Two years ago on Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah, I told you a story about saving a bird from Lailah, one of our killer-cats.  This evening, on Erev Yom Kippur, I’m going to tell you another story about the outcome of another one of Lailah’s hunting expeditions. If you think two tales in two years is a bit much, just imagine, what it’s like to be confronted with the challenge of saving birds and small rodents – or, more frequently, clearing up their remains – two or three times every week… Our vet assures us that the local bird population has not been hideously depleted, but still, the guilt…

Anyway, on this particular occasion, on the second day of my summer break, I saw Lailah in the hallway, lying on the floor next to the recycling bags that I had prepared ready to put out. As I bent down to stroke her, I noticed a sparrow lying in the gap between the wall and the sack of paper. She was perfectly still and I thought she was dead. I went to fetch a container so I could pick her up, but when I bent down again, I saw her right eye flicker and when I lifted her, felt her heart beating rapidly. Carrying the sparrow carefully, I took her outside and placed her on the slate tiles that provide a border around the green roof of the garage. She remained inert and made no attempt to move. I went to fetch water and birdseed and placed these in front of her – still no movement. I then went to the recycling bag containing the cardboard, took out a piece and made a shelter for her, so she would be protected from the sun and from any predators – not least, from Lailah or her sister, Dinah.

Realising that there was no more I could do, I then went to my study to start work on a d’var Torah I was writing for the Leo Baeck College website. An hour later, I decided to check on the sparrow and see how she was. The temporary shelter was empty. She had flown! I was sure of this because had a predator come along the flimsy cardboard shelter would have been dislodged. I felt a huge surge of relief and started to cry.

There are many messages in this story – about: the power of the life force; about the instinct to survive that enabled that small sparrow, petrified with shock, to shut down and then revive when it was safe to do so; about our capacity as human beings to feel compassion and to intervene to save life; about our proclivity, as human beings, who are both ‘creatures’ and creators of culture, to interfere with nature; about the importance of taking action in the moment and being ever-ready to act.

The last time I told you a killer-cat story, it was in the context of reflecting on the extent to which we human beings have or have not evolved beyond our own natural, creaturely killer instincts. This evening, I want to invite you to reflect in another direction – on what makes us different from our fellow creatures. The Torah portion we shall be reading tomorrow afternoon from Leviticus chapter 19 begins with these words (19:1-2):

The Eternal One spoke to Moses saying: / Speak to the entire Israelite community and say to them: You shall be sacred, for I, the Eternal One, your God, am sacred – k’doshim tihyu, ki kadosh, ani, Adonai Eloheychem.

What does this mean? I’ve used the word ‘sacred’ in translating k’doshim – the masculine plural form of the adjective, kadosh, which is usually translated as, ‘holy’. The three Root letters, Kuf Dalet Shin, mean to ‘set apart’, so a more clumsy, but literal translation would be: ‘You shall be set apart, for I, the Eternal One, your God, am set apart.’ The principal themes and concerns of the Book of Leviticus revolve around setting apart: God from the people; the priests from the other Israelites; the Israelites from other peoples; women from men; food sources that may be eaten from those that are prohibited – and with ensuring that those with skin eruptions or experiencing emissions of fluids are segregated outside the camp until they are healed and cleansed.

‘You shall be sacred, for I, the Eternal One, your God, am sacred.’ What does this imply? What do we share with God? The context, here, is with the people Israel, specifically. In B’reishit, the first portion of the Torah, in the first account of creation, we learn at Genesis chapter 1 that while each animal is a ‘living being’ – nefesh chayah (1:24), God has created the human being in, both, male and female forms ‘in the image of God’ – b’tzelem Elohim (1:27).

So, what does it mean to say that each human being is an ‘image of God’? To answer this question, we need to explore the nature of the Divine. From the perspective of Jewish teaching God has no image; the Eternal One is ineffable. A very telling passage in Exodus chapter 33 in parashat Ki Tissa, makes this point very graphically. When Moses asked to see the Divine presence (33:18-23):

God responded ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name of the Eternal, and I will grant the grace that I will grant and show the compassion that I will show. / But [God] said, ‘you cannot see My face, for the human being may not see Me and live.’ / And the Eternal One said, ‘See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock / and, as My presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. / Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.

The Eternal One is a tangible presence, and yet, essentially, unknowable. Nevertheless, the narrative in Ki Tissa, goes on to give a detailed description of God’s attributes. We read at Exodus chapter 34 (:6-7):

The Eternal One passed before him and proclaimed: ‘The Eternal One, the Eternal One, a God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness and truth, / extending loving-kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin; yet [God] does not, indeed, pardon, but visits the iniquity of the parents upon the children and upon the children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.’

This passage includes what later teaching identified as ‘The Thirteen Attributes of God’ – and you may have recognised in these verses a refrain that is repeated in the services for Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur: ‘Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v’chanun, erech apayim v’rav chesed ve’ement…’ and so on. Indeed, in the spirit of the journey towards forgiveness and atonement, when the first rabbis included this text in the liturgy, they edited the last verse, dramatically changing the meaning. Instead of saying v’nakkeih lo y’nakkeh, ‘[God] does not, indeed, pardon’, they cut off the negative statement, lo y’nakkeh, so that the passage concludes positively: ‘forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and pardoning’ – v’nakkeih.[1]

So, how might we apply these verses to ourselves, as human beings made in the Divine image? Might we say that we share God’s attributes? That, like the Eternal One, we are: ‘compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness and truth’? Of course, we are not Divine, and numerous tales in the Torah – not least, the second creation story recounted in Genesis chapters 2 and 3, when the human being becomes a humble gardener, and is then punished for eating the fruit of the forbidden tree – make this abundantly clear. And yet, we are called to aspire to be like God: ‘You shall be sacred, for I, the Eternal One, your God, am sacred.’ We are called to aspire to be ‘compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness and truth’ – because unlike other creatures, we have the gift of consciousness and conscience, and the capacity to discern and to make choices. The portion from the Torah that we will be reading tomorrow morning, from parashat nitzavim, makes this point very powerfully. We read in Deuteronomy chapter 30 (:15; 19):

See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil…. / I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you, life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore you shall choose life – u’vacharta ba-chayyim – if you and your offspring would live.

So, we have the power to choose. This evening, taking my cue from my sparrow-saving escapade, I am inviting us to focus, specifically, on choosing ‘compassion’ and ‘loving-kindness.’  In the passage from Exodus chapter 34, the compassion of the Eternal One is expressed in Hebrew as rachum.[2] Given that the Divine is presented in the Torah so frequently as a mighty warrior and King, it is interesting to note that the Hebrew root Reish Cheit Mem, is also the root of the masculine noun, rechem, meaning, ‘womb’. That the Hebrew word for ‘womb’ should be masculine is perplexing. Equally perplexing, that the, otherwise, male God should have a ‘womb’. Gender confusion apart, the point is that compassion emanates from within us and is a nurturing attribute; the feeling a mother has for her child – or, according to Psalm 103, verse 13,[3] the feeling a father has for his children:

K’racheim Av al-banim, richam Adonai al-y’rei’av.

As a father has compassion upon [his] children, [so] the Eternal One has compassion on those who revere Him.

We might understand from this usage that it is not so much that human beings are created in the image of God; rather God is conceived by us in human terms, with an innate capacity for compassion.  Indeed, humanity has created an image of the Divine that is a mighty representation of all our human attributes and capabilities – encompassing, consciousness, conscience, creativity, compassion, generosity, grace, discernment – as well as, jealousy, rage, and violence.

Human beings are capable of everything – including compassion and loving-kindness – chesed – although these last two qualities are often in short supply. The first rabbis made much of the quality of chesed. Indeed, in Pirkey Avot, the philosophical Sayings of the Sages that is appended to the Mishnah, the first code of Jewish law, edited around the 200 CE, the second paragraph of chapter 1, quotes a saying of Shimon the Just: ‘The world stands on three things: al ha-Torah, ‘on [the] Torah’, v’al ha-avodah, ‘and on [the] service’, v’al g’milut chasadim, ‘and on deeds of loving-kindness’. Torah: the teaching of God; Avodah: the service of God; g’milut chasadim: the loving way in which we serve our fellow human beings. In a sense, this is the Jewish ‘holy Trinity’ – the triangle that frames our relationship with the Divine and with one another. Chesed is the kind of love that is expressed in acts of kindness. Indeed, the word, g’milut, from the root, Gimmel Mem Lamed, ‘to deal fully will adequately with’ or ‘to deal out’, implies action which brings a benefit to others. To practice g’milut chasadim is to engage in ‘love’s work’ – to borrow a phrase from the philosopher, the late Gillian Rose.[4] Compassion and loving-kindness are only meaningful in as far as they are practised.

Two days after I rescued that sparrow, I had a fascinating glimpse of how Christians conceive this chesed kind of love, when I attended a meeting of the Council of Christians and Jews Theology Group that I belong to. We are engaged in a three-year project to write a book together that will provide a new approach to Jewish Christian relations and understanding. Each meeting is taken up with considering a pair of chapters, one by a Jew and one by a Christian. For the last 45 minutes of the day we then engage in text study together. On this particular occasion, we looked at a passage in the New Testament, in the First Book of Corinthians, chapter 13 (:1-13) on the theme of ‘love’ – a particular form of love, called agape in the Greek (which is quite different from passionate love, known as eros).[5] As we were reflecting on the text, it occurred to me that agape is akin to chesed – an impression that was underlined by the conclusion of the passage, at verse 13 which emphasised three qualities: ‘and now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love – agape.’

Compassion and deeds of loving-kindness: what a difference might we make to the world if our actions were guided by these qualities! This evening, as we embark on the most sacred day of the Jewish year, we are challenged to reflect on our actions of the past year and our relationships with others. Pirkey Avot records a teaching of the sage, Hillel, ‘if I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? (1:14). ‘Now’ is today. Today is about acknowledging that our lives matter and that we have the power to choose how we will live. In his book, Hasidism and Modern Man, Martin Buber,[6] reflected on why it was important for each individual – and I quote – ‘to search their own heart, choose their particular way, bring about the unity of their being, begin with the self…’ But Buber was clear that this quest was not for the sake of the individual alone. He concluded (p.62):

To begin with oneself, but not to end with oneself; to start from oneself, but not to aim at oneself; to comprehend oneself, but not to be preoccupied with oneself . . .

Today we are summoned to begin with ourselves, but not to end with ourselves. Today is the gift of a day, a precious space to consider how aware we are of ourselves and of other people, near and far. Today is the moment to pledge ourselves to develop our capacity for compassion and our commitment to act lovingly. Drawing on the companionship of our shared journey here today, may each one of us find the resources within ourselves to renew our lives for our own sakes and for the sake of the world. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut

Erev Yom Kippur 5774 – 13th September 2013

[1] The Thirteen attributes derived by the rabbis: The Eternal One [1 – compassion before a person sins], the Eternal One [2 – compassion after a person has sinned], a God [3 – mighty in compassion to give all creatures according to their need], compassionate [4] and gracious [5], slow to anger [6] and abundant in loving-kindness [7] and truth [8], / extending loving-kindness to the thousandth generation [9], forgiving iniquity [10], transgression [11] and sin [12]; and pardoning [13].

[2] Elsewhere in the Tanach – the Hebrew Bible – and also in rabbinic literature, the absolute masculine plural noun, rachamim, is used.

[3] Psalm 103 is read at funeral services and also on Yom Kippur – although the version included in the Liberal prayerbook, Machzor Ru’ach Chadashah (Liberal Judaism, 2003), does not include verse 133 (see, p.177). Psalm 103 also quotes Exodus chapter 34, verse 6, ‘The Eternal One is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness.’

[4] Gillian Rose, Love’s Work: A Reckoning With Life (1995).

[5] If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,but have not love, I gain nothing.Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

[6] Humanities Press International, 1958.