Sermon: Yom Kippur Neilah Service (Rabbi Professor Tony Bayfield CBE)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 28 September 2015



This is a difficult time for service orchestrators and managers – what’s just happened wasn’t an interval but a prolonged throat-clearing between movements. Some people have left – their obligations fulfilled; others have returned for the last lap. For the orchestrators, anxious consultations with wrist watches – how long until the tekiah gedolah? Will we need to cut some of the service or read both the Hebrew and the English? Much depends on Bayfield – you know how long his sermons can be!

We stretch and shuffle our bottoms – it’s an uneasy time. Yizkor hasn’t quite gone and Neilah hasn’t started. Uneasy – or, to borrow from the anthropologists of religion, a liminal time, a threshold, transitional, marginal. We’re in between.

Yizkor, may God remember. That’s a strange idea: does God really need a prayer from us, a nudge before we can be sure God remembers? That can’t be. What game has the liturgist been playing with us over the last 20 or 30 minutes?

Go back to the first yizkor heading: a passage from Ecclesiasticus – not Ecclesiastes but Ecclesiasticus, the Wisdom of Ben Sira, a scribe who lived 2,200 years ago in Jerusalem whose collection of wise observations didn’t make it into the Hebrew Bible, though it did make it into the Catholic canon. Who was Ben Sira, aka Ecclesiasticus, asking us to remember? Past leaders, both civic and religious, counsellors and prophets, composers and successful artisans, those who were honoured and those “who vanished as if they had never existed and also their children who followed them”. A chilling, sobering line. The passage may be headed “may God remember” but it’s us who are invited, no, told to remember – because if we don’t, no one will; because – and here the liturgist turns the screw –they connect to us, are part of who we are.

And then a second yizkor: “Our martyrs…our six million dead”. Remember those who were murdered and, as a consequence, those who were never born. And those who survived: some 40,000 came to this country – how many of us are at least in part Berliners, Viennas! There’s scarcely a Reform synagogue in Britain which, if it existed in the ‘40s or ‘50s, wasn’t served by a German-born rabbi – Werner van der Zyl, Ingaz Maybaum and many others. There’s no Jew who isn’t spiritually, if not physically, descended from German or Austrian or Polish or Mizrachi Jewish refugees, those who fled persecution and destitution, asylum seekers and forced migrants. Yizkor, remember.

“May God remember our pioneers”, the liturgy continued remorselessly. Today more than 80% of world Jewry lives in either Israel or America. In a generation’s time, more than half the Jews in the world will be the successors of those pioneers, citizens of the State of Israel. Our debt to the halutzim – and our linkage to them – isn’t political or cultural but existential, a matter of life and death. Yizkor, remember.

Next, “members of our community”: people we sat across the Shul to in services; worked with on committees; argued with at Council meetings or shiurim. People to whom we were/are attached like family, by ties we didn’t choose. Yizkor.

And finally, actual family, close family – those whose loss still brings stinging tears; those who gave us our name – defined us: mother, father, wife, husband, daughter, son, sister, brother. Without whom we wouldn’t be who we are. Yizkor.

The liturgist is remarkably astute: she invites us to ask God to remember and, in so doing, compels us to remember who we are. To use the language of contemporary Jewish sociology – not “sovereign selves”, autonomous individuals who define for ourselves who we are; but “situated selves”, people with indissoluble connections, spiritual and physical heirs to a tradition, leaves on a family tree with roots back even beyond the time of Ben Sira, part of a people whose voices were deliberately, pointedly invoked to ring in our ears during Yizkor – with all the mocking insistence of the home supporters chanting “who are ya, who are ya?”

And on the other side of the limen, the doorstep – only moments away, have no fear, dear orchestrators and managers – is Neilah. Neilah means the closing of the gates of repentance and once inspired a sense of urgency: this is your last chance. But today, in reality, it’s the welcome last lap. The person who taught me practical rabbinics was Rabbi Hugo Gryn, zecher tsadik livracha. Hugo – who didn’t need to be reminded to remember – advised preaching a third of the way into Neilah: “Pick them up” he’d say, “it’s been a long day. They’re tired and need you to lift them and encourage them” towards the closing of the day, the final tekiah gedolah. So Neilah will come as a relief; the confident tune of El norah alilah will belie its meaning. We’re mercifully released – from the oppression of Yizkor back to the familiar, comfortable words and sounds, a final confession or two, thoughts of breaking the fast – shall we stay for havdalah? – and being whoever it is we’ve chosen to be.

But right now we sit uncomfortably, shuffling our bottoms, clearing our throats between movements – skewered disconcertingly between the oppressive insistence of memory (family, community, pioneers, refugees, descendants of prophets and poets, of the famous and the forgotten) and the hope of escaping the clutches of the past and being allowed to be whoever we want to be, whoever we tell others we are.

Not comfortable; not comfortable at all. But it isn’t – for once – the opposition supporters who you can still hear chanting mah anu, “who are ya, who are ya”. It’s – well he would say that, wouldn’t he – God.

Rabbi Professor Tony Bayfield CBE, DD (Cantuar)