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Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Random Acts of Kindness – some New Year Thoughts

A few weeks ago when having supper with some friends the conversation turned, as it does at this time of the year (at least in my home), to sermons. I wondered aloud - slightly disingenuously – as to what was on people’s minds at the moment, what themes and issues were preoccupying them? What do we want – or need – to hear about as a New Year begins?

Are we wanting to be distracted from our concerns and worries and problems; or helped to find a different perspective on them? Do we want an escape from daily life -or do we want to confront things? Do we want to be challenged – or do we want to be entertained? Do we want to focus on celebration, on the ‘happy’ in the ‘happy New Year’ – or do we want to reflect on the question of ‘goodness’ (what it is, and what gets in the way of it) in the Hebrew greeting Shana Tova, ‘a good year’?

People offered various themes for me to consider. It was soon after the UK riots and everyone had a view about these; and I am sure there are some important things to say about the causal links that run between family dysfunction, economic deprivation, social impoverishment, and crime; and I suppose we could go on to reflect on how the lack of personal control involved in looting shops , and the breakdown of moral values it represents, is a mirror of recent scandals over MPs’ expenses, or the sanctioning of phone-hacking to steal information, or indeed the looting of public money by the banks. All that could make an interesting sermon, or blog, I’m sure.

As would an examination of related issues concerning the multiple and complex consequences of living in an age of feral capitalism, and how this whole deregulated free-market system has brought some of us much material security but has also led us to the edge of an abyss. I remember the morning of Rosh Hashanah three years ago, 2008, and coming to shul with the markets in turmoil and not knowing if there would be money in the ATM cash machines later in the day. We knew then - like in the Biblical dream - that the seven fat years, the golden years, were over ; and that the lean years were beginning.

Well,we are beginning to see how lean these years are going to be – and there can be few of us, Jewish or not, who aren’t starting this New Year without anxieties about money, or about employment, or about retirement pensions, or about the well-being of our children facing up to living in such crazy and anxiety-generating times. What makes this system feral is the wildness built into it, the naked greed and opportunism of a system that is out of control. And we know in our hearts that the politicians and the economists are whistling in the dark to keep their spirits up – and ours too, I suppose. So we begin this New Year with the savagery of the cuts in the UK beginning to bite into more and more lives.

We also talked that evening, inevitably, about environmental and ecological concerns and how hard it is to really engage with any substantial changes in our cherished lifestyles. Denial rules – I know it well from within myself: I also want my imported electronic goods; and to fly-off when I want to Europe and beyond. I don’t want my individualism thwarted by larger concerns – I want to be good and make moral choices about the food I buy, and the energy I consume, but sometimes the effort of it all is really daunting. And, I suggested that evening, sermons on this aren’t going to make any difference: I’ve been in the sermon business too long to retain any naive belief about the effectiveness of exhortations from any rabbi about how we are ‘supposed’ to live.

And that would be true too, I said, of a sermon on Israel and Palestine – another suggestion from a friend that evening. I think there are things to say about being Jewish at this time in the 21st century: what it means, how we express it, what the threats to it are - there are questions about anti-Semitism and whether this is a growing phenomenon or not (I have my doubts about this) and the way the on-going impasse in the Israel/Palestine conflict impacts on our feelings about being Jewish, as well as other people’s views about Jews.

So we had a stimulating conversation that evening and it helped me clarify what I wasn’t going to talk about in the synagogue community this New Year. And that left some space to think about where we do find ourselves.

Or how we find ourselves. Our selves. Because with all these preoccupations with what is going on in the outer world, the world around us, we can lose touch with our selves. There are hidden parts of us, all of us, secret parts, private parts – the feelings and thoughts we have that we may never share with anyone; or that we don’t even really know about, but may only glimpse for a moment, during the night, or on a country walk, or when talking to someone and something is illuminated that we might never have thought about before. We do lose touch with our deeper selves, our inner selves – what used to be called the soul, the essence of who we are. On Rosh Hashanah it is probably good to be reminded of the soul: that we have one, that we are one. The traditional Jewish liturgy takes it for granted that we have a soul - but we shouldn’t take it for granted. Because we forget – we forget to nurture it, to listen in to it, to pay attention to what it prompts in us, what it stirs us to do.

In Jewish tradition the soul, our soul, is an aspect of God. Our souls are how God is incarnated in the world. In Jewish thinking , the divine is in the human. How easy it is to forget this. How easy it is to be baffled by this. How easy it is to deride this. We have so many problems, we have so many distractions, we are so busy , that we lose sight of the essence, the essence of what it is to be a human being, to be alive here and now, on the cusp of a New Year. We have our worries, our troubles – our health, the health of others we love, the health of our finances, our relationships or lack of relationships; we worry about our children, or our parents, we worry about being too busy or not busy enough, there is loneliness, depression, multiple frustrations – and these are real and we need to work with these realities.

But on Rosh Hashanah and for the traditional Ten Days that follow, we become aware - we can become aware - of another reality. Because we have a soul, because we are a unique being, because we are each an unprecedented fragment of creation – that spark of divine Being that we are, is also a reality. We have eternity grafted into us. And on Rosh Hashanah we are invited to remember this, we are cajoled into glimpsing the eternity within us, as individuals and as a people.

Jews are the people who carry eternity in their souls, who have wrestled for millennia, for generations, with that eternity. What does it mean, we ask? How can we believe in an Eternal One, when we can’t even sense that spark of eternity in ourselves? Or – how can we believe in that spark of Eternity in our selves when we doubt there is an Eternal One who animates all of being?

But Rosh Hashanah challenges us to address this mystery once again. In the tradition this day has several names and descriptions. In the liturgy we read that today is Yom Harat Olam, ‘a day which is the birthday of the world’ - though that is a rather tame translation (or maybe I mean lame?) because it makes us think of this mythic, poetic picture of the world as 5772 years old when we know that it is 13.7 billion years old (plus or minus 0.13 billion, apparently – we now have a very precise age for the universe: ‘precise’, that is, to the nearest 10 million years or so).

But this phrase, idea, Yom Harat Olam, that we celebrate on Rosh Hashanah, means something much more profound. It isn’t talking cosmology, science, it isn’t talking literally – and it doesn’t really mean ‘birthday’ at all. Harat comes from the verb, then the noun, ‘to be pregnant, to conceive’, so a better translation of this traditional phrase for the New Year would be ‘today is a day the world is pregnant ‘– it is a day when something new is about to be born, to come into being, through us. ‘Yom Harat Olam’ – ‘today is a day for the conception of a world’. In these 10 days leading up to Yom Kippur we are being asked: what kind of a world do you want to conceive, what do you want to carry into this year ahead, what is waiting to be newly born and conceived of by you, by us?

We will each have a different answer to that question, but I’d like to suggest one thing we could conceive during these 10 days, one aspect of our souls we could express, and give birth to. I am going to suggest an experiment – I suggested it to my congregation on the eve of the New Year, Wednesday evening - that you conceive of yourself as being able to generate random acts of kindness.

So on each of these days, as an experiment, give birth to some act of kindness that you might not have otherwise done – something random, that just occurs to you to do. It may be planned but it might also be spontaneous: make that phone-call you have been putting off; take out that gift aid covenant you have been meaning to give to that charity; buy a copy of the Big Issue from the man you’d rather avoid outside Tesco; empty the dishwasher without having to be told to; put your hand on someone’s shoulder who needs it; give your seat up in the tube even though you are tired; open that door to the woman with the pushchair even though your hands are full and you are rushed and she looks a bit chavvy anyway. Random acts of kindness. The opportunities will present themselves, they always do. One random act of kindness a day – give birth to it. (It’s a symbolic birth - I promise you it won’t be painful). And I promise you too - it is the promise of the High Holy Days – that something will happen to you, in you, by the end of Yom Kippur.

This is what these days are for – to return to who we are, in essence, and what we are capable of: compassion, love, generosity, kindness, a passion for justice. The traditional liturgy keeps asking God to act this way towards us. What the texts rarely do is remind us that these qualities are the divine within us. Yom Harat Olam – today let us give birth to a world, a world of random acts of kindness. They will transform us as we do them - and they do transform our world.

[based on a sermon at Finchley Reform Synagogue on the evening of 28th September 2011]

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Prophecy in the 'Silly Season'

No-one knows who first came up with the phrase the ‘silly season’ to describe the month of August, that supposedly quiet month when nothing very newsworthy is supposed to happen and the papers are filled with even more frivolous items than usual. Punch magazine - of blessed memory - commented on the existence of the phrase in 1871 and the OED has a reference to it from ten years before that. But I think this year we can safely consign it to the realm of the no-longer-usable-except-ironically phrases that once evoked a sincerely-held belief but have long since ceased to be taken seriously, ideas like “children should be seen and not heard”, or “manners maketh the man”, or “saving for a rainy day”, or “workers’ paradise”, or “compassionate Conservatism”. (Anyone can play this game. Feel free to join in).

This summer one only had to go away for a few days and you came back to mayhem: the UK riots and looting, the global financial meltdown and your pension worth 20% less than before, mass murder in Norway - and that was on the back of the still on-going revelations about the hacking scandals and police collusion and the schadenfreude attached to the humbling of Murdoch & Son. England becoming world number one in cricket didn’t really compensate for August’s avalanche of events that were far from ‘silly’ – events that in different ways may touch, or disturb, or confuse us, with their brutality and randomness, their relentless assault on our senses, their savage mockery of any wishes we may retain of living in an ordered and controllable and meaningful world, a world of harmony and peace-of-mind.

So, in the midst of this constant state of chaos and transformation it was a kind of relief to immerse myself again in a text from a different place and a different time, a Biblical text, and see what meaning could be wrestled from it to give any fresh perspective on all this daily uncertainty. Giving a sermon in community forces me to do that, to take seriously these ancient texts and see what can be salvaged for our times and our own contemporary states of mind.

When people come to synagogue I imagine that, amongst other things, they are looking to find some solace, or some sense of community, to find some sense of well-being, or comfort, or companionship, to find some respite or meaning, or some stillness of sprit - and I don’t know if they get that or not. What you are normally given in the service, in the liturgy, are a lot of words, words that seem to speak with such certainty – and yet we know how much uncertainty we have to live with, every day: every moment of our lives, really.

But if we probe underneath all that liturgical certainty – and this is particularly true of the Biblical texts we hear within our annual cycle of readings – we find some large questions being addressed that might intersect in interesting ways with all those uncertainties we live with.

Last Shabbat we read from the prophet Isaiah. The allocated text started at chapter 51 verse 12. And we know that these words from the prophetic school of Isaiah were words originally composed to comfort the community of Israel after its great loss – the destruction of Jerusalem and their exile to a foreign land. They are words which referred to a specific time and context – but, like all great poetry, the words speak beyond their original setting. They are words that transcend the situation of their original audience and relate to us too, speak to us in our situations, personal and collective. They are words that reverberate, that are pregnant with new possibilities.

The text opens : Anochi, anochi, hu m’nachemchem – “I, I, am He who comforts you all” – we hear into God’s soliloquy; or maybe it is a dialogue, because it immediately asks for a response: Mi at va’tiri mai’enosh yamut – “who are you, so frightened at the fact that people have to die? that each individual is made to fade like grass?”(51:12)

There is an ‘I’ - anochi - and it is so close to a ‘you’ – at – and between the I and the you there is the comfort, the possibility of comfort, m’nachemchem. So what stops us feeling the comfort, the comfort that bridges the gap between I and Thou? The text goes on to tell us. “You have forgotten Adonai osecha, the Ground of all Being who forms you” (51:13) – the verb is a participle, so better to render it “You have forgotten the One who is forming you now, at this moment” – you have forgotten this, that the Being of the Universe is in you, “noteh shamayim v’yosayd aretz” – “while at the same time is stretching out the skies and making firm the earth beneath your feet”. Suddenly we realise what an extraordinary piece of text this is! (Some might call it inspired).

Being unfolds itself moment by moment, within us and around us. This knowledge could comfort us. But we forget it. So is this why we come into community, back to the synagogue, on this first Shabbat in September? To be reminded? To be reminded that we are part of that great chain of Being, we are not cut off from each other, or from the natural world around us; nor are we cut off from that sense that our being alive here and now is a mystery, that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that the divine is an aspect of our being.

“But you are terrified” – our text goes on - va’t’fached tamid kol ha’yom, “you are always terrified, all the time” – “because of rage and feeling oppressed and feeling life is out to get you”. (All translations are interpretations, but I am trying to translate the text’s imagery into something which allows the metaphors to be accessible to our experience yet remain true to the essence of the original).

When we get into these states of mind – feeling frightened, oppressed, persecuted – this is because, the text intuits, we have forgotten who we are, how fragile and dependent we are. We have forgotten to look up to the awesome nature of the stars at night, forgotten to pay attention to the planet we inhabit. Forgotten that we stand poised, precariously, midway between the largest aspects of creation, universes without end, and the smallest particles of being, subatomic particles. We look out and we look in and we wonder what it all means.

And as we wonder, and as we remember, we hear the words of comfort: Anochi, anochi, hu m’nachemchem – “I, I am the One who comforts you” – ‘when you acknowledge your mortality, when you stop avoiding what it means to be human - that you will one day die - when you can face this without fear, without falling to pieces, the gap between us will disappear’.

August is never the silly season in the annual Jewish cycle – in August we are always reading from a particular selection of prophetic readings: the ‘seven Haftarot of consolation’ that come after Tisha B’av, when the destruction of the Temple is remembered. Last Shabbat was the fourth one in the cycle.

Destruction, exile, pain and loss – Judaism recognises that these are part of the very fabric of being, collective and personal. They occur over and over again. But comfort is still possible, consolation, a soothing and healing of our woundedness: this is also part of the very fabric of being.

This is Jewish realism, a prophetic hopefulness grounded in the vision of an I speaking to a You, a soliloquy we listen into - and as we listen, soliloquy is transformed into dialogue.

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue on September 3rd 2011]