> The Hull Reform Synagogue - Ne've Shalom
The Hull Reform Synagogue - Ne've Shalom



For those who were unable to attend the Kol Nidre Service, we have re-produced the sermon which was delivered by Jackie Lukes in her own inimitable style.

"Happy are we! How good is our portion! How fine our destiny! How beautiful our heritage!"1

Part of that heritage, as well as tonight's mournful, mysterious and magical melody, is the Sayings of the Fathers, and one I like is "Put the best construction on every person's conduct".2

I can think of two examples. One was when a colleague was extremely keen to sell me his car which was only 3 years old and (he said) had nothing wrong. The price was low compared with what he'd paid for it brand-new, and I knew that he was someone full of integrity, so I immediately said yes; then I began to doubt my impulse, thinking what's really wrong with the car? Then I remembered 'put the best construction on every person's conduct' and realized that what he said about his habit of getting a new car every 3 years - it was as simple as that - was true; so I bought it. That was in 1991 and the car was perfect right up to last year (over 20 years) when I finally got a new one.

The other example is more recent. Khaled Sultan is a medical doctor, Syrian in origin, who has lived and worked here in the East Riding for decades, but for the last two years has gone back whenever he could to join 'Medecin Sans Frontieres' medical teams helping the Syrian refugees over the borders in Jordan and Turkey. He is currently Chair of Hull and East Riding Interfaith and agreed to tell a meeting about his agonizing experiences, painful as he feels passionately about the war and the torture cases (his specialty is post traumatic stress disorder) and the terrible suffering especially of children. After he'd described some of the unspeakable tortures, which gave him (let alone the victims) flashbacks and sleepless nights, he went on to ponder what could lead men to commit tortures like these - what lack of love in their childhood or family - and afterwards I thought: this illustrates the profound wisdom of 'Put the best construction on every person's conduct': he wasn't just condemning these monsters, he was trying to understand and to work out a way forward.

When Ian gave me the title of "Reflections" for tonight's sermon, I thought back to my own horrible experience in Hull Royal Infirmary last year and realized that I would feel a lot better about it if I could 'put the best construction on it' and find something good as an outcome, which I have now done. Two examples spring to mind, again a large and a small one, suggesting that the wisdom of this saying applies to events not just to people.

The large example is the Destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 AD or CE. Jerusalem was a magnificent city of palaces boulevards and courtyards with fountains (and even streets paved with marble according to Josephus the ancient historian3) and it was laid waste, razed to the ground along with the Temple that was the core and focus of pilgrimage and life - we can imagine how devastating it might seem now if e.g. London was hit, as New York was not that long ago. Just as the Book of Lamentations attributed to Jeremiah emerged from the first Temple's destruction in 586 BCE, so the second destruction led to Exile again and much more that was lamentable but also in the long run positively to the replacement of High Priests by the rabbis' two centuries of discourses debates and arguments and then by the internalization of teaching and learning in every one of us, an amazing democratization of spirit (hope I am not oversimplifying in the effort to be brief) - a miraculous heritage of ideas and fascination which can never be exhausted, in that it is too great for one lifetime. A well, like the widow's cruse4, that is never empty; "turn it this way and that, for everything is in it"5.

The small example is Eric, a 92 year old neighbour on Victoria Avenue in Hull. When pulling up some dandelions in his garden he severely wrenched his back and was taken to Hull Royal Infirmary. There he slipped on a polished floor and broke his ankle. The fall onto his ankle gave him some sort of mini heart attack, so they put in a heart pacemaker. When he eventually came home after his unexpectedly long stay, Eric said with genuine delight: "It's wonderful, I've got a pacemaker, I'd have had to wait months for this if it hadn't been for all the accidents!"

Tonight, on Kol Nidre, it seems appropriate to end with another part of the heritage, the "remarkable directness and intimacy which can characterize the attitude of even the most God-fearing Jew to the Almighty. He may offer his personal orations to God in a free-wheeling recitative that is richly garnished with complaints, irony, and critical questionings. Consider this lovely old story:

On the eve of Yom Kippur, that most solemn and sacred day, an old Jew looked up to heaven and sighed: 'Dear God, listen: I, Herschel the taylor, put it to You! The butcher in our village, Shepsel, is a good man, an honourable man, who never cheats anyone, and always gives full weight, and never turns away the needy; yet Shepsel himself is so poor that he and his wife sometimes go without meat!... Or take Fischel, our shoemaker, a model of piety and kindness - yet his beloved mother is dying in terrible pain.... And Reb Label, our m'lamed (teacher), who loves all the lads he teaches and is loved by all who know him - lives hand to mouth, hasn't a decent suit to his name, and just developed an eye disease that may leave him blind!... So, on this most holy night, I ask You directly, God: Is this fair? I repeat: Is this fair?... So tomorrow, O Lord, on our sacred Yom Kippur - if You forgive us, we will forgive You!'6"

1p.361 Forms of Prayer: vol III Prayers for the High Holydays 1990 Reform Synagogues of GB London

2p.703 Pirke Avot ch.1:6 Forms of Prayer: vol 1 Daily 8th ed 2008 Movement for Reform Judaism London

3pp.422-6 Flavius Josephus: Works, vol.VI War. Loeb 1926-43 London

4I Kings 17:8-16

5p.723 Pirke Avot ch.5:25 in Forms of Prayer vol 1, op.cit

6p.4 in L Rosten The Joys of Yiddish: a Lexicon 1968 Harcourt NY


Ne've Shalom
Great Gutter Lane
HU10 6DP



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