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Rabbi Benji's Sermon on Kol Nidre 2022

I draw hope from having actually apologised recently to Leah, my life partner,  for a way I sometimes behave that is regrettable. She was grateful for the apology - and said sorry for her part too in these moments - although when she then asked me, what made you think to apologize now?... she began to put together that I was in High Holy Day mode, thinking about what I should apologise for, and making sure I addressed it now, so as to seize this period of time and have integrity in talking to others…. She smilingly said something about my wanting to earn my mitzvah points. Still, though, she did appreciate it - and I think in previous years I’ve generally written down things I regret, without then actually sharing them with the person I’ve wronged. So I’m improving!

I draw hope from having said sorry. 

I want to invite us each to find strong, sustainable hope this Yom Kippur. Now is a time for hope- for what we call in hebrew, tikvah. Initially you may find it untenable, bizarre even, to see now as a time for hope because we are seeing painful difficulties, suffering and injustice - and can see some things getting worse. We fear that people in this country will increasingly suffer the rising cost of living. I also remember the shock, and near hopelessness of people in this community when Russia invaded Ukraine. Many of us had hoped we were living in brighter times, when war in Europe and the mass taking of, and upheaval of, lives were unthinkable. We are now aware, amongst other atrocities, of a mass burial site in Izium containing more than 400 unmarked graves including those of children. 

A time of hope may seem untenable but that is what now is and must be.

This hope is the climactic call of the psalm that is said from a month before Rosh Hashanah, and now, until Sukkot. Psalm 27 finishes with the psalmist declaring:

I have trusted, (heemanti), I have had faith to see the goodness of the Merciful in the land of the living. 

Kaveh El Hashem, Hope for the Merciful, be strong and fortify your heart, and then again, v’kaveh el Hashem, hope for the Merciful.

These lines call us to hope, and also give us a sense of the nature of the tikvah, of the hope we are called to. 

Hope is rooted in emunah, in a faith or an assertion that we do see goodness in this world, the goodness, for example, of people and their courage - and that this goodness is worth holding onto and building from. In Judaism this faith or trust is mutual. Almost the first words that some say when we wake up are Rabah Emunatecha - how faithful are you, God, in me, that you deem me worthy of waking up every morning, appreciating and working for the good in this land of living.

Hope for the Merciful, be strong and fortify your heart, and hope for the Merciful. This repeated call is mutual, both a call beyond us that this world must be better, that the Divine be more manifest, and a call to each of us to maintain hope. Our Rabbis have asked why is the call to hope repeated in this line? The answer comes that if one prays for something in the world, and it doesn’t come then we are to turn and call for it again- and again, and again. Now is the time: Kaveh, hope repeatedly, persistently, resiliently. Build your capacity for hope in the face of difficulty. “Hope is a function of struggle” emphasises researcher Brene Brown.

Now is a time for hope- despite external pain and worsening suffering. The final teaching about this day in the Rabbinic masterwork of the Mishna, 1800 years ago, also calls for hope, teaching us where we might find it. Rabbi Akiva declares that we should all be happy today for we can be purified and change directly before, what the prophet Jeremiah calls, Hashem Mikveh Yisrael,  The Eternal, that is the mikveh of Israel. Now Mikveh in that verse means both Hope - like tikvah - and the related word, mikveh, a little ritual bath, an ingathering of waters. We learn from this double meaning that today is for hope and for personal change, that hope comes from change - our own capacity to change and in an Eternal who in Their very Divine Essence calls for us to change ourselves and the world. The greatest hope and a small ritual bath are linguistically connected for they involve gathering - the Divine gathered the waters into sea, and we now gather our hopes, focusing disproportionately on the good, on the living sources of hope.

Kaveh El Hashem - Hope, over and over again - find hope in Mikveh Yisrael, in the hope of change. Find hope despite the state of the world. Find hope because of the state of the world. 

This hope is not an optimism that things will go well, it is an assertion that there are goods worth committing to. This invitation to build up your reservoirs of hope tonight and tomorrow, and over the years ahead to turn persistently to hope, this call is not unrealistic. We see that in the face of a darkening reality, hope is more needed - not less. Either of the oppositional alternatives to hope in the face of difficulty, a naive passive faith, or a cynicism, bring a resignation that the world can’t afford, and that this day screams out against. 

Ask yourself, what have you done that is brave? Or what has someone else done? Draw hope from that bravery and likely from that vulnerability. Find hope and its twin, faith, tikvah and emunah, in your memories, including the memories of what has gone before us. R Heschel, a refugee from Nazi persecution, explained that “Faith is loyalty to an inspiration  that has occurred to us: Jewish faith is a recollection of that which occurred to our ancestors, of that which happened to Israel in the past”.

There is hope in all of us gathering here again determined and open to do better. We find hope in how our ancestors came to the Temple in Jerusalem all seeking the Divine - declaring May The Great Divine Name Be Blessed forever- and all confessing that they had done wrong. Such moral fortitude and vulnerability - from High Priest to back row. We can draw faith from how our ancestors, once the Temple was destroyed continued to gather wherever they could, in the face of whatever suffering - and called out May the Great Name be Blessed, as we do always in the face of grief in the Kaddish, but with more strength this day. 

We must be active inheritors of a story of hope. Some of us felt close to hopelessness when Ukraine was invaded. I draw hope from how this community responded. Some of you are hosting Ukrainian refugees- and you provide inspiration to us. Jenni Kravitz, coordinating efforts to match refugees across synagogues wrote saying: “Thank you. By far the most helpful community has been the congregation of Westminster Synagogue. A number of lovely homes have been offered so far. We have found sponsors for two single ladies and two mothers each with a young child. The willingness not only to offer accommodation but to help the guests to become integrated into the community and help them with registering for the various benefit services and schools is overwhelming”. 

This matters. This offers hope - and tell me if you want to host, more of this is still needed. One worries that our good acts will be drowned in this world, but these acts make a difference, and we can make them the flowing sources of our hope. On this day as we seek closeness with the good in the world, and our better selves, we draw hope from the generosity of this community- and look each to be more generous, fuller hearted. 

Have Hope. Kaveh, Kaveh, Hope, hope. Find hope in Mikveh Yisrael, all the changes you have seen determined by you, your ancestors, those near you, called for by the Divine- find hope even in the small things, the determined vulnerability to say sorry, and the desire to change (even if we’re partly looking for mitzvah points!).

Shanah Tovah.

Fri, 2 December 2022 8 Kislev 5783