D'var Torah, Matot 5780/Sat 18th July 2020

by Rabbi Leah Jordan

The writing is the opinion of the author and does not necessarly reflect that of Kehillah North London.

There’s no escaping that we live in unusual times. 

Originally, this morning’s service in our community was meant to be a Bat Mitzvah. One of our young people, Eleanor, who has worked incredibly hard on this week’s Torah portion, had been preparing to get up before all of us today and wow us with beautiful words of Torah. I’ve read her dvar torah and, believe me, it will wow you. 

And then the pandemic hit.

That is sadly the refrain of all of our lives right now. ‘We had a family holiday planned.’ And then the pandemic hit. ‘She had a new job.’ And then the pandemic hit. ‘They had a big wedding planned.’ And then the pandemic hit. ‘The schoolyear was going strong.’ And then the pandemic hit. For many thousands of people in the neighbourhoods we live in, as a member of our community recently reminded me, they had food to put on the table. And then the pandemic hit. We have all been affected, no matter who we are — the pandemic is a great leveller AND it is also the Great Revealer, of inequities and divides and broken systems that were bad before and now have buckled under the straing. There is a reason global uprisings demanding racial justice happened a few months into the pandemic. There is a reason there are more people than ever queuing at food banks in Hackney. AS the Jewish tradition teaches us, we live in a broken world. Our challenge now, as always, is — now that we can see more of what it is broken, as it has been revealed more rawly in this global period of suffering, what are we going to do?

WELL, one thing we can do may seem small but it is what we do when we are together in community every day — and we need it more than ever. We can be here for each other. And the songs and prayers and the ‘golden thread of [Jewish] tradition’, as one of our community members calls it, can be there for us. Kehillah North London is many things at once — a community centre, a place to learn, for people of all ages, adult and young, a community that works for social justice, a place to socialise — and at its heart, it is a Jewish community for all of us, Jewish and not, for all of us, in our beautiful differences and our commonalities, to come together and be comforted by what Jewish song and prayer and teaching has to give us. And to enrich each others’ lives by sharing in that.

Eleanor did not wow us with her Bat Mitzvah Torah reading today — but, thank god, she will! She is still hard at work preparing. And meanwhile, Rob leyned so beautifully today’s portion, which just so happens not only to be his old Bar Mitzvah portion but mine! The golden thread of meaning that connects more of us than we know

And  today’s portion is about Vows. 

And soon we will all gather together to recite Kol Nidrei, that most famous prayer about Vows, that we sing and say and hear strummed every Yom Kippur. And we will reflect on this past year — and what vows we kept and which ones we broke — and recommit to being better, kinder, gentler, more just human beings.

And then the pandemic hit. And Liberal Judaism, in consultation with Public Health England and Reform Judaism, have strongly advised us to carry out our high holiday services online. This recommendation has been made on the basis that all of our communities expect a higher attendance at the high holidays, that our venues are not adequately equipped for the sufficient physical distancing necessary, and that a significant proportion of our membership may be continuing to shield or avoid large gatherings of people due to themselves being at significant risk– or may be avoiding large gatherings due to concern about infecting those that they care for.  

And so we will be hearing the Kol Nidrei over Zoom. For many of us, hearing that we will not be gathering together physically for the High Holiday services is an especially painful ‘and then the pandemic hit’ moment. It is for me. The High Holidays, for many of us, is a highlight of the year — and for many of our community members it is the time we see them the most!

So much will be different this year. And that is a hard pill to swallow. I, as rabbi, and the Management Committee, who are making these decisions together, want you to know why we are making the choices we are making for our collective safety, having weighed up the risks, and in advisement with our umbrella movement and public health. The decision to carry out our High Holiday services online has not been an easy one.  For many of us, our sense of spirituality is rooted in being around others in our community, and while we now know that online services can be meaningful and uplifting, most of us are yearning to be able to participate in services in person, together, in the same space.  

We have therefore taken seriously the recommendation to build around outdoor activities, and there will therefore be opportunities over the High Holidays for us to be together in person: over Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. We are in the process of connecting all of us, the whole community, into smaller groups, with those community members we each live nearby, so that for those who want to and are able, there will be local, smaller gatherings in these geographic groups — for bits of the High Holiday season that can be more physical, especially outdoors and safely: Rosh Hashanah potluck lunches, shofar blowings, throwing our sins in a river or canal through the ritual of Tashlich. We will communicate, for instance, who in the community near you has a sukkah and is inviting community members to visit that sukkah during the week of Sukkot, to sit and eat and talk in. And we will livestream both the building of our community sukkah — and mine, the one at the Rabbi’s house — so you can see me the Rabbi stumbling around in my yearly humility exercise of putting up our little sukkah!!

And moving forward, we have already started the process of meeting with the staff at the Community Rooms to enable us to do the necessary risk assessments and to understand the adjustments that we will need to make for a safe return to in person services.  More information will be sent out about this– and we will build in time to process all of these changes together, as a community.  Please do be in touch with me or Rob as Chair or any member of the Management Committee with any concerns about all of this, pastoral or otherwise!

There’s a wonderful story that the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chadisism (the spiritual revival movement) teaches, about doing things differently on the High Holidays…. He says there once was a little boy, and this little boy was not much of a talker or a reader or a singer, but he loved to play the flute. He would play it all the time outdoors as he tended his sheep. And his father brought him to shul on Yom Kippur — a somber, serious day when, specifically, the playing of musical instruments was asur, forbidden, in traditional shuls in that part of the world — and the father saw the boy reach for the flute in his pocket, and the father put out his hand over his son’s pocket to stop him from taking out the flute and embarrassing them! But such was the boy’s desire to play it — he could not join in the traditional liturgy and song — that when his father was not looking again, the boy pulled it out and quicklky blew a long blast, in the middle of the Yom Kippur service! And the Baal Shem Tov, who tells this story, was there in the service, and when he heard the sound, the Baal Shem Tov shortened his own prayer, and he said: “With the sound of this flute this young person has lifted up all of our prayers and eased my own burden. This young person does not read the prayers in the traditional way, but because of the strength of his longing to communicate and to be part of the community and to join in prayer, he played that note from his heart truly, for the sole sake of the Name of God. And I know that it has been received by the Divine [or the Universe] in that spirit — and that in fact by this means all of our prayers were lifted up.”

This is an unusual and hard year. (A year of “And then the pandemic hit” for all of us.)  May it be the only year we have to pray on Zoom — and get together in smaller groups more locally during the High Holidays in order to be together. But like the boy’s flute, may this difference in prayer teach us — that our longing to be together and to spiritually and emotionally communicate with each other and that which connects us all (and to support each other in this difficulty), may that longing, in its difference this year, on Zoom, in small parks together, lift up all our prayers even more meaningfully.

Shabbat Shalom.