Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780
There’s an old story from a Rosh Hashanah in a synagogue of yesteryear. The shul had ushers, one of whom greeted an older, elderly, woman as she entered the sanctuary. He gave her a machzor, a prayer book, and walked her into the synagogue. He asked her very politely, “Where would you like to sit?” She answered: “The front row, please.” The usher asked, “Are you sure that’s where you’d like to sit? Our rabbi is really boring.” The woman said, “Do you happen to know who I am?” “No,” he said. “I’m the rabbi’s mother” she replied indignantly. “Do you know who I am?” asked the usher. “No,” she said. The usher replied, “Good!”.
I think that’s quite a funny story but especially funny for those of you who remember my mother, zichronah livracha, sitting here in the front row of the Dutch Club, now three years ago. Rosh Hashanah – like Passover – is one of the times in the Jewish year when we feel the presence most heavily of our ancestors standing here among us, and we acknowledge the weight of the memories of earlier Rosh Hashanahs, either here in Singapore or in our other communities around the world.
I don’t know about you, but the year that has passed felt like the toughest year of my life. It started well, experiencing the miracle of birth and becoming a father last October and naming my son at his circumcision on the eighth day of his life. I think I named him well. We made the rookie soon-to-be parents mistake of sharing the name we were considering with my mother-in-law before the baby was born. A word of advice for future parents-to-be – don’t do it! Now, there have been quite a few cultural differences with my Ashkenazi in-laws – for example, when I wanted to invite Daklon to our wedding last year, my father-in-law ended up inviting not Daklon, but Kahlon. (That’s a true story in the style of Kamza & Bar Kamza, but as a joke probably only intelligible for the Israelis here tonight.) And when it came to the desire to name my son, my mother-in-law was not, let’s say, an enthusiastic fan of the name Nissim – claiming it’s the typical name of an Israeli plumber or a car mechanic, and not her future grandson. Well plumbers and car mechanics are to my ears as, if not more, useful than rabbis and artists, and that’s why at his bris I named him Nissim Yona, to the consternation of my in-laws. But it was a bit of a tease and a little joke on them, as Shelly and I had already agreed that the name on his passport would be Noam Yona. The Yona is after my father, John, zichrono livracha – who was Avram Yona – and the other part to my little joke was that a boy called Noam needed a different Hebrew name. But as I insisted to my new Israeli family, this extra naming was an essential part of my diasporic Jewish culture and heritage.
But in any case, for all that he is a sweet and pleasant Noam, I’m glad I named him Nissim – meaning miracles - in the plural. Because so far, the first eleven months of his life have been full of miracles and long may these miracles continue.
In February it was a miracle that Shelly, his mother, understood that something was wrong and insisted against all my nonchalant protestations that he’d be fine in the morning, with her maternal instinct she forced us to go to A&E at 11pm on a Saturday night and get Noam checked out. He required immediate surgery on a large kidney tumour, and he was operated on by a miraculously kind and deft surgeon. The same happened in April, Shelly would not take no for an answer when the doctors told her Noam had gastric flu, and that’s when they eventually discovered his brain tumours. One required emergency surgery the next morning, and again, miraculously the brain surgeon did a great job removing it, despite its large size. Then whilst recovering in intensive care they discovered a hole in his lung and that he also had multiple lung tumours. As shock came after shock, blow after blow, we were supported by so many of you in this community – something for which Shelly and I are so eternally grateful, and one day Noam will be as well. Not just through rallying round and helping the three of us, both day and night accompanying us in the hospital, even to the point that Noam would escape Egypt and experience his first Seder in the ICU, but also through the incredible fund-raising on Noam’s behalf to which so many of you have contributed. We have been overwhelmed by your whole-hearted support and generosity. This saved our child. Noam’s life was saved not just by his mum’s vigilance and his surgeons’ excellence, but also by the miraculous level of support from this community, from across the Jewish communities in Singapore, and from members of my two communities in Europe, in Belgium and in Luxembourg.
The miracles did not stop there. Despite this support we understood that Noam could not be treated in Singapore forever. Noam has two passports, and our options were to bring him either to London and to the public healthcare and NHS of my country, or back to his birthplace: Rambam hospital in Israel. We chose the latter option, and since May 1st he has been treated there in Haifa. A precarious flight through Bangkok – Noam was on a lung drain at the time – was swiftly followed by another brain operation in Rambam to remove the remaining tumour there. And following this he has undergone seven rounds of chemotherapy to shrink away the tumours in his lungs.
I choose to focus on the miracles of this year – because otherwise the theme of my year would be dayenu – each problem by itself would have been more than enough for us. Life is not easy – the world we live in is not the world as it ought to be. It is hard to find any theology that renders acceptable illness in such a young child. Yet despite life being at times so difficult, it can still be very sweet. This little boy – Noam, Nissim – is growing up very nicely, he will be eleven months tomorrow and he’s already learning to stand on his own two feet. His strength and his good humour – despite all he has undergone – is remarkable, and Shelly and I take power from this resilient little boy.
I wish I could tell you now that everything is going to be ok, but I am just a rabbi, and I can neither see nor promise the future. But we are optimistic. I am not sure whether pride is innate or inherited, but it is already clear that this little boy too carries the weight of quite a lot of parental pride upon his narrow shoulders.
Not promising the future is a challenge for all of us, and especially at Rosh Hashanah when we consider the year ahead. We know how fragile life can be. None of us is a machine. We all have our own health issues, be they minor or major. And we also recognize that some things are beyond even the powers and the miracles of modern medicine. However much we plan and control things: some things are beyond and out of our control. And as Jews, in our yearning to be inscribed in the Book of Life this Rosh Hashanah, we have only our three traditional tools to fall back on: teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah, repentance, prayer and charity – to give us any semblance of control. These tools we use on Rosh Hashanah – also known as Yom Hadin – the day of judgement - to try and help to tip the scales of justice back in our favour – that we be inscribed for another year of life.
When we repent, we relieve ourselves of the burdens of all the things we know we should or should not have done, and remind ourselves of our human frailty and fragility. When we pray, we focus our hearts on something beyond ourselves. This year I found myself during Noam’s surgeries praying more intensely than ever before. Nothing seemed too much to try: whether it was amulets or invoking ancestral protection to guard Noam in the operating theatre, whether making promises to God, begging and bartering. And when anyone tells me they are praying for Noam, I tell them please continue, because it seems that God is listening to one of us, whoever that might be. Noam is on the mi sheberach list not just in all three synagogues in this country of Singapore, but far and wide, across Asia, Europe and North America, Israel and Australia and most recently I was informed that they are even praying for him in the historic synagogue on the Caribbean island of Curacao. And of course not just by Jews, adherents of several other faiths have been praying for Noam as well. Please continue.
There’s a story that: “A woman once stood before God, her heart breaking from the pain and injustice in the world. “Dear God,” she cried out, “look at all the suffering, the anguish and distress in your world. Why don’t you send help?”
God responded, “I did, I sent you.””
This reminds us that we must act as well as pray. And tzedakah – the giving of charity, of support, both time and money, when we give - this truly has the power to save from death, as it says in the book of Proverbs: tzedakah matzil mimavet – tzedakah saves from death.
We cannot promise that everything will be ok, we cannot control the world we live in – but through teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah – we can improve this world and make it more livable and bearable for ourselves and for others. And that’s maybe the best we can do. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has reminded us: “To be a Jew is to live for the simple things: for love, for family, and for community. Life is sweet when touched by the Divine.”
Sometimes these simple things interfere with each other – in my case, to live both for family and for community. The problem we have is that Noam is currently uninsurable in Singapore, and so he cannot live here any more. Unlike in countries with public health insurance – or even in the United States since the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare of 2011 – here in Singapore insurance companies can and do exclude insuring people with pre-existing conditions. And I know this affects some of you as well.
In our case, for my family, this means we can no longer live in Singapore. And so regrettably we must leave the UHC. Not immediately – I am committed to commuting backwards and forwards for the next year or so. But you must now start looking for my successor – someone who will ensure the continuation of our remarkable success together.
For our successes are many. I don’t feel the need to enumerate them – I think it’s pretty clear what an awesome community we have and how these last five years together have helped build this community and bring us together.
We have built Jewish communal life both in Singapore and across Asia. In January as we celebrated the 25th birthday of the UHC, we saw the whole region come together for the APJ Summit, the largest ever gathering of progressive Jews in Asia. Tonight we are streaming live to one of those communities – Hakehilla in Seoul, Korea, including this evening, to one of our own members celebrating with them, Adam Kettler. We are also streaming to the Gelmans, Bill and Bing, who are aiming to build a new reform community in the Phillipines, where they live now in Manila. This High Holydays sees progressive rabbis again visiting emerging communities in Bangkok, in Bali and in Yangon, and for the first time, a Reform rabbi will lead services in Taipei – alongside their 101 year old legendary rabbi, Ephraim Einhorn, who has been working as rabbi in Taiwan since 1975. We also know that there are more than 20 Jews celebrating together tonight in Laos – actually I even know now where to buy chicken liver in Vientiane…there’s nothing like a whatsapp group for the oversharing of such vital information.
It will be very hard for me personally to leave the UHC and all of you and all of this behind. This year I learnt the truth of the old Yiddish saying: “Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht” – people plan and God laughs. Who would have thought that from one week to the next I would go from the high of being raised aloft in a chair alongside our Rabbi Emeritus Lenny Thal at the 25th Gala in the ballroom of the American Club, to the ultimate low of A&E in Gleneagles that following Saturday night.
But that’s the life we are living – it has highs and lows, life is short and it is up to us to use it well. And for all my deracination and feeling violently uprooted from our midst, living in Israel is not without its pleasant surprises. I have spoken before about the remarkable society that exists in Noam’s oncology ward, Jews and Arabs, both doctors and patients, working and living alongside each other in harmony. Disease does not discriminate as people can, and Jewish and Christian, Druze and Muslim families all find ourselves in the same unhappy boat.
The other day Shelly and I were in the lift in Rambam hospital, when a doctor in his blue overalls said to me: “hey, I know you! But do you know who I am?” Surprised I took a closer look, and lo and behold it was Ahmad Hamoud! Ahmad Hamoud, my old room-mate and buddy from my party days in the dorms of the University of Haifa, where I was studying in the ulpan several years ago. Ahmad was then a medical student, now he’s qualified and is working as a junior doctor in Rambam. Life has a habit of throwing up surprises, and not all of them are bad. And it is the power of love and friendship, of kinship and community, that makes our lives more bearable in uncertain times.
I would like to finish with a prayer that resonates with me especially this year, and one that I hope will do so with you as well:
“May I begin this year fresh and open to the possibility of transformation. Though the future is uncertain, I release this past year with all its difficulties and joys. I open my heart to receive the blessings of the New Year. May I return to my true self and be strengthened as I continue my journey of tikkun halev — repairing the heart, of tikkun hanefesh — repairing the soul and of tikkun olam —repairing the world.”
L’shana tova um’tukah – may this new year be a sweet one, and one full of repair for all of us, may it be happy and healthy. Amen.