Shabbat Shuva Shalom and Shana Tova
Today is the Shabbat of Shuva returning or Tshuva repentance. The first Shabbat of the new year. Traditionally it was one of the two Shabbats on which the Rabbi of the Community would give a Sermon; the other is Shabbat Gadol before Pesach. Well, for reasons which are important to the ethos of this community, this Beth Shalom, we do not have a Rabbi. So I am honoured that the Senior Warden and the Synagogue Services Committee invited me as your Chair to give the Sermon today. Thank you.
Today is also an opportunity to thank all of our volunteers and our small number of paid employees, teachers and helpers who are so vital to Beth Shalom being such a vibrant and active community. At our core we are a religious community celebrating and contributing to the development of progressive Judaism. Every time you stand at the door to meet and greet, or bring food to a kiddush or participate in a service, you are contributing to our community. All volunteer roles are appreciated but during the High Holy Days we should express a special thank you to our wardens and the synagogue services committee who put so much love and effort into planning and leading our services.
Just over a week ago my world was turned upside down: literally. One moment I was feeling just about OK and the next, the room was whirling round, the floor was on the ceiling and I had completely lost balance and was on all fours trying to work out what was going on. I don’t know how many of you have been affected by an attack of Vertigo but those of you who have will know that it is completely debilitating. I am sharing this with you in part because it explains why I was unable to be with you over Rosh Hashanah and I am so sorry to have missed it. However, I also wanted to share my reaction. In addition to the nausea, dizziness and loss of balance which continued for some days, I felt vulnerable and frightened for myself and for my family. The doubts and fears rushed through my mind as I grappled to clear my mind. Do I have a tumour, has a worm invaded my brain like that poor woman in Australia? Have I left everything in good order for Aurore and the boys ?
Gradually my head cleared enough for me to phone 111 who told me that I had an appointment booked at Addenbrookes for 2:30 pm at the urgent care clinic. When I arrived the receptionist openly laughed! That is not an appointment time, it’s an arrival time she said. The next 4 hours were a lesson in humility. As I sat in a condition of brain fog, I noticed the other 100+ people waiting to be seen, patiently, quietly and in some cases painfully. This was the reality of NHS gebrochen..broken; not a news report but the real thing. During the waiting time which by the way was infinite, because after 4 hours I gave up, I had time to reflect on the upcoming HHD and what it means for us and for other people who are Jewish or bearing in mind the popularity of our conversion programme people who are not yet Jewish!! What is the real significance of these yomim nurayim. What do we want and expect when we pray for forgiveness of our sins?
As usual these days, I began my research for todays sermon on the internet. Sure enough there was a plethora of material on repentance, renewal and returning with quotes from Maimonedes, the Rambam, sayings of the fathers and so on. In every case a plea for hope over experience as we seek to change our behaviour, human behaviour and to be better than we have been in the previous year. However, the thing that struck me most was not on the internet but the wonderful sermon which Anna Abulafia gave last week on Alenu. I hope I am not misunderstanding her points when I say that my takeaway from that sermon was that as Jews we have the privilege of praying to our God and having knowledge of a great truth through the gift of Torah and Tanach. But we do not claim to own the truth nor as progressive Jews do we claim to own the only path to God to the exclusion of others. However, I do believe there is a universal truth, a universal command which too few people anywhere have even tried to obey and that is Tikkun Olam, heal the world and for me, everyone of any nationality, religion , colour or gender should be praying for that and for forgiveness for not making their personal commitment and action count. So for Yom Kippur this will be in the forefront of my mind.
What I did not find in my searches was the recognition that this is the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War; the trauma of which still lives with many Jews all over the world. In our Torah reading today Moses acknowledges he will not cross over into the promised land and following God’s instructions hands over to Joshua “ Be strong and resolute for it is you who shall go with the people into the land that the Lord God swore to their fathers to give to them”. The promise was kept, but we Am Yisrael whose history is indelibly linked with the land of Israel, have also paid a price for this God given gift.
In 1973, my sister Andrea had made Aliyah and was living on kibbutz Mayan Tzvi next to Zichron Yaaqov. Her fiancé Jacques Sade had just finished the course in Shayetet, the naval commandos at Atlit. I was studying for my law finals in England. As war broke out, my mother Frances managed to board a plane to Israel to be with my sister. This was not a short sharp war of triumph “ Ha Nizachon Ha gadol” like 1967; it was violent, brutal and terrifying. News started to filter back to the kibbutz of soldiers being killed in action, including my 19 year old kibbutz brother Gil Shalev, also known to Mike Frankl and Carol Balfe. For the first time Israel acknowledged its nuclear capability and the veiled threat of its use. Our prayers were fervent, not for renewal but for survival. We did not hear from Jacques for two weeks, he was in an undisclosed location but he came home safely. Too too many did not and there is a special section in the cemetery in zichron for the fallen soldiers from the wars.
At that time the principle threat to Israel was external. Until the subsequent Lebanon war, the external threat overshadowed the internal divisions in Israeli society. Today the biggest threat to Israel comes from these internal divisions. I am currently reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s book on the history of Jerusalem. Yes there have always been external threats to Judah/Israel but the most devastating and violent struggles arose from internal divisions. Monty Python was close to the mark with his satire on the Judean People’s Front and the peoples front of Judea hating each other more than they hated the Romans. I must admit that over the past year I have formed some very trenchant views about the attack on democracy and the ultra right wing policies of the coalition. But Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time for reflection and renewal, and I have been making an active effort to listen to the arguments of “the other side” because without reconciliation there is the strong possibility of civil war which must be the most heinous crime that Jews can inflict on themselves. In his Rosh Hashanah address President Herzog says “Kol Israel arevim ze ba ze”, a Talmudic phrase which translates as Jewish people are responsible for one another.
All over the world we are seeing an extraordinary series of peaceful demonstrations by Israelis and Jews living outside Israel. The closest parallel I can think of is the campaign of Gandhi but his demonstrations were limited to India. In this case the voice of Am Yisrael is being heard everywhere and the ruach of the demonstrations has captured the imagination of Jews and non Jews alike. The demonstrations show that we care about each other, we care about democracy, we care about equality and justice. So perhaps this is a clear sign of renewal, returning to God and at least recognition of sins. I am sure we all hope that these demonstrations remain peaceful and that our prayers for achdut unity are heard by the almighty
So this year, I am praying for good health for my family, a renewal of my spirit my ruach and for the continuing mini miracle that is Beth Shalom. But on this Shabbat, this Shabbat Shuva, I ask you to join me in prayers for achdut, unity in Israel and in Jewish communities and for Gods help in all people in Israel finding a way to heal the hurt, and to live together, if not in harmony then at least in co operation for a peaceful future.
And by the way,I did get to see a specialist and it was probably a crystal in my middle ear so here I am and here I stay “ Ivri Anochi”
Shana Tova and Shabbat Shuva Shalom