Sermon: Yom Kippur Neilah Service (2018)

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 20 September 2018

 I’m sorry to talk about food when we’re so near the end of the fast but I was struck recently by a TV advert showing people eating McCain’s oven chips. The voice-over said “when it comes to family, what’s normal? ‘Normal’ isn’t ‘normal.’ There’s Mummy, Mum, Ma, Mamma; there’s stay-at-home mums, working mums, single mums, adoptive mums, “I’m doing it on my own” mums; nans or grans who tuck you up at night. Or maybe it’s Daddy who tucks you up at night; Dad; daddy; two daddies; long-distance daddies; weekend daddies; maybe you never met your dad; maybe it’s your granddad who takes you out, or your brother, your half-brother, your brother from another mother. Families come in all shapes and sizes.”

So what’s the big deal? Why begin a Neilah sermon telling you about an oven-chip advert? Because the bit that I really liked  was when the voice-over said “two dads” and showed two men, gays, with their child, kissing each other.

And that’s what I found quite remarkable, hopeful in a strange way, about that silly McCain’s advert. Because I tried to imagine such an ad being on TV 15, let alone 30, years ago – and I couldn’t imagine it. “My goodness,” I thought, “not everything is wrong with the world if there can be such an advert, showing a same-sex couple, in an absolutely normal way, with their child, just one of many other unremarkable ‘family’ set-ups – and all of this before the watershed!”

In a world which seems to be out of control, with leaders not quite up to being leaders, some crazy dangerous people, ideas and doctrines out there, where do we find hope in this world?

Last Yom Kippur 3 words didn’t figure in rabbis’ sermons or on many Jews’ lips. This year, by contrast, it was hard not to say or hear them. The three words were, of course, Jeremy Corbyn and antisemitism.

I was pretty determined not to use them or speak about them. I felt that they had monopolised our discourse enough, especially in the past 6 months, without needing to take up pulpit time on them, especially during the Yamim Noraim. After all, what was there to say, over and above the obvious – namely our reaction to it? What we needed to be thinking about at this season, it seemed to me, was something that would restore us, recharge our batteries, enable us to go out into the world refreshed, renewed, having found some inner strength to deal with all the rubbish in the world – and an earlier draft used a much stronger 4-letter word……

There’s a Talmudic requirement that synagogues should have windows (Berachot 34b) The rabbis derive this idea from a verse in the book of Daniel. Daniel is in Babylonia, exiled there from Jerusalem, following the destruction of the First Temple. The verse reads “and the windows of his upper chamber were open towards Jerusalem and he prayed three times a day” (Daniel 6:11) En passant, it’s actually one of the few places in the whole Hebrew Bible where we read about somebody praying.

The Talmud appears to be connecting the need for windows with exile, longing and return. We, however, might argue that a synagogue has to have windows to connect us with the world out there and to remind us that we have a task in that world. Our Judaism cannot exist in isolation, in its own little ghetto.

This space, clearly, doesn’t have windows and, for these Days of Awe, at least, that might not be such a bad thing. It means we have to focus our gaze not on the world out there but on our inner world – which is, of course, what this season should be about.

But soon we will go out into that world and will have to reconnect once again with all that is happening – we’ll switch on the news, read the papers and so on. So our question is something like: what do we see in the world out there and how do we respond to, deal with, that? Where do we find optimism, something positive for the year to come?

There was a joke circulating, apparently, in Berlin in the 1930s. Two Jews, let’s call them Hermann and Oskar, are in a café reading newspapers. Hermann is reading Der Stuermer, the most virulently antisemitic, gutter press, Nazi newspaper. Oskar is reading Die Juedische Zeitung, the main Jewish newspaper. Oskar can’t understand why Hermann is reading such Nazi filth. Hermann explains: “you read the Juedische Zeitung and it’s full of the terrible things happening to us Jews, how we are constantly under attack. Me, I read Der Sturmer and I see that we Jews control the banks, the media, entertainment, medicine, the law, higher education and so on. You feel terrible reading your newspaper – I feel great reading about Jewish achievements!”

A real-life German Jew, Billy Wilder, the great Hollywood producer, left Germany in 1933. His birth name was probably Wilhelm. Wilder is quoted as saying: “the optimists stayed in Germany – and ended up in Auschwitz; the pessimists left Germany – and now sit around their swimming pools in Beverley Hills.” So who’s the optimist and who the pessimist?

I think I must be some sort of masochist because I read the Jewish Chronicle each week. So come Friday morning, I pick it up from the doormat and look at the front-page, with a sinking feeling in my heart because I know there’s a fair chance I’m going to read about terrible things happening in the Anglo-Jewish community. So it was that two or three weeks ago the front-page headline had the results of a survey: 4 out of 10 Jews, it had found, would consider leaving this country if Jeremy Corbyn became Prime Minister – which means, of course, that 6 out of 10 Jews in this country would not consider leaving if Jeremy Corbyn became Prime Minister. What a different impression that sort of headline would have had – reinforcing us rather than playing to our deepest insecurities and anxieties. That, in turn, sadly leads people to say, all too often, “this is how it all started in the 1930s.”

There’s no comparison between what’s going on now with what happened in the 1930s. The times we live in are very different. Such comparisons are historically superficial and, because of that, ultimately unhelpful. A bad reading of history leads to inappropriate responses in the present.

Reading the Jewish Chronicle can be like reading the Juedische Zeitung. This isn’t an argument for sticking our heads in the sand, but it is to say that another Shoah is not in the offing.

I don’t want to hang too much on a two-second clip from a TV ad for, of all things, oven-chips… and yet, the image of those two men giving each other a quick peck on the lips seemed a real counterpoint to what’s going on in the world out there. “Defenceless under the night,” wrote WH Auden on 1st September 1939, “our world in stupor lies; yet, dotted everywhere, ironic points of light flash out, wherever the just exchange their messages.” (September 1st, 1939)

So where do we find truth in a world where the very word is being devalued, distorted, and made to mean whatever that person wants it to mean. Nor, of course, is there some ‘Truth’ with a capital ‘T’ out there which we can somehow find.

My teacher Rabbi Lionel Blue reminds us that, whatever we might think of the world out there, whatever wrong we might see in it, whatever darkness we might see there, we are part of that world and those things exist inside us also. We are not immune from what lies out there.

During Mussaf, we sang ani ma’amin be’emunah shlemah – the words of Maimonides: “I believe with a perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah and even if he tarries, I will wait.” We are, as the prophet Zechariah called us 2500 years ago, assirei ha’tikvah, ‘the prisoners of hope’ (Zechariah 9:12) We Jews are trapped in this impossible optimism that the world will work out correctly in the end. So we hope, we expect, the Mashiach will come each day but we don’t give up when midnight comes and he hasn’t.

In Mussaf, we read the testimony of men and women who, in the hell of the Shoah, believed that there would be a better world.

We should celebrate the vibrancy of Jewish life in this country, especially given how few Jews there are: we have JW3 and Limmud; the Leo Baeck College; a Jewish Book Week and a Jewish Film Festival; Grassroots Jews, Moshe House and the Open Talmud Project; JCoss, Akiva and Shofar; many Progressive synagogues run Night Shelter schemes; work to build bridges between Jews and Moslems. There are many synagogue communities of great strength and dynamism: and Alyth is, of course, up there at the forefront.

So neither complacency nor despair. Hamlet laments that “the time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.” (Act 1, Scene 5) Like Hamlet, we recognise the time as being out of joint; that which felt certain no longer feels quite so secure. Most of us, probably, aren’t born to set it right. But nor, Pirke Avot reminds us (Avot 2:21) can we desist from the work of trying to do whatever we can to set it a bit more right

WH Auden, in New York, begins his poem, “I’m sitting in one of the dives on Fifty Second street, uncertain and afraid, as the clever hopes expire, of a low dishonest decade.” But we can, like him, recognise that “ironic points of light flash out, wherever the Just exchange their messages ….. may I” (he concludes) composed like them of Eros and of dust, beleaguered by the same negation and despair, show an affirming flame.”

It’s not clear why we say l’chaim when we drink. Indeed, many cultures have a similar toast, something a bit more meaningful than the rather inane English ‘bottoms up’ or ‘cheers.’ One theory is that we say it because the celebrant would take the wine, say borei p’ri ha’gafen and then say l’chayyim o’l’mitah, “to life or to death” – at which point everybody would shout out l’chayyim, “to life.”