Sermon for Shabbat R’eih, 11th August 2018
You may be relieved that I’m not going to blow the shofar, as is traditional to mark the beginning of the month of Elul – and not only because Elul doesn’t start til tonight, though some parts of Judaism celebrate 2 days of Rosh Chodesh when a Jewish month lasts 30 days, so celebrate Rosh Chodesh Elul today and tomorrow.
To return from that digression: Were I to try to blow the shofar, you’d either feel sympathetic or collapse in giggles at my amateurish attempt to blow a recognisable note. The fact that all three of our Leeds grandchildren can blow the shofar with aplomb is neither here nor there.
So what is it about the shofar’s wake-up calls that make Elul the month marked as it is, the month immediately preceding Tishri, our High Holydays, Sukkot and Simchat Torah? Is it just symbolic, a time to bake honey cake moment (or month), or is there more to it? We just have to think about our physical and mental reactions when there’s a piercing and unexpected sound. Do you jump, too? Does your heart start to race? Are you on the alert, in fight or flight mode? As Rabbi Sara Y. Sapadin says in today’s study passage:
‘Elul is set aside as a time for reflection and renewal, a space to ready the mind and prepare the heart for the New Year to come. We call this process cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul.’
Then there are the Elul customs:
1. Blowing the shofar, as already mentioned;
2. Saying the special selichot prayers;
3. Visiting loved ones' graves: time for what our family terms, rather flippantly, as the ‘cemetery crawl’ – a very emotional and poignant time;
4. Reading Psalm 27, which begins:
Adonai is my Light and my Help;
whom will I fear?
Adonai is the Strength of my life;
who can make me afraid?
5. Reflecting; thinking about our past year and what we feel we have done well, or badly.
Elul speaks to honesty, to decency, to reflecting. Today’s parasha, with its mention of tithing, speaks to fairness; our High Holyday Appeal to looking after the most vulnerable; to justice.
Speaking of justice leads me to think about the consequences of our words and actions. Boris Johnson, referring this week in a long piece to women wearing burkhas, said they looked like ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bank robbers’. By using such inflammatory language, he’s detracted from the whole point of his article – or maybe that was the point: to inflame passions; to cause controversy, as he so often does. Is there a lesson for us here, as we embark on Elul and prepare for the High Holydays? The first sentence of the final paragraph of the Amidah, which we read silently, says: ‘My God, keep my tongue from causing harm and my lips from telling lies.’ Only a day after Johnson’s article I read about a woman wearing a burka being urinated on. Words have consequences. They can be used for good or for harm. It is well documented that there has been an increase in hate crime over the past two years, even before the assassination of the MP Jo Cox. What is our responsibility as individuals to challenge voices and actions of hate? How do we stand up to be counted, as we hope others will stand up for us?
There is a wonderful story about lashan hara, the evil tongue. Briefly, someone spreads gossip, then realises that what they’ve said is untrue. They want to atone, to apologise, so go to the rabbi for advice. The rabbi says they should tear a feather pillow and let the feathers fly free. This is done; the gossip returns to the rabbi. ‘Now collect all the feathers,’ says the rabbi. ‘I can’t!’ protests the gossip. ‘It’s impossible!’ ‘Precisely,’ comes the response. ‘That’s how it is with gossip – you never know where it will land.’
That’s how it is with our words – we never know where they will end up.
As Adam Overlander-Kaye wrote:
‘The High Holydays bring us this wonderful moment for forgiveness and to start afresh, as new, but with the benefit of hindsight and wisdom to approach a new year and behave in a different way.’
And, finally, two more quotes:
‘Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.’
(Deuteronomy 16, 20)
and from Plato: ’Justice in the life and conduct of the State is possible only as first it resides in the hearts and souls of the citizens.’
Val Mogendorff, for Shabbat R’eih, 11th August 2018
If you would like to read more of Rabbi Sara Y. Sapadin, go to https://reformjudaism.org/blog/blog-author/rabbi-sara-y-sapadin
For Adam Overlander-Kaye go to https://limmud.org/publications/limmudononeleg/5767/noach/ . He has written several other commentaries.