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Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Approaching the New Year

Last Saturday night my community, Finchley Reform Synagogue, held its annual late night Selichot service. This is always held the Saturday evening before the New Year, and I’d forgotten just what a peculiar service it is. It’s like a mini-version of the High Holy Days, or a dream-version, that passes in less than an hour. Ten days worth of - and several hundreds of pages of - liturgy and melodies and introspection compressed into 25 pages. It’s the Edited Highlights version – the one that cuts out all the boring bits and gets to the action. And yet it’s really just an overture, a prelude to the main thing. I suspect that I can’t be the only one who has a tucked-away thought that wishes it was the main event: that we could look into ourselves just for that one evening, assess the state of our souls – what we do well and what we fail in – and then move on, back to our lives, our ‘real’ lives (as we like to think of it).

I had an allocated slot in the evening , and when I spoke (and this blog mostly contains a slightly adapted version of my ‘sermonette’), I acknowledged the way in which those gathered for the service probably were there because they wanted to use the event as part of their own religious journey - an opportunity for religious reflection, or spiritual deepening, or just a space in the year when they had the luxury of concentrating uninterruptedly for an hour on their life: their priorities, values, strengths and limitations.

And I mused about the work of Teshuvah, of ‘turning and returning’, that is the focus of this period of the year. Who knows how that work is to be done? And how can we know what will work for us? Maybe by the end of that evening the inner work might have been accomplished. Or maybe, I went on,

‘your teshuvah will be done slowly and in an a cumulative way over the next weeks. Or maybe the whole elaborate process will all leave you cold or irritated until you get to Neilah – and then a word or a phrase in the book (or from a rabbi, halevei) will suddenly hit home, will suddenly illuminate something, or stir something in you, right at the end – and only then you will know that the High Holy Days still retain their power, their mystery...

‘None of knows, can know in advance, what will make the difference this year – what will speak to us, what will be helpful in this annual process of turning, returning, Teshuvah, turning our lives over and looking at them again. None of us knows, because if this process is going to be real for us it can’t be controlled – we can’t decide beforehand what prayers will speak to us, what words of wisdom, what melodies. We can’t know in advance, we can only open ourselves to the moment, each moment, and wait and listen and try to catch what effect that moment is having on us...

‘According to Martin Buber, God, ‘the divine’, never stops addressing us, never stops speaking to us (though when he uses the word speaking, he’s using a metaphor – as the Hebrew Bible does). To say that God never stops speaking, is a way of saying that the divine is present all the time, like a great ocean of being in which we are tiny waves. The wave can’t see the ocean but can only exist because of the ocean. To say that God never stops speaking puts the responsibility on us to attend, (shema, “listen” Israel), pay attention – don’t switch off, don’t put your fingers in your ears because you can’t bear the roar and rushing of your life as it sweeps by: stop and listen. Be still and listen. And you may be amazed at what you hear. Parts of yourself you didn’t know were there: courage, honesty, a capacity to sacrifice or let go of something, a calm knowledge of your own worth, a realisation of what you really value, what’s really important to you. Who knows what might be in there if you really listened in , as the Shema suggests? It could change your life – radically; or by just a millimetre - some new spark of understanding or feeling that didn’t exist before, or you didn’t think existed before. That’s how God speaks – in these perceptions, these insights, these fragments of knowledge and self-knowledge that we may never speak about, never even have the words to describe. But that just happen in us, to us, if we are quiet and listen....

‘The liturgy is supposed to help us with this process of listening. Though I know that often the liturgy does a very good job in stopping us listen. So many words, so much repetition, so much language that isn’t our natural language. A difficult theology and a sometimes alienating text. The liturgy can be a stumbling block to this real listening. And I say that knowing, and having often said, that I also think this book, this machzor, is the jewel in the crown of post-War liturgical creativity. But it isn’t going to work for everyone, or not every year. If you find that happening – that the language of the prayers isn’t helping you - then just leave it alone. Use something else – the study passages or the poetry. Or bring your own poetry to the service. There is no one way of doing these days...

‘But there is, I’d suggest, one aim, one overall aim – to listen in to the voice of God in whatever form it is speaking to you. And the music too can help us with this. Sometimes, like the traditional words, it may get in the way but it’s there to help us on the journey, to get at something in us that isn’t verbal, that is pre-verbal or beyond words, that bypasses the mind and all our clever thinking, all the ways we use our minds to protect us from deeper perceptions, to protect ourselves from the divine within us and around us, the music of the spheres. Music can percolate down through all that mental activity in us and seep into our souls, move us nearer to our true selves...’


And then I took a slight risk in a Reform synagogue – one never knows what one will say that can lead to a broygus – I mentioned something I’d come across from another Anglo-Jewish religious grouping, the Masorti movement. Of course we aren’t rivals or competitors, but colleagues - though I know not everyone sees things this way.

‘I noticed that the Masorti movement this year in their advertisements have come up with an advertising headline that says : ‘The High Holy Days should open our hearts, challenge our values and extend our moral imagination’. And I reckon that’s pretty good as a framework to help us think about our work over these days. I take it as a kind of imaginative re-working of the traditional ideas of teshuvah, u’tephillah u’tzedakah being the key themes of this period : that teshuvah , our returning, is towards an open-heartedness that we know we are capable of but that gets battered and bruised in us, because we endure so many hurts along the way, so many disappointments, so many experiences of being let down or rejected, that our hearts shrivel, atrophy – without our being aware of it – and we lose our open-heartedness. So these days are an opportunity to discover again how to open our hearts...

‘And tephillah, prayer, is a challenge to our values because the language of prayer talks about the highest values to which we can aspire. It talks of a God who is just and compassionate with the power to transform - and this language challenges our de-valued values, our compromises and deceits and failures to live up to what we could and can be, it reminds us that these values we attribute to God are our values too – and that we are capable of being like God, of catalysing the divine in ourselves – our compassion and our capacity to fight for justice and our capacity to transform what is into what ought to be. This is who we are – and our tephillah can remind us about that...

‘And finally, ‘to extend our moral imagination’. That’s a great phrase. Tzedakah means ‘righteousness’, but here we can see the expanded horizon of what that could mean. Our moral imagination is the part of us that can embrace what it might be like to be another person, someone who is suffering or in need, whose situation may be very remote from us – and I don’t need to list the countless causes and world-wide issues (from poverty to oppression) where our money, our time, our letter-writing, can make a difference to the quality of life of another human being....


And I concluded by reflecting that

‘I’m sure there is more in this notion– ‘to extend our moral imagination’ - than what I’ve just outlined. But that’s the point of these days ahead: we have the time to reflect on all this, explore individually and in each other’s company, the power of these words and themes. I wish you a good journey over the next few weeks and look forward to sharing some of it with you in one place or another’.

And so, to all who have read this far (and even to those who haven’t , for it does no harm) I wish one and all a Shana Tova, a good New Year. I will be offering some more New Year thoughts, I hope, in the days to come.

1 comment:

  1. Mezuzah on doorpost of house is our connection to God

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