The Jewish Spirit - Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781 (2020)

What a year we’ve had! Thank God it’s over!

And we can only imagine what the year ahead of us may bring.

The good news is we are alive, the bad news is we are still alive so we have only two choices right now on the eve of the New Year: to be pessimistic or to be optimistic. I say: let’s have a ball.

Have you noticed that our joys and the moments of happiness are stronger and much more appreciated. We’ve stopped taking many things for granted. We’ve stopped taking each other for granted, the world for granted. Well, hopefully most of us.

How lovely it has been for every household to receive a Rosh ha-Shanah gift from the Community – an unexpected but heart-warming surprise. How wonderful for me to see so many people coming forward and being willing to volunteer. Do you think it is a bit of a chutzpah for me to say that the power of our Jewish spirit is indestructible?

Most importantly our paradigm of thinking has started to shift. Slowly but surely. Many more people are awakening to the sense of shifting priorities and it is happening all over the world. Even though the world today is an uncertain and a very anxious place we have realised that it is now up to us to bring joy into our lives and the life of our communities.

Looking back to where we came from we have no choice but to be positive about next year; looking back to our shared history we have no choice but to stay positive about our future because that is the only choice we have.

The Prayer Un’taneh Tokef you listened to at the beginning of the service tonight seems so appropriate this year. It is the prayer which talks about the book of Judgment being opened on Rosh ha-Shanah and our decree being sealed on Yom Kippur- who will be born and who will die- followed by a detailed list of various kinds of death.

Our forefathers of Liberal Judaism took the gruesome and fatalistic parts of the prayer out but I am pleased they kept the more positive and famous parts of the Prayer in: a strong belief that our righteous actions and our work on self-improvement through teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah can change our decree – can change the course of our life.

No-one knows who wrote this prayer but the story of it appears for the first time in the 13th century book called “Or Zarua” (the name comes from Psalm 97:11) meaning “Light is sown” by the famous Rabbi Itzhak ben Moshe from Vienna. He came across this story in the book called “Book of Memories” written by Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn after their recent Holocaust – the first massacre by the Crusaders.

Rabbi Ephraim of the 12th century says that he heard that the Un’taneh Tokef prayer was established by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, who was the leading Torah sage of his generation, wealthy, of praiseworthy lineage, handsome. He was approached by the local Bishop who asked him to convert. He put the Bishop off by saying that he would think about it and return word in three days.

Almost immediately consumed with remorse for even suggesting that he might apostasise, he refused to appear when the three days were over.

Eventually soldiers brought him into the castle by force. When asked why he failed to come out of his own free will Amnon said that he should have never promised to come in the first place. He also said that he was willing to undergo a punishment for his sin. Since it was his tongue that sinned, his tongue should be cut out of his mouth. The Bishop, however, replied that the sin was performed by Amnon’s feet so he ordered that Amnon’s toes and fingers were cut off.

What was left of Amnon then was carried back into the Jewish quarter. When Rosh haShanah arrived, Amnon asked to be delivered to the synagogue, where he was placed next to the Baal T’filah. As the Leader was about to recite the K’dushah – the prayer specifying God’s sanctity – Amnon asked him to wait a minute while he, Amnon recited “Un’taneh Tokef Kedushat Hayom ke hu Nora ve’ayom” – let us sanctify this day for it is full of awe and dread.

This prayer is one of the examples of how the survivors of the Crusader Holocaust were trying to come to terms with the tragedy which had befallen them and with the atrocities committed against them. The explanation they came up with was by taking more responsibility upon themselves. Not God but themselves. That’s what is so admirable about our Jewish soul, about our heritage: patience and deep sense of responsibility for our lives and the world.

For me this prayer is a book of memory to the sufferings of our ancestors – all those deaths which are not included into our prayer book were part of their lives – and it is a reminder that I am, we are, so lucky today to live in peace. It is also a powerful reminder to me that our world is not yet redeemed and there are so many people around the world who are still suffering from persecution, torture and violence against them.

Albert Vorspan, Director-Emeritus of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism in the USA, who was arrested in 1964 with the Reform Rabbis, who at the request of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., joined in the civil rights protests in St. Augustine, Florida, and Rabbi David Saperstein, once met the Dalai Lama at a Buddhist retreat centre in New Jersey, wanting to convey their deep empathy with the great leader who had been living in exile since 1959, when his homeland was occupied by China.

The Dalai Lama asked the Jewish delegation a question: “Tell me,” he said “what is your secret? How can a people that has been persecuted and exiled and vilified throughout the centuries maintain its religion and its sense of national identity? No other people has done this except you. I want to know your secret so that I might better help preserve my people.”

The Jewish delegation was taken by surprise so they gave a variety of responses from Jewish values and Jewish way of life to my favourite: the power of Jewish spirit, which is always more powerful than the vicissitudes of life and weapons of repression. One person said that it is “the refusal to yield to despair, fatigue or cynicism; the stubborn belief in Tikkun Olam ‘repairing the shattered world’; the chutzpadik notion that we are co-partners with God in refashioning a humane and civilized world – these Jewish compulsions, they said, have helped preserve the Jewish spirit.”

And we need the strength of our spirit today, drawing inspiration from the strength of the spirit of our parents, grandparents, our ancestors to face the year ahead of us: both as individuals and also as a community.

It is a time for us to recognise that radical changes need to be implemented in the world in order to tackle our problems. In our Parashat haShavua class on Thursday we identified the biggest problems of the modern world. The list is so long that I decided to share it with you today. The most fascinating thing was an agreement we all came to that most of the problems are as old as the world.

And you know what conclusion we came to? It is often people’s fear and greed that stops us from progressing.

It is those moral dilemmas we have to face sometimes, which let the world down. Acting morally or living comfortably? Making good money or doing good deeds? Endlessly indulging ourselves or sharing with others? Enjoying the benefits of modernity or saying no to abuse of the natural world around us?

The Covid Pandemic is devastating but it has also brought our attention to many problems which are stated so boldly today: the way we live, eat, waste and pollute. The way we treat each other, the way we use and abuse each other, the way we appreciate each other, communicate with each other and respect each other.

This will be a year for us as a Synagogue, as a community to choose whether we will become an Eco-Synagogue and to lead our members by example of living in harmony with Nature, or choosing an easy way of talking and not walking our way. This is a year for us to affirm the path of courage and not fear for our Congregation towards the goal of being caring, welcoming and a friendly Sanctuary both for our members and all who need it.

This year will be a wonderful opportunity for us to stand up for others, who are still oppressed, abused and discriminated against, because we know how it hurts. This year will be a year to support all those people who have lost their jobs and they will be many.

Now is the time to implement all the radical changes we need to and can, but didn’t have the time or courage for before. We have no time to waste and let’s start tonight with making ourselves evoke that great Jewish spirit and inner strength within ourselves to make this new year a year of the power of our spirit. As Henry Ford said: “Whatever you think you can or cannot, you are right”. And I know that we can.

I wish you all a year of purpose, positive spirit and joy. Let’s make it a good year! Shanah Tovah u-Metukah!