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Rabbi Benji's Sermon on Yom Kippur 2022

On Tuesday 19th of July we more or less locked down again. Leah rightly insisted on closing all the windows and the blinds having looked at the guidance on the BBC website, and experimented during the very hot previous day. The hottest day recorded in England’s history. I might have popped out early before it got really hot. By the afternoon I needed to get out again. I walked five minutes to my local coffee stall and felt I was being baked. The man who runs the stall aptly said that the feeling is like opening up your hot oven to peer in and the heat blasting out. That was the feeling as I simply stood outside on a July afternoon in London. During the Pandemic there were early warnings amongst those lockdowns that this upheaval to our lives, the profound limitations, global suffering and deaths might be a small rehearsal for the future consequences of climate change if we don’t address it. In the early months of the Pandemic I felt hope about our moral responsiveness; there was a sense that many of us were asking what can we learn from this? There were moments of concerted appreciation for front line workers, and National Health, and hope that this appreciation might be concretised into the future. There was nature blooming beautifully and reduced carbon emissions- a hope that we would learn and build back better in the face of the suffering and difficulty. Then, on that Tuesday, the 19th, unnaturally, dangerously baking hot, I felt back in lockdown, and recalled the warnings for the future of our world, but without the strength of moral response, or sense that we have learnt and changed sufficiently.

There is a debate in the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 97b) about how to respond to the world not yet being redeemed. We pray for redemption frequently, and this desire animates our Judaism and our hearts; our Torah, and Prophets, envision a world in which every human being, made in the image of God, has dignity, in which every person dwells under their own vine. We are told- promised even- that there will be a world of peace, and a liveable beautiful world. What to do when this has not come to pass, and when your belief in the very prospect might be challenged? How should one feel and act when the very hope of progress - whether promised by God, or drawn from the Enlightenment- confronts realities of dangerous decline, and ongoing suffering and exploitation. 

This is discussed on that page of Talmud by the late 2nd century, early third century sages Rav and Shmuel, and we might seek to understand them both, and see who moves us.

Rav Said: All the times for the Redemption have already passed, and the matter is only dependent upon Teshuvah, repentance, and good deeds.

But Shmuel said: Dayo l’avel yaamod be’avelo. 

It’s enough for a mourner to stand in his mourning, in his grief. 

From Rav we might take hope. The times for redemption have already passed, but he seems to be suggesting we therefore can bring redemption ourselves through repentance and good deeds. We can resolve strongly what we want for our world, and start to bring it to pass. Our good deeds, individual and collective, can make a difference. When it comes to making sure this world is liveable, Rav might inspire us to  realise that we already know much of what we need to know, and are doing some of what we need to do, with carbon capture farming- and a range of commitments and policies personal, national and international. We can succeed with serious resolve, research and commitment. Influenced by Rav, we might take these moments on Yom Kippur to realise the sort of world we want to contribute to, and this year, we do more to make it happen.

But, Shmuel says: It’s sufficient for a mourner to stand in his mourning, in his grief.

His assertion poses questions that are not resolved on the rest of the page of Talmud. He states that the primary response to our world should be grief, mourning- and perhaps that God is mourning too. 

What good can mourning do?, Shmuel makes us ask. I remember the mourning that Judaism gifted me in the days, week, and months after my father, Jack Stanley, z’l, died- and the moments I find to mourn still now- and I begin to see the good that mourning can do. I remember the immediate embrace of friends, family and community, the amount of support and love. I needed to immediately confront that my father had died, telling others, helping with funeral arrangements, shoveling earth onto him and his resting place. With people calling and visiting lots during the week, and continuing to be in touch afterwards,  I was supported such that I could recognise what an enormous loss this was for me. 

I had the opportunity to share some of what I loved in my Dad, and missed, and would try to do more of myself. I was again reflecting recently on how he continued to make time to play tennis with me, when I was a boy and teenager, even though I was a terrible- Mcenroe-esque- loser. I’ve been reflecting on how he generally had a gentleness that I might have more often allowed to soften me. I hope that active reflection upon this- that mourning, then and now- allows me to soften and grow in his memory.

Shmuel states that, confronting this baking world, aflame with inequality and pain, it’s enough for a mourner to stand in their mourning. Shmuel tells us to confront the enormity of what we loved in a climate world, and in our vision of a fair one. We are to confront the magnitude of what has already been lost, and what is being lost. We can find the language, and community to talk about this with others. Our mourning allows us to talk about and share our feelings and hurt…and, yes, our mourning, our recognition of the reality, can turn us to be better, to act; to turn shame and guilt into repentance and good deeds.

It is the 17th century Talmudic Commentator, the Maharsha, who explains that Shmuel’s view can complement Rav’s: for we know that mourning can bring the repentance, the resolve and softening, the reevaluation of what’s important, and the good deeds that Rav calls us to.

The Essayist and novelist Zadie Smith beautifully conveys Shmuel’s emphasis- a mourner must stand in her mourning- in her Elegy for a Country’s Season. She observes, “the weather has changed, is changing and with it so many small things- quite apart from train tracks and houses, livelihoods, and actual lives- are being lost”. She concludes, as she imagines explaining this all to an imaginary granddaughter (apologizing): 

“In the end the only thing that could create the necessary traction in our minds was the intimate loss of the things we loved: like when the seasons changed in our beloved little island, or the day I went into an Italian garden in early July, with its owner, a woman in her 80s, and upon seeing the scorched yellow earth and withered roses, hearing what only the really old people will confess- in all my years I’ve never seen anything like it - I found my mind finally beginning to turn from the elegiac what have we done to the practical what we can do?

In these moments, we recall those who were important to us, and find in these memories the model of what our better selves can look like. We also mourn for a liveable world and all that has been lost already- the lives and the pleasant, beautiful features of our world. We mourn the vision of a better world that we once held more optimistically; we mourn those lost already and mourn that better prospect. We might even mourn our own hopes in each of our ability to forge this better world.

A mourner must stand in their mourning. But with these losses, though we need to confront them, I grip wholeheartedly to our tradition’s hope that life again be given to the dead - as the rains at autumn ought to replenish this earth.

Let us create space in our community and in ourselves for Shmuel, to engage with openness and honesty what have we done, what have we lost, and for Rav, to also turn to, what can we do?

Personally I can say, though I’m not that old, I’ve never felt anything here like that baking Tuesday July 19th.

Sat, 3 December 2022 9 Kislev 5783