taken on board the fact that apologies are expected, so they say sorry, all the time, for everything, but you know how little the words really mean and yet they then expect the matter to be totally forgotten. Wiped out of your memory, as if the hurtful words, or the discovered lie or the dreadful deed had never happened.
Now the really annoying thing is that on an adult level, we are all still guilty, at least occasionally, of the same misconceptions. But complete Teshuvah, repentance, the spiritual work at this time in the Jewish year, does not work like that. There are recommended steps that have to be followed, in order, and incomplete teshuvah is just that, incomplete, and no number of prayers on Yom Kippur can magically complete the process for us.
One teenage joker in a class I taught said that the first step of Teshuvah is to do something wrong. And he was of course right. Not that there’s any shortage of such wrongful acts in our lives. As it says in this week’s sedra, after the death of Moses, ‘This people will go after alien gods in their midst in the land which they are about to enter; they will forsake Me and break My covenant with them’ (Deut. 31:16). In other words, God knew that we are bound to commit sins. That’s what we do. The problem is, what we are going then to do about them. For sins may be what we do, but they are not what we are. We are capable of being better than that. And Teshuvah is the way forward out of the sinful morass we often find ourselves mired in. But it’s not a simple task. Complete Teshuvah asks that as mature adults, the real first step of repentance is full acknowledgement that we have done something wrong, followed by a real attempt to put the wrong right through apology and appropriate actions and then to make a firm resolve never to commit the same sin again.
One of the sad realisations that may come upon us if we truly try to acknowledge all our sins, is that there are some for which repentance is very hard, if not impossible. If we have spread gossip, how can we know who heard it and acted upon it as if it were true? If we have polluted the environment, do we know which asthmatic suffered? And anyway, cars and lorries are sometimes essential. If we bought something on the quiet, cheaply, then we know it probably fell off the back of a lorry or that it is a forgery, hurting someone’s legitimate business, and how can we pay back the money we really owe on that item if we don’t know who actually lost on the deal? The matter is so complicated, some may say, ‘why bother’?
Well perhaps because it sensitises us to the moral issues in our lives, the process of Teshuvah makes us think more about the consequences of our actions, and encourages us to avoid certain actions in the future. And if it teaches us to reflect, just occasionally, on the probable outcome of our often rash words or actions, then surely the world around us, the world in which we bring up our young, will be a better place. In the face of such imponderables and difficulties, we can’t just sit back and give up. As it says three times in our sedra for this week, ‘Be strong and of good courage’. Teshuvah is not easy. But don’t give up! We must try to really face our sins. Try to really repent. Try to make this New Year a better place for us all.
It seems that for the dictation programme I use – ‘Dragon Naturally Speaking’ – the war that began on Yom Kippur in 1973, when Israel was attacked by an alliance of Arab states, led by Egypt and Syria, trumps the sacred annual Jewish commemoration that goes back well over two thousand years to the time of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
It feels incongruous for Yom Kippur to be associated with war, but the fact is that each year since 1973, the most sacred date on the Jewish calendar has also been the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. And this year, it’s the 45th anniversary. Meanwhile, a peace agreement was signed between Israel and Egypt in 1979, and the Arab states no longer act in concert in relation to Israel or anything else. And still, there seems no end in sight to the conflict at the heart of it all between Israelis and the Palestinians.
So, what we do about this difficult conjunction of Yom Kippur and the Yom Kippur War? We could simply ignore it, or we could go deeper, and explore the meaning of this sacred day. We live in an individualistic society, and, of course, Yom Kippur is a day for the individual to reflect, confess and make a journey towards atonement. But interestingly, when Yom Kippur was introduced into the calendar in the Second Temple period, the ritual acknowledged the need of all the community of Israel for atonement. As we read in the Torah (Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:7-19), the High Priest would take two goats, and by placing lots upon them, one would be sacrificed as a sin offering, and one would be sent out into the wilderness bearing the sins of the Israelites
We Jews know only too well what it is to be burdened with collective responsibility. By a terrible irony, the practice of sending a goat out into the wilderness weighed down with the people’s sins later gave rise to the term, ‘scapegoat’, which was employed against the Jewish people, scapegoated for the sins of humanity. Indeed, scapegoating, is the central motif of anti-Semitism: Jews have been victimised throughout the ages for being what anti-Semites see as the perpetrators of every malevolent evil – depending on the particular perspective of the Jew-hater or Jew-hating group – from the killing of Jesus through capitalism, communism and imperialism.
Given the nature of anti-Semitism and how it has been expressed in practice – in particular, during the Sho’ah – it may be hard to recognise that taking collective responsibility is essential to the journey towards atonement. Nevertheless, the haftarah we read on Yom Kippur morning from the second part of the Book of Isaiah makes it clear that as individuals, we also bear responsibility for the sins of the community and for the society in which we live. We read (58:5-7):
- Is this the fast I look for? A day of self-affliction? Bowing your head like a reed, and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Eternal One? / Is not this the fast I look for: to release the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? / Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to cloth them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?
The prophet known as ‘Deutero-Isaiah’, the ‘Second Isaiah’ was addressing, both, the individual and the society – the Jewish society – which had been brought to ruin by social and economic injustice.
On Yom Kippur we confess to sins in the plural: ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu dofi, ‘we have offended, we have betrayed, we have robbed, we have slandered’. Regardless of whether or not we, as individuals, have engaged in any particular wrong mentioned, we make collective confession because we recognise that we could have committed these wrongs, that amongst the Jewish people, there are those who have committed these wrongs, and that as a society we do wrong – in particular, against the most vulnerable and marginal and vulnerable; referred to repeatedly in our sacred texts as ‘the stranger, the orphan and the widow’ (sse, e.g., Exodus 22:21-24, Deuteronomy 24:17-18).
The focus of aseret y’mei t’shuvah, ‘the ten days of returning/repentance’ that begin on Rosh Ha-Shanah and conclude on Yom Kippur is on the repentance journey of the individual. And yet, from the perspective of the ancient rites of Yom Kippur during Temple times, and expressed in the texts of rabbinic liturgy which we still use today, taking collective responsibility is also integral to the yamim nora’im, ‘the awed days’. And so, to be reminded of the Yom Kippur War on Yom Kippur gives us the opportunity to reflect not only on our own personal mistakes and wrongdoing, but also to think beyond our immediate lives to the wider community and society in which we live, and to the Jewish people across the world, including Israel, gathered together on Yom Kippur in the hope of making a new beginning.