As requested by a number of folk; my Kol Nidre sermon delivered at Radlett Reform Synagogue - with many thanks to them for inviting and having me!
When her son John died aged 33, Freda Carter consoled herself with the thought that his heart had saved someone else’s life. But she didn’t know whose. That is until a chance encounter 5 years later. Mrs Carter was attending a memorial service for transplant donors in Newcastle when a 19 year old actor got up to speak. He was a stranger – yet somehow she knew at once that her son’s heart was beating inside him. Looking in the order of service she saw that his name was Scott, which was the only detail she’d been told about the recipient of her son’s heart. “Scott is a common name and he could have been anywhere in the country” she said, “But I was hysterical. I couldn’t breathe”. Then, as Scott Rutherford spoke, he revealed that aged 14 he’d been hours from death when he had received a new heart from a man named John. After the service, nurses checked the details, and asked Scott if he’d like to meet his donor’s mother. “Scott came up to me, opened his arms and gave me a huge hug” said Mrs Carter. “I asked him if I could feel John’s heart beat and he let me. It was all I wanted”.
What an incredible legacy to leave, especially in a life cut short so young. The coming hours are, in so many ways, an opportunity to ask ourselves, what is the legacy we wish to leave behind? Have I done the things that will leave the world closer to how I wish it to be? Have I fulfilled my hopes and passions, or become subsumed in the daily grind? What can I do to change and be closer to the person I would like to be in the world. We often think of this day as the most solemn, the most difficult. I’d like to suggest tonight that perhaps it is neither of these things and that if we can alter how we approach the next 24 or so hours, we may also be able to alter what is metaphorically inscribed for us and for our community.
We know we have to think seriously about our behaviour, and reflect on that which has not brought joy and goodness into the world. Yet the Mishnah tells us that the happiest days in the Jewish calendar are Tu B’Av, the 15th of Av, and Yom Kippur. That doesn’t fit so well with our usual somber approach to repentance. Tu B’Av is a little known festival which falls over the summer, and comes 6 days after Tisha B’Av, when we lament the destruction of the temple after 3 weeks of mourning - this is arguably Judaism’s saddest day, not Yom Kippur. But hot on it’s heels is the day described as one of the most joyful. It is essentially now regarded as the Jewish version of Valentines. It was a celebration during which Jerusalem’s maidens would come out into the fields, all dressed in white, and the lads would see if they could find a likely partner. So today it has come to be yet another time my husband can forget to buy me flowers. It is not so hard to imagine dancing maidens and romance making for a joyful festival. But Yom Kippur? When we are told it will be decided who shall live and who shall die? Surely this is pretty heavy stuff!?
But the Talmud doesn’t see fit to correct the Mishnah. In fact it continues along similar lines, arguing that “Atonement and Joy go well together” Now if we begin to unpack that statement, it does make some sense. Of course there is the seriousness of, say, Yizkor, tomorrow afternoon, and the struggle some may have with the deprivation of fasting. Yet having the annual opportunity to turn inwards, to focus the mind beyond the bodies usual needs, to have a real and tangible opportunity to make change and redirect ourselves, that should be a source of joy. A chance many may never make time for lies before us. This is not the moment for hollow new years resolutions or indulgent feasting, but it is a chance to make a fresh start, to begin to do things differently, and to grasp just who we really want to be in the coming year.
The Zohar, the medieval book of Jewish mysticism so beloved of modern celebrities, continues our theme - and arguably goes even further! Not only is Yom Kippur on a par with some minor love festival hardly anyone knows about but, the Zohar argues, “Yom Ha Kippurim, hu yom k’Purim” - The day of Atonement (Kippur) is a day like Purim (K’Purim) - now that is a day we know is meant to be joyful; fancy dress, sweets, excessive drinking, pantomime, carnival, even Rabbis can be seen in spandex and wigs without folk worrying too much. It seems almost the complete inverse of today. Yet in it’s potential for happiness and celebration, and for making ourselves anew by turning things on their heads, they run in parallel. Indeed, while we invert our normal behaviour not through feasting and binge drinking, but by fasting and ceasing to wash or wear leather or perfume, we also have the tradition of wearing costumes on Yom Kippur; the white Kittel (or shroud) in Ashkenazi communities, or more general white in Sephardi. And this brings us to yet another joyful parallel - many of the rituals around a Jewish wedding mimic those of Yom Kippur, purposefully. We dress in white, a groom may even wear a Kittel in Ashkenazi custom, and some couples fast on the day of the wedding until the chuppah. These are the rituals of atonement, and of new starts, but that does not mean the day is one of sadness. New starts and change are a cause of celebration.
Before you came out tonight, I am going to assume that the vast majority of you put quite a bit of effort into filling up. We nervously trying to pick good, slow release carbohydrates, drink plenty, and store up for the long slog ahead. Some of us might be feeling quite stuffed and even a little drowsy right about now (I always say don’t worry if you doze off in a sermon; at least I know you are getting something out of it that way!) So we are all full and not too thirsty at this point. Some Rabbi’s have argued one should eat a particularly large meal before the fast because it makes the fast itself that bit harder - a large meal doesn’t necessarily keep you going longer, rather it serves to stretch your stomach and make you hungrier tomorrow - and this would be desirable to aid one’s efforts towards atonement. But Hacham Shem Tov Gaguine – a London based Spanish and Portuguese Rabbi and Head of their Bet Din in the 1950’s argues that we eat a large feast on the eve of Yom Kippur because it is a celebratory feast - it is a time to celebrate the opportunity God gives us in Teshuvah, in returning to God, and in the chance to make a change. He cites Leviticus (16:30):
כִּי-בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם, לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם: מִכֹּל, חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, תִּטְהָרוּ.
For on this day, atonement WILL be made for you, to cleanse you, from all your sins YOU WILL BE cleansed
Gaguine argues that Leviticus is not particularly unsure about the outcome of Yom Kippur - atonement WILL be made, we shall be forgiven and cleansed, the opportunity to start over is there, if only we would grab it. This is a day of joy.
It is not surprising that it is a Sephardi Rabbi making this case for the happiness of Yom Kippur. Sephardim have generally been much better at treating Kippur as a serious cause for celebration. The most joyful tune I have ever heard Radlett (or anyone else’s) choir sing on Yom Kippur is at the start of Neilah - El Norah Alila - it perhaps gains a special energy because we know the end is in sight, but it’s inherently an upbeat happy tune - and one which comes from the Spanish and Portuguese community. If you listen to Mizrachi - Eastern, or Sephardi tunes for Yom Kippur they are overwhelmingly happy - they want God to know their delight in God’s continual ability to forgive, to let them begin again, and, they argue, why would a king be pleased with morose subjects singing depressing tunes, God too wishes to be uplifted.
This year the opportunity (and therefore celebration) should, arguably be even greater than normal: today is Shabbat Shabbaton, and is falling on Shabbat, in the year known as Shnat Shabbat - the year of Shabbat - Shmitta. This occurs every 7th year - just as Shabbat is every 7th day. It is a year in which the land is left to lie fallow, to regenerate, to become more fertile. It is a year in which you don’t own the produce of your garden, but share with all around you. It is a year in which debts are forgiven (don’t tell the treasurer) and slaves are released. Many in the UK Jewish community and beyond are looking at the laws of Shmita and asking ‘How can we use this year as an opportunity to make change?’ Change in food poverty, change in community building, change in just economics. So tonight we are not just on the cusp of an opportunity for us to improve ourselves, but we are also gifted the possibility to make changes that might improve the lives of many, and begin the next cycle of seven refreshed and rejuvenated.
Returning to John, our inspiring heart donor, I find myself wondering what is the metaphorical organ we would want to be donating to ensure the continued life of Judaism? It would, for me, undoubtedly be a smile of JOY! If we enjoy our Judaism, we will be giving it the life blood of survival. We began tonight with John and Scott, who demonstrated a legacy of joy and life that came out of deep sadness and death. It was a story that appeared a number of months ago in the magazine The Week - it is a summary of the week’s stories with comment from different editorials and publications. On the first page of stories there is always a feature entitled ‘It wasn’t all bad’, and that was where I stumbled upon the story of John and Scott. It is always the first thing I turn to in the magazine - before the comment and analysis, I always want to know that ‘It wasn’t all bad’. And that is how we might begin this new year. The last year, It wasn’t all bad - and there are many good things you got right, that you might well want to continue in the coming year. We need to remember these things as well as recalling our sins, and as we think of both, we are reminded that this is a special chance to take the time to change. Atonement, repentance, change, all causes for joy and celebration. So let us feel the embrace of a loving sovereign parent ‘Avinu Malkeinu’, who assures us ‘atonement will be made’, and in the words of Psalm 100, take today to ‘Serve the eternal with gladness, come before God with joyful song’.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah