Dust with Power – Yom Kippur Kol Nidre Sermon 2020

Kol Nidre Sermon 2020 Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue

Dust can Do

I grew up as a young child in the 1960’s.   One of my strongest memories of that part of my life was sitting watching the black and white television when the first man walked on the moon.   Humankind was reaching out for the big, the huge – conquering space over hundreds of thousands of miles.   We were heading for the infinite.


The threats we faced were huge – the Soviet Union and the United States pushing at their boundaries holding the world to ransom with nuclear weapons.  On our streets we faced the threats of the the Red Army faction and the IRA making our everyday lives unsafe.


It was also the time when people began to listen properly to Holocaust survivors, by the time I was a teenager we were being told as young Jews that people who had been our age at the time just a few years ago could live in a society so anti-Semitic that their lives were at risk from Nazi murderers every day.  The threats that faced us and the opportunities we had were so big.


In 2020 – the past Jewish year 5780 – the threats that we are all living with are now as small as can be.  What we are now trying to explore and conquer are not the stars but viruses.   These really are as numerous as the stars of heaven.   There are an estimated 1031 viruses on Earth. That is to say: there may be a hundred million times more viruses on Earth than there are stars in the universe.


The majority of these viruses infect microbes, all of which are vital players in the global fixation and cycling of key elements such as carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus.   [The Scientist June 2013]  A litre of sea water contains 100 billion virions, complete virus cells.  A kilogramme of dried soil perhaps 1 trillion. [Economist August 22 2020].   There are probably around 1.5 million virus species, many essential to the continuation of life on earth of which around 700,000 can have a direct impact on human beings.   In the 2020 it is going to be the smallest things that determine the challenges that we are going to face.


The Psalm that opens several of our High Holy Days services tells us that we have always had to be conscious of how much we humans are affected by the very small because that is our basic component.


Bar’chi Nafshi, Psalm 103 asks that our soul lives in blessing of God – because God remembers that we are dust – God knows our nature, our days are like grass, we flourish like a flower in the field, the wind passes over and we are gone.


This year more than any other in recent memory has seen the tiny cells that make up a human being confront another tiny cell that has invaded our bodies.   This threat Covid-19, 100 nanonmeters in diameter (10 millionths of a metre) caused tragic loss of our much loved Rabbi and nearly 30 beloved members of our EHRS community, several hundred in our Jewish community, blighted the families of 42,000 in our nation and nearly a million in the world.   The Covid 19 particles are so small that they make a dust particle seem like a giant – it is a thousand times smaller than any of them.     No wonder that we need to take extraordinary precautions to avoid catching Covid from each other.


This is where religion comes in.   Religion gives us a way to live with the dangers of the world and to see our lives on a much larger stage.   It tells us always to respond to loss.  It tells us not to stay scared, but instead to turn to responsibility, to partnership with God.


Bar’chi Nafshi, the Psalm we sing on the High Holidays, pictures God as a loving and tender parent, using the Hebrew word for womb, rachem (vs13).   This is a parent who helps us to be mighty, gibborim in the Hebrew (v20) using the Hebrew word for a warrior – people of strength.   How can dust be strong?   It is through our response to our world, our willingness to act responsibly for the future.

2020 has taught us a huge lesson in respect.   This so tiny virus has taught us how much we have to respect ourselves.  We have had to learn that our very existence is more important than our productivity.   We have had to make a huge change to our way of life in order to stay alive – one which has fearsome effects on our economy and way of being together, but which has meant that we can at least keep the virus from wreaking even more destruction.


We have learned that it is our responsibility to protect others, by wearing masks, by accepting the so tough situation of turning our Synagogue services on this most special of days to an online experience so that we do not risk infecting each other and the society around us.  We have learned to keep in contact with friends and family by unfamiliar and less intimate means than we would like.   As Australian writer Matisse Walkden-Brown writes:  This year we saw our caregivers and caretakers possibly for the first time and realised how much their role in protecting us matters. We really spoke to our families. The [experience of the virus] shone a spotlight on the parts of society that don’t matter, don’t work or are designed in bad faith.


At the same time this year has taught us to respect our planet.    Wildfires have caused huge destruction in Australia, California and Brazil and the lesson of responsibility for changing life to reign in climate change was writ large.   But so too the reduction in air travel this year, the reduction of traffic on our roads, the need for outdoor space to cope with the restrictions of the lockdown must not be lost on us.   We were forced to give the Earth a breathing space.   Coming out of this virus driven experience we cannot return to choking her.


The year taught us to respect each other.   Seeing a man, George Floyd, choked to death on an American street by a power that totally failed to respect him even when he cried out, made us look at how true it was to say that we respect each other.   We realised that in way too many situations around the world Black lives had been considered to matter less than white.   Jews who know that in the words of our Bar’chi Nafshi psalm we are all God’s children cannot stand by and do nothing about this.


We even discovered in our own congregation that there have been times and places where black families have faced mean spiritedness from their fellow members.


We have also been forced to understand that isolated people must be respected.  This year has shown those who were willing to see, that many people live lives with far too little contact with others for their mental health.  Our EHRS community circles have created contact that must not be lost in the future.  The year calls for a redoubling of our effort to be a community that makes proactive contact with each other and helps to lessen isolation.


Yom Kippur always gives us a remedy for the year ahead.   There is a sense on Yom Kippur the world is on a trajectory that we can affect.   When we sing Un’taneh Tokef, the medieval poem which tries to deal with the inevitability that we cannot be in control of everything, the poem which speaks of who shall live and who shall die, we end with a hopeful refrain.  These words, pictured on the tree design which Rabbi Emily made as a backdrop to our Learning and Soul Channel, U’teshuvah, U’Tefillah, U’tzedakah maavarin et roah hagezerah – that Teshuvah, return, Tefillah, prayer and Tzedakah, will remove the harshness of our destiny.


This year tzedakah must be at the forefront.  That is the Jewish and human responsibility to act in the way that we can to make balance, and righteousness in the world.   In many places people are writing of our return to at best a 90% economy.   We are not just going back to 2019.   The journey ahead is uncertain of course.


What would be tragic is if we accompanied a 90% economy with 90% care for each other.    The issues in the world that needed our attention in 2019 still need our willingness to engage in tzedakah with and for each other.

We still need to help relieve homelessness, we still need to find the cures and relieve the effects of Cancer and Aids, we still need to feed the hungry around the world and help development in places where poverty is endemic.   This cannot run at 90% or less in the year ahead.   But we are in grave danger of doing so as we reduce our care for others as we worry about ourselves.   Respecting ourselves, our planet and others means that tzedakah should not reduce this year leaving charities and care organisations unable to do their work.

Judaism recognises that we are dust and that the tiniest wind can knock us down, such as this infinitesimal but awful virus, but Judaism also asks great things of us.    The final words of Avinu Malkeinu has great expectations of what we can achieve:   Avinu Malkenu, answer us with Your grace, for we lack good deeds; deal with us in charity and love, and save us.  We apologise for our lack of good deeds, ma’asim tovim, deeds for which we have the potential but don’t do enough of in the year.


So too when we confess in al chet shechetanu, we confess to the times that we have been hard hearted, imutz ha’lev.   We rightly set ourselves up for high standards.      Though we can be brought low by a virus smaller than dust, we can be brought up on high by the way that we deal with the world in front of us by good deeds and open hearts.

May we this year respect ourselves, our planet and each other and use our power to do good deeds and to care to make the future better than our past.  Jews know how to cross the Red Sea, cross over the Jordan into the Promised Land, survive persecution and willful destruction.   May we use those skills of resilience personally and communally in this year ahead.