"I want to see children"
“There must be in everyone’s life, an instance of misunderstanding that cannot be put right without inflicting a greater hurt – perhaps a gift that was hunted for and was exactly right in every way except that it were yellow instead of black; - perhaps a remark that was taken the wrong way and could never be explained without making things worse.
We have a long running example of this in our synagogue life. I know it is long running because when it affected my family some ten years ago other members told me they had had the same experience.
We are a community with a normal distribution curve of opinion in all matters – but it is on the question of children within the synagogue that we cause each other the most angst.
I have heard the stated views 1) that our services are not the place for very small children and 2) that a child should be allowed to stay where it wants to stay. Extreme views which I suspect were reactions to each other and which were modified in discussion.
Where the misunderstanding arises is that members who are disturbed by noise really do want children to come to services and members with small children to come to services and members with small children really are embarrassed by any disturbance to the service. Unfortunately the former have become stereotyped as anti- and the latter are anxious and continually on watch for anticipated disapproval. Neither group seems to trust the goodwill of the other any more, and in self-defence, perhaps, attitudes seem to be polarized when they need not be. We need to cut through all this perceived truth which is not truth at all, and make a determined effort to believe each other when we say: I want to see children.”
“I want to see children”. On Erev Rosh Hashanah there were moments when it seemed like Cantor Marty and I were competing to see who could make more people cry. And then on the same night, this treasure of a text fell into my inbox. It was written around 1991, and had been published in the synagogue newsletter. These are my mother’s words, sent to me by coincidence by my sister last week, and I share them tonight because somehow they seem even more important for our times, a generation later, both inside and outside the synagogue.
Kol Nidre is a night for confessions. I should confess – albeit not for the first time – that my family were asked to leave our synagogue when I was little, because I was such a noisy baby. Who could imagine it? These days my contributions to our services are, by and large, better appreciated than when I was small (was I ever small?) and crawling around the shul making noise. In the 1980s British Reform shuls put great emphasis on decorum in services, and Bromley, Kent was no exception, the quiet of prayer was not to be disturbed and disrupted by an impudent kid. Offended, my parents took my sister and I to the local Orthodox shul and for seven happy years there we had a wonderful time. They were delighted to have my father as a regular for the minyan, and Zibby and I had a wonderful playground to explore. As I remember there was even said to be a snake living on the top floor, in the rabbi’s flat, and we shouldn’t go up there – which looking back was most likely apocryphal, and probably recalled the snake of the Cairo Geniza, guarding its treasures from visitors for so many years, even in the unlikely surroundings of Croydon, South London.
These haimische halcyon days – which probably explain my love of chazzanut – ended when my sister reached the age of 12 and needed to study for her bat mitzvah. A new rabbi – a woman, Sylvia Rothschild – had started work at our former shul – and I, as the younger brother, was older now and slightly better-behaved, or at least quieter, during services. But as my mum’s article that I quoted earlier shows, the issue of children in shul had not gone away – and it seems that, over the years, I had not been the only culprit. Rather the positions had become so entrenched, to the point where they were dividing people into camps and affecting community life.
The article is an attempt to recognize that, and also to help both sides understand that they are not to be demonized by the other. Neither the young families, nor those, often a generation older, who were most disturbed by the noise. Repeating the words again for good measure: “Neither group seems to trust the goodwill of the other any more, and in self-defence, perhaps, attitudes seem to be polarized when they need not be. We need to cut through all this perceived truth which is not truth at all, and make a determined effort to believe each other when we say: I want to see children.”
It’s clear in the UHC that we must work for a harmonious solution that shows our respect both for the kids – for it’s clear we want to see children too – and for those disturbed by their contributions to our services – for our respect for you is equally important too. It’s the same when it comes to our music, and you will have seen and heard the changes we have implemented this year, as we try to respond to the feedback and wishes of the community. It’s also true when we try to balance the diversity of religiosity in our community – the daily tefillin wearers with those who eschew a tallit and have grown up without even seeing a yamulke. We want our whole UHC to feel included – and if you don’t, for whatever reason, or if you know someone who doesn’t, and so isn’t here tonight – then please come and speak to me or someone in our leadership. Let’s not become polarized, and let’s not get caught up in half-baked make-belief and false narratives, fake news as it’s become known. Let’s cut through – again to quote my mother – “let’s cut through all this perceived truth which is not truth at all”.
For tonight is Kol Nidre, the eve of Yom Kippur. It’s the holiest night of the year, when we wear white wrap ourselves in our kittels and our tallits, and when we huddle together as one. Each of us in our community become no longer individuals. As we chant and recite our sins, as we confess our failings before God, we stand not just as witnesses for ourselves but as guarantors for one another. Collectively we take ourselves out of the outside world for 25 hours, acknowledging our weaknesses, and nevertheless praying and begging that we are all sealed into the Book of Life for another year come sunset tomorrow. And to aid our focus on this holy day, we refrain from food and drink, bathing and perfumes, and leather goods. In short, we act like angels, for one day living beyond our very human bodily needs.
If you feel somewhat of a relief to be away from the outside world this year, then you are not alone. Polarization is not something that occurs only in the synagogue. We have seen it ripping through our societies around the world. Countries seem divided – almost 50-50 – between left and right. This is true in Israel, where there is a second deadlock of 2019, with neither side able to muster a majority in the Knesset and form a Government. In my country, never have the words “United Kingdom” seemed less appropriate. No one quite knows what will happen next, but the effects on society seem catastrophic. Many of you come from the United States, and with an election looming there too there is much incomprehension of those on the other side of the political debate. That’s not to mention France – with the gilets jaunes – or Turkey, with city folk pit against countryside – and, of course, closer to home in Hong Kong, where a satisfactory solution seems even more imperative yet even further from reach. We read in horror at the treatment of the Uighyrs, just as this year some of us sat in shock after meeting here a couple of Chinese Jews from Kaifeng, who told us how they are followed and intimidated by secret – and not so secret – police in their city. The world is a scary place to inhabit – and that’s as true if you’re Kurdish as if you’re Jewish, in a year when we suffered the terrible attack in Pittsburgh, leaving a community bereft and shattered, eleven victims including their shofar blower, no longer present this Yom Kippur.
The study of Talmudic discourse helps us as Jews to understand that there is usually no one answer, and that things are rarely black and white. The rabbis perform elaborate acrobatics to harmonize positions which seem wholly opposite, and minority positions are recorded even when the majority – and thus the law – has tipped the other way. This, of course, is easier said than done when you are quite sure that right is on your side, and when the other is a terrorist or an oppressor, and their viewpoint has little merit. When someone is trying to kill you, you think about little else apart from self-defence. This is perhaps what sets apart Israeli Jews from American (or Diaspora) Jews – with each coming to different conclusions about the pathway to peace in the Middle East. This is to generalize, naturally, and to risk to polarize, but whatever the debate, it is only through acknowledging the humanity of the other, that we can find resolution and healing.
I am sure that many of you know the following story, but particularly as a search for a new UHC rabbi is opened, it’s worth bearing in mind.
“Rabbi Bloom was conducting his very first service at one of London’s oldest synagogues. All was going well until he gets to the ‘Shema’ prayer - only half his congregation stand up. Those still seated start yelling ‘sit down’ to those standing and those standing start yelling ‘stand up’ to those sitting. Although Rabbi Bloom was very knowledgeable about Jewish law, he doesn’t know what to do. He thinks it must be something to do with the synagogue’s minhag and tradition.
After the service, Rabbi Bloom consults Abe, the synagogue’s oldest member. "I need to know, Abe, what is the synagogue’s tradition with regard to the Shema prayer. Is the tradition to stand during this prayer?"
Abe replies, "No, that is not the tradition."
"So the tradition is to sit during Shema?" says Rabbi Bloom.
Abe replies, "No, that is not the tradition."
"But," says Rabbi Bloom, "the congregation argues all the time. They yell at each other about whether they should sit or stand and ..."
Abe interrupts, exclaiming, "Aha, THAT is the tradition!"
We are back on safe ground – we can laugh at our own Jewish disputes, at least when they are relatively minor. We can laugh at ourselves as well, luxurisating in our stubbornness and our argumentative nature – we are – as Moses said in the Torah – a stiff-necked people. Yet can we move beyond laughter, can we move to forgive the extreme views that we find in the comments pages of our newspapers and social media, extreme views that are reactions to each other, and that become even more extreme as they frame and flame our discussions.
At Yom Kippur we should try to forgive each other for things that have been said and done, difficult though that be. I know – like all of us – what it feels like to be wronged by those around me. It’s not a burden I wish to carry all my days, and it’s a heavy load of which I must choose to let go, for fear it weigh me down continually. We must all try to do the same, to let go of the slights we have suffered, to write it off and begin the new year afresh. At Yom Kippur we ask God for forgiveness, and – radical as it may seem - we must try to forgive God for things life has thrown at us as well.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev was one of the most famous Chasidic rabbis in history. He lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Poland and Ukraine. He was known as the “the poor man's rabbi.”
It is said that on the evening of Yom Kippur, after Kol Nidre services, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak posed a question to an illiterate tailor in the community. He asked, “Since you couldn't read the prayers today, what did you say to God?”
“I said to God,” replied the tailor, “Dear God, You want me to repent of my sins, but my sins have been so small! I confess: There have been times when I failed to return to the customers the pieces of left-over cloth. When I could not help it, I even ate food that was not kosher. But really, is that so terrible? Now take Yourself, God! Just examine Your own sins: You have robbed mothers of their babes and have left helpless babes orphans. So, You see, O God, that Your sins are much more serious than mine. I'll tell you what, God. Let's make a deal! You forgive me and I’ll forgive you.”
After hearing this, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak cried out, “Ah you foolish man! You let God off too easily. Just think! You were in an excellent position to make God redeem the entire Jewish people!”
This is a poignant tale. None of us are sinless as this story’s poor tailor, but surely all of us at times have blamed God for instances when life hasn’t seemed fair. I know I have. At Yom Kippur we have the chance to forgive God as well, making our deals even with the chutzpah of this tailor. No thought be too rebellious, no protest too blasphemous, as we pray and we struggle within the intimacy of our tallits this Yom Kippur. It is our chance to wrestle with our souls, to prove our name as the children of Israel – the Bnei Yisrael - as we struggle with God. As we engage with this struggle we approach the misunderstandings that cannot be put right without making things worse. And yet, with the determined effort of teshuva – true repentance – we can and will emerge tomorrow night with our souls refreshed and restored, newly impoverished but freshly enriched, ready to go back out into the world and take on the new year that lies ahead.
I wish you all a gmar hatimah tovah and a tsom kal – may you have an easy fast and may all your names be sealed into the Book of Life. From our smallest & noisiet child to our oldest & most respected member, regardless of whether you prefer to sit or stand for the Shema, this Yom Kippur may we unite as one as a community in the true sense of the world. Standing here as sinners, vouching for one another, may we leave behind and move beyond the troubles and grievances of the year that has passed. The world needs us more than ever.