Kol Nidre 5779 – Rabbi Miriam Berger

Kol Nidre Sermon – 2018/5779

So frail, our days are like the grass,
we blossom like a flower in the field;but the breeze passes over it
and it is gone
and its place knows it no more.

אֱ֭נוֹשׁ כֶּחָצִ֣יר יָמָ֑יו
כְּצִ֥יץ הַ֝שָּׂדֶ֗ה כֵּ֣ן יָצִֽיץ

כִּ֤י ר֣וּחַ עָֽבְרָה־בּ֣וֹ וְאֵינֶ֑נּוּ
וְלֹא־יַכִּירֶ֖נּוּ ע֣וֹד מְקוֹמֽוֹ׃

Words so beautiful and yet so hard to hear – the vulnerability, the temporary nature of life that it illustrates.  How little it takes for our loved ones to be uprooted from us or for us to vanish for eternity, our place to be known no more.  We not only know all the causes of the breeze but we have lived them, stood in shiva houses and felt the tragedy, the ripples felt once the breeze has passed.  We see the beauty, the privilege of life all around us and yet…the breeze is an ever-threatening presence.

Earlier on in the year I was leading some training sessions for a project in the synagogue, “FRS Connections”, to encourage a deeper means of conversation between us.   We were using a Citizens UK, community organising model to understand what it may look like if we knew each other well enough to have conversations that got beyond the Kiddush style “hi how are you?”  As I was demonstrating I began to answer a question for myself.  What, I was being asked, are my hopes, dreams and aspirations?  I heard the words coming out of my mouth before I had time to intellectualise them, no time to think about what as the rabbi, my community would want or expect me say, when the deepest honesty came out, “My real hope, my most single-minded aspiration is to live long enough to see the choices my now seven year old son will make when he is an adult.” I’ve said it many times before but only being a mother myself can I now understand the pain my mum must have felt when she realised that cancer would mean she would never see the finished product, the things that define her daughter as the adult I now am, never see me ordained, never meet my husband or never spoil her grandson. At the time I only saw her death from the perspective of a student, still living at home and needing her mum; now I understand what fears and frustrations she must have been living with from the moment of her diagnosis, the knowledge that the breeze was about to pass over her field.  Yes I have lots of aspirations that are less selfish, less egocentric but my deepest, most heartfelt dream, my number one aspiration is simply to stay alive long enough to see my life’s painting completed, to live until I see my life’s tasks done, the spilt paint of last year’s sermon absorbed onto the weathered canvass.

כִּי  רוּחַ  עָבְרָה  בּוֹ  וְאֵינֶנוּ

– the breeze passes over it and its gone.  We live in fear of the breeze and it’s such a continual state I think we forget the extent to which we live with anxiety and how much it simply becomes us. You can be sure that at least one of the people in your row is worrying about something medical in their life or that of a loved one, that someone, maybe the same someone, is worrying most days about their child and whether they will come home safely that day or is checking their baby is still breathing each night. You can be sure someone is worried about every delicate step they take out of their flat because that fall or that broken hip might be the one that means they never leave hospital. You can be sure that someone sitting around you is preoccupied with the fear of being alone or ending up alone, that others are in constant fear of how to make ends meet financially and others about the state of the economy in the country. Some are worrying about Brexit and others about Anti-Semitism, some about the environment and others about Israel. A similar list enabled Rabbi Howard Cooper to talk about imagination on Rosh Hashanah. The list of our daily fears are endless and I could carry on but the list will make our hearts race and you can be sure blood pressure is already on someone’s list without me adding to the problem. I think it’s safe to say our constant state of fear is one which is so much part of our everyday we don’t always recognise it as fear any more. Yet we have basic instinctive responses to fear.  It’s built into us like every animal we see in the wild, in the face of fear we are programmed to flee or to freeze or to hide.

At this point I would have misquoted Nachman of Bratslav. For years, thanks to the song composed in Rabbi Nachman’s name by Rabbi Baruch Chait, I, like you having sung the song for years, understood his old adage to be “all the world is a narrow bridge but do not be afraid.”  I would have challenged Rabbi Nachman that it is an absurdity. With a litany of reasons to be fearful from our own health, to terrorism or natural disasters, simply suggesting that though there is ample reason to be fearful one shouldn’t be is all but impossible. Yet thanks to Cantor Zöe and a visiting musician and scholar Yotam Mahler who came to FRS this summer I have now been introduced to Rabbi Nachman’s original words found in “likutei Moharan part 2:48”

And know, that a human being must cross over a very, very narrow bridge,

and it is critically important that they not fill themselves with fear.

וְדַע, שֶׁהָאָדָם צָרִיךְ לַעֲבֹר עַל גֶּשֶׁר צַר מְאֹד
מְאֹד,

וְהָעִקָּר וְהַכְּלָל– שֶׁלֹּא יִתְפַּחֵד כְּלָל

 

Rabbi Chait may have created a catchy tune to immortalise Rabbi Nachman’s words but he turned the aspirational, don’t be overcome by the fear, don’t let it stop you making the crossing, don’t let it be a cause to flee, to freeze or to hide, into the all but impossible, don’t be afraid. I can fear that I may not make it to an age that will allow me to see all that I want to of life and that fear can paralyse me, make me irrational or make decisions in life solely based on trying to disprove the fear and cheat death or I can as Rabbi Nachman really said

שֶׁלֹּא יִתְפַּחֵד כְּלָל

“not let the fear fill me up”, overcome me, but rather use it to motivate me to act; to make the most of life to enjoy all that I have now, to make a difference to people’s lives.  I cannot stop the breeze but I can have done enough in my life to ensure

יַכִּירֶ֖נּוּ ע֣וֹד מְקוֹמֽוֹ׃

its place will always be known.   It’s not this time an egotistical fantasy, I hope, but rather an acknowledgement that we can beat the animal responsive instinct to fear by freezing, fleeing or hiding which is a temporary fix to an immediate cause of danger and encourage meeting an ongoing anxiety with constructive action, which doesn’t focus on avoiding the breeze but leaves the field even more beautiful for having once been there.

This time last year the text I came back to in my sermon was

כִּי הִנֵה  כַּחֹמֶר

like clay in the hands of the potter to be moulded at His will. It was the text I found helpful to respond to my own acknowledgement that we have far less control over our lives than we would ever like to face up to.  I needed to put myself in God’s hands or at least let fate, destiny run its course. “It is what it is” a dying congregant explained her situation to me last week. Being clay in the hands of the potter and relinquishing control is definitely what’s needed at times.  However a whole year on and new strength and resilience finds a different Yom Kippur text the one I am coming back to.

 כִּי  אָנוּ  עַמֶךָ

We are your people, you are our God, we are your children and you are our Father. Not inanimate objects like clay and iron but in relationship with God, with destiny, with the world. You are only our Creator because we are your work, is a shepherd with no sheep still a shepherd? We are in relationship with the world; neither in control nor simply at its mercy so perhaps that is what makes the world in Nachman’s view, a narrow bridge. It is a tightrope to cross between letting fear mean we fight for immortality and letting life happen to us in a passive way.

Two years ago Arlo, one of our then B’nei Mitzvah, chose a reading for our Friday night by Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. It was the astronomer’s musings on a photo he had taken of earth from space.

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

So the challenge I am setting myself this Yom Kippur while we have this time for self-reflection and when I list my sins, is to face up to the fears that are so inherent in everyday life that I’ve stopped noticing them as fear and ask myself are they causing me to flee or am I using that fear to be my catalyst to ensure the field, my flower, however tiny that field, however inconsequential it may seem from space, that flower, my flower in my field will ultimately be uprooted, but the field will not go unchanged for my having been there. We can see our lives as an irrelevant dot from space or on a vast canvass or we can do our bit to preserve and cherish the mark we make, knowing the finest impressionist paintings would not be the masterpiece’s they are without every dot in its place.

Egyptian poet Naguib Mahfouz encapsulates this in his quote: “Fear does not lead to life, fear leads to death.” How can we make our relinquishing of fear lead to life?  Only when we come out from the hiding places of family, community even solitude and look out into the field and see what needs to be done.  When we look up and out and see the 68.5 million forceibly displaced people worldwide.  When we recognise the tragedy of around 21,000 children dying daily around the world from poverty and other preventable causes, which is such an accepted part of the world we live in it rarely makes the news headlines. When we enjoy a daily shower or a glass of water and remember to feel privileged because there are places in the world where this vital resource for life is becoming scarcer by the day and the forecasts for the future are grim.

Is that in any way helpful or does it just make us more fearful and ready to hide because the scale of it is more than we can fix alone? It is overwhelming and that is why we create a microcosm of society, like a synagogue, in which we are given opportunity after opportunity to make a better world for today and for long after the breeze has passed over us.

This year is a year where as a synagogue we are going to be building for our future. A future where we as a collective can do what we also set out to do as individuals; a future where as a community we say how can the field we are in benefit from our having been here.  Whether it is campaigning for and then working directly with refugees settled in Barnet, campaign for affordable housing and care directly for the homeless, understand our responsibilities to confront our contribution to climate change. Educate, instil positive Jewish identities and a love for Israel in our members. Enhance the spiritual lives of the community, celebrate life’s milestone and support through life’s challenges. We are doing for the next generation what our parents did for us, we are laying firm foundations and building a solid and robust future.  We will still have to weather the storms as individuals and as a community but it will definitely mean yakirenu od mekomo – our place will continue to be known as a force for good in the world.  This year more than ever you will be able to make that a certainty.  May this be how you choose to overcome fear and create your legacy  –

And know, that a human being must cross over a very, very narrow bridge,

and it is critically important that they not fill themselves with fear.

וְדַע, שֶׁהָאָדָם צָרִיךְ לַעֲבֹר עַל גֶּשֶׁר צַר מְאֹד מְאֹד,

וְהָעִקָּר וְהַכְּלָל– שֶׁלֹּא יִתְפַּחֵד כְּלָל

 

v’Ken yehi ratzon – and may this be God’s will for all of us.