The ship coming in

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 13 March 2019

I really like the Yiddish word beshert.   It’s a bit Jewishly transgressive because it means something that feels predestined or sent by fate and that’s not really a Jewish thing to think happens.  Beshert is one of those Yiddish words that doesn’t have a Hebrew root but rather its etymology is German from a word meaning that something that is given to you.

Bumping into a long-lost friend who you were thinking about only a few hours ago might be beshert – it happened to me at a world music festival last summer, someone I hadn’t seen for 25 years.   Missing a train or a bus which you subsequently hear broke down you might call beshert.

The most popular use of the world is to call your soul-mate, your beloved partner, if you are lucky enough to find them, your beshert.  This comes from the idea, even in Talmud (Sotah 2a), that since finishing the work of Creation, God has been engaged in the immensely hard work of trying to match people with each other to help them to find their bashert – which after 60 years of marriage I think we can say Brenda and Philip are to each other!

My example of beshert today connects this sermon with the sermon that I gave on June 10th 2006.  That was the first sermon that I ever gave at Alyth, four days after I started work here as Rabbi of this community.

It’s a while ago!  Tony Blair was Prime Minister, George W. Bush American President, the first Gaza crisis was building in Israel just a year after the withdrawal, Alyth communicated by Centre Magazine and an ad sheet called Around Alyth, there was no synagogue weekly e-mail, Facebook was just 18 months old and Twitter hadn’t been invented yet.  And you could still shop at Woolworths in North Finchley!

The Torah portion that Shabbat was B’ha’alotcha in the book of numbers, the one in which Moses, Aaron and sons set up the Ner Tamid and light it for the first time in the Mishcan, the desert Temple.

The Torah portion this Shabbat is Pekudei.  It is the last sermon that I will deliver alone at Alyth as community Rabbi.  In this portion Moses finishes the work of the Mishcan and sets it on its way knowing that the sprit of the Divine dwells within it wherever it goes.   Even if my Hebrew name were not Moshe (and it is which is why my book published a few weeks ago is called Thirty Six words – or in Hebrew Alef Lamed Heh HaDevarim!) that would be beshert!

So what was I talking about back in 2006?  What was my first message to this community?   Much of the sermon used the metaphor of the Ner Tamid that is of course still above our heads here – the Bimah may have become more accessible, closer to the congregation and brighter since then but the Ner Tamid hasn’t changed.   Raymond Goldman z’’l and Jeffrey Rose z’’l had made sure I knew how it got there with their coppers as Alyth Cheder children donated back in 1936.

Here is a little of what I said in 2006:

You see, you look at that Ner Tamid and it easy to imagine that little needs to go in to keeping the light burning.  It is just there.  But as I stand on the first Shabbat of my Rabbinate at Alyth I recognise that keeping the light burning continually in this congregation has taken great and constant efforts by many.  In this week I have seen so much going on here – a panoply of activities for all ages and needs.   Running constantly as if the congregation too were everlasting.  But I know that it’s not an everlasting congregation – it is a congregation that needs to be tended continually.  The light here has been tended over these decades since this Ner Tamid was first lit by Rabbis of great stature, ability and love for this community most recently by Rabbi Charles Emmanuel and over the past two years in partnership with Rabbi Laura Janner Klausner.  It is my responsibility, mitzvah even, to join those who keep it burning and so earn for myself the blessing of one who illuminates the Synagogue over the coming years.  I accept the task with delight.

So now, nearly thirteen years later, it is time for Pekudei.  The name of today’s portion comes as they all do from the opening words.  Eleh pekudei – this is the summing up or accounting for what had been done.     The sermon is full of the list of everything that Moses and all those he worked with, Bezalel and Ohaliab, the skilled craftsmen, the great professionals he worked with, Aaron and his sons, the Priests who looked after the religious needs of the people, all the people with willing hearts, brought to make the Mishcan, the desert temple, set it up and be an effective home for the community.

The Ner Tamid was important but so was every little socket, length of scarlet thread, tent peg, copper grating, loaf of bread baked.   It all came together so that when it says in Exodus 40 that Moses completed the Mishcan he knew full well that it was not just him – it was a whole community of people, professionals and members alike that made it special.   That was when he could see that the fire of God’s passion for these people and the cloud of God’s presence were there in the place that they had built together.

In a couple of Shabbatot time I will get the chance with Rabbi Josh to speak about the challenges that we have had to face up to as the Jewish world has changed in these past years.

What is immensely satisfying as this Shabbat of Pekudei comes is knowing that I played my part in keeping the light burning strong so that this Synagogue continues with more members, deeper provision of activities and deeper relationships for future Jewish life and a spirit of innovation and care for tradition that will ensure there is a sense of Divine presence in this place into the future.

At its best Alyth is a Synagogue where diverse Jews talk with each other and work out the most effective ways to respond to our prayer and learning needs, our own community care needs, our local area’s and our nation’s needs, Israel’s needs, the trends within Anglo-Jewry and the needs of our God given planet for survival.   As long as that conversation remains strong, committed to action and one of listening as much as speaking this Shul will be a light to itself, the Reform Movement and to the nation.

There is something rather amazing about moving on.   Conventionally we are meant to be sad when we leave and for certain I know that in moving on to become Senior Rabbi of Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue I am going to miss so many wonderful people here at Alyth.  But there was a very wise Rabbi Levi who said that really we should be happier when we finish than when we start.  He wrote in Midrash Exodus Rabbah (48:1): think about ending your time as two ocean-going ships, one leaving the harbour and the other entering. Whilst everybody was rejoicing over the one that was setting out on her voyage, few seemed to hail with pleasure the one arriving. Seeing which, a wise man there reflected: see here a paradox; for surely, people should not rejoice at the ship leaving the harbour, since they know not what conditions she may meet, what seas she may encounter, and what wind she may have to face. Whereas everybody ought to rejoice at the ship that has returned to the harbour for having safely set forth on the ocean and having safely returned.   These thirteen years have been a journey with plain sailing, storms, great ports on the way – I and my family are so pleased to have been with you on the good ship Alyth!   We hope that you will feel accompanied by the love of God and of each other in the journeys ahead.