Monday, October 13, 2008

Erev Succot
Monday, 13 October

One of the outstanding themes of Succot is gratitude. The Succah itself is traditionally understood by the Talmud, and this is echoed in the Shulchan Aruch, to represent the ananei hakavod, the clouds of glory which surrounded the dwellings of the Children of Israel in the wilderness and rendered them invulnerable to their enemies. But there is also no doubt that the Succah owes a significant part of its origin to the harvest and the booths which farmers would construct for shelter in order to spend this busy season of the year in their fields. Perhaps this, too, is the background to the ancient custom, described as early as the Mishnaic period, of decorating one’s Succah with produce from the passing months: ‘and hung in [the Succah] nuts, apricots, almonds, pomegranates, branches from the vine, crowns made of corn stalks, wines and vessels filled with fine flour…’ (Talmud: Shabbat 22a). Succot is the festival of faith and appreciation.

How important it is, then, to say thank you before the festival commences to everyone who has put so much hard work and good heart, devotion, learning, melody, fellow feeling, sensitivity, stamina, skill and generosity into creating the wonderful atmosphere which filled our community over the Yamim Nora’im, especially throughout Yom Kippur. Thank you for the commitment in coming forward to lead our services; thank you for the hard work and many patient hours of preparation; thank you for the beautiful singing; thank you for the endeavour to achieve heartfelt kavvanah; thank you for the sensitivity to the community in the way prayers were lead. And, as the song goes, thank you not just for the past, but also for the future. It’s never too early to be thinking about next year. But first, of course, comes the joy of Succot, zeman simchatenu; I hope we will be as strong a community in joy, over Hallel and Hakkafot, as we have been over fasting and confession.

Here are three brief thoughts about song (to be developed next year) to close this year’s blog.
God instructs Moses (Devarim 31:19) that he should teach the Children of Israel the song (recorded in Parashat Ha’azinu, known too as Moses’ Song) and that it should constitute an ed, an act of witness, between us and the divine. It seems puzzling that song should constitute testimony. Yet the depth, power and harmony of poetry and music are indeed one of the most profound sources of the holy and one of the most compelling means of transmitting its impact known to us.

In the Shirah, the Song at the Sea, we are told that God is both our strength and our music – ozzi vezimrat y’. In the contemporary world, song is certainly understood to be of aesthetic importance and widely felt to be of spiritual significance. But it is not generally related to strength. Power is considered to belong to a different discourse, of armies, weaponry, money, prestige. Yet that phrase from the Shirah, the song of the Torah par excellence, points to a deeper truth. Our strength lies precisely in our capacity for song; here is the source of our spiritual resistance, our joie de vivre, of our faith itself. Power, persecution, the inevitable passing over generations, - they cannot silence or obliterate song.

Lastly, one of the Hasidic derivations of our name, Yisrael, is ‘the one who sings of God’.
Thank you for helping us to sing that song. It is always ancient and always new, never different from how it has been, yet constantly in the process of transformation. Let’s look forward to its wonderful familiarity and its creative regeneration in the year ahead.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Erev Yom Kippur 5769

This is just a short but heartfelt message. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayyim 581:1) discusses the characteristics necessary in a shaliach tzibbur (you’ll be surprised to know that it fails to use gender neutral language). Among the qualities listed, it is noted that he (or she) should ideally be at least thirty years old. (Please don’t feel bad if you aren’t! Nowadays these are seen are as hypothetical ideals anyway and it’s wonderful for our community to have new shelichei /ot tzibbur who are young.) The Mishnah Berurah notes that the reason is that a Levite of this age was fit to serve in the Temple, and that prayer, avodah she’balev, corresponds to avodah, the Temple service. But the Sha’ar Hatziyyun observes that the reason given in the Darkei Moshe is different. The latter writes, ‘Ideally he should be over thirty years of age, because then his heart is broken and crushed’.

This hardly sounds like a recommendation. But the words ‘broken and crushed’, nishbar venidkei, are not to be read negatively. The contexts from which these adjectives are drawn come from the Psalms: ‘God is near to the broken hearted’ (Psalm 34:19), and ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit and a broken and crushed heart; these God will not reject’ (Psalm 51:19). But perhaps the best illustration is to be drawn, of course, from Hasidic life. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s ancestor, the Apter Rav, was once asked why his prayers were always accepted in heaven. He replied: ‘You see, whenever a Jew comes to see me and pours out his heart and tells me the story of his misery and suffering, I have such compassion that a little hole is created in my heart. Since I have heard and listened to a great many Jews with their problems and anguish, there are a great many holes in my heart. I’m an old Jew and when I start to pray I take my heart and place it before God. He sees my broken heart, so many holes, so many splits, so He has compassion for my heart and that is why He listens to me.’

This reminds me of one of my favourite verses in the entire Torah: ‘And the Lord your God will open your heart and the hearts of your children, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live’. (Devarim 30:6) May God open our hearts and give us a compassionate spirit, so that the hopes, longings and yearnings of all our congregation and of human hearts everywhere may flow through us, and give wings to our words and our music so that they descend deep into our souls and ascend up to heaven. May God open our hearts and guide us and teach us to be compassionate in all our deeds in the coming year and for the rest of our lives.

Gmar Chatimah Tovah

Sunday, October 5, 2008

I was rash enough to write in Shalom New North London on Friday that ‘I love every word of the liturgy (or almost every word)’. I’m not about to retract: I do love the vastly greater part of it. But I was fairly challenged, with a courageous, honest and well intended series of questions: How can you say that, when so much of it the liturgy on the High Holydays is repetitive, a great deal is theologically difficult, if not offensive, much of it is destructive and some of it is silly!

Evidently the question, which exacts from us a lifetime of prayer and analysis, is: what is liturgy? Is liturgy words often sung or chanted to music or nusach? Or does that impose a false primacy on the words? Is it legitimate to say that one loves prayers because the melody signifies far more profoundly than the words? Or is that the theological equivalent of cheating? In a key discussion of kavvanah, the Shulchan Aruch does after all teach us that we should focus on the literal meaning of the words we are saying as we say them, something which I not only frequently don’t do, but experience many of my deepest moments of prayer when I’m not doing.

One of the charges often made is that the words do not convey what we actually feel and believe about God and fail to express our contemporary sense either of the world, our ethical ideas or our spirituality. Actually, I would argue, text by text, that this is far less the case than many people might initially suppose. But I’m also reluctant to become a fundamentalist of the twenty-first century and insist that liturgy confirm specifically and overwhelmingly to our current concepts. On the contrary, an essential manner in which prayer functions, at least for me, is that ancient texts carry generations of voices and spirits, who said or sung them, and for whom the words signified in hundreds of different, yet heartfelt ways. This constitutes, in my view, a very strong case for preserving prayers even when we find them difficult.

Interestingly, the latter argument was brought vehemently, and disingenuously, to bear against the reformers who introduced prayers in translation into the Hamburg Temple in 1815. The polemical pamphlet Eleh Divrei Habrit with which orthodoxy damned these changes used the argument not that halakhah forbids saying key prayers in translation (it doesn’t) but that we cannot translate the many mysteries locked in the specific Hebrew words. I take this to be a similar argument about the spirit carried,between the ancient letters and amidst the melodies, which would be lost if we disposed of them.

The issues here are extensive and deserve full debate (after Yom Kippur!!!). But the key point I felt myself wanting to make when I received that reply is that what liturgy offers us is not a reflection of our own world view, but a means of engagement, a way of awakening our soul, heart and mind, of encountering spiritual and ethical challenge. Prayer is not always there for our comfort. It asks us questions. It provokes us into debate. It summons forth not only our acquiescence but sometimes also our outrage. It constantly demands reinterpretation, not only from generation to generation but sometimes from day to day. We have not only to allow it to function at a metaphorical level, but to delight in the fact that it does so. And we have to feel free to disagree with the Machzor, and be grateful for the provocation.
As if prayer itself were not sufficiently demanding, leading the community in prayer, though also a great privilege, is even more of a challenge. For the prayer leader must, in halakhic terms, motzi et harabbim yedei chovatam, a phrase extremely hard to translate, but which may roughly be rendered as ‘enable the many to fulfil their obligations’. This applies not only on the legal, but also at the communal, emotional and spiritual levels.

On the halakhic plane, the matter is relatively straight forward. One has to have in mind that through the recital of the prayers, or indeed the blowing of the shofar, or the saying of a particular berachah, one intends to enable everyone present to fulfil his or her obligation with regard to this particular commandment. The key word here is ‘everybody’. The Shulchan Aruch specifically notes that one may not say to oneself, ‘I like all these people, except Shloimi in the corner, so there’s no way he should imagine I’m getting him off the hook with my davvening. He can jolly well go and do it for himself’.

Absurd as this sounds, it does present us with the real challenge, though again this is a privilege, of trying to fill our hearts with a bond of affection and appreciation towards each person, previous or present differences of opinion notwithstanding! This takes us to the communal and emotional level of ‘enabling people to fulfil their obligations’. It underlines why it is so deeply important that in all our services we embark upon the voyage of prayer in a spirit of tolerance, harmony and inclusion. Some of the issues are practical: I was horrified to learn from one lady in our congregation that she no longer comes to Shul because, afflicted with arthritis, it hurt her hands too much to hold a siddur and not one of our chairs available has a book rest on which she might place it. To my mind, the alienation of one single person for a reason of this kind amounts to the exclusion of the entire community from its own completeness. Then, of course, there is the endeavour to find a gracious mean between the needs of those whose hearing may have become less than perfect and the priority of enabling children to experience shul as happy and welcoming. I stress the word ‘gracious’ because, while we can’t hope to get everything right, we do have to maintain a welcoming heart and a friendly tone. The shammes, the rabbi, the shaliach tzibbur, the leadership sets the tone.

Then there is the question of spiritual inclusion. The shaliach/shlichat tzibbur prays not only from his or her own heart but uses melody and feeling to open the heart and help encourage and release the prayers of the whole congregation. What could be harder! One of the keys here is familiarity. The community often feels liberated by a well known melody, especially at this time of the year, especially if one does not come to shul all that often. Jews measure out their lives not in coffee spoons, but in the music of the great Kaddish before Mussaf and in joining in with the Melech al kol ha’aretz before its fourth berachah. Here leading becomes dialogue; leading is also listening. As a sermon giver, I associate this with my own struggles not simply to say from the pulpit what’s on my own mind, but also to try to listen to and articulate thoughts and feelings which are already there in the hearts of members of the community.

It’s because none of these are simple matters that our endeavours are rightly embraced by the quiet personal petitions, ‘God, open my lips’ and ‘Open my heart through your Torah’. God, please!

Friday, October 3, 2008

Love as Faithful Kindness

‘He prayeth best who loveth best all creatures great and small’. This simple verse which presents the moral conclusion of Coleridge’s great poem, The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, effects me greatly.

I love every word (or almost) of the long liturgy which stretches through the fourteen or so hours of prayer on Yom Kippur. I think of it as a great river: its wonderful melodies are like the deeps, the rapids, and the still pools by the banks; its waters are the spirit of the thousands of pietists, poets and musicians who formulated its words and composed its melodies, and the power of its current derives from the millions of our ancestors who poured their hearts and tears into its flow. The whole day of Yom Kippur (save for feeling thirsty when one gets home after Kol Nidrei and dry in the mouth and weak in the head when one gets up before Shacharit) can pass like one great mantra. It’s beautiful.

But ‘He prayeth best who loveth best’: Yom Kippur is not simply about prayer, it’s about love. It’s about the kind of prayer, and confession, and repentance, and inner change which represents a deeply felt and genuinely intended commitment to the practice of love.

Love here must be understood according to the true meaning of Chesed, faithful kindness, which embraces the rich and the poor, the small act of helping a child over the road, the daily privilege of being attentive to and appreciative of our family, friends, colleagues and neighbours, and the great devotion of spending years tending the sick or raising money to feed the hungry. There is no limit to Chesed, teach our rabbis, and it is greater than Tzedakah, giving the due portion we owe to charity, because the latter involves our money whereas the former calls in addition on our direct personal action and commands our hands, our heart and all our being. Love in this sense is what is meant by ‘You shall love the Lord your God’, that is that we should show respect and reverence for God’s presence in every living thing.

The real question of these Days of Penitence and of Yom Kippur is: how do we live a more generous, committed and loving life? That is the challenge, or rather the privilege, to which the beautiful prayers are intended to open our hearts.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


I’ve just returned home from the contemplative service. It’s been a whole year since we held one, but we won’t let anything like such a long time pass before we have another. It was modest and simple. The silent meditation led by Ariel Klein and Leslie’s singing touched us all. At the end, no one stood up to leave. A magic circle had been formed out of stillness and spirit and no one wanted to break it.

I’m struck every year by a contrast which so many of the prayers articulate and which lies at the heart of the High Holydays. The brevity of life, its fragility and its pathos are stressed at the same time as our capacity for wonder and our ability to apprehend and praise God. Adam yesodo me’afar, humankind is made of dust, our bodies are as fragile as a potter’s wares. Yet this meditation is accompanied not by cynicism or resignation, but by great compassion for our fleeting fate. Even more poignant, though considerably less familiar, is the composition for Yom Kippur ve’avitah tehillah: You desire praise from flesh and blood, from passing shadows, whose soul departs, whose vitality flies away…yet your glory is upon them. This is what is so marvellous about human life, - how deeply we are able to love, how great is our appreciation of beauty, how amazing it is that in rare moments we feel in touch with the infinite, that we apprehend something, even an infinitesimal intimation, of the consciousness of God. Yet at the same moment our experiences are constantly transformed into this elusive past which rushes away from our grasp with the invincible speed of time. This dialectic, this counter pull of the dual forces of eternity and mortality, often makes me think of the ending of Dylan Thomas’ ferne Hill:
Time held me green and dying
But I sang in my chains like the sea.

Perhaps the most powerful, and also the most familiar, expression of this poignant tension is in the Shema Kolenyu prayer: ‘Do not cast us away from before you; do not take your sacred spirit from us’. That these words are greatly significant to so many people is obvious from the deep attention which grips the community whenever this sequence is sung. I wonder what they mean to different people. It seems to me that they express great courage; they suggest that a human being can cope with anything so long as the heart remains awake to wonder, so long as the spirit can still find God. Or perhaps, more simply, they are a prayer for protection: Keep me close to you God, and let nothing hurtful touch me. But this isn’t exactly what they say. What they state is simply ‘God, stay with me, whatever’. When you are with me I may still be a passing shadow but I pass by on the wings of wonder.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Yirat Shamayim - Fear of Heaven

I’m sure I’m not the only one for whom today is an ‘I’ll never, ever, ever, possibly ever get everything done I’m supposed to do before Yom Tov’ sort of day. Perhaps the best solution is to concede that it’s true, and then relax, hoping that, though I may forget things, I won’t forget people.

I promised to write about yirat shamayim, the fear of heaven.

In traditional Jewish theology fear of heaven is the partner of love of heaven, only it’s the unpopular member of the pair. Rabbi Louis Jacobs lamented that modern theologians tend to ignore it altogether. Yet it’s a deeply important - I was going to say ‘concept’, - but I should say feeling. The higher aspect of fear of heaven is called by the mystics yirat harommemut, awe before the exalted divine presence. Maimonides describes it as the impulse of humility, of withdrawal almost, before the experience of great wonder. It might be associated, for example, with the stillness we feel as we reach the summit of a mountain and see the majestic view unfold before us, rock, precipice, forest, sky and distant sea. For a moment something so vast invades our heart that we are silenced, lost in the presence of incomparably greater being. But here is a moment when the poet Rilke finds such awe in something very small:

I found you
One time…
You are a fledgling with yellow claws
And big eyes, and it hurts to see you so.
(My hand is far too broad for you.)
And I take with my fingers a drop from the spring.
I strain to see if you will take it with gaping beak.
I feel your heart throbbing and my own heart, too,
And both from fright.

The wonder of life has settled in the poet’s palm. We can appreciate the tiny bird’s terror. But the man, being so much stronger, why should he be afraid? Maybe it is the awe of such an unexpected encounter which overwhelms him. Or maybe it is the feeling of deep tenderness towards this little, fragile life, which he desperately hopes not to hurt. This reminds me of a Hasidic explanation of the meaning of yirat shamayim: it is what we experience when we care so much and are frightened lest we should ever inadvertently bring pain to the one whom we so deeply love.

I hope our hearts are stirred by such awe and that it touches our prayers with its wonder.