Remembering We are the Children of the King

Last Saturday night I got a phone-call. It was the son of one of our members, to let me know that his father had passed away in the early hours of Shabbat morning. The call was not unexpected: the son had let us know earlier in the week that his father was reaching the end of his life. He was 99, had enjoyed good health until just a few weeks ago, and in every sense was embracing what the aging experts call, ‘A good death’.

I spoke with the son at some length. He is a recently retired GP who served his community as a local physician for the past 32 years. The father had moved 25 years ago to a small town near Preston to be near his son, Tony, and to take an active role in grand-parenting his three grand-children. Tony had married out, and he and his family did not lead a Jewish life in any way, but all three grand-children had a sense of their Jewish heritage, and the grand-daughter had even written her university dissertation on the deportation of Jews from Aix-en-Province under Nazi occupation.

It bemused me that, for 25 years, the father had continued as a member of SWESRS, feeling in some way that it was meaningful and important to him to keep up that connection with his community, even though he was cut off from Jewish life, as if marooned on a desert island far from Jewish civilisation. (By the way, it’s not more than an hour and a half’s drive from Preston to Manchester, where there’s a choice of 3 Reform congregations to attend!)

The more I spoke with Tony, the more it became clear that he, too was grappling with why, suddenly, it felt important to him that there should be a Rabbi to officiate at his father's funeral, even though a specifically Jewish funeral service was not what either his father or himself wanted.

Death, like birth and marriage and bar or bat mitzvah, bring to the surface our deepest feelings of who we are, and our desire to connect with our tradition, to be held by its ancient power.

It was a sacred privilege to support Tony at the time of his father’s passing - a moment of greatest mystery in the lives of human beings. And yet, what lingered after our conversation and stays with me even now, is an overwhelming sadness at this family story, a sense that they had ‘lost something’, but were so removed from their Jewish roots that they didn’t even know what it is they had lost.

This reminds me of a story recounted by the Chasidic master Rabbi Hayyim of Zans, who lived in the 19th century.

‘Once a king’s son was exiled by a terrible tragedy from his parents’ home. As long as he was near his home, people knew he was a king’s son, and befriended him, and gave him food and drink. But as the days passed, and he got farther into his father’s realm, no one knew him, and he had nothing to eat. He began to sell his clothing to buy food. When he had nothing left to sell, he hired himself out as a shepherd. After he had hired himself out as a shepherd, he was no longer in need, because he needed nothing. He would sit on the hills, tending his flocks and singing like the other shepherds, and he forgot that he was a king’s son and all the pleasures that he had been used to.

Now it is the custom of the shepherds to make themselves small rooves of straw to keep out the rain. The king’s son wanted to make such a roof too, but he could not afford one, so he was deeply grieved.

Once the king happened to be passing through that province. Now it was a common practice in that kingdom for those who had petitions to the king to write them out and throw them into the king’s chariot. The king’s son came with the other petitioners, and threw his note, in which he petitioned for a small straw roof such as shepherds have. The king recognised his son’s handwriting, and was saddened to think how far his son had wandered that he had forgotten that he was a king’s son, and felt only the lack of a straw roof.’

The master, Rabbi Hayyim of Zans, ended: ‘It is this way with our people: They have already forgotten that they are each of them King’s sons, and what they really lack. One cries that he is in want of a living, and another cries for children. But the truth, that we lack all the treasures we had of old – that is something they forget to pray for!’

We are all related to the King of the High Holy Day liturgy, not only as subjects, but also as children. Each and every one of us is the King’s own unique lost child, exiled by some terrible tragedy from our parents’ home and alienated to the point where we ourselves no longer remember who we are.

In his introduction to S.Y. Agnon’s ‘Days of Awe’, the classic collection of Chasidic stories on the High Holy Days, my teacher Arthur Green comments on the Rabbi Hayyim of Zanz parable thus:

‘We ourselves no longer remember who we are. Only God remembers; it is He who has sent us this season to arouse us from exile and awaken us to return to the nobility of spirit that is ours from birth as God’s own child. Each of us is called to return to that place of our royal birth, not least, perhaps, because the King is aging and it seems that our help is urgently needed in the running of the kingdom. We – all of us humans – are being asked to come home and help out in the family business of tikkun olam, redeeming the world.’

Like Tony, and like his father, I fear we have all lost something, and barely remember who we are. The treasures of our Jewish heritage lie waiting to be reclaimed. This community waits, arms open, to welcome all you can contribute through your time, talents, creativity and caring to guide SWESRS into its next 60 years. This community waits, arms open, to engage you in Jewish learning, to support you on your life’s journey, to work together in redeeming the world.

הֲשִׁיבֵֽנוּ יְיָ אֵלֶֽיךָ וְנָשֽׁוּבָה, חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵֽינוּ כְּקֶֽדֶם.

Turn us back to You, Eternal, and we shall return; renew our lives as of old.