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Sermon by Rabbi Benji Stanley: Rosh Hashanah 2016/5777

Commit to Love, and right now that means making time.

This sermon was given by Rabbi Benji Stanley at the Wimbledon Synagogue.

 A few years ago, I was walking along with Leah, who was then my fiancee, rather than my wife. She is originally from America, and while we were walking, her Dad, Jerry, called her from the States. She had been chatting away to him for a while when she asked me, “do you want to speak to Dad?” to which I understood the right answer to be “yes”- and she handed the phone over. Jerry and I spoke for a while, and then at one point he said, “well, I love you Benji!” At least (in my defence) I was 90% sure that he said that. The telephone reception wasn’t great. I suddenly felt rather awkward. I had a split-second decision to make. Amongst other things, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to risk saying “I love you”, when I was only 90% sure that he had said it in the first place. To Jerry Jordan’s “I love you”, I remarkably replied with…. “well, we’re going to a picnic now”.

Some of us can find love difficult to express. The odd, awkward failure to say “I love you” is perhaps not a big deal.  However, I want to suggest that, despite its sober reputation, this time of year is one of joy and love, and our responsibility right now may be to return to love, to cultivate it, more by our actions than our words. In order to do this, we can do something which sounds simple and easy but which we often find hard: make time; make time for loved ones, make time for yourself.  This love is not a sweet feeling that comes and goes. It is a commitment to supportively, trustingly be with others and yourself. It is a commitment of time and openness that is needed most when life is difficult, when others are exercising our patience, or when we’ve forgotten what we’re like at our best.

For some of us, the stick doesn’t always work. We associate this time of year with self-chastisement. Today begin the ten days that culminate in Yom Kippur, a day of chest-beating, of confessing sins, a day of abstinence from food, drink, shmekindikke (perfume), leather and marital relations. It is, indeed, a serious business and on that day, as some wear white shrouds and take those steps back from the stuff of everyday life, it’s actually a rehearsal of death.  Yet, it’s also a culmination of love. The month that ended yesterday, our month of preparation, Elul is an acronym for the Hebrew, Ani L’dodi v’dodi li. I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. The Rabbis noted this, and in doing so, they suggest to us that love is the engine of self-change. When I work with couples who are about to get married, and ask them what they see in each other, it sometimes emerges that they see their best selves in the eyes of each other. In ten days, we will fast just like many a bride and groom do before the marriage. Before Yom Kippur there is a custom to immerse in a mikveh, in a ritual bath, just like many a bride and groom do before they get married.

This period is a serious time, a time for serious joy. The very last Mishnah on Yom Kippur, in masechet yoma, from almost 1900 years ago, finishes, contrary to popular, contemporary expectation, on a joyful note. Rabbi Akiva says: Ashreychem Yisrael! You should be happy! We should be joyful, because, Rabbi Akiva continues “Look before Whom you get to stand and change? Your Ultimate parent.” The Holy Blessed One is your mikveh we are told, and just as a mikveh washes you clean, so the Merciful one will clean you up during these days of reflection! What a beautifully chutzpadik image of Ultimacy and intimacy. God is your bathtub- just make sure you schedule bath time. Love and Death. Woody Allen was once again on firm, paradoxical Jewish ground with that one. In ten days each one of us is getting married, recommitting to our most dearly held people and values, to our best selves. So start getting ready.

For the sake of wedding preparations, we might need to start spending a little less time at the office. We might make a fraction more time for each other and ourselves, the slightest change to our diaries, even though we find it hard. For ourselves we can make more time for self-reflection, through doing what we’re doing now- or reading, thinking, singing or just consciously breathing.  For someone else you could initiate more time together- a visit, walk, phone-call, or meal. When someone you love says something that makes you angry, you might catch yourself, breath, smile, and remember that you love them, including what sometimes drives you mad about them. In loving commitment to community, it’s the same again: turn up, sit, listen, be committed to the possibilities, trust that things might get better. I recently made friends with a Buddhist zen master, who on a weekly basis attends what we might call “Council meetings” at her community. One person speaks at a time, and only when they’re holding a designated object. It’s difficult to imagine in synagogues! Yet, when things are difficult, strength might emerge from lovingly listening, rather than forcing a situation.

Rabbi Akiva teaches us “Ashreychem” Be Joyful, because you have the chance to change in loving relationship with others. Now is the time to let go of an impulse to change everyone and everything else except ourselves. Many of us are excellent doers, but now is the time to recall a love that disorients and reorients you- to laugh. Many of us work so hard that it’s time to return to the love of family and community, a love that can powerfully and gently work on you. Make a little more time for love of family, self, and community. Just sit and be open.

I am under no illusion that love is easy, or always felt, rather than built. We should build it before it’s too late. One of the Rabbis who married me and Leah, Rabbi Mark Levin, once talked about how he was surprised at who he missed most in his family. He explained: “Five years ago my sister died; Four years ago my mother died; and this year my father died. I was not close with my sister. She suffered a terrible affliction her entire adult life; and we had not been particularly close as children. I was close to my mother. We spoke at least weekly, but we also had our differences. I was closest to my father and he was absolutely my hero. I always assumed I would miss him most. But that’s not the case. I miss my sister most, and think of her daily. I miss both what I don’t have, and what I didn’t have, whereas with my parents I miss only what I no longer have, but I had plenty”. Now is our chance to start reflecting on love and loss, and to make time for patient love.

Love can be most needed when things are difficult, when you might fear its absence. Rabbi Akiva, who teaches us to make ourselves joyful at this time of year, is the same Rabbi Akiva who sees “love your neighbor as yourself” as the greatest principle in the Torah. This is the same Rabbi Akiva who while being slowly executed (as we recall in the martyrology at Yom Kippur) says: “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. V’ahavta et AdonaShema i…and you shall love the Merciful your God with all your heart, and all your soul and all your might”! Love is not a feeling, it’s an assertion that you are not alone, including when things are hardest.

In the Torah reading that we will hear today, Yishmael, a young boy, is left, apparently for dead, in the wilderness, but his call is heard by avinu shebashamayim, our Ultimate Parent, and his cry is heard b’asher hu sham, from exactly where he is. Now is a time to extend loving generosity, and time, to others and to ourselves, exactly as we are, not to judge, not to try to force change: love can make us our best selves, and help us forget ourselves, and help us reshape ourselves in relation to others.  I am my beloved and my beloved is mine. In the Hebrew the sounds blend into each other, they reshape each other while remaining distinct: Ani L’dodi v’dodi li.

Today we assert that the world is built on endless loving kindness for each and every one of us, and we start to assert this by making a little time for people, not least ourselves, and by making an effort to be non-judgemental.  We assert that our Ultimate parent’s love is always there, even if when it comes to my father-in-law, Jerry Jordan, I might have struggled to get the words out.

Shanah Tovah!





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