Sermon: Rosh Hashanah: Inspired by Each Other

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 12 September 2013

A little over seven years ago I began to serve as Rabbi at Alyth, joining Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner.  I worked with the lay leaders of the community to try to work out an effective way that a new Rabbi could quickly get to know this community of then just over 1900 adult members.  We came up with a simple idea that proved to be really helpful – Alyth @ Home.


Many of you will remember these evenings as more than eight hundred members of Alyth came to meet their new Rabbi and each other in a member’s home near to where they lived.  Every member of the Synagogue in 2006 was invited personally to one of the gatherings which ranged in size from seven people enjoying coffee and cake together in Queens Park to the largest of the many Hampstead Garden Suburb evenings with over forty people crammed into one house.


Over the thirty five such evenings in all of the parts of London where Alyth members live, I heard hundreds of fascinating answers to a simple question posed to everyone on the night – why did you first choose to join Alyth?  This was a remarkably effective way of understanding the community which I was to serve.  A Jewish educator called Julian Resnick working for our Movement for Reform Judaism at the time suggested the question.


On the way I heard many inspiring answers, the givers of which are most likely here today.  Among these was the young couple who met at the English classes for refugees from Nazi Germany held in our Synagogue in Alyth gardens, in the 1930’s, both displaced teenagers.  They joined Alyth to be married by their fellow refugee Rabbi Werner van der Zyl – and over sixty years later there they were at one of the Alyth @ home evenings still members of the Shul, happily married.  Sadly I officiated at the funeral of the woman of the couple a few years ago.


Then another wartime story from a woman who had joined Alyth with her parents when, bombed out of their home and shul in Archway, they had walked to a nearby shul on Yom Kippur but had been turned away from joining the congregation for prayer.  They walked on to where Alyth was holding services and had been welcomed with open arms – beginning many decades of being part of  this community.


Seven years on Alyth has grown and developed as a healthy shul always does.  Rabbi Josh Levy and I with the much appreciated assistance of Rabbi Maurice Michaels share the spiritual leadership of the community.


We would love the opportunity again to listen properly to this community.  Two thousand two hundred adults who now belong to this Synagogue means a great diversity of Jewish ideas, needs and journeys. Together with our colleagues in the Alyth staff team we are about to embark on Alyth @ Home round 2!


The aims behind Alyth @ Home last time were about understanding why we are where we were as a community.  This time we want to understand where we could be going.  We want to hear what inspires you in Judaism, first because this will be a fascinating conversation to have as a community but especially because it will help us to know what we need to build to help continue inspiring Jewish journeys, the kind of learning that people might seek, the kind of hands on social action that people might aspire to, the kinds of community fun that people might want to participate in, the kinds of prayer that people might want.  As you will know from the way that Rabbi Josh our colleagues and I work, we are continually striving to create programmes which are good for our Synagogue but there can be nothing more powerful than acting upon what we have heard from you.


Hosts for the first four such evenings, in Hampstead Garden Suburb, Highgate, West Hampstead and East Finchley have kindly agreed to open their homes to their local Alyth members and invitations to the first two, in early October, have recently been sent out.  It will take a long time to get an invitation to everyone here so that each of these evenings is small enough scale that we can hear everyone’s voice, but Rabbi Josh and I are greatly looking forward to hearing you sometime in the coming year.


Our question this time is – what inspires you?  And we surely have to ask that question of Abraham after hearing again for the two thousandth year or so that he was inspired to take his son Isaac on a three day journey and then up a mountain to bind him on a rock and offer him as a sacrifice!


The story is always presented in Jewish sources as a test of Abraham’s faith in God and the covenant which God had made with him and his descendants.  If the absolutely direct threat to his whole posterity, represented by his son Isaac, and thus the future of the whole Jewish people given in God’s direct request to sacrifice his son would never be carried out then never would God lose faith with the Jewish people whatever awful situation we were in.  If even when God himself is ready to wipe out the Jewish people through the sacrifice of Isaac and decides absolutely never to do so, so when humanity tried to wipe us out, in the Crusades, the Shoah and any of the other smaller scale but still as awful tragedies that have beset our people, God stays with us and the Covenant is not broken – and we, as a people at least, survive.


What inspired Abraham?  In our Midrashim numerous answers are given all of which come back to an essential idea about Abraham.  He is not a divine being; he is just a human being like the rest of us.


One famous midrash has him working out that God must exist by doubting the divinity of the idols in his father’s shop so much that he smashes them and sees if his father will believe him if he puts the blame on the biggest idol.  Another has him watching the worshipped stars in the sky replaced by clouds, the worshipped sun replaced by the moon, the worshipped wind fail to knock over a man and understand that these natural forces are just that – nature not God.  A third of the many Midrashim has Abraham seeing a burning house (which in his mind represents the world and all of its troubles) and recognising that even a place which is in the process of destruction will still have an owner who cares about it.   Our Midrashim say that Abraham was like you or me opening our eyes to the world around us and admitting the spiritual possibilities which always exist.


That is what inspires me in Judaism. I am inspired by what Judaism is and I am inspired by what it is not.  I am inspired by the way in which Judaism makes every one of us equal in spiritual possibility.  Judaism does this by making many many small acts equally Godly.


There is a tradition that we should find a way of saying one hundred blessings a day – blessings over food, blessings over something new, blessings over learning, blessings over phenomena of nature, blessings within our prayer, blessings on meeting interesting people.  Each one of these blessings raises the regular into a spiritual encounter, from young people singing bircat ha mazon, Grace after meals, at the top of their voices making RSY-Netzer camp food into something appreciated to a family or friends or a person alone blessing the lighting of their Shabbat candles bringing a time of peace into their home.


I am inspired by the 613 Mitzvot, the 613 commandments which just means that there are loads and loads of ways to be Jewishly right in this world in our relationships with each other and with God.  I am especially inspired by how many of these mitzvot deal with the real issues of our lives today and give the start of a Jewish response.


Where there is loneliness, Judaism makes it a Mitzvah to welcome the guest into your home, on Pesach or any time.  Where there is illness or despair, Judaism makes it a mitzvah to visit the sick.  As our earth’s environment degrades Judaism makes it a mitzvah not to destroy any of the planet.  Where there is ignorance or questioning or doubt Judaism makes it a mitzvah to learn. Where there is poverty Judaism makes it a mitzvah to reserve a portion of your wealth and income to give to relieve the poor.  Where there is murderous treachery by a ruler such as by the Assad regime in Syria or anyone, Judaism makes it a mitzvah to prevent the pursuer from harming people and a mitzvah to get involved!  In Hebrew these mitzvot are called hachnassat orchim, bikkur cholim, ba’al tachshit, l’asok b’divrei torah, Tzedakah, din rodef – forgive me the catalogue but there are hundreds of them.  And that’s what inspires me.  So many different ways to be an effective Jew for humanity and for God.


And I am also inspired by what Judaism is not.  Nobody is more holy than anyone else in saying a blessing or performing mitzvoth.  In my interfaith work and encounters I find myself often meeting leaders of other faith groups wearing special clothing, special symbols to say that they are endowed with an additional measure of God’s spirit.  This was especially noticeable I remember at Baroness Thatcher’s funeral where Rabbi Lord Sacks and I were just men in suits, one admittedly rather better known than the other, but both of us being passed by men and women in glorious robes, monks in orange, clerics sporting diadems.  No.  In Judaism every one of us is potentially Abraham or Sarah.  Every one of us can be inspired to do or be anything.  It’s the job of our Synagogue to help us all to find that inspiration.  As we heard in our Deuteronomy Torah portion every one of us is an equal partner in the covenant from the tribal chief to the water drawer – every one of us speaks to God from an equal distance or in equal intimacy.


Rabbi Josh and I so much look forward to continuing a conversation in our Synagogue about what inspires you so that we, Rabbi Maurice, Alyth’s staff team and dedicated volunteers can help this to be the shul that inspires adult Jewish life just as we know we are pretty good as inspiring young Jewish life.  At the end of every book of the Torah we say chazak, chazak v nithazek – let us be strong and let us strengthen one another.  At the end of the Jewish year 5773 as we pass on into 5774 may we say let us be inspired and may we inspire one another.