Earlier this year, my wife Sue got an email. A friend of hers had died, very suddenly, from cancer. Staish, short for Anastasia, had always been a bundle of energy and fun, ever since school. When I met Sue, I met Staish as well. She was the one who was always asking her mother ‘What’s it all for? Why am I here? – What is life about?’
Staish and Colin got married about the same time as we did. They were both editors for the BBC. And they shared something else – a love of risk, and especially of climbing. Their life took a different pattern to ours – or rather, they chose a different pattern. They would work six months of the year from their flat in London - and then go to their home in Scotland, and spend the next six months climbing. Then six months work, looking forward to and planning their next climbs – and then back to the mountains!
When Colin wrote to say there had been a tragedy, it was therefore not only a shock but also a surprise to hear that it was an aggressive cancer, and not a rock-fall, that had claimed Staish’s life.
Our job as friends, as kind people, or as rabbis, is to be there in the depths and shock of loss – just being there, which offers some small comfort, and then, in due course, perhaps to offer gentle guidance, practical advice – and to share our memories.
Staish and Colin did not want children. Had they had them so, they would not have been able to live in the way they chose, and the way that gave them so much pleasure.
Thank goodness we are all different! Earlier this year, our son Adam celebrated his Bar Mitzvah here in our community at Leo Baeck. He did a marvellous job, and we were incredibly proud. He is developing a deep and serious understanding of Judaism, and has happily returned to lead services since, as part of our unique six-star scheme, designed to consolidate the skills gained by our Bar and Bat Mitzvah graduates. Yet I know that some people are terrified of standing here and leading the service in public – and may well prefer to abseil down the Matterhorn!
Two days ago, our daughter Naomi celebrated her seventeenth birthday, and a couple of weeks before, she performed a starring role in the musical ‘Into the Woods’. We were so proud of her. These were major highlights of the past year for us – and how lucky we have been. I mention them as examples – and hope that, at this time, and over the coming days, you can look back to the highlights of your past year. Because none of us know what tomorrow might bring, despite our best-laid plans, it is all the more important to remember and to celebrate the achievements, the good times, the love and enjoyment and friendships that can easily be taken for granted, or slip from our minds and memories. These are indeed blessings, and we should remember to count them. Our rabbis taught that we should try to say 100 blessings a day – how many of us even remember to say one? We should thank God for waking us up to each new day, for the fact that we are refreshed, that our eyes open and see, that our arms and legs work, that our bodily functions do as they should. We should thank God that we are free, that we have enough food, that we are Jews, that we are Progressive Jews, that we live in Victoria, that we can travel to Israel, that indeed there is again a Jewish state, struggling with the challenges that it has to, and yet achieving remarkable things day by day and year by year. The trouble is that we often don’t remember, but take our life and our health for granted. It is only when things go wrong that we notice, and complain.
So we should resolve on this New Year to spend less time and energy complaining. This is a time for a personal annual audit. During these services and these ten days of penitence, we should look closely at ourselves and our relationships. If we make mistakes, and we inevitably will, we must make sure to apologise promptly and properly. When we appreciate someone, or something they have done or achieved, we should say so.
Of course, there is a lot of common sense in all of this. I am currently reading a book called ‘Is that all there is?” It is full of such common-sense observations, drawn from a variety of traditions, including our own. It is subtitled ‘Thoughts on the Meaning of Life and leaving a legacy’. There are chapters on being a good friend, on learning to be happy, on belonging and feeling needed – and on taking risks. And though it is such an eclectic mix of sources, and contains so much down to earth wisdom, it is undoubtedly a Jewish book, and more than that, a Progressive Jewish book. It is dedicated to the members, past and present, of the South London Liberal Synagogue. And it is written by their past Rabbi, who has also been a liberal democrat parliamentary candidate, a university chancellor, chief executive of The King’s Fund, is a life peer of the British parliament, and is now the senior Rabbi of the West London Reform Synagogue, Dame Julia Neuberger.
Julia’s book reminded me of Staish’s search for meaning – Julia says that often, when we’re young, we can’t see the purpose of the future, and when we are old, we can’t see the point of our past! But the key point is around our legacy. Will the world be any different from our lives, from our input, from our existence?
She goes on to quote Hillel in the Sayings of the Sages – ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me – but if I am only for myself, what am I?’ We have to look after and take responsibility for ourselves – but if we don’t also look after others, we are selfish, inadequate human beings – indeed, if an aspect of being human is doing God’s work, of being God’s tools to make a better society, then we have failed if we look only after ourselves.
During this year, I have been involved with developing JCAM, the Jewish Community Arts and Media, and one of the local Jewish theatre groups, Jewish Youth Musicals, staged an excellent production of Avenue Q – and by the way, I hope we will be putting on a special version of it here at LBC next Purim, so if you are interested in helping to re-write or perform or stage it, please let me know! One of the songs in Avenue Q is about finding our purpose in life, and indeed that is a challenge that is perhaps more open and difficult for today’s young people than it has ever been in the past, when we grew up with various expectations laid upon us. Neuberger suggests that the aetheist Richard Dawkins would argue that humans are just survival machines – but that many of us will find ourselves reflecting what life is for, especially over this period. Many of us want to find a purpose, to have an overarching sense of meaning in our lives. In Avenue Q, they discover purpose in helping others – ‘When you help others, you can’t help helping yourself’, they sing together!
It is a happy and uplifting show. And though happiness isn’t everything, it certainly helps. Despite the serious long-term financial, employment and other challenges Britain is facing, many people have reported the enjoyment of the Jubilee celebrations over the past year, followed by the Olympics and then the Paralympics. Bhutan was the first country to introduce a happiness index, recognizing that increasing wealth and GDP was not necessarily the only, or the best, measure of satisfaction. This was followed by the Swedish government and the UK and various other countries in one way or another. Of course this past year has also seen marvelous Melbourne voted the most livable city in the world for the second time! How lucky we are!
Naturally it is far better to be happy with our lot than to be miserable. And our lot is indeed a lot, if our recent house move was anything to go by. There was so much stuff at home that we couldn’t possibly have sold the house until we moved out and emptied it. A garage sale, three full carloads of stuff to Op shops and three loads to the skip, as well as at least as much to our temporary home, aside from a container of furniture and stuff in storage! We can’t expect the world to keep using its resources, only for us to dispatch them to land fill. The tenth commandment – though shalt not covet – finally makes sense. We must get over this ‘I want it, I deserve it, I’m going to get it’ urge! If you give an extra thought before buying something after this sermon, it will have achieved something!
The indicators of changing climate have continued to get worse and worse over the past year. The Arctic and Antarctic ice caps are melting far faster than anticipated. It is thought that ships may be able to pass through the arctic sea by 2015. This has very serious repercussions for rising sea levels as well as for climate – and the storms, floods, droughts and fires we have seen over the past year across the globe will only get worse.
Year by year I have found it more and more difficult to have a hopeful and reassuring message, since the more I see and the deeper I read, the more scary the scenario becomes, and yet the more resistance there seems to be from the general population, most governments, and many self-interested parties. Of course companies as well as governments need to be looking after their own interests – but, as Hillel says, if they are only looking after their own, without concern for others, what are they really worth? And anyway, there is no point in protecting their short-term gain at the cost of longer term disaster. But this year I have reviewed another rabbinic dictum, and find it helpful. It teaches us about uncertainty - to plan for this life as if we were to live forever – but also to plan for the world to come as if we were to die tomorrow. I suppose for our purposes we should turn this around – we can live this life as if tomorrow is all there is – but only if, at the same time, we make sure that we live in a way that is sustainable, so that we can also live for ever. And I believe there is hope – for example I read about a new device which removes 150 times more CO2 from the atmosphere than a tree can!
I am proud and pleased to be Jewish, and to be a Progressive Jew, and I realize how lucky I am to be living in Victoria in what is still this lucky country. Just a couple of nights ago I was talking to two Israelis who have moved here – two more Israelis, who relish the peace, calm, tranquility and comfort of life in Melbourne after years of stress, anxiety, pressure and frustration of life in Israel. They had made no effort to join the Jewish or the Israeli community, because, they said, it was hard enough just settling in – but to my mind that task would surely be made easier had they made that connection, and found people like them who had faced the challenges of settling and integrating before them. From what they said, there was no doubt that, far from seeing it as a potential help, their experience in Israel led them to believe that the religious community was only a cause of more trouble and concern. They wished to stay well clear of it! What a condemnation – how glad I am, I repeat, to be a Progressive Jew, and Rabbi, here at the Leo Baeck Centre!
It is, though, important to remember that we are not on our own. The past year has seen the growth and development of our local movement, Progressive Judaism Victoria. PJV comprises the four congregations in Melbourne, with our youth movement Netzer, the King David School, ARZA, the Progressive Zionist organisation, and Bet Olam, our Progressive Funeral Service. We have stepped up the professionalism and profile this year, to work even harder to get our message across to our own and the wider community. We have established a successful Chavurah group in Geelong, and strengthened our connection with the historic Ballarat congregation. We are exploring the possibility of a Chavurah group on the Mornington Peninsula, and being a formative part of a very exciting interfaith centre in Docklands.
The message is that Progressive Judaism is a wonderful framework for a modern Jewish life, that it is thriving and developing, and that it has a distinctive voice and approach. Some of the aspects worth emphasising at the end of this year and the start of a new one are that we truly believe in all people being created equal in the image of God. That is why we treat men and women equally and with equal opportunity here in our community, and why the Israel Religious Action Centre has been active in response to approaches by ultra-orthodox women who have been spat upon or segregated at the back of buses. Our underlying belief in equality leads us to fully acknowledge homosexuals, and we have written to the Government to support Marriage Equality, and have supported the establishment of Keshet, working to ensure understanding and against bullying in schools, and with its support group for parents with gay children. That is why the Union For Progressive Judaism has this year launched JRAAC, the Jewish Religious Action and Advocacy Centre, which has issued a statement on Immigration and Refugees, giving us a voice at a time when the issue is high on the media agenda. And that is why we are involved with various environmental initiatives and groups –because we believe that we are here to tend to and take care of God’s creation – and if we don’t immediately turn round the current trajectory, all the rest will become increasingly irrelevant anyway!
Another important new initiative developing this past year, with the regional body the Union for Progressive Judaism, the State body PJV, and the King David School, is the Centre for Living Judaism, who are already having a significant impact on our communities. Marshall Voit is running a whole afternoon of relevant and thought-provoking activities for our post-bar mitzvah students on Yom Kippur afternoon, and Stephanie Gratch ran a Family Education program for our Sunday School Club a few weeks ago on Shabbat, and there will be two more sessions in the next few months. If you want to see these gifted educators in action, they will also be running the children’s service and activity at TBI during the Machzor trial service I mentioned last night, which is happening at TBI tomorrow, run under the PJV umbrella for all our communities.
May we, who have received or taken on the gift of Judaism, a Jewish framework to our lives, recognise that we are not people first and then Jews after, but Jewish people – and indeed Progressive Jewish People - all together.
Judaism, through our Progresssive perspective, gives us our values, guides us in behaviours and relationships, helps us through the uncertain areas of grey complication which characterise so much of modern life. And it does it with love, with compassion, with festivals and food, and through all the seasons of the year and the stages of our lives. May we be strengthened through the coming year of 5773. Amen.