Monday, 24 August 2015

Dvar Torah on Journeys

I said this at Hakol Olin in London on a Shabbat morning: 

"Have you ever surprised yourself?
I have
In fact, I’m really surprised to be standing here right now.
I’m here today as the result of a journey I’ve been on
It all started when I realized I had never spoken in public before
I had always hated speaking in public and so I never did it
Not ever
So I set myself a little challenge
To speak in public
So four months ago I agreed to speak in Assif one Shabbat morning on Maimonides
Whom I love
I spent the whole of my summer holiday thinking about what I was going to say
And my voice shook as I clutched my notes
But I survived
No one stoned me which is my sole criterion for success
Then I did it again
My voice didn’t shake but I still clutched my notes
Then I did it again
And again
So I thank you very much for allowing me to speak today
It’s still only the fourth time I have spoken in public
And I hope my voice doesn’t shake and that you don’t stone me
But I have learned that anything is possible when you start to see yourself differently
I’ve also learned baby steps are fine as long as you keep going forward
In the portion today the Israelites are moving forward too
Very slowly
They have left Egypt and after so many years of slavery, they have acquired some self-limiting beliefs of their own
That they take can’t find their own food or make their own way.
They are unwilling to see themselves as self-reliant.   
Although they are marching out of Egypt physically, the Israelites are still stuck emotionally.
They aren’t children anymore and yet they don’t see themselves as adults responsible for their own sustenance.
Like moody teenagers
All they do is moan about the water supply, the food and the unknown dangers.
It made me think of a story I had just read in the Talmud, in Berachot 10a about King David’s five stages in life and what you see at each stage.
The first stage of life is in the womb when you see are all can become
The second stage is when you are born and you peep out and are amazed at the stars.
The third is when you see your mother’s breast as the source of your survival
The fourth stage is adulthood when you see the downfall of the wicked
and the fifth stage is the day of your death.
The line that describes adulthood is puzzling. Why is adulthood about seeing the downfall of the wicked?

Now I’ve just started learning the Talmud, and one thing I’ve seen already, is that the sages are extremely wise, and no line is there by accident.
The fourth stage if David’s five stages of man is illuminated by the last line of psalm 104. It says: He (ie David) saw the downfall of the wicked and sang “Let the sinners cease from the earth, and let the wicked be no more”
Beruriah makes her first appearance in the Talmud and interprets this line as saying:  It’s how we see ourselves that matters. Teshuva is an act of changing a belief about oneself and returning to understanding the innate goodness of yourself.
So maybe it’s saying, in adulthood David confronts his own wickedness.  He sees more and he does better.

The truth is there’s no manna from heaven in real-life. There’s no free ride.  And It’s hard fending for yourself in real life isn’t it? In real life, to make a living you have to compete for limited resources, work hard and make judgements.  In real life, no one is handing it to you on a plate.  
And yes, it’s easier to make more money with less ethical choices.
Yes, you can be a bandit in Babylon and hold people up for money.
Yes, you can be a Satmar slumlord in Brooklyn and exploit the non-Jewish poor.
Yes, South Africa is free now, but corruption is spreading wider too.
It doesn’t have to be like that. And it shouldn’t be like that.
It’s easy to be innocent as a child, but it’s only when we grow up and take responsibility, do we get real freedom to make moral choices.
It’s only when we grow up, that we get the choice to act ethically, not out of fear of punishment, and the hope of a reward but because it’s the right thing to do.
And best of all, it’s only when we grow up can we go only very occasionally from fear of god to moments of love of god. And that’s the real reward.

The long walk to freedom begun by the Israelites thousands of years ago is a challenge we all walk moment to moment until this moment here now.  We need to keep moving forward, even if they’re baby steps. Luckily none of us are walking alone. But it all starts with a willingness to see yourself differently."



A month before Yom Kippur last year

This is the first thing I ever said out loud in public. I said it at Assif in London, on a Shabbat morning in late October 2014.  I spent months thinking about it. I was very nervous.  My voice shook as I clutched my notes. 

"In four weeks time, we will be standing together, after a long day of not eating or drinking; and together we will say seven times the mission statement of our people:

יהוה הוא האלוהים                         

And about 1000 years ago Maimonides must have stood with his community in Fustat, Cairo and said those words too.

I imagine he liked that part of the service, not because it meant Yom Kippur was almost over, but because he was a radical, take-no-prisoners, make-no-exceptions monotheist. 

He believed God was not clumpable in time or space and we certainly shouldn't pray to a clump of God limited in time or space because that would be idol worship.

There are no powerful angels, amulets or magical incantations for Maimonides. 

So what's left?

The more I study Maimonides, the more I see a more grown up version of the Judaism I practised before.

So when I was given chapter 7 on laws concerning repentance in his Mishneh Torah, I was puzzled to read this in Halachah 3.

What? It is worse to have the thought than do the deed?
That's not the Judaism of my childhood where you could think what you liked; you only get judged for your actions.  

The clue comes in the next paragraph: Halacha - 4

"Don't think that because of their past sins, penitents are lower than the righteous. This isn't so. Penitents are loved and dear to their Creator as if they had never sinned"

Listen to the Hebrew:

אהוב ונחמד הוא לפני הבורא כאלו ליא  חטא מעולם  

Notice the word he uses for God - Boreh- maker/creator

Of all the names he could have picked- Shekina, Ein Sof, Adonai, he picked Maker.

God made you. God made you perfectly. God made you a thinking creature who has free-will to think anything. 

And that's where it all goes wrong. With our crazy thinking.
Thinking you are separate from the whole.
Thinking you are better than others.
Thinking you deserve more than others.

 For Maimonides, those habits of thinking are worse than our one-off sinful deeds. 

The habit of thinking you are better than the next person or not connected to the next person, keeps you from doing better going forward.

Last Wednesday in Syria, Assad and his supporters thought that the people who oppose them are less than people. And from that mindset, it makes perfect sense to use chemical weapons to kill.

We have experienced ourselves the results of being thought of as less than human in the Shoah, with tragic consequences. 

We Jews too have crazy thinking at times. When we think that other people have less value than us. 

When we think there's more God in some land than others, when in fact God is in all land, all languages and all people.

When ever we see ourselves as the chosen people, rather than people who choose God.

For Maimonides, there's only one way forward -to attempt to understand God properly. 

and to take our place in this moment, in the infinity of God. 

Shabbat Shalom. 

Dvar Torah on Joel





Yesterday, I was speaking in Shul as part of our series on the Minor Prophets. 
I was down to do the prophet Joel. This is what I said:


Honestly, you’ve probably never considered Joel to be an important book in the Tanach.

Not everyone remembers that Joel even IS a book in the Tananch.

But in the next three minutes I want to convince you that Joel is worth reading carefully.


To start with the text itself is beautiful.

It contains that lovely line that Debby Friedman quotes in her song:


“And the old shall dream dreams, and the youth shall see visions”


Secondly it asks big questions about where is God in the world.


Thirdly it is incredibly relevant to a situation happening in Israel right now.


Joel is made up of four chapters. At the centre of book is a scene in the Temple Courtyard where the people of Israel gather, fast and lament.  (That’s the part we read as part of the Haftorah on the Shabbat before Yom Kippur) 

The Temple Courtyard is a stone’s throw from the area in front of the Western Wall, where people gather today. When I was growing up, they used to called it the Wailing Wall.

Ibn Ezra, commenting on Joel, says that the Temple Courtyard was the place for mass supplication because the Temple proper was an unseemly place for wailing.


The first two chapters of Joel describe the terrible damage done by swarms of locusts.  The locusts destroy the crops- the wheat and the barley.  Everything is destroyed - the fig trees, the apple trees, the vines, the new oil fails.  The cattle and sheep have nothing to eat. The sky goes black from the swarm.


The text says:


“Before them it was the garden of Eden, and after them a desolate waste”


In response to this crisis, the people of Israel are called to return to God and these are the qualities of God described – 

“gracious and compassionate and slow to anger, abounding in kindness and renouncing punishment”


A call goes out to come to the Temple Courtyard – everyone is called - the babies and the old, the bride grooms and the brides, the priests and the congregation,

They stand together in the Courtyard, and the priests say:


“Oh spare your people Lord let not

Your possession become a mockery to be taunted by nations

Let not the peoples say

Where is their God?”


I was wondering that myself.


I was wondering a lot of things when I saw a photo recently of 250 thousand people attending a mass prayer rally in the area in front of the Western Wall for the three kidnapped teenagers Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaer and Naftali Frenkel. 

I wondered if they were my children would I want people to stand there quietly praying or go out knocking on doors in Hebron to look for them.


I thought about the futility of prayer, and the purpose of prayer. 

If nothing else, standing together brings comfort, knowing you are not alone in your suffering.


But it’s possible that communal prayer in that context serves another function.  It could function to remind people to remember the qualities of God and not to take vengeance into their own hands. 

God forbid 250 thousand angry people knock on doors in Hebron.


The second half of Joel is about days when God will avenge all the damage done to the children of Israel

It’s God who will "roar from Zion

And shout aloud from Jerusalem

And Egypt will be a desolation and Edom a waste because of the outrage to the people of Judah

In whose land the blood of the innocent was shed"

This is the dream, the vision, the prophesy of Joel.   2500 years later we are once again in Jerusalem, still wailing in the courtyard, and waiting for our children to come home.

Yom Kippur Sermon





This is what I said yesterday in Shul. Yom Kippur October 4 2014/ 10th of Tishrei, 5775:



"Hello friends, family, teachers, rabbi’s - pretty much everyone here has been with me on this journey of speaking in public, taking baby steps from where I first stood, trembling and clinging to my notes in Assif, to here today.  Life can truly surprise you sometimes - with support from a loving community and having the willingness to go on despite the tremendous fear.  

Here we go. 

The most useful thing I learned last year was this from Martin Buber. We experience our lives constantly in relationship. 

As he describes it, there are two kinds of relationships we experience. Both have their place. Both are necessary in the real world. The first is I-it where you see the other person or thing as something that exists for your benefit, separate to you. In technical terms this is called: instrumentalizing the other.
The second kind of relationship we can experience is where you understand for an instant that you are part of an infinite us. In this relationship, we are fully present and open to the other. You experience the other as having a complete existence beyond your need of them. This kind of relationship feels like grace, love, connection, peace, home.

It feels like us.

But to experience us, you have to let go of me. You have to forget for a second what me wants, and see instead who you truly are, - part of a whole, part of us, part of the Israel of shmah Israel, part of the entire shem chavod malchutu … and that you don’t run the show. It’s very easy to forget.

That’s what the opportunity we are given today

On Yom Kippur, we are given the chance to push control, alt, delete and see when we reboot, more moments of I –thou and less of I-it.  To see if we can hear the still voice, quiet voice and experience the thing that connects us, which we are all living expressions of.   

We are given the chance to do better, because we know better.

It’s a big ask. It’s a long, hard day.
We will be hungry and tired.
But we will be together, taking comfort in each others' presence, and letting the service, the machzor, and the music have its way with us.

We are now standing together as a community to confess collectively.  

There’s a shorter Ashamnu – all of us as a community at times this year, we have all scorned, we have all turned away, and we have all been wicked,

This is followed by the longer Al Cheit which lists 44 moral failings - including harsh speech, hardness of the heart, and baseless hatred.

We’re all standing up to the same sins, all of us in this room, and beyond this room, encountering the same words our people have encountered for generations. What we share is the space between us and the words.
Let them all wash over you. Some will resonate, others will jar. I notice that even in the moment I am reading them, I am judging and being arrogant.  I catch myself thinking my way is the best way, the only way.
I beat my chest with my right hand as I confess and through the corner of my eye I see I am not the only one standing up to these sins.

We are all in this exercise in humility together,

The Viddui section ends with these words from the Talmud

“My God, before I was formed I was of no worth, and now that I have been formed it is as if I had not been formed”

Humility is a necessary precursor to seeing your true place in the world

Later on in the service, we will literally get down on our knees and bow down together,

And when we stand together before the closing gates tonight, we say seven times that thing that is so hard to understand – that defines us – our clarion call of monotheism- Adonai Hu Haelohim

When I get there tonight, I hope I remember to listen not just to those words, but also to the spaces between those words - that we are privileged to be a part of an undivided whole, responsible for ourselves and responsible for each other."

Gmar tov

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Dvar Torah parashat re-eh


I was very blessed this summer to have the opportunity to spend three weeks at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. I was blessed to be able to learn from teachers and rabbis who helped me make sense of, and stay connected to, rules and laws that were written in another time and another place. I shared this blessing with wonderful people from South America, Australia, Europe and the US. And today I want to share a tiny bit with you.

Today’s parasha is Re-eh which starts with: “See this day I set before you, blessing of you obey the commandments of the lord your god and curses if you don’t listen to the commandments”
It then lays out many rules and laws which for many good reasons no one follows today – like the one about destroying all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshipped their gods. Or the stoning of prophets and dream-diviners. We don’t follow them like it says in the Torah, no Jews do and they certainly shouldn’t. Because Jews today follow those laws like it says in the Mishnah and the Gemara and then in the courts of local rabbis.

Laws change all the time. Same as they always have for the past two thousand years of Rabbinic Judaism.

Look at this law in re-eh that we read today, for example – the law of shmita, of debt forgiveness for your needy nearest and dearest every seven years so that society has the chance to re-set rich and poor. Then the Torah adds this commandment – “Beware lest you harbour the base thought, The seventh year, the year of shmita is approaching so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing.

You will notice that we don’t have debt forgiveness for our needy kinsmen in the seventh year anymore, even though as a people we are generally obsessed with giving to charity and looking after the poor, the widow and the orphan.
And why is that do you think? We don’t have shmita anymore because Hillel overturned it. Hillel was the rabbi and the head of the Beit Din of Hillel who lived hundreds of years after the book of Deuteronomy was written. And in Hillel’s time he noticed people were not lending before the 7th year and so because of Tikun Olam he created a legal fiction called the Prozbul. The Prozbul was a way to get around the shmita D’oreita law by using the Beit Din as an intermediary between the lendor and the lendee.
Poor people could then get the loans they needed if they promised to pay them back to the court. And the lender was happy to lend the money knowing they were going to get their money back from the court. Everyone was happy.
No. Everyone was not happy. Cut forward 100’s of years to Babylon to the period of the Gemara. (Gittin 36b)

The sages are not happy at all with this blatant abrogation of Torah law. All kinds of things are being changed in the name of Tikun Olam. The sages in the Gemara wonder this -when Hillel instituted the Prozbul did he fix it for his generation only for further generations too i.e. ours in 2015 here in London.

They quote the wonderful Mishnah from eduyot alef hey. It asks this; “in any debate in the establishment of Halacha, why do we record the minority opinion against the majority opinion which carries. It answers “Because although no beit din can over turn the Halacha of its fellow beit din, if they prefer the minority opinion one day in the future when the next beit din is bigger and wiser than the beit din before it. But it has to be a bigger and wiser beit din”

One sage in the Gemara is horrified by the fact that Hillel has just changed a torah law and replaced it with a prozbul. Samuel doesn’t want change to biblical law.
He wants to overturn the prozbul. He says the prozbul is an effrontery, an outrage, a disgrace.
Rav Nachman likes the prozbul however, and the halachah goes according to rav Nachman.
The Sugiyah ends with a beautiful construction of verses that says that if you can be offended without offending and do things out of love and be happy in your suffering, it’s all good. Like the sun shining
So I after three weeks at the Conservative Yeshiva, I walked out in the blazing Jerusalem sun and joined the people walking to the Jerusalem Gay pride march, and I was happy to walk among the kids in Independence park who were happy to be alive…
I am here today back in London back at the source of it all reading these verses in re-eh, where all Samuel’s fears about changing Torah law are irrelevant, because we don’t have Hillel’s prozbul anymore, and we don’t even have the shmita either.
Many of us still practise many mitzvot from Re-eh exactly as written – we don’t eat eagles and vultures for example.
Many of us practise the mitzvoth in a slightly different form- peisach, succot and Shavuot for example
But all of us feel the obligation of one mitzvah in Re-eh in particular - and that is the mitzvah of our obligation to the poor. We have to look after the needy among us. That hasn’t changed at all, for any of us.
Shabbat Shalom