Good afternoon everyone. It is wonderful to be here and to participate once again in the annual Brighton and Hove Interfaith service.
The theme of today’s service, as we know, is listening. For Jews, listening is an imperative: Sh’ma! ‘Listen!’ The central statement of Jewish theology and practice, expressed in the Hebrew Bible in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 6, declares (verse 4):
Sh’ma! Yisraeil, Adonai, Eloheinu, Adonai echad.
Listen! Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is one.
Importantly, in the related paragraph that follows, the imperative to listen, is immediately translated into the obligation to act:
You shall love the Eternal your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. / And these words that I command you today shall be in your heart. / And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit at home, and when you walk along the way, when you lie down and when you rise up. / And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. / And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house, and on your gates.
So, we are commanded to listen out for the voice of the Eternal, and to translate the teachings we receive into practice.
The account of Revelation in the Torah, in Exodus chapters 19 and 20, describes the rabble of ex-slaves huddled at the foot of the quaking Mountain, listening to the voice of the Eternal One. The narrative then concludes at Exodus 24, with the sealing of the covenant between the Eternal One and the rabble who have been transformed in that covenantal moment into a people. The people declare their consent: Na’aseh v’nishma, ‘We will do, and we will listen’ (verse 7).
So, the rabble having become a people in the act of listening; pledge themselves to act on what they had heard and to continue to listen.
But what does it mean to listen to the Eternal One? How do we listen to the Eternal One today? By listening to one another; by listening to the plural voices of God’s plural creation. And acting on what we hear; by practising compassion – rachamim – and deeds of loving kindness – g’milut chasadim.
Since a covenant is an agreement between at least two parties, the listening involved is not simply one way. In the central prayer of Jewish worship, recited three times a day, evening, morning and afternoon, the last blessing of a section of 13 petitionary blessings, begins with these words:
Sh’ma koleinu! Hear our voice! Eternal One our God, and have compassion on us, and accept with compassion and favour, our prayer.
Sh’ma koleinu! Again, listening is expressed as an imperative: Sh’ma! Except with these words the people are calling on God to listen.
During the annual season of the ‘days of awe’ that begins with the New Year, Rosh Ha-Shanah, and concludes with the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, these words become a poignant call for God’s mercy, sung with a melody that expresses deep longing.
I shall conclude by sharing the melody with you, which ends with the penultimate verse of the Book of Lamentations in the Hebrew Bible; the verse which accompanies the closing of the Holy Ark, at the end of the Torah reading service (5:21):
Return us, Eternal One, to You and we shall return, renew our days as of old.
Sh’ma koleinu, Adonai, Eloheinu, chus v’racheim aleinu,
v’kabbeil b’rachamim u’v’ratzon et-t’fillateinu.
Hashivenu, Adonai, eilekha, v’nashuvah,
chaddeish yameinu k’kedem.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
B&H Annual Interfaith Service
Hove Methodist Church
26 November 2017