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Etz Chayim – the ‘Tree of Life’ – is the Hebrew name of Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue.
On Tuesday, I was sheltering from a deluge from the skies. I was reminded of the Flood. I was reminded of having to suppress my instinctive response to Liora and Shaya who regularly ask why it is raining: Because God is crying! I was thinking of Jonah. I was reminded of the headlines that utilise Biblical language of apocalypse and utter destruction to describe the state of our world, its environment, its economy, its wars and its morality. Being Jewish, I felt like crying…and laughing!
As a child in this Congregation, I was always slightly unsettled by the amount of fun and laughter that I shared with my peers in the back rows over Yom Kippur. Should the Rabbi’s son really suffer from side-splitting bouts of laughter at the holiest most solemn time of the year? Some of my peers have thanked me for being human, less than perfect, so that when their parents told them off, they could reply, “But the Rabbi’s son is laughing!” So allow me a moment to be human and then I promise to return to the utter solemnity of the day. For, stood sheltering from the deluge, I was reminded of the opening short story by Adam Biro, the French/Hungarian novelist in his book, “Two Jews on a Train: Stories from the Old Country and the New.” It is called, ‘The Deluge,’ from which I now quote and paraphrase.
‘One day, the Lord got fed up with humankind (some capitalise the word [humankind] with an H as in Haman, Herod, Himmler, Hitler) Enough with human beings, He said..In a word, they are imperfect..I have to admit that I made them badly..I am doing away with it. And the Eternal One sent His angels to warn human beings: “In ten days a flood will cover the earth, and all traces of humankind will disappear.” Indescribable panic took hold of all the nations, all people. This time, there was no appeal. Priests were preaching: “This is the righteous punishment for all your sins.” Politicians accused their opponents, heads of states of neighbouring countries, scientists their colleagues who had rejected their theories, parents reproached their children for not having followed the path they should have, children reproached their parents for having taught them useless things..brunettes blamed blondes, misogynists blamed women, misanthropes blamed everyone, atheists blamed believers, believers atheists, both blamed God.
The President of the most powerful country on earth, The United States of America, was notified of the divine threat in the middle of the night. He felt awful..under his leadership, the country had accumulated all the imaginable sins with which God could reproach men and women.”
[He turns alone to walk the countryside of his youth and returns to address the nation after ordering all weapons destroyed] “Only love and goodness can save us, if there’s still time. May God have mercy on our country.”
When the President of Russia heard the news, his first reaction was to keep it secret. But it was too late. [Preceded by Gregorian chants, he addresses the nation and tells them to] eat and drink to their hearts’ content: “The time has come, before the end of the world, for you, I mean for us, to eat, drink, dress, warm yourselves, if only for one last time. Do not end your lives in pain and misery.”
In France, no one made any speeches; no politician thought to make a solemn declaration. Nobody would have listened to it..All the population was running around in a panic, trying to say for the first or last time, ‘Ich liebe Dich’ to someone.
As for the Jews, they drew lots among the Presidents of the World Jewish Congress, the president of the Jewish Agency, the Great Rabbi of France, a Reform American Rabbi, an Orthodox Russian Rabbi, the three prime ministers, four presidents and five Great Rabbis of Israel (all officiating at the same time), and Frantisek Finkelstein, grocer in Prague, to decide who would go on the air to announce the news of the deluge to Jews. The one who drew the highest number made a very short speech. He addressed the people, the whole of the Jewish people as follows:
“Jews of the whole world! You have ten days to learn to live under water.”
In the current financial crisis, all the players cited by Adam Biro have emerged for real. Archbishops have come forward to denounce share traders as "bank robbers and asset strippers". Pope Benedict said: “the love of money is futile..the only solid reality is the word of God.” We have heard from heads of State who have variously made sense and no sense at all. However, they have all been totally unified and consistent with each other. First, each one announced that the problem was global and demanded global responses. We will all work together! Then, each one did whatever it wanted and ignored each other. Each country for itself – or should we say, each government looking after itself to stand a chance of being reelected.
Leaving the brunettes and blondes out of it, let us not be too smug about the Governments of the world. As individuals, we are universal in our criticism of our Governments and all blame them for the current financial crisis. A brief survey of the media from countries around the world will let you know that we are not alone. However, if government had urged restraint we would have called them a ‘nanny state,’ if they had legislated to limit borrowing, ‘we would be crying out for our human rights,’ if their message had been one of caution because a financial crisis is always around a corner somewhere, they would not have been reelected because their message did not show confidence in their abilities to run the economy! Do we not get the governments we deserve?
Then of course there is us, the Jews, who according to Hamas spokesman, Fawzi Barhum, are central to the problem, “bad administrative and financial management and a bad banking system put into place and controlled by the Jewish lobby [that] controls the U.S. elections and defines the foreign policy of any new administration in a manner that allows it to retain control of the American government and economy." You see, a Jew has to laugh and cry. Having said that, the only financiers and political leaders not to be in a freefall of panic are to be found in Israel. Finance Minister Roni Bar-On said the country's financial leadership was not panicking in the face of the global crisis. "We are cooperating with the Bank of Israel and the banks, and at this time there is no sign of real fear. We mustn't deviate from our budgetary targets." President, Shimon Peres stated that he had complete faith in the strength of the Israeli economy. Are we not truly in Adam Biro’s story?
Traditional Jews on Yom Kippur will read the Torah portion (Leviticus 16) that recounts the ancient customs to commemorate the Day of Atonement including sending a goat out into the desert to make expiation for the sins of the Israelites. The Talmud (bYoma 67a), describes the sacrifice of the scapegoat: “On Yom Kippur a goat was thrown off a high cliff in the desert, to atone for the sins of the Jews. A red ribbon was hung up in the Temple on that day. When the goat was thrown off the cliff, the ribbon turned white.”
This ritual that originates from a pagan ritual to the desert God, Azazel, appalls our sensibilities. But ritual reflects underlying human emotions and throughout time the ritual has undergone many variations to remain relevant to its essence. We may not think of it in this way but it is why we have the tradition of giving tzedakah at this time, as way of us repenting, or perhaps accounting for our sins. During this financial crisis, there will be many scapegoats identified. We Jews are used to being singled out and the spotlight on Lehman Brothers has provided a contemporary focus. In America, The Anti-Defamation League reports a major upsurge in the number of anti-Semitic postings on the internet. In Europe, the rise of a neo-fascist focus on Islam and asylum seekers will see these populations scapegoated and across the world, it will be the destitute who pay the ultimate price as whatever little was provided by Developed countries and their citizens will surely dry up.
I pray that we adopt our Liberal Jewish interpretation of the ancient rituals and use this day for our own repentance and to give generously when asked to do so to tzedakah. However, let me go further. The essence of this financial crisis, as it ever is, is moral. As Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch stated, “The controversies of today revolve around the fundamental moral issues which have challenged man in every generation – the responsibility of every man to his neighbour, the responsibility of every man to his society, the responsibility of a society to its individual members. Because one’s perspective on economic issues is related to one’s deeper conceptions of the nature and obligations of humanity, moral values are crucial. Judaism does not advocate any specific political or economic system, but it does advocate a specific response to life’s problems. Judaism does have a specific value stance.”
So what is that value stance?
On Rosh Hashanah we engaged ourselves in some spiritual thinking. I invited you to join Hillel and myself at further points in the year so that we could listen and hear each other. Indeed, I am encouraged by the large numbers of you who came up to me then or have contacted me since to ask when the first opportunity will be. Spiritual thinking is valuable in and of itself but how much the more so when it translates into spiritual practice.
Let me give you three examples of why this is so for us Jews:
Firstly, according to Rabbi Rami Shapiro “There are four stages to repentance: admitting past wrongdoing, feeling genuine remorse, refraining from that action in the future, and channeling your energies into doing good. In the process of accomplishing these four stages, you create yourself a new persona, or, as the Bible puts it, you make for yourself “a new heart.” (Rabbi Rami M. Shapiro, Minyan, 156). What we are engaged in at this very moment, teshuva, depends on our ability to translate the thoughts of this season into deed during the coming year.
Secondly, even though we may move from this Time of spiritual thinking out into the world, Judaism provides a connection between each moment of worship. When we worship, we, Jews attach to it a Hebrew word, avodah, that literally means, work. Our worship is a form of work because it provides regular moments to rethink what is being done so that our actions are at least directed towards perfection.
Finally, Rami Shapiro also suggests that: “Spirituality is not a feeling, nor is it vague. Spirituality is a conscious practice of living out the highest ethical ideals in the concreteness of your everyday life. The disembodied spirituality so often spoken about by those who do not practice any spiritual discipline rarely obligates them to anything and often excuses the grossest behavior.” (Rabbi Rami M. Shapiro, Minyan, 54) True spiritual thinking must lead to practice for either to have true meaning.
The recently announced Statement of Communal Collaboration between Liberal Judaism, Masorti and Reform Judaism, has as one of its major features the development of ResponsAbility. ResponsAbility, is a truly cross-communal body that will tackle the cutting edge ethical issues of the 21st century – in six areas in particular: the environment, development, poverty, human rights, medical ethics and business ethics. I am truly delighted at the establishment of this body that will seek to draw from wisdom in all sections of our Jewish Community and to learn from the wisdom of our neighbours.
I hope that NPLS and its members will take leading roles within ResponsAbility. I would suggest that this year, a focus of our spiritual thinking and the resultant spiritual practice should we focused on two concerns that might very well help define our Community focus for many years to come. The first is for us to focus internally. We already have an amazing care structure within our Community but each chapter in life is new. This financial crisis will bring uncertainty for many of our members and undoubtedly for some a period of financial difficulty together with all the anxieties that may be associated. Our Focus On Employment Group, established one financial crisis ago, is there both for members that may be able to offer jobs and those who needs jobs. It’s core group is of volunteers with skills to offer in the field of employment. Our Care Committee, led by Jackie Goodman is again supported by volunteers. Of the many services offered, in particular, I would like to highlight the confidential care surgery that Jackie regularly holds. To support the work of both groups, Hillel and I will provide opportunities to engage in serious consideration of the state of business ethics and medical ethics. I know that we have incredible talent in these fields. I hope that NPLS can provide a lead to our members to make these times as comfortable as possible, both in though and practice.
The second area that I propose we focus on is external. Churches have traditionally provided it, many Synagogues in the United States provide it and the concept and practice has been introduced to the UK by, in particular, New North London Masorti Synagogue. That is, providing support to those who are not members of the Synagogue but in particular need. Whilst many will struggle at this time, many of us are also beneficiaries of the generally affluent society in which we live. This might be a time not just to reassess the value of our share portfolio but also our moral value portfolio. We will see scapegoats drawn, asylum seekers, migrant workers and racial tensions will be raised. The ability to pump billions into banks will be shown in stark contrast to the inability to do so to eradicate, poverty, to provide appropriate education and medical care to all and. The unbalanced allocation of natural resources and its profit will be highlighted. They will be highlighted not just for the bottom line but also for the moral issues that underlie the problem.
Could we, NPLS, now large, now relatively affluent, begin to think outside of our membership so that on occasion, we provide a service for those in need? Could we provide a business advice workshop to those made unemployed by the current crisis? Could we provide a surgery to asylum seekers to support their medical and legal needs? The answer to ‘could,’ is ‘of course,’ but first comes the spiritual thinking about ‘should.’ Should we do this? I will not answer this question but I will encourage the opportunity for us to explore the issue.
Spiritual thinking means connecting people with common interests in their lives, sometimes for no purpose other than that which is human nature, to be in community and then hopefully concerned for the welfare of those around.
© Copyright 2008 NPLS