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



Shabbat 6th August was Student Rabbi Eleanor Davis's final Service at Ne've Shalom. Over the past year that she has led our monthly Services, she has presented many sermons, all of them extremely interesting and relevant to the Torah portion of the week. As a leaving present, Eleanor has allowed me to publish her last Erev Shabbat sermon.

While today (Shabbat) is actually the 9th of Av and so the fast is postponed until tomorrow night, a few hints of Tisha B'Av will still sneak into this Shabbat: one of those is a connection between Megillat Eichah, the Book of Lamentations, which we read on Tisha B'Av, and Parashat D'varim. In chapter 1 of D'varim/Deuteronomy, Moses talks of the burden he carries as leader of the people, who are great both in numbers and in their ability to cause trouble: twice within three verses he says that the Israelites are just too much for him to bear by himself. The second time, he uses wording that echoes Megillat Eichah: "Eichah essa l'vadi torchachem umasa'achem v'riv'chem - How can I possibly bear alone all the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering!" (Deuteronomy 1:12).

That starting word, and a thematic connection we'll hear in a moment, have led to a unique practice when reading from the Torah scroll on the Shabbat immediately before Tisha B'Av: this verse is traditionally chanted to the special haunting cantillation used for Eichah/Lamentations on Tisha B'Av, with other verses around it chanted using the regular Shabbat cantillation, so you have both a linguistic and a musical hint creeping into our Torah reading.

As for the Eichah/Lamentations verse that this is echoing… The opening verse of the whole megillah begins: "Eichah yoshvah vadad ha'ir rabati am - How is it possible that the city, once great with people, now sits so totally alone?" (Lamentations 1:1). This is how we first learn about the city, which will prove to be Jerusalem, often poetically personified as a woman, and the utter ruin it has suffered. "Eichah?" asks the lamenter, just as Moses did: 'how is it possible' to be in this situation, characterised by the city and its inhabitants feeling totally broken and alone, without anyone to help them begin to mend? The physical destruction and the abandonment are both part of the trauma recorded in Megillat Eichah, the Book of Lamentations – in some ways, an ancient collection of war poetry.

Eichah is a book in five chapters, all of them laments over the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE after a long and bitter siege. Each chapter is either an alphabetical acrostic, a triple alphabetical acrostic, or the same number of verses as an alphabetical acrostic, which helps to emphasise the totality of the devastation, from A to Z. The lamentations are deep, personal, and often graphic in their descriptions of the violence and suffering; sometimes they uncomfortably blame the people's own actions for the calamity, and sometimes they even despair of G-d, feeling utterly abandoned to a senseless fate. Like much war poetry of later eras, the beauty of its composition doesn't hide the fact that Eichah expresses the soul-wrenching human impact of war.

Nearly two millennia after Jerusalem's first major catastrophic destruction, the First World War brought destruction on an even larger scale (not only to the Jews). In those years of carnage, there was a steady stream of devastated men returning from the front: we now often think of the huge psychological impact, but at the time just dealing with the physical injuries was challenge enough. Man after man came away with broken limbs strapped to wooden splints, lashed on with whatever they had managed to find in the way of bandages.

Like many other women, Anne Acheson (born 5th August 1882) had volunteered to serve in a supporting role, in her case for the Surgical Requisites Association, which grew out of a women's needlework guild wishing to help supply medical dressings. Anne and her colleague Elinor Hallé (daughter of the founder of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester) had skills beyond needlework: they were both sculptors. So when they saw so many rather rickety supports holding broken limbs in place, they wondered: thinking about the plaster of Paris that they used for art, could they make a plaster cast that would actually reflect the real shape of the limb? It turned out that they could, and they did: they made casts, reinforced them with papier mâché, then put them back over the limbs while they healed. Their innovation proved successful: better protected and better supported while the bones knitted, the limbs healed back closer to their original state.

These two women were separately recognised as successful sculptors, but perhaps their greatest creative work was inventing the plaster cast that has had a few tweaks but is still recognisable as what we use today for broken bones. Today we quite rightly wouldn't expect anyone with a broken leg just to hobble around on it untreated, with the bones knitting at odd angles: we would expect that leg to be in a cast for at least part of the weeks or months that bones need to heal. For more minor breaks and fractures, we now have less obtrusive ways to provide appropriate protection and support, but still we know that just leaving an injury completely alone can mean slower healing and/or unhealthy bone alignment.

We know it about our bones, but when it comes to other injuries, especially emotional injuries, we sometimes forget that the right support might help us to heal better; it might even help us handle our load before anything breaks. The right support will look different for each person and at different times: just as you wouldn't put a full plaster cast on a minor toe fracture, so we might not need full-on therapy for a minor fracture in our lives. Sometimes knowing a friend is at the end of a phone is all you need; sometimes it takes a whole network of professionals to get you back on your feet. But in any case, unless you actively want the solitude, there is no need to do it alone.

Both Moses and Lamentations cry out, "Eicha – how is it possible to bear this alone?" Their question is rhetorical, but it does call us to consider: what can we not bear alone? and where do we need something a little better than a rickety splint holding us together? While Lamentations is a text of tragedy, in which the personified city is doomed to dwell alone in ruins, Deuteronomy offers us a more hopeful example.

Moses's cry precedes the appointment of judges, who will help him to carry responsibility for the people, enabling him to go on for decades more: Moses reminds us that to feel unable to do it alone is not a failure, but to create an opportunity for other people to step forward, taking on responsibility themselves or using their creativity to help us heal enough to continue. Whenever we feel broken, overwhelmed or alone, may all our cries be answered like Moses's, and may we too find the support we need to continue, in health and with strength, for many more years to come.


Ne've Shalom
Great Gutter Lane
HU10 6DP



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