Below you can read Rabbi Lisa's sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5779. You can also click on the play bar below to listen to it.
SWESRS Rosh HaShanah 5779
Writing SWESRS into the Book of Life
In a hospital near Kings Cross there’s a long-term patient with a severe form of amnesia. Every day, he feels that he’s ‘waking up’ several times a minute. He knows that he has children and loves his wife, but his consciousness in each moment is disconnected from his own sense of self that has gone before. Besides his bed he has a journal, where the nurses encourage him to write. Looking at what he has just written, he has no recollection of having written it; yet, recognising the hand-writing as his own, he is often disturbed at the realisation that he must have written the words on its pages, even though he can’t remember the ‘self’ that wrote them.
What is it like to lose your memory? To lose a sense of who you are? What kind of a life does this man lead, disconnected from the past, powerless to shape his future?
One of the most vivid images of the Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, is the Talmud’s description of the Book of Life. Indeed, one of our Rosh HaShanah greetings, ‘Le’Shanah tova tikateyvu’, ‘May you be inscribed for a good year,’ refers directly to this teaching, (Rosh HaShanah 16b). ‘Said Rabbi Kruspedai, in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah. One for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for those in-between. The thoroughly righteous are immediately inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life; the thoroughly wicked are immediately inscribed and sealed in the Book of Death; the destiny of those in-between is suspended from Rosh HaShanah till Yom Kippur. If they do well, they are inscribed in the Book of Life; if they do not do well, they are inscribed in the Book of Death.’
Throughout our High Holy Day machzor, the prayers are expressed both individually and collectively – we speak these ancient words both for ourselves, and collectively as a community. This reflects the understanding that we gather throughout this season, as Jews have gathered for three thousand years, to look within, searching the depths of our own souls, and to stand together, accepting responsibility as a community for our failings and achievements.
On Yom Kippur I will speak about what it means to be written in the Book of Death. Death is a reality that awaits us all as individuals, and is so much more likely to be a good final chapter if we prepare well for the end of life and discuss our wishes openly with our loved ones.
The three books are opened in heaven. Our prayers are expressed both individually and collectively. If the name of an individual can be written in the Book of Life, or the Book of Death, then surely so, too, the name of a community. The destiny of those in-between is suspended from Rosh HaShanah till Yom Kippur. Today, I want to talk to you collectively, as a community standing as one on this Day, about the Book of Life, and what it will take to write this community, SWESRS, into the Book of Life.
Think back to Monday evening, 30th July 2018 Oaks Lane, Newbury Park. The night of the SWESRS AGM. The community is facing one of its toughest challenges in 61 years after the news that our tenant Norwood is leaving in October. Making the full-time rabbinic post redundant is a possibility that has been put out to the community. On the Thursday night before the AGM an email with incredibly good news goes out to the community, announcing that a property developer has expressed an interest in purchasing half the site, ensuring financial security for many years to come. The possible rabbinic redundancy is now off the table. I am wondering, ‘How many people will show up to the AGM tonight? Most members will surely feel it’s no longer necessary to show up.’
I arrived at about 20 to 8, and was surprised to see a car park full of cars, and lots of people arriving. Tanika, our temporary caretaker, had put out 120 chairs. As I arrived, she was bringing another 40 into the hall. And still our members kept arriving! Eventually Tanika had to bring even more chairs – over 160 people showed up! At last year’s AGM there were 27.
The atmosphere felt like yontof! There was such a positive, good-humoured, surging energy in the room. Many of you in shul this morning were there.
We talked about the future of the shul. We heard about a range of different possibilities that are on the table to explore and pursue. There was a clear acceptance by the overwhelming majority present that our current site is no longer sustainable. That, whether it’s selling half the site, or all the site, or creating a cross-denominational community with our Progressive Jewish neighbours, or sharing premises with Clore Tikvah, or a different possibility, big decisions have to be made. I was impressed and moved by the courage of SWESRS members to see our community’s current reality as it is, and to show willing to embrace the change that lies ahead.
Most of all, I was inspired by how much our members care about this community. That positive energy was real. It was powerful. It was undeniable. It was holy. That positive energy has the power to transform this community. The evening of our AGM gave me hope for the future of SWESRS.
The tremendous positive energy of the AGM has continued forward. There are 8 new members of Council, including 2 new members on Officers. A new building sub-committee has been formed to explore those different options on the table. The strategic planning sub-committee has been reformed. The voluntary donation appeal has topped £21,000, with some members donating for a second time already. Individual members are coming forward to be counted, to make a difference, to do their bit in whatever way they can. In October we are having a fund-raising Musical extravaganza, organised by one man who wants to make a difference. Our Under 7s service this morning and on Yom Kippur is being run by one woman who wants to make a difference. Someone who used to be very involved at SWESRS, and has taken a back-seat for the past few years, she thought to herself at the AGM: ‘I need to walk my talk, put my actions where my mouth is. I need to step up.’ So many people sitting here this morning are already engaged in the many different groups of volunteers who form the back-bone of this community. The AGM wasn’t a one-off. You, the members of this community are giving your time, your energy, and your financial support in a sustained and concerted effort to ensure this community has a strong and vibrant future; to write SWESRS into the Book of Life.
Today, on Rosh HaShananah, the celebration of creation and renewal, I want to celebrate all the members of this community who have shown up, stepped up, and opened the gates of your hearts in generosity.
Giving, Tzedakah, lies at the core of Jewish belief and practice. From the times of the desert Sanctuary when the Israelites donated, Trumah, whatever each household could, to build the holy tabernacle, we as a People have understood that it is through giving that we take care of those in need, transform our communities, and transform the world. In giving, we recognise that our gifts – our possessions, money, time, talents and skills - are not our own, but that they flow from the Source of Divine Blessing, to be shared as an act of carrying out God’s justice in the world.
My friends, you are demonstrating, by so much more than just showing up for the evening of the AGM, that you care about this community.
And I appeal to each of you who have not yet given your time, your energy, your financial support to do so.
Incredible as it may seem, as yet, in this financial crisis, we have no SWESRS fund-raising group to plan and organise a programme of fund-raising events for the next 12 months. No membership group to attract new members. For the past 12 months we have had no editorial team for Alonim, our shul magazine that is such an important means of keeping our members informed and connected. Each and every one of you can make a difference to the sustaining and the renewal of this community. Each and every one of you has a part to play, a responsibility to uphold, in writing SWESRS into the Book of Life.
I have a suspicion that this community sleep-walked into our current crisis. You don’t need to be a prophet to know that the writing was on the wall for a long time. Don’t leave it to a very few to make the decisions that will shape the destiny of SWESRS. For if Norwood leaving has been a wake-up call, as loud and clear as the blast of our Rosh HaShanah shofar, then equally clear is the reality that, if SWESRS slumberers now go back to sleep, there will be no future for this community.
On Rosh HaShanah the blast of the shofar comes to wake us up. In Numbers 29, the Torah describes this festival simply as ‘Yom teruah yihyeh lachem’/a day of horn-blasts it is to you’. There is no mention of the 1st of Tishri as the New Year, nor even of the festival name ‘Rosh HaShanah’. In Leviticus chapter 23, the Torah describes this festival simply as ‘zichron teruah mikrah kodesh’/’a reminder by horn-blasting’.
A reminder of what?
The three books are opened in heaven. The Book of Life, The Book of Death, and the Book for Those suspended in-between. When the shofar sounds one hundred times, it blows open the gates of heaven. Rosh HaShanah is Yom HaZikaron – The Day of remembering; the day we remember that our roots are in heaven – the day we remember who we are, and where we came from; the day we remember our connection to the past, and choose how we will shape our future.
How much are each of us like that long-term patient in a hospital near King’s Cross? Disconnected from our past, having lost a sense of who we are, do we only ‘wake up’ once a year, finding our way back to shul on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, only to forget the path again till 12 months later? Or perhaps we share that experience, like the amnesia patient, of writing in the journal of our Jewish life, the beliefs and practices that served an earlier Self but now, as we recognise our own hand-writing, are disturbed to realise those beliefs and practices, our engagement with Judaism, no longer match the Self we are today. A call to re-engage, to learn, to educate ourselves and experience Judaism in a more relevant, more nourishing, more meaningful way.
The three books are opened in heaven. In the words of the late Rabbi Alan Lew: ‘This is Real and you are totally unprepared.’ The image is no metaphor when we embrace the power of these days for transformation. If we sleep walk through these days of awe, our fate will be written for us without our agency. If we wake up, see reality as it is, and determine to act, then we may partner with Heaven, in writing the destiny of our lives, and the destiny of this community.
Shana Tova Tikateyvu.
May you, your dear ones, and this community be written in the Book of Life for Good.
Rabbi Lisa Barrett