To be – to choose life – to be written in the book of life.
A sermon this year for Rosh Hashanah – there’s so much to think about and reflect upon. I’m sure my colleagues will run the full gamut of issues but much as I’m drawn to the issue of narcissistic leadership and truth, the start of the new year is not the time or the place. In any case, this week I was in the stunning Sir John Ritblat gallery of the British Library, as I attended the launch of a new digital project to put their sacred religious treasures online. The medieval illuminated Hebrew manuscripts were entrancing for someone who teaches and studies our literature as an academic and rabbi. In the same week, I attended a baby blessing for one of our youngest members of our community and was shown a sneak preview of a soon to be released photography exhibition entitled ‘Jew’ by John Offenbach. I could have spent hours staring into the eyes of Jews from every corner of the world and being lost in the history of our people carried in their faces, their countenance as the rabbis called it – the baby was the next member of the tribe. And then I visited my father in hospital and across the hospital bay, after a touch of ‘I think they’re Jewish too’ the patient calls me to his bedside and says to me ‘I’m a member at Upper Berkeley Street you know’. Cue impromptu pastoral visit! Our people have survived no thanks to politics but because of memory, because of how we see the world through the prism of our texts, because of connections one landsman to another (and not that Lansman)! And so I wanted to think not about the soul of politics but our souls this Rosh Hashanah, our lives our wellbeing.
I’ve been studying midrashim for our Lyons Learning Project course on a Wednesday night. Midrash are the soaring literature of the rabbis from 2000 years ago which address the matters of the spirit of Jews living in the midst of the Roman empire and point to the fleeing nature of life, the ineffable mystery of God and search for meaning through Judaism. In these texts we’ve discovered the heart of this time of year is not God’s judgement but human action and agency. The midrashim affirm over and over again that we have the power to make choices. In them the rabbis calculate that tonight is the night when humankind was created – the 6th day of creation. They note that our lives in the year ahead are not pre-determined but full of choice – the midrash says that Rosh Hashanah was not only when humankind was created but also the day that God forgave Adam and Eve:
“The Holy One said to them: Let the fact that you go free be a sign for your children. Even as you came into My presence for judgement on this day and went forth free, so will your children come into My presence for judgment on this day and go forth free.” (P’sikta d’Rav Kahanna 23:1)
This is a day of judgement, Yom HaDin, but it is also a day of freedom. And so I want to talk with you this evening about a freedom – not of politics or rights – but of well-being. The freedom to choose life – to live, to live well.
The Lyons Learning Project courses this year almost all have an aspect of wellbeing about them. I listened to a ted-talk on the way to work two years ago. April 2017. A simple talk about health-span – not the length of your life but the time you feel well, productive, youthful engaged, healthy. It got me thinking about the massive, looming challenges we have with dementia, neurological diseases, cardio-vascular disease, diabetes, cancer – trust me I know. Our social care system simply cannot cope – there is not enough resource and most of us don’t have enough money to pay for it anyway. The NHS strains against the challenges of taking care of people. And so many of us labour away in a world of deep emotional turmoil.
Now I can tell you this personally. When I went on sabbatical in December, I had four goals to achieve in the three months. To spend more time with my incredible children and even more incredible wife, to write a chapter of my PhD, to develop my spiritual practice and to be more healthy – that last one was nice and vague. Really I just wanted to fit back into my suit that my waist had outgrown. Nothing happened for the first 6 weeks. Well, not an awful lot. I wrote poetry in the darkness of the night:
To be gathered
To be torn asunder
To be broken
To still be…
My father’s chemotherapy did not work as planned and the last 8 months have been a whirlwind dance of miraculous nurses and doctors. Several times we found ourselves in A+E with two family members admitted on the same night. Cancer and broken bones, Parkinsons disease and heart failure. These have been the hidden lives we carried behind masks and my sabbatical was spent with the double blessing of taking care of my father, who through sheer defiance, is still with us today.
Yet, when I had written that chapter of my PhD and embraced my children I started to think about the danger of obesity (my own), of type 2 diabetes (my risk), of shortening my health-span and I realised that: if Judaism is a religion of life – we choose life after all; if Judaism is a religion of responsibility not rights – we talk of commandments after all; if Judaism is a religion of visions of the future – the messianic age is our timeline after all; then I too had to think about these challenges for us as a community. Brexit, antisemitism and the rise of populism may be on the agenda, but they’re not the only agenda. Our spirit, our relationships, the health of our planet – these are matters of urgency too.
The ted-talk in April 2017 suddenly came back to me. Nobel prize winning Dr Elizabeth Blackburn – at the age of 69 had just written her first book. Her Nobel prize was 8 years previously for her work on telomerase. I’m not going to get technical, my PhD is in rabbinics not biology, but her ted-talk discussing the world of the telomeres was startling. Telomeres are on the end of DNA strands and act a bit like the aglet on the end of a shoelace – that bit of plastic that stops the lace fraying. Each time your cells reproduce, the telomeres get shorter and there is a connection between that shortening and aging and the shortening of our health span. Dr Blackburn’s work with her colleagues and particularly Professor Elissa Eppel demonstrated a link between life and human physiology at a micro-cellular level. Increased stress had the potential to shorten telomeres and shorten our health-span. Yet resilience was a possibility too.
This is what she says in her ted-talk:
“a study from the University of California, Los Angeles of people who are caring for a relative with dementia, long-term, and looked at their caregiver’s telomere maintenance capacity and found that it was improved by them practicing a form of meditation for as little as 12 minutes a day for two months. Attitude matters…”
She goes on to say:
“we started to wonder, what about factors outside our own skin? … the results have been startling. As early as childhood, emotional neglect, exposure to violence, bullying and racism all impact your telomeres, and the effects are long-term…So your home address matters for telomeres as well. On the flip side, tight-knit communities, being in a marriage long-term, and lifelong friendships, even, all improve telomere maintenance.”
Health-spans are affected by our relationships, our communities, our resilience to stress, meditation – dare we say spiritual practice and prayer…It’s not that we won’t get ill and Dr Blackburn will warn you against the snake-oil sellers, as will I, but if we’re exploring what it means to live well, to take seriously our wellbeing, then perhaps we need to take the matters of the spirit, physical and mental health into a wider consideration this Rosh Hashanah.
From that was born the Lyons Learning Project ‘Be’er Chayyim’ project – the Living Well project. Our Torah is a living well and Judaism teaches that we should ‘live well’. I started to put together my thoughts around what this would look like. A focus on change, regularly learning, spiritual practice, awareness of our relationships, giving and receiving to others, being mindful of what we put in our mouth and what comes out of it in our speech. That’s why I’m leading tashlich tomorrow – to live well with a walk in Hyde Park.
There is so much more to say on this subject of well-being but for that you’ll have to join my learning, or at least become a supporter of the work of the Lyons Learning Project as we start a new year in which we hope to grow a national programme – and need some serious funding for that to happen. There’s more to say about this in so many ways whether it’s the narcissism of social media or the language we use in public or how we are rapaciously consuming the material world for our own pleasure. All of this ties into our well-being.
And by the time we reach the end of this year of learning we’ll also start to reflect on these questions as matters of justice too. When the NHS has a campaign that asserts obesity is the new smoking it’s because we live in a world of limited resources and in that world the challenge of how the resources are spent and our responsibility become ever more pressing.
We need to lean in, reach up and sign out if we are going to be healthier and more resilient in the future.
We need to lean in – connect with our fellow human beings in serious, hard working relationships, to build trust in that painstaking way of small acts of loyalty that release the oxytocin. The midrash I mentioned at the start of my sermon (P’sikta d’Rav Kahanna 23:5) tells us that if we look one verse up from the instruction of Rosh Hashanah in Leviticus 23:22-24 we read about giving charity. To be human with choices is to care. To care like the health carers, to care like the person who stops to help an old lady on the escalator on the tube. To care like the person who checks in on their frail neighbour when the snow falls.
To reach up – to hone our sense of the grandeur of the world and our place within it and breathe in the majesty of the universe. To see ourselves as the last of creation – that we are formed in the image of God and yet we are the last to be thought of – no more significant than anything else in the universe. The tightrope we walk between our mortality and the wonderment of what we can achieve points to the ineffable all the time.
To sign out – to spurn the quick hits of dopamine likes on facebook and Instagram to find them elsewhere in the achievements of learning and thinking or doing. To remember like the greatest section of the Talmud on the power of speech reminds us – Bava Metzia 58b – words create and easy, lazy speech is not just harmful to us but destructive. As Shimon ben Gamliel says: “I have found nothing better for a person than silence…” (Avot 1:17) Or as we studied last week: Shammai (from the turn of the common era), “used to say: make your [study of the] Torah a fixed practice; speak little, but do much; and receive all people with a pleasant countenance.” (Avot 1:15)
This Rosh Hashanah our resolution must be to take our well being more serious and to encounter Judaism as a living-well. To say less, to do more, to learn more and to be more pleasant to our fellow human beings.
Then we will have chosen to be well.
So I hope that this year you will choose well and we will all find ourselves in the book of choosing life. Shanah Tovah!
(Here’s the Tedtalk)