Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Sermon Chol haMoed Sukkot

Sermon Sukkot Chol haMoed
Leo Baeck College mailinglist / Birmingham Liberal Community
Esther Hugenholtz

Embracing the Elements

I have a confession to make. I am a rather bad Dutchwoman, my love for tulips and cheese notwithstanding. The reason why I fail to live up to the hardy reputation of my countrymen is that I hate winter.
I detest the cold that seeps into your bones and the darkness that shuts down the days. No matter how many scarves, hats, gloves and coats I put on, winter still overcomes me.

My discomfort for winter sets in during high summer. As soon as the 21st of June – the longest day of the year - has passed, I bitterly remark to myself that it’s downhill from here. The days will only get shorter and there is no cause for optimism until the year swings back to April.

I know I am not the only one. Frustrations with our dismal climate become all the more pronounced during Sukkot. While our fellow Jews in Israel are enjoying bright days and balmy nights in their sukkot, there is a near-definite chance that we will be shivering in ours, coats on, umbrellas at the ready.

As much as I like to complain about the weather (which I believe is not only a Dutch cultural trait but also a British one!) I also realise that my negative attitude is not constructive. It doesn’t lift my winter blues; on the contrary. Nor does it allow me to cultivate what Abraham Joshua Heschel would call ‘radical amazement’ as Nature unfolds before our eyes. So this year, as part of my Rosh haShanah resolutions, I have decided to take a different attitude and embrace the rain, wind, snow and ice that autumn and winter bring.

Luckily, my anti-winter depression programme finds ample support in our Jewish tradition. It is a public secret that our faith and culture, proud ethical monotheists we may be, is deeply rooted in Nature. The Jewish calendar gently turns with the wheel of the year as our harvest festivals usher in new seasons. Our liturgy acknowledges this when we start adding ‘mashiv haruach u’morid hagashem’ – ‘He who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall’ in our Amidah.
Furthermore, it is the festival of Sukkot that addresses our complex feelings about the fading year. Even in balmy and sunny Israel, the rainy season starts soon after. We beseech the Eternal for rain with our lulav and etrog (a ‘pagan’ ritual if there ever was one!) and in the Mediterranean world rain is seen as a life-bringer rather than as a nuisance. Even so, Israel knows cold, biting weather and Jerusalem frequently receives snow. Snow and ice were not unknown to our Israelite forebears as mention of these is made in Psalms and Tanakh.

It is exactly this tension, this liminal space inhabited by Sukkot that makes it such a beautiful festival. We have just come out of the intense soul-searching and ecstasy of the High Holy Days. The teki’ah gedolah has sounded and the Gates of Repentance are closed (even if some insist that they are still open a crack until Hoshannah Rabba). There is palpable and happy relief in the air as we move from Yom Kippur into the building of our Sukkah. The transcendent becomes immanent, the spiritual is actualised in our physical world. It is not for naught that the Rabbis term Sukkot the ‘z’man simchateinu’, the ‘season of our joy’. We rejoice in our festively bedecked sukkot. We enjoy good food and good company as we welcome both loved ones and strangers into our rickety, temporal but happy homes.

But Sukkot also knows a darker sphere, a more contemplative and existential side. Our sukkot are not only homes to aromatic foliage and colourful decorations but also to our vulnerability. As the Eternal ‘causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall’ around us, we huddle around the sukkah dinner table in our winter coats, rubbing warmth back into our hands. This vulnerability is intentional, of course, as the festival does not only point to the turning of our season but also hearkens back to the exposed vulnerability that our newly-emancipated ancestors felt after they exchanged Egyptian slavery for the wilderness.

To continue this line of thought, the Rabbis instituted the book of Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) as the megillah to be read on the festival. Koheleth also inhabits this tension between joyful exuberance (‘lech echol b’simcha lachmecha u’shteh b’lev tov yenicha’ - ‘eat your bread in joy, drink your wine in gladness’, Ecc. ) and existential crisis (‘hevel havalim, hakol havel’ - ‘vanity of vanities, all is vanity’, Ecc. 1:2). A cynical view would be to see the festival as schizophrenic. How can we hold such emotional polarities in one experience? But we can also see it as transformative and transitional.

Sukkot is helping us face the turning of the seasons, the withering leaves, the gathering darkness, the penetrating cold, a brush with a dying world. Our tradition is, if anything, both hopeful and realistic in its embracing of life in the Here and Now. In a sense our sukkah poses the existential question of our impermanence and vulnerability but also provides the answer in radical amazement, acceptance, community and love. Koheleth says that ‘all is vanity’ but answers his own cynicism with keen wonder as he describes the natural world with a scientist’s eye and a poet’s quill: ‘the sun rises and the sun sets... the wind goes towards the south and turns to the north; it whirls about continually... all the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full and from where the rivers came, they shall return’ (Ecc. 1:5-8).

We inhabit a beautiful world, fragile though it is. Sukkot teaches us that even the cold and darkness is something to be embraced and a marvel to behold. I shall look forward to this winter then. Bundle up, stay warm, make yourself a hot cup of tea and enjoy the company of loved ones. Not a bad way to spend the festivals and the dark days to come.

Chag Sukkot sameach!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Kol Nidrey Sermon: From the Bottom Up

Kol Nidrey Sermon, Sinai Synagogue Leeds
Esther Hugenholtz

From the Bottom Up

“”Why have we fasted if God does not see?
Why afflict ourselves if God does not pay heed?”
Because on the day of our fast we put our business first and force our workers to labour”.
- Adaption of Isaiah 57:3

Alessio Rastani got what he wanted; his proverbial ‘fifteen minutes of fame’. And like most instant-celebrities, all he had to do was appear on national television.
Rastani is nobody particularly remarkable. He is a minor City trader who emerged from oblivion through a well-timed and intelligent use of sound bites. Rastani’s main achievement was his ability to address the confusion about the current economic Crisis. Dressed in a slick grey suit and a too-fashionable pink tie, the well-groomed trader seemed to enjoy his place in the spotlight when interviewed by the BBC.

What was especially striking about Rastani’s account was not his articulate summary of the current malaise but his own glib, nihilistic commentary.

Riding on the back off financial fall-out that affects millions of people’s lives the world over, he candidly states “if I see an opportunity to make money, I’ll go with that... For most traders, we do not care that much about how they are going to fix the economy. Our job is to make money from it. I dream about the recession and making money from it.”

Whether these statements reflect his intentions accurately or not, they have consequences. Whether Rastani is or isn’t what he claims to be, he did pointedly sum up what is troubling today’s economic and moral system.

Now, I might have broken my own rule and may have stumbled into a ‘political sermon’. I usually try to avoid this. I celebrate human diversity, including political opinions. The bimah is not an appropriate place for partisan politics.

Yet to keep silent in the face of an unprecedented Crisis would be just as political.
If we can pretend that Judaism, Torah and these High Holy Days are somehow detached from reality, then we do our Judaism a grave disservice. Prompting people into thinking about issues that may make us uncomfortable is sometimes the only appropriate religious response. The purpose of religion, after all is, quoting Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

It’s Kol Nidrey, the entrance gate to 25 hours of fasting, prayer and introspection. Yom Kippur may be a lot of things: meaningful, transformative, challenging. But ‘comfortable’ is not one of them.

The Rabbis of the Talmud already understood this juxtaposition well. While organising the liturgy for a day that seems to be all about the ritual observance of ‘afflicting one’s soul’ through fasting and other prohibitions, they had the moral courage to choose a Haftarah reading from Isaiah that calls people out on ritualistic behaviour that is morally void. It is important that we think about the ethics that drive our world and that decide, in a cruel and ironic rephrasing of the Unetaneh Tokef, who dies ‘by fire or water, by the violence of man... by hunger of thirst, by disaster and plague, who become poor and who become rich’. It is almost as if the Haftarah cautions us to not fulfil our own ‘evil decree’ but rather to transform it, as the Machzor states, by turning towards goodness and justice.

Is not this the fast I have chosen;
To loosen the fetters of evil, to untie the straps of the yoke,
To let the oppressed go free, and whatever the yoke, to break it?

Is it not sharing your food with the hungry and bringing the homeless into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe them, never hiding from your own flesh and blood.”
- Isaiah 58:5 – 7

As morally resonant as this citation is, it also presents a risk. There is a danger that in exposing our inadequacies and highlighting our flaws, we come to feel immobilised in the face of them. Truthfully, how many of us – myself included – engage regularly in acts to ‘loosen the fetters of evil and to feed the hungry’? Most of us are wrapped up in the business of providing for our own and our family’s direct needs.

It is tempting to point the finger at Alessio Rastani, but that is not the point. Rather, we should use his example to reflect both on our own roles and on the greater questions at hand.
How do we balance changing the world and changing ourselves?

What can we do ‘feed the hungry and let the oppressed go free?’

It is actually the model of mitzvot that may provide us with a strategy for change that will not paralyse us. Small but meaningful steps that can transform our lives and our world.
It is our system of mitzvot that bolsters us in the face of cynicism and our Torah delivers us a message that runs counter to the overwhelming anonymity of our world. What we do matters. Our actions are neither trite nor futile, no matter how small they seem in the grand scheme of things. If anything, our Torah empowers us. We can change things, from the bottom up.

Consider, then, in small but important ways in which we can both be a witness to the larger perspective and an agent for change. How can we reform our choices to conform to our ethical standards? How do we choose to invest our money? To buy organic and fair trade food? What can we do to tread the Earth lighter? Can we make a small commitment to consume less? To give charity to poverty and hunger relief? Perhaps, from this Kol Nidrey to the next, we can make a neder, a vow, to implement a small change that may accumulate to become a bigger change.

But it does not end here. Questioning is just as much part of transformation as change is. How do we, as individuals, enable corruption and injustice in our world? What are the power dynamics that ensnare us and dehumanise us? How can we hold our political and economic leaders accountable? Is there a way in which we can reverse cynicism back to righteous indignation? How can we model healthy and ethical relationships with other human beings in our own lives?

The answers are varied and fluid. We do not have to be perfect; but holiness is about meeting God halfway.
It is both logical and remarkable that if we pursue justice, our Haftarah promises us the following:

“Then shall your light break through like dawn and your healing quickly spring up...
Then if you call, the Eternal will answer, if you cry out to Him, He will say, HINENI, ‘Here I am’.”
- Isaiah 58: 8-9

We cannot ‘change the world’ without being solidly rooted in our own Jewish values and spirituality. Usually, it is the prophet who is called by God who answers ‘Hineni’, ‘here I am’. But in this case, by holding fast to what is just and right, it is us who God will answer. Transcendence may be elusive but can inspire us to do good.
Perhaps we can and must believe that the Shechinah dwells wherever we act to repair the world. For sure, we can emulate the Divine, ‘imitatio Dei’, by ‘clothing the naked and feeding the hungry’. There is no better answer to glib cynicism and moral recession.

Let us bring our world a little closer to Redemption – from the bottom up.
May the work of our hands be blessed. G’mar chatimah tovah.