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Erev Rosh Hashanah   5779 - Rabbi Celia 

It is an unverified story- the kind you wish you had paid closer attention to when you heard it perhaps as a fleeting moment on the radio, perhaps watching a random programme on television- as you were really focusing on something else: let’s say, for the sake of the season, trying to successfully get out at least one decent honey cake. The kind of story you think “that could find its place in a sermon” and then forget about it… because the honey cake has actually become a caramelized mess.

It is thought that in 1874 Camille Saint-Saens was the first classical composer to make use of the xylophone in one of his compositions, the Danse Macabre, to imitate the rattle of bones. Until that point the xylophone had been used almost exclusively for popular festivals and fairs. The one little fact that I cannot seem to verify is that this was such a rare use of the instrument, that Saint-Saens is thought to have written on the sheet music the address of the music store in which such an instrument of good quality could be purchased. What is surprising though, is that while demonstrating such detailed care to ensure the highest quality performance of his piece of music, Saint-Saens then allowed his friend Franz Liszt to adapt the Danse Macabre for piano.

Whether true or not, I have to admit, I love this story- the idea of someone taking a leap of faith and putting their trust in someone else, renouncing a certain amount of control and allowing something so diligently written to develop into something that retains the essence but not the form, holds a certain appeal. Letting go is such a difficult thing to do- and no I am not about to break into a Disney song here, mainly because we are not speaking of living our lives outside of the boundaries set by society but truly about our ability, or rather our inability to see past the minute details and take the time to consider the greater picture. If Saint-Saens had not looked past his piece, there is a good chance that the Danse Macabre would have remained the not so well received piece of music that it was, and would not have become the very popular hit that  it is today.

And so it goes with the High Holydays, and how we experience them- we are given a rather strict framework from which to work. Clear (well hopefully clear) instructions as to the choreography that we should observe, when to stand, when to sit, when to remain quiet, when to join in. That structure can feel incredibly reassuring from year to year, especially in a context when some may feel uncomfortable or vulnerable with the machzor, as regular synagogue attendance is not necessarily the way every Jew chooses to express or to practice their Judaism. And it could feel stifling and rigid to others. The tunes we hear and that we might join in with will can sound beautiful, reassuring, familiar or they might evoke weariness or not be what we are looking for. These are details that will hugely impact on our experience of the High Holydays, but they remain details, as are others that will also have an impact on our high holydays- the slanted ground in the marquee, will it be too warm tomorrow in the tent, or too cold on Yom Kippur? It might rain, it might even rain inside the tent, the sound might not be perfect, the heaters might be noisy, there might be, probably will be, some confusion around the mitzvot, and if you are really lucky, one of your rabbis will once again fall face first on the High street (I’ll let you guess which of the two it was). But beyond those details, what remains, what will capture the essence of Radlett Reform is actually the sense of togetherness, the way in which we will great each other, support each other, celebrate and mourn together- that is who we are as a community. Let us have the courage to trust each other and trust in each other that we all strive for a vibrant, caring and supportive community, and let us not be weighed down by solely focusing on the minutia that is sometimes, and perhaps all too often, insignificant.

We have 10 days ahead of us, 10 days to let the words we will read or hear permeate our beings, and to truly capture the essence of what they are meant to do- to help us take a journey that can be challenging, difficult, empowering, emotional, fulfilling and meaningful.

Rabbi Harold Shulweis, z”l, expressed the following, which can be an aspiration for these Days of Awe:

Think ought.

Not what is a Jew, but what ought a Jew to be.

Not what is a synagogue, but what ought a synagogue to be.

Not what prayer is, but what prayer ought to be.

Not what ritual is, but what ritual ought to be.

Focus from is to ought, and our mindset is affected. Is faces me toward the present; ought turns me to the future. Ought challenges my creative imagination and opens me to the realm of possibilities and responsibilities to realize yesterday’s dream.

Ought and is are complementary. Without an is, the genius of our past and present collective wisdom is forgotten. Without an ought, the great visions of tomorrow fade.

Ought demands not only a knowledge of history but of exciting expectation. Is is a being, ought is a becoming.

Ought emancipates me from status quo thinking.

Ought is the freedom of spirit.

Ought we not Ought?

Camille Saint-Saens would not have read this poem, it is chronologically impossible, and yet it does feel like he asked “what ought the Danse Macabre be”, and not what is it, and what should it remain.

As the new year opens, may 5779 be a year of personal endeavours and successes, a year of growth and learning, a year of fulfilled aspirations and challenges overcome. May we learn to identify that which will constrain us and prevent us from thriving, and have the courage to look past and beyond to what ought to be, to the greatness we are each capable of achieving.


Rabbi Celia Surget





Tue, 20 October 2020 2 Cheshvan 5781