Tear Open Your Hearts – Shabbat Shuva 2015

(Originally delivered at Finchley Partnership Minyan on 19th Sepetmber 2015) 

It’s hard to feel like we’re in the right place at this time of year.  The Yamim Noraim – the days of awe – always seem to come out of nowhere.  However conscious we are of the passing days of Ellul, Rosh Hashana seems to always find us unprepared.

The Ba’al HaTanya says that at this time of year the King is in the field – Hamelekh Basadeh.  The King leaves his secure and aloof  residence in the palace and comes out to be closer to his people, allowing them to encounter him, to get to know him a little better.

But still, we must leave our homes and go out into the field, the King is not in our lounge or our kitchen. He is closer but it still requires an effort.

The Rambam in Hilkhot Teshuva opens with a fascinating formulation:

א  כָּל הַמִּצְווֹת שֶׁבַּתּוֹרָה, בֵּין עֲשֵׂה בֵּין לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה–אִם עָבַר אָדָם עַל אַחַת מֵהֶן, בֵּין בְּזָדוֹן בֵּין בִּשְׁגָגָה–כְּשֶׁיַּעֲשֶׂה תְּשׁוּבָה וְיָשׁוּב מֵחֶטְאוֹ

‘Every mitzva in the Torah, whether a positive commandment or a negative prohibition, if a person passed over one of them’ – if one missed the opportunity for growth inherent in that mitzva, this is the meaning of aveira – ‘whether deliberately or accidentally’ – whether he maliciously set out to self destruct, to distance himself from the source of his wellbeing, or whether he was simply lax and lazy, he lost focus and temporarily forgot himself, had a moment of weakness and doubt – ‘when he does Teshuva and returns from his sin he is obligated to confess and articulate it in front of God, blessed be he.’

When he does Teshuva’.  The Rambam sounds like he is describing a law of nature, a person will sin, will miss out on opportunities, but he will return, he will always return, there is only so long that he can stay away for.  It’s like a young child, who gets angry with his parents, who stomps off in a huff, maybe tells them he hates them, and the parent bears it, doesn’t laugh it off, but knows inside that the child will return shortly, will want to be close again, will want to be hugged and caressed,   will want to feel the love and intimacy once more.

The child will return, because he knows that his true state is union, that the separation is only temporary, that really he can’t survive on his own.  His mother gives him his sense of who he is, connects him to the world, and there’s only so long that he can bear to be without her presence.

The Rambam continues ‘and he returns from his sin’.  Sin does not sound here like an action, a misdeed, but more like a place, a distant country, a state of mind.  The Talmud in Sotah 3a tells us that a person does not sin unless a spirit of madness enters him.  Sin is not something we would choose to do if we were fully conscious of ourselves, if we grasped at the deepest levels how our actions were affecting our psyche, how our selfishness and hard heartedness, our rational self interest, were actually causing us tremendous distress, were alienating ourselves from our truer selves, were building up a storehouse of sludge and muck that we will one day need to drag ourselves through in order to get back on track.

Many of us have families, we are raising young children, we must do battle with the world to protect them, to ensure they have everything that they need, and this is noble and right and how things should be.

But then we see it, the picture of the child washed up on the beach, the helpless toddler who has become victim to the world’s latest madness, and our hearts are pierced.  Suddenly we’re not so sure about the everyday order we inhabit, suddenly the world’s problems have crashed into our lives.  Suddenly we’re forced into a new state of questioning, into pondering the insoluble mysteries of how 7 billion people are supposed to inhabit this planet without killing each other, without killing our children.

We can’t easily fix these problems – לא עליך המלאכה לגמור - the task is not for us to complete – but we cannot ignore them either – ולא אתה בן חורין לבטל ממנה – we are not permitted to desist from them either.  Again, the language is key, we are not Bnei Chorin – free and unburdened – libatel mimenah – to disown the problems, to distance oursleves, to fundamentally separate ourselves from what is going on in our world.  We may not say ‘that is their problem, but I’m ok and it’s really not my fault so let them get on with it, let them sort their own problems out.’  At the very very least we must identify, retain solidarity, we must not succumb to the temptations of hardening our hearts and forgetting.

I don’t know if we can build a better world, there are plenty of reasons to feel gloomy.  But if faith means anything it means not giving it up, not being seduced by fatalism and helplessness, not retreating into our own petty kingdoms.

וְקִרְעוּ לְבַבְכֶם וְאַל-בִּגְדֵיכֶם, וְשׁוּבוּ אֶל-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם

‘Tear your hearts, and not your clothing’ says the prophet Yoel, in the verses just before today’s haftara.  ‘Tear your heart’, let it open, let it feel, let it empathise, let the world’s troubles in.  Don’t imagine that you can be better off through dissociating from them, by pretending that they aren’t going on.

Tearing our clothing is cathartic, but perhaps limited, we’ve done our bit, it’s part of moving on.

Tearing our hearts is an opening, a beginning, something new can grow, something can begin to happen.

We’ll say on Tuesday night in the famous piyut,‘for here we are, like a stone in the hands of the cutter, at his mercy to grasp it, at his mercy to smash it’.

The usual reading is that we don’t want him to smash it, but to save the stone, to leave it be.

I’m not so sure, maybe our hearts have become stone, and maybe exactly what we want from Yom Kippur is that they should be smashed, that their impenetrable hardness be shattered, that our emotional numbness be penetrated.

Ve’initem et nafshoteikhem is the essence of the day, you shall put pressure on your souls, you shall try to change them, to jolt them back to life, to starve them into sensitivity.

And where does it get us to, this fasting, this tearing of our hearts, this rending of our souls?  Isaiah offers us guidance in Chapter 58:

ו הֲלוֹא זֶה, צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ–פַּתֵּחַ חַרְצֻבּוֹת רֶשַׁע, הַתֵּר אֲגֻדּוֹת מוֹטָה; וְשַׁלַּח רְצוּצִים חָפְשִׁים, וְכָל-מוֹטָה תְּנַתֵּקוּ.  ז הֲלוֹא פָרֹס לָרָעֵב לַחְמֶךָ, וַעֲנִיִּים מְרוּדִים תָּבִיא בָיִת:  כִּי-תִרְאֶה עָרֹם וְכִסִּיתוֹ, וּמִבְּשָׂרְךָ לֹא תִתְעַלָּם.  ח אָז יִבָּקַע כַּשַּׁחַר אוֹרֶךָ, וַאֲרֻכָתְךָ מְהֵרָה תִצְמָח; וְהָלַךְ לְפָנֶיךָ צִדְקֶךָ, כְּבוֹד יְהוָה יַאַסְפֶךָ.  ט אָז תִּקְרָא וַיהוָה יַעֲנֶה, תְּשַׁוַּע וְיֹאמַר הִנֵּנִי:

6   “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loosen the chains of injustice    and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free    and break every yoke?

7   Is it not to share your food with the hungry    and to bring the poor wanderer to your house— when you see the naked, to clothe them,  and not to turn away from your own flesh?

8   Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will gather you up.

9    Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

From a broken heart, an open heart, our light will erupt like the dawn, a new light, a hidden light, with the power to transform our own lives as well as those around us.

At that moment we will find the King, we will cry for help, and we will experience the warm embrace of his presence.

We begin on Tuesday night with this light:   אוֹר, זָרֻעַ לַצַּדִּיק;    וּלְיִשְׁרֵי-לֵב שִׂמְחָה.

Light is planted, buried deep, for the righteous, and joy for those of straight heart, of honesty and openness.

This is what we are seeking out, this is the purpose of this period, to re-open our hearts, not in a withdrawn and narcissistic way, not as part of our own ‘personal journey’, but as part of remembering our linkages to the world, our obligations to justice, our inability to flee from truth.

And where is God in this, what function does he serve?  Our haftora in Hoshea provides an answer:   אֶהְיֶה כַטַּל לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, יִפְרַח כַּשּׁוֹשַׁנָּה; וְיַךְ שָׁרָשָׁיו, כַּלְּבָנוֹן

I will be like the dew to Israel;    he will blossom like a lily.  Like a cedar of Lebanon    he will send down his roots.

God’s presence provides the catalyst, the nutrients, the hydration, and if we are able to make use of It, then our roots will become deeper and stronger, and our capacity to live well will become greatly enhanced.

May we all be torn and smashed, and may we be blessed to see the light at the end of it, to flourish in its radiance, and emerge into the new year as people of renewed purpose.

Rosh Hashana 5776 – What does it mean to be judged?

(This originally appeared in Ha’aretz Jewish Thinker Column, on Monday 7th September: http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.674949)

Not everyone believes that God sits in heaven with a book open on the High Holy Days. But this doesn’t mean that these days are devoid of meaning; that it is not possible for atheist and non-literalist alike to experience the power of this period.

The period from Elul through Rosh Hashanah, culminating in Yom Kippur, is an opportunity for us to engage more honestly with life. There may not be a God with a flowing beard judging us, but there is truth in our lives, demands in our soul, and at this time we must face up to that call.

Jonah the prophet is a powerful archetype here.  He tried to avoid this calling, believing that an honest encounter with truth could be avoided by changing location, by hiding, by mounting practical objections to his mission. Jonah thought that truth was optional, a luxury, something that could be tempered by his pragmatic reason. But his attempts to escape led him into stormy seas, and he eventually sunk to the darkest depths, swallowed up by his own despair.

Jonah teaches us that we cannot run away from the truth, that it is a matter of life and death.  These themes of the period – judgment and mortality – are not just about giving extra charity, perhaps saving a life along the way. They tell us that in our personal lives, in the murky world of the spirit and the psyche, there is an intimate link between falsehood and death.

When we make a pact with falsehood, when we embark on the slippery road of compromising our principles, we endanger ourselves. The crust of artifice starts to weaken us and hold us back, one wrong turn spirals into many, and before we know it we are totally lost.

Man does not live on bread alone, but he lives by the power and integrity of the spirit. This is the source of his courage and strength, of his hope and his faith, and it is traded away at one’s peril.

One might go so far as to say that being religious can actually pose a tremendous threat to our integrity, to our capacity for honesty. Many will tell us that we should believe rather than think, that we should follow rules rather than wrestle with ethics, that we should submit to authority rather than take responsibility.

I wish I could say that this isn’t so, but, alas, there is cause for concern. Orthodoxy is being overtaken by fundamentalism, religious education is becoming about closing down minds, and the conflation of the religious and political realm in Israel is like watching a car crash. Jewishness, in both Israel and the Diaspora, is becoming an ever more exclusive racial category, bringing in its wake the hatred and bigotry that always ensue.

One is reminded of Yeats’ words that “the centre cannot hold…whilst the worst are full of passionate intensity.”  Dogma, whether religious or political, gives people a much sought after sense of certainty, laying down firm barriers in a fluid and confusing world. It is no surprise that it seduces people, but it should worry us, for the closed spirit is the dead spirit and the movement of the mob always ends in horror.

For the engaged atheist, Rosh Hashanah offers a chance to reflect on one’s values, to ponder what truly guides one in life, and to think about how to be faithful to that.

For those who are more comfortable with God language, it should be a time of stripping away falsehood, of challenging dogma, of taking back responsibility. The days contain a theology of remembrance, of zikhronot (memories), telling us that nothing is forgotten, that everything we do shapes and distorts us, however hard we try to forget it.

God is our memory, our history, our psychic baggage, the fate that we cannot escape.  He reflects the private truths that no one else can see, that our public role and persona keep hidden from view. He needles our conscience, letting us know that we must give an account of ourselves, that for all our success our inner life may be in ruins.

As our stubbornness and ego are worn down by prayer and fasting, as we get closer to a moment of surrender to truth and integrity, God also stands for forgiveness, for renewed hope, for the possibility of starting again. If we relinquish falsehood then there can be life, but if we cannot let go, if we cling to it too tightly, then we can be assured of a year of darkness.