Parashat Ha’azinu 5778 / Shabbat Shuvah (On Sin, Singing and Redemption)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

There sure is a lot a of singing at this time of year! Between the choral extravaganzas of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we read a song that Moses himself sung, Shirat Haazinu. Reading much like some of the prophets who come later, Haazinu depicts “Israel as a perfidious child” in Jeffrey Tigay’s words (JPS Commentary, 510), who disobeys God, is punished, but finally attains redemption.

Songs, of course, are not uncommon in the Bible. The Midrash on the account of crossing the Red Sea informs us that there are ten songs that “the Israelites sang to God.” (Tanhuma Beshallah 10) Though there are plenty more instances of singing in the narratives of the Tenakh, and many, many more songs when you consider even just the 150 chapters in the book of Psalms, the Midrash chose ten of particular significance, and Ha’azinu is amongst them. Continue reading


Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5777 (On the Akedah, the shofar, and teshuvah)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

Today, on the Day of Judgment, we see ourselves as standing in a tenuous situation. As our past deeds are evaluated—by us and by God—will we be written into the book of life, or won’t we? And, today, at the start of the New Year, we celebrate God’s coronation and prepare for a new beginning, for a world where God’s reign is manifest. These two stances are somewhat at odds we look back at the year that has ended and consider our lives to be hanging in the balance, whilst  also committing to improve our lives in the coming year. But they also reinforce the same central theme of this period: teshuvah—turning away from a flawed past and towards a better future.

There is perhaps no better model for this paradox than the account we are about to read: that of Akedat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac, a story that has to be read in two seemingly contradictory ways at once. And also a story that, like Rosh Hashanah, contains for us an existential concern. Continue reading

First Day Rosh Hashana 5773 (on Hagar and Hannah, and making teshuva from where we are)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

If you have a strong sense of guilt, and if the caricature has any foundation in reality, many Jews do, there can be a peculiar dilemma during this time of year: either we experience guilt about our personal failings, or, we experience guilt at our failure to experience guilt about our personal failings!

However much the liturgical additions, rabbinic texts and blasts of the shofar may tell us that this is the time to make teshuva, real changes in ourselves, it rarely feels like the right time. Only at a very few moments in our lives do we realise that we are in just the right place to reflect, decide and enact the decision to change.

But what is “just the right place”? In a few minutes, we’ll read about some women in very different places in their lives, and see what we can learn from their stories. Continue reading

First Day of Pesah (Shabbat) 5772 (on freedom and noble freedom)

Shabbat shalom, chag sameah

Shopping on the internet should be fantastic. There’s more choice than could ever be available in a mall or on Fifth Avenue; we can read reviews of every product; and sellers can cater to a very particular consumer base, even though they may be scattered across the globe.  Even so, although I will neither confirm nor deny it, it has been alleged that I once spent several hours combing the web for the perfect pair of gloves, and then bought the first ones that I had seen.

This is known as “decision paralysis”. Aesop’s fables already told of the Fox and the Cat, where the fox boasted of the number of escape methods he had at his disposal, compared to the cat’s one. And of course when the hounds came along, while the cat looked down from the tree it had climbed, the fox took so long deciding what to do that he was eaten. Recent studies among consumers buying products have confirmed that the more choices one has, the more likely one is to give up on the endeavor at all, or to make a poor choice. This second result was also found, scarily, amongst doctors: a wider choice of treatment options resulted in less appropriate decisions. (see

Yet the freedom to choose is exalted in our society. From religious diversity to the number of brands of yogurt on the shelf, the freedom to choose for yourself was the rallying cry of American society against the Soviet model of one approach for all.

And Pesach is the holiday of freedom.

Or is it? The Torah’s standard word for the freedom that a slave has when released from its master’s authority is חופשי – free. But this term is never employed with respect to Israel’s state on leaving Egypt.

The Torah instead recounts God’s instruction to Pharaoh: send forth my people that they may serve me. Serve. Avad. The same word as “eved”. Slave.

This is one reading of the complaint of the wicked child in the haggada: He asks “what is all this service – avoda” to you? The British Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, characterises the perspective as: “The only difference is change of master… That is a distinction without a difference. …” (Covenant & Conversation: Exodus, 86) Slavery is slavery. There has been no significant redemption if we have only transistioned from following Pharaoh’s orders to following God’s orders.

Some see the attitude of the wicked child who questions the meaning of freedom if we continue to observe mizvot reflected in the line of Hatikva “am chofshi be’artzenu” – “a people free in our land”. They understand the word “chofesh” to be explicitly secular. Chofesh is the absolute freedom of an enlightened nation,  who have thrown off the yoke of religion. There are frum Israelis who go as far as substituting the the word “chofshi” for “dati” – religious, to distance themselves from the idea that the ideal Israeli Jew is one who is free from both political oppression and religious obligation. (ref)

The radical freedom that some secular Zionists, as well as many others, strive for is a tricky concept though. 19th Century political philosopher John Stewart Mill’s great essay “On Liberty” lays out a vision of society founded on the principle of individual freedom – but still permits the law to regulate “social acts” – if our actions intrude on other people’s lives, we should not necessarily have the freedom to do as we wish.  His examples of these acceptable regulations include the sometimes-controversial laws around Sunday closing laws and taxation. Taking this principle to its extreme, few acts are entirely free from social consequences other than those which take place entirely inside your own head! Where then will regulation end and freedom begin?

Everyone wants freedom in principle, but defining its parameters and ensuring a safe and livable society for all is tricky, though many philosophers have tried. Bertrand Russell mocked one of these theories of freedom  – Hegel’s – as “freedom to obey the police”. Russell was, in effect, making the same critique that the wicked child made of combining freedom with mitzvah – what good is freedom, if it is only to follow orders?

If we turn back to the Tenakh, we do not see that once the Exodus was completed and the people settled the Land of Israel, that they lived in a utopian state with the perfect mix of religion, freedom, and social regulation. By the end of the book of Judges, a time of relative anarchy, there has been a brutal civil war, and the refrain has become:

 בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם אֵין מֶלֶךְ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל אִישׁ הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו יַעֲשֶׂה

In those days there was no King in Israel, and each person did what was right in their own eyes. (Judges 17:6, 21:25; cf. 18:1, 19:1)

When, in response to this chaos, the people do ask for a King, that is seen as a rejection of God, the ultimate King. As we read on, we discover that most of the kings are, through the eyes of the Tenakh at least, bad. Among the few “good” Kings, David misuses his military power to steal another man’s wife, and Solomon imposes burdensome taxes, enraging half the Kingdom so much that it secedes after his death.

The Bible certainly fails to clearly lay out a model for the ideal society based on freedom.

A society based on freedom may not even make any sense, if we consider that almost any freedom can be understood as impeding another freedom. For example, the freedom from gun violence is an affront to the freedom to bear arms – and vice versa.

Freedom alone, therefore, will not help us attain a better life or a better society. We need something more. If God had only freed us, would it really have been enough?

Just as the Torah does not refer to leaving Egypt as “hofesh”, so too rabbinic sources use a different word, with, perhaps, a significantly different meaning. The mishnah, repeated in the haggada and reflected in our liturgy for pesah, use a different word as the counterpart to slavery: me’avdut le … herut.

The term herut does not appear in the Bible at all. Other forms of the same word, such as “horin”, do appear a few times in chronologically later books of the Tenakh, but “benay horin” are not just free people; they are nobles.

To be a noble, you do need to be free. In certain societies, such as amongst the cavaliers of colonial Virginia, considered freedom from labour to be so intimately associated with nobility that some even underwent some hardship so as to avoid having to earn a living, which, would, despite giving them the resources to live a more comfortable life, de facto lower their status. (Fischer, Albion’s Seed, “The South of England to Virginia”)

Just being free – even from having to work at all – does not automatically make you noble. It is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one. We still need a fuller description of what makes a life of herut.

The rabbinic tradition has a predictable solution. In pirke avot, we find a midrash that tells us to understand the description of the tablets, not as harut – being engraved, but as “herut”, teaching us that only one who is engaged with the Torah is a “ben horin” – which I would now translate as nobly free. (Avot 6:2)

Once one has the hofesh – pure freedom to choose, one must, according to this text, choose the Torah and God’s commands in order to be raised up to the state of herut – noble freedom. This is all very well, but presents a very exclusivist perspective: we cannot be truly noble unless we spend our time studying Torah? How much time? How much do we have to understand? What about non-Jews?

I would never want to discourage the study of Torah, but this doesn’t seem to fit an understanding of herut as an aspiration for all. Furthermore, we already have a holiday for receiving, accepting, and studying Torah. Zman matan toratenu – the time of the giving of the Torah is Shavuot; zman herutenu can’t be exactly the same thing!

In Deuteronomy (30:19), Moshe implores the Israelites who are about to enter the Land without him: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse: uvaharta bahayim! choose life! The Israelites’ hofesh is guaranteed, for the moment at least. They will be “am hofshi be’artzenu” – a nation free in our land – but will they continue to be benei horin – nobly free – without Moshe’s leadership? They have the freedom to choose – Moshe is reminding them to choose well.

Moshe makes it sound easy: choose life. duh. And the following verse explains how to do it:
לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקֹלוֹ וּלְדָבְקָה-בוֹ: Love God, listen to God’s voice, and hold fast to God. Working out what that consists of is less easy.

In our lives, we can confidently say that in terms of absolute freedom of choice, we are richer than ever. At pesah, though, zman herutenu, we need to consider how to best use that freedom, how to become nobly free. This is where, if we are not careful, decision paralysis can kick in. We can put off the decision for “later”. We can say: I don’t need to decide what my life’s priorities are, after all, I can do anything I want. I’m not going to choose an approach to religion, or politics, or business, because this is America, and all the options are open to me.

Even if we grant that one clear way to make our free choice and achieve noble freedom is through choosing Torah, we proudly affirm that there are seventy faces to the Torah, and these sometimes conflict. Decisions must still be made, and no-one is going to make them for us.

The more hofesh we have, the greater the potential for herut, but the harder it can be to find it.

Those of us privileged to spend Pesah at this retreat, sometimes reflect that we are granted the freedom that the holiday emphasises. We take the week off work; we don’t cook or clean; we are free from our everyday concerns. But that is a description of hofesh. This pesah, may we use the hofesh we have here at Ramah, to make some decisions that we have left in paralysis, and, through making these choices wisely, may God bring us into herut.

Shabbat shalom, hag sameach.

Rosh Hashana 5772 (on the value of a shared day of judgement)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

Every Rosh Hashana, I come to the first night of services and am surprised at the brevity of the liturgy. We always remember Rosh hashana and yom kippur for their lengthy amidahs and countless piyutim, but tonight, despite the shaliah tzibur’s best efforts to get us into the sounds and emotions of the high holidays, it’s almost as short and unremarkable as any erev yomtov service. I’m starting to wonder why there are so many people here and why I even put on a suit and tie.

One of the few new additions are the lines we will be inserting into the first two and last two blessings of the amida throughout the aseret yemai teshuva, up until the last amida of yom kippur. These all make reference to being written up for life in God’s book – kotvenu basefer hahayim – write us in the book of life, zokher yetzurav lehayim – God who remembers all creations for life, and so on.

This is without doubt one of the key images of the period, God judging us and deciding who is worthy and who is not. Rosh Hashana is Yom haDin, the day of judgement.

This key motif is described in the second mishna of Rosha Hashana. Among the times when the world is judged, Rosh Hashana is identified as the day that:

בראש השנה, כל באי עולם עוברין לפניו כבני מרון

… all the inhabitants of the universe pass before God like troops. 

שנאמר: היוצר יחד ליבם המבין אל כל מעשיהם

As it says in psalms: God who created the heart of each of them, Who understands everything they do. (Mishna Rosh Hashana 1:2)

On Rosh Hashana, we are all soldiers parading before the general who will inspect us, and this commander is not just checking that our boots are shined and our berets are straight – that who we appear to be on the outside seems good, but, even our innermost secrets are on display before our Creator.

This annual inspection of all people does make it understandable that we are all here, why we feel compelled to come to services and put on our finest clothes and most serious demeanour, to join in the singing and put on the best show we can. But, the Mishna taught us that “all the inhabitants of the Universe pass before God” – seemingly whether or not we are ready! If we have not prepared, or aren’t in the right state of mind, how different will it really be? After all, this is an inspection of our character and deeds, not our fashion sense, our voices and our solemnity, and it is here regardless of our actions.

It is therefore curious that the Tosefta – a parallel text to the Mishna – puts this same line about God’s inspection of the troops together with the following midrash – which is based on one of this evening’s other new pieces of liturgy :

ואומר תקעו בחודש שופר וגו’ ואומר כי חק לישראל הוא  וגו’ אם קדשוהו ב”ד הדין נכנס לפניו ואם לאו אין הדין נכנס לפניו

Psalms also says: blow the the shofar on the new moon, etc. because it is a statute for Israel and a law for the God of Jacob. [This is interpreted to teach us that] if an earthly (see BT Rosh Hashana 8b) court sanctify the holiday, the Judgement is brought before God, and if they don’t, the Judgement is not brought before God. (Tosefta Rosh Hashana (Leiberman) 1:11)

So, in contrast with the image we saw before, we learn that this inspection, the whole institution of Yom haDin cannot go ahead unless we who are being judged are ready for it. The Judgement will not even come before God without the consent of the Bet Din here on Earth.

Though the Tosefta frames it on a national level – if the Sanhedrin does not set the calendar, then the Judgement is not brought before God – we can also see this in an individual light: unless each of us has accepted that this is the watershed, that this is the opportunity we have to consider who we are and who we might be – this day will have no significance for us. Even if we turn up at services and put on a good show, unless we have internalised this is the time of year to take notice of who we are and decide how to improve ourseleves, it will be meaningless.

That seems fair enough: Why remark on God’s judgement if we are not going to do anything about it!? But if it depends on us, why do we need a day on the calendar?! Is God just too busy the rest of the year? Surely we could expect God to judge us once we have prepared ourselves appropriately, whenever that might be. And we would not be without support in the tradition for this: in a Mishnaic-era comment in the Talmud, Rabbi Yosi claims that “people are judged [by God] every day”, and Rabbi Natan argues that “people are judged at every moment”. (BT Rosh Hashana 16a) So if God is ready whenever we are, as long as we remember to prepare ourselves for judgement every now and again, we may as well ditch Rosh Hashana.

Luckily, there is some further guidance in our mahzor. The other addition to the amidah that continues throughout the yamim noraim is substituting “hael hakadosh” (the Holy God) with “hamelekh hakadosh” (The holy Sovereign). This is the only addition for the amidah of the ten days of repentance, for which, if we realise that we forgot to say it, we are meant to go back to the beginning and start again. Rabbi Shmuel Lewis, Rosh Yeshiva of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, understands this as indicating a crucial imperative of this season. HaEl Hakadosh is, he says, the most distant epithet for God – “El” is the transcendent counterpart to “yud-hey-vav-hey” – which is typically the immanent side of God, who speaks personally to our ancestors. Kadosh, holy, has a core meaning of “set apart”. HaEl haKadosh, therefore, refers to a far-away God, on-high, who has no direct influence on our world below. In contrast to this, at this time of the year, call God “melekh”. A king or queen is one whose reign is applied, whose laws and proclamations are obeyed throughout the realm. Indeed, a monarch can only be a monarch by having loyal subjects.

Our task, then at this time of year is to confirm God’s role as Sovereign of the world – “melekh al kol haaretz” “Sovereign over all the earth”, says the kiddush ha-yom paragraph of our amidah. We have to improve ourselves at this time of year, but in doing so we must also bring the world closer to perfection – making it a place that can be acknowledged as God’s Kingdom. This theme of progressing towards a world where God is Sovereign by means of our actions is expanded upon in the lengthened third blessing of the amidah. Of particular note is the line:

ויעשו כולם אגודה אחת לעשות רצונך בלבב שלם

May everyone become one association, to do Your will with whole heart.

We need a day on the calendar for yom haDin, becasue it is not enough to work on correcting our own flaws. In order for God to be Sovereign, we must form “aguda ehat” one association and work towards a common end.

In Mishle, the book of proverbs, there is a proverb that later becomes a halakhic principle:

בְּרָב-עָם הַדְרַת-מֶלֶךְ

The king’s hadar (!) – splendour, is in the multitudinousness of people. (Proverbs 14:28)

The majesty that we associate with royalty is dependant upon, not merely individuals who give honour to the monarch, but an assembled body of people. God can only be Sovereign when we are making a coordinated communal effort to make this evident in the world.

So why are we here this evening, if there are no lengthy liturgical poems? We must be primed for improving ourselves in order for yom ha din to be a meaningful event, but by gathering here on the same day, and proclaiming the sovereignty of God, we are declaring that we will be united in our efforts to bring that improvement into the world.

This Rosh Hashana, may we all be prepared for Judgement, and work together to prepare the world so that it can be justly called God’s kingdom.

לשנה טובה ומתוקה תכתבו

May we and all the world be granted a good and sweet year.