Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779
Shana tova! It’s great to be here and to celebrate the Jewish New Year together. & for those of you who are with us for the first time – shalom! And a special welcome to our community.
They say that a week is a long time in politics, well, a year must then be an even longer time, and especially in the life of a Jewish community. A lot has happened this past year. On a personal level, I stood before you twelve months ago in the midst of a year of mourning for my dear mother (zichrona livracha), who passed away in January 2017. This year I stand before you with the unbridled joy of a newly-wed, still aglow from the light of my chuppah. Shelly and I enjoyed magical wedding celebrations in the Carmel Forest in July. She has stayed in Israel for now, leaving me to stand before you with excitement and in trepidation – as we hope to become parents next month. Which is very soon, but hopefully not too soon – there should still be about seven weeks to go.
I have been very lucky: to experience what I hope is the nadir of my life and to come through it. Lucky to have been surrounded by friends, family and community. Lucky to have been able to work through my year of grief. And lucky to have been able to follow it with a year of joy. It helped me to understand better the verse from Genesis (Chapter 24, verse 67), when Isaac took Rebecca into his tent and loved her, finding comfort after the death of his mother, Sarah.
Rosh Hashanah is an opportunity for us to assess this year that has passed. For some of you it will have been a painful one, as you have experienced your own losses these past twelve months. Bereavement is at one extreme, but the loss of a hope or a dream, the loss of a friendship or a relationship, the loss of a job or a project, an illness, a disability, these all leave holes in our lives. Whether they are expected or unexpected, events to us that threaten to overcome us. Life continues to give us challenges.
But the Jewish way is not to give into them. Grief can turn to joy – as in the Israeli calendar Yom Hazikaron (a day of remembrance and of mourning) turns into Yom Haatzmaut (a day of independence and of joy), or as in 40 days our calendar has moved us from the bleakness of Tisha b’Av and the destruction of the Temple ,to the renewal tonight of Rosh Hashanah and the new Jewish year. Judaism is fundamentally an optimistic religion, and the core of this optimism comes in Teshuvah – the idea that we can change ourselves and our patterns for the better. In a way, Teshuvah is an early form of CBT - Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – our pain at not getting things right is linked with the requirement to change, indeed that such a change is religiously inevitable. Like with psychotherapy, the notion of teshuvah includes the understanding that we suffer from feelings and behaviours that damage us, but that we have the possibility of changing them. As such we enter into the High Holydays with an optimism that may sometimes have got lost in the hustle and the bustle of the rest of the year. A new year can bring us all a new start.
Nietzsche’s line, “whatever does not kill me, makes me stronger” does not resonate so well, Jewishly, because so many things historically, have actually killed us. The Jewish people may have survived collectively but many of us have been lost along the way – the pogroms and the Pharaohs, from Portugal to Poland. And that’s just the letter P. From Anti-Semitism and Auschwitz to the “zealots of the Zionism is Racism” brigade – we have a full A to Z of Jewish history that claimed the lives of our people, our ancestors, and that continues to menace us today. To alphabetise it is not to trivialise it – but rather to illustrate that we live in a world that threatens to overwhelm us in an abecedaria of different ways.
Many of us come from countries whose politics have become something disturbing, almost unimaginably so from just a decade ago. In my own country, the United Kingdom, it comes as a shock and it comes to something when British Jewry unite to call out and condemn the leader of a major political party, a potential future Prime Minister, to call him out as an anti-Semite and a racist. When 68 British rabbis – from the most liberal and reform colleagues to the most conservative and orthodox, when 68 rabbis agree to sign the same letter, you understand that something unprecedented is happening.
Many of you have come to me expressing disquiet and disgust with the political leadership in your own countries, and asking what the Jewish response should be. Some of you have been on marches in the United States, others have been politically active in France, and I have spoken before about some of my friends who are involved in civil resistance in Hungary and in Poland. The list of countries is lengthy and incomplete. The world seems to be moving into a bipolar narrative of nationalists and globalists, and while as Jews we are often more comfortable as the latter, and lean towards globalism, we know better than not to dismiss the concerns of those holding a different worldview to our own.
Shelly and I were married in July in the Carmel Forest, in the north of Israel, close to her birthplace of Haifa. One week before, a conservative rabbi, Dov Haiyun, had been arrested in Haifa on suspicion of performing non-orthodox weddings, something that the Israeli government had made a criminal offence just a few years before. In practice the law had stood but had not been followed, but in the aftermath of the recent Jewish Nation State Law, that the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, passed in July, someone had thought it was a good idea to arrest Rabbi Haiyun in his home in the early hours of the next morning.
It is a sign of the times that Israeli politics are polarised as well, and that civil – or even incivil – discourse is breaking down between left and right. The Jewish way – since at least the times of the rabbis and the Talmud – has been to harmonise different opinions as much as possible. For all the heat of the Talmudic disputes over apparent minutiae, the discipline of discussion is to understand and to record your opponent’s opinion, to spend time hearing the other, even to spend ink on writing down their viewpoint for future generations and posterity. “You are right” and “you are right” sounds these days like a political tea-party but in essence it is the building block for compromise that risks getting lost in the maelstrom of our new political culture, if that is what it is.
And yet, I stand before you optimistically and full of hope. Not just for the future of my unborn child, b’shaah tovah, may he come at a good time, but because optimism is the gift of the Jewish people. In Israel the crime of getting married in a non-Orthodox way can lead to a prison sentence for both bride and groom and the rabbi that marries them. When faced with this prospect the day before our chuppah, I quipped to Elisa Chan – our beloved former membership secretary, whom many of you know - that if this happened to us then I would at least ask for a separate cell for our officiating rabbi, and another one for Shelly and myself, on the grounds of enjoying a little Yichud. And Elisa, quick as could be, replied: “Rabbi, I think it’s a little late for that.”
Optimism is the gift of the Jewish people. As the joke goes: a Jewish optimist and a Jewish pessimist were having a chat one day. The Jewish pessimist turns to the Jewish optimist and says: “Oy, things can’t get any worse for our people.” The Jewish optimist turns to the Jewish pessimist, smiles, and replies: “Sure it can!” That’s Jewish optimism. & whoever said British Jews need a lesson in irony really has no understanding of us whatsoever.
At Rosh Hashanah we come together to begin a new year with hope. We know that we are not perfect – we know that we all make mistakes, and that we have all made mistakes. We present ourselves before God these High Holydays as unworthy individuals, we beat ourselves as sinners who misspeak, we chastise ourselves as those whose lives are full of misdeeds. The world around us may be no better, but as Jews that does not concern us; each one of us is here to renew ourselves in three ways. Firstly, with teshuva, to clear our heads of our thoughts and to redirect the paths of our minds. Secondly, with tefila, to chant the mantra of change in our prayers and to repeat them in our words, and thirdly, with tzedaka – to enact those thoughts and those prayers in acts of charity and loving-kindness, adding righteousness to our daily lives.
In our community we also need to acknowledge this past year and to ask each other’s forgiveness to those we may have wronged. This we must do in the spirit of community, remembering that whatever our differences, fundamentally we live together and work together to build a UHC that we can all take pride in and enjoy. In January we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of this community with a gala and much simcha, and on that same weekend we will welcome leaders from across Asia as we host the Asia Progressive Judaism summit. We hope that several alumni will come back to Singapore and join these celebrations, and it gives us a chance as a community to recognise our history and where we have come from, and to look forward – in the words of the prophet Jeremiah (29.11) – mahshevot leshalom velo leraah – that God’s plans for us are for peace and not for bad - latet lachem aharit vetikva – to give you (to give us) a future and a hope.
This is the fourth Rosh Hashanah we are spending together and I would like to end by emphasising what a pleasure it is to work in this community as your rabbi. For sure, some days are easier than others, but I imagine most jobs are a bit like that. In this community there is so much vibrancy and activity – very few of you end up being “Yom Kippur Jews” or “twice a year Jews” – even if you think you are, and maybe even if you’d like to be. For the new members amongst us tonight, come and embrace the UHC, give us a hug and we will embrace you too. In fact we will hug you and squeeze you until you find yourself chairing a committee – sorry Yoni, I mean captaining a UHC team. But jokes aside, as we navigate a world of uncertainty in so many parts of a globe, here is one place where I hope you can all find a little piece of home away from home. Shana tova!