Neviim Tovim/TheHaftarah Circle Gillian Gould Lazarus

Archive for October 2016

For a man who was slow of speech and meeker than anyone alive, this is quite a speech, where Moses addresses the Israelites on the last day of his life. Haazinu hashamayim meaning ‘Give ear O heavens,’ are the opening words of the penultimate sidra in our scroll. Moses does not speak of himself at all, except to say, ‘I speak’ and ‘I call,’ for this long poem which comprises his speech is a song of praise to God. Moses refers to God as Tsur, meaning rock, Elyon, meaning the highest and Avicha kanecha, your Father who made you. Many of the sayings in this portion are familiar from our liturgy. The poem invokes the infidelity of the Israelites, contrasted with God’s faithfulness and justice. The people of Israel are called Jacob and Yeshurun, meaning ‘the upright’ in the sense of upright morality, yet Moses accuses thrm of being wayward and provocative. Nevertheless, he says, God shelters them beneath His wings.

This poem in Deuteronomy 32, is called The Song of Moses. You might be reminded of Shirat ha Yam, the Song at the Sea, in Exodus 15, which is sometimes called the song of Moses and Miriam. There are other songs in the bible – notably the Psalms of David, but also Deborah’s song in Judges and Hannah’s in 1 Samuel. Jonah sings a song of praise inside the whale. The Song of Songs is an entirely poetic book of the bible, attributed to Solomon but Jeremiah also has a song book, much more mournful in tone: the Book of Lamentations.

Some of these songs do not mention the life and situation of the putative singer and would not look out of place in the book of Psalms.

The Song of Moses takes place on the final day of his life but these are not his last words. Like Jacob, he blesses the individual tribes before his death in a speech which begins with the words ‘Vezot ha berachah – And this is the blessing.’ After he has finished speaking, God sends him to the top of Mount Nebo and shows Moses the promised land, which he will never reach. Moses dies there on the mountain, and thus the fifth book of the pentateuch is brought to a close. On Simchat Torah, we shall be reading the last part of Vezot Haberachah, right at the end of Deuteronomy, as we conclude the cycle of Torah readings, before beginning again at once with Bereshit.

October 2016

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Yom Kippur 2016/ 5777
For afternoon study at Sha’arei Tsedek North London Reform Synagogue

While the Yom Kippur mussaf service is going on, there’s room for the whole congregation in one hall, but when we join the main service for Minchah, the numbers gradually increase so that, by the time Yizkor starts, both halls will be filled, more or less to capacity. People who, for one reason or another, leave the synagogue during the course of the day, tend to come back for Yizkor, the service for remembering the dead. Some have been bereaved this year, others in years past and some come supported by families, perhaps their children, most of whom, we might reasonably hope, have not yet experienced bereavement.

Mourning, loss and remembering play a great part in our lives, as does the certain knowledge that our own days are numbered.

The comfort of believing that we’ll be reunited with our loved ones after death is not available to many of us, these days, even though, every time we recite the Amidah, we say that God revives the dead,.

Our synagogue has a Minhag Group, open to all members, where all aspects of our religious customs come under discussion. One topic which came up, time and time again, because members raised the subject, was the way we handled bereavements and yahrzeits, in synagogue services, for example, before kaddish and in the form of notifications: community email and notice board. There was sometimes a question of which mourners would be named. ‘Father of member’s name,’ would be typical at a yahrzeit, but what if the member isn’t in shul for the yahrzeit? Or, he’s in shul, but wants us to mention that the deceased was grandfather to his children or grandchildren, who are not in shul? Usually, the shaliach tsibbur will read all the names gladly.

Is the feeling which makes the reading of names important different from the feeling that makes us erect a tombstone, light a yahrzeit candle or visit a grave?

Are these questions connected with memorializing, rather than grieving, or is there an overlap? Do social norms influence the way we remember? People sometimes weep when the name of their loved one is read out before kaddish, so it must happen that the respectful ritual of the yahrzeit interacts with the painful sense of loss.

How do we memorialize? With prayers, tombstones, donations; a newborn child of the family may be named after the deceased. We speak of those we have lost, look at photos, movies, voice recordings, if we have these mementos. We research history and genealogy. We value things which belonged to them and things they valued. We feel the loss and, if we lose someone close to us, our lives are never the same.

Psalm 103 tells us that life is short and lives are forgotten, sooner or later. We know this is true for us, as well as those who have gone ahead. How do we want to be remembered, if indeed we expect to be remembered? Some of us contribute to science, the arts, education or the well-being of humanity. Some of us have children. Some of us write wills.

At the Bafta and Oscar award ceremonies, every year now, they play a montage of images of those from the film industry who died in the past year. The names and professions are written underneath the smiling faces. Some are world famous, others are cameramen or costume designers, whose faces most of us don’t recognize. The music accompanying the montage of images adds to their poignancy.

There is a memorial fountain in Hyde Park to Princess Diana. Rabin Square, formerly Kings of Israel Square, in Tel Aviv is named in memory of Yitzhak Rabin. The very famous have airports named after them – not just Kennedy, De Gaulle, Ben Gurion, Indira Gandhi, but Marco Polo and Leonardo da Vinci, and also John Lennon, John Wayne and George Best.

There are prescribed prayers for entering a cemetery, including mechayah hametim. In the El Male Rachamim, we pray for the peace of the soul of the departed; that God will shelter them eternally and bind their soul in the bond of life.

Is the survival of the soul taken for granted in these prayers, or is it a liturgical convention, to speak as if death were not the end of life?

If we are not convinced of a supernal afterlife, is the nature of memorializing in this world even more important?

While I was writing this, an item came on the news about Jo Cox, the murdered MP, and the work she was doing to support a volunteer civil defence organization of neutral, unarmed Syrians, called the White Helmets. It was said that the White Helmets rescue people from danger without ascertaining who they are, or what side they’re on. It seems to me that, if they save lives, and Jo Cox effectively supported their work, that would be one kind of everlasting memorial.

By the next time I open this document, I have read that the White Helmet organization has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It has also been referred to by those who oppose it, as a wing of Al Qaeda. The truth or falsity of this assertion cannot make an iota of difference to the way Jo Cox is remembered. Or can it?

Can we even know what will be memorable, what will have a good outcome and what will be ephemeral, a candle in the wind, as they say, or a flower of the field?

As for ‘everlasting to everlasting,’ me-olam v’ad olam, we invoke it in our liturgy, but, for many of us, it’s just an expression, the poetry and metaphor of prayer.

In death as in life, good intentions can be lost and legacies compromised, but those we loved, we remember with love as long as we live.