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The Hull Reform Synagogue - Ne've Shalom










This year, our High Holy Day Services were conducted by a team of the Shul's Lay Readers supported by members providing readings during parts of the Services. Our three converts, Sarah, Adrian and Rebecca wrote and presented the following original sermons which were delivered by them during our Rosh Hashanah, Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur Services respectively. If you missed them during the High Holy Days, enjoy them now.


Rosh Hashanah


One of the things I like so much about our Shul is our DIY approach to services – until, that is, Ian asked me to deliver a sermon… Thanks for that, Ian!


As we celebrate and welcome a new year, it is appropriate – and traditional – to reflect on the concept of new beginnings, and – in particular – with how we might rekindle our relationships with God. This, it seems to me, is a complex process comprising both reflection and reflexivity – for what is the point of reflection, of all that soul-searching, if it doesn't lead to positive change? In the secular calendar New Year's Day is associated with renewal in the form of new year resolutions – often hurriedly put together whilst in varying degrees of inebriation at New Year's Eve parties.  In contrast, in Judaism we welcome and celebrate the new year conscious of our need for reflection and atonement. Perhaps the process of atonement provides a more solid foundation for purposive change – or perhaps it works for a while and then trickles away. 


In Ann's reading from Isaiah a few minutes ago we heard the call for us to give up our sinful ways, and that God freely forgives.  It seems also to be a passage that acknowledges our human simplicity in the bigger, spiritual picture: 'For my plans are not your plans,/ Nor are My ways your ways – declares the Lord' (Isaiah 55: 8). It's tempting to feel a sense of despair with this concept – how on earth are mere mortals meant to understand God's plans and ways when so much mystery is attached to them?  Or is that the point: might it be an invitation to try to renew ourselves as best we can, as authentically as we can?


Martin Buber – the great Austrian Jewish philosopher – is perhaps most famous for his concept of I-You and I-It relationships. I struggle to get my head round Buber's work, but in essence he considers I-You (or I-Thou) interactions to be key: we can have an I-You relationship with God, and also – significantly - with each other.  Buber also suggests that any interaction between ourselves and another person includes God, if we are open to that potential, and – who knows - perhaps even if we're not. I'm sure I'm not alone in finding the concept of communing and learning with each other far easier to contemplate than a more direct I-You relationship with God. We can bounce ideas off each other; share in the mystery and beauty of the Siddur; and share the journey, even though we may have different ideas about where we might be heading, and different sets of luggage.


With these thoughts in mind, I noticed on Friday that this opportunity to know and encounter God is very much at the heart of the Sh'ma: 'Sh'ma Yisra'el, Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad'. We're familiar with the Hebrew and its translation - 'Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One', and we know also that it is considered so significant we should write it on our hand, and on the doorposts of our home. And it's the opening phrase, 'Sh'ma Yisra'el' that seems especially poignant in this context, for we the people are 'Israel', collectively as well as individually: a community over time and space, as well as here in Willerby. And to go back to Buber very briefly, it's this sense of community – the You - that nourishes and sustains the I that is me. 


So thank you for being so welcoming – which reminds me, I heard about a man who recently visited a less-welcoming Shul with his dog. The caretaker comes up to him and says, "Pardon me sir, but this is a House of Worship, you can't bring your dog in here!"

"What do you mean?" says the man. "This is a Jewish dog. Look." The caretaker looks carefully and sees that in the same way that a St. Bernard carries a brandy barrel around its neck, this dog has a tallit bag around its neck.


"Rover," says the man, "kippa!" "Woof!" says the dog, stands on his hind legs, opens the tallit bag, takes out a kippa and puts it on his head. "Rover," says the man, "tallit!" "Woof!" says the dog, stands on his hind legs, opens the tallit bag, takes out a tallit and puts it around his neck.


"Rover," says the man, "Siddur!" "Woof!" says the dog, stands on his hind legs, opens the tallit bag, takes out a prayer book and starts to pray. "That's fantastic," says the caretaker, "absolutely incredible! You should take him to Hollywood. Get him on television, get him in the movies, he could make you millions!!


"You talk to him," says the man, "he wants to be a doctor."


Shanah Tovah Umetukah.


Kol Nidre


Thank you for allowing me to talk to you. I've never spoken in front of anyone like this before. So it's an interesting perspective seeing you all from up here, on the Bimah.


So just like new things, I guess that these High Holy days are just like starting anew again, as we think about our past sins and start looking ahead. I've read that we are in a period of repentance and self-reflection and that these High Holy Day Services are to lead us to a deeper understanding of our lives, a deeper understanding of our deeds and a deeper understanding of our spiritual needs to progress forward in our lives.


I think that it's an interesting concept that if we compare the Jewish New Year to the secular version of New Year on January 1st. The secular New Year's Day appears to be so self-seeking and all about personal desires and needs that it has little focus on spiritual needs. Unlike the Jewish New Year, when we are sorry for our sins and bad deeds and look forward with a deeper spiritual understanding to the upcoming twelve months.


Kol Nidre comes from the Aramaic and literally means "All vows".


There is some uncertainty on where Kol Nidre actually started. The popular version connects the wording of the prayer with the religious dilemma facing medieval Spanish Jews. In 15th-century Spain, at the height of the infamous Inquisition, the Roman Catholic Church embarked on a determined hunt to seek out and punish, i.e. kill, all non-practicing Christians. In response, a sizable number of Jews chose to convert to Christianity in order to avoid death. For a small number, their religious conversion was genuine; but for the majority, their "conversion" was in name only. The Kol Nidre prayer, according to this theory, was created in response to these Jews' desire to nullify their vows of conversion. We can see the potential validity of this historical claim in the Reform machzor's translation of the first part of the Kol Nidre prayer:


"May we be absolved of all the vows and obligations we make to God in vain, from this Yom Kippur to the next – may it come to us for good; the duties and the promises we cannot keep, the commitments and undertakings which should never have been made."

So on this day, I would like to think about those Spanish Jews living their secret Jewish life and, when Yom Kippur approached, how did they feel about their own sins, deeds and desires for a spiritual understanding in the times they lived, compared to ours.


During the High Holy days, we read, as a community, the Torah, the Prophets and the rest of the stories to help us reflect upon this great gift God has given us, our life. It is, however, the responsibility of each one of us to use these Readings to go through our own individual journey to reflect how they can impact on our lives for the better. Times change, but the meaning stays the same on these High Holy Days, as we pass through them. Thank God for the freedoms we have right now to practice our religion and be thankful for the freedoms before us. I would like to end on this verse taken from Leviticus 16, verses 29-31:


"This shall be as an eternal statute for you; in the seventh month, on the tenth of the month, you shall afflict yourselves, and you shall not do any work neither the native nor the stranger who dwells among you. For on this day God shall effect atonement for you to cleanse you. Before God, you shall be cleansed from all your sins. It is a Shabbat of rest for you, and you shall afflict yourselves. It is an eternal statute."


Thank you for listening and well over the fast.


Yom Kippur


Thank you so much for inviting me to give the Yom Kippur sermon this year.


In Judaism we are often called to remember. Zakar. As someone converting to Judaism, I cannot look back and recall Yom Kippur growing up. I have no memories of hoping my name would be written in the book of life. The chance to speak about this day with you all has therefore been a deeply moving education for me.


Yom Kippur defies generalisation. The juxtaposition between the personal and the communal. The solemn darkness and the hallowed white. Knowing we are at once made in God's image and the soil of the earth. An impossible assertion, somehow reconciled by the American writer Ariel Dorfman: "Ash they will be, but filled with meaning. Dust they will be, but dust in love". As I convert, I have had a growing sense of the vast complexity of this single day. Quizzing my partner Micha about Yom Kippur, I realised it should resonate very particularly for me in one way, for him in another and for us both to be right. Of course it is hard to articulate.


On Yom Kippur we come together. We fast, pray and atone. Even though I did not do so as a child, it feels like briefly joining something timeless. As Charles Reznikoff reflects "how good to stop and look out upon eternity a while". Yet the Day of Atonement was once very different. Picture it now, we are outside the Temple precincts, waiting. The Temple will have been purified and sacrifices made. Then the High Priest, draped in cloths of heavy white, comes out. He has left the sacred space. He has finished confessing on our behalf. As I understand it, following the destruction of the Second Temple, the responsibility to atone for our own sins became devolved and democratised - not for the Priest or the Rabbi to confess on our behalf - culminating in the Yom Kippur we know today. We are each directly responsible for our own moral life. 


Understanding the transformation of this day, from something done for us by a Priest, to something each of us does on our own behalf, helped me recognise an important teaching as I embark on being Jewish. Honest responsibility is uncomfortable, but it helps us to grow. It isn't easy. I work as  an NHS manager and the temptation is often there for me and other colleagues to send out corrections and apologies from a nameless email account.

I regularly resort to fury at the Government, at companies, at their failure to fix climate change or homelessness. By contrast, today we bear our vulnerability, open to an uncomfortable admission that we have fallen short. 


The research professor Brene Brown believes "there is a profound difference between shame and guilt… guilt is adaptive and helpful… [By contrast] shame (is) the intensely painful feeling of believing we are unworthy of love." Being here with you all, reflecting on my failures, it makes me feel brave. I can stand here and confess; I admit to raging at my dog Levi when he recently destroyed all our pillows or lying to strangers that "yeah he's only 6 months' old" as I try and drag him away from another dog he is terrorising. I can admit to wasting a whole hour online shopping for an appropriate white dress for this occasion when I should have been writing. I admit to the subsequent two hours I wasted organising a return after someone declared the dress made me look like "an ugly bride".


As Rabbi Sacks so eloquently puts it: "[h]ow do we bear to reckon with ourselves, our actions, our short comings? By doing it with others, only then we can truly confront ourselves"


Discomfort helps us grow, being together makes us stronger and celebrating our potential ahead sustains us. This is familiar to me. I was brought up to believe I could make a difference. Environmental campaigning, social justice and compassion were baked into my childhood on family walks, eco marches and laughter round the dinner table. At ten, these concepts felt serious but wondrous and magical too. Hull's very own Phillip Larkin cheerfully proclaimed "Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf."


Each year Yom Kippur tells us different story. It is not misery we are handing down, but responsibility, layering sediment upon sediment of hope and wonder upon which we stand. As I said, it is celebrating our potential which sustains us. Our very own Shul knows this. The simple and powerful command inscribed above our ark?  


"Ivdu  et  Adonai b' simchah!"  

(Serve God with joy). 


The more I learn about Yom Kippur the more I remember.






All contributions are accepted on the understanding that the authors are responsible for the opinions expressed which do not necessarily reflect the views of the Hull Reform Synagogue.










Ne've Shalom
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