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]