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Sermons and Thoughts

My word of the year 5781: ‘Schönreden’

28 September 2020
Rabbi Lea Mühlstein
Sermon Yom Kippur

My sisters and I have perfected a certain art – in German it is called ‘schönreden.’ When I searched online dictionaries to find the ‘proper’ translation, I was offered several options: to play down, gloss over or whitewash something. But none of these capture what ‘schönreden’ is all about, giving a rather negative twist to something powerful and beautiful.

So instead of translating the term, let me give you an example. My family enjoys going hiking together but every so often we get completely lost. So now we are walking somewhere, none of us quite sure where, and everyone is growing more and more frustrated (normally directly proportional to growing more tired and more hungry). This is when the art of ‘schönreden’ comes to the rescue – instead of starting to moan and growl at each other (someone surely must be to blame for us getting lost), you focus on the beautiful things around you that you would have missed if you had not strayed down the wrong path – a beautiful ancient tree, a lovely mountain lake, colourful beetles or the opportunity for an extended chat about the meaning of life.

I hope that this example can illustrate that rather than being a negative thing that denies the reality that we face, ‘schönreden’ is actually what in Judaism we would call the art of counting our blessings.

I am sure I am not alone in feeling that the past few months have taken the world down some long windy road, which feels anything but the correct path with the end fading further and further from sight. And I am also sure that I am not alone in feeling a growing sense of frustration and, maybe above all, a deep fatigue. And so, while Yom Kippur is normally a day when we look at all the times when we missed the mark, focus on what we could have done to head down the correct path, I want to encourage us this year to muster our strength to proceed on this narrow path presented to us right now and embrace the art of ‘schönreden.’

Because I think more than anything else, we need hope right now. As my colleague Rabbi Stephanie Kolin of Union Temple of Brooklyn points out, the Jewish tradition is full of texts that posit hope or try to instil hope. In the Psalms, we read – “we go to sleep crying, but joy comes in the morning.” We sing “those who sow in tears will reap in joy.”

We learn a midrash of Adam and Eve on their very first day on earth. They are so afraid as the sun goes down. It gets darker and darker and they are terrified, thinking maybe the sun won’t come back. But at the break of dawn, the sun rises again. And they are calmed and relieved and grateful.
Throughout history, especially at times when life was tough, Jews have recognised the importance of hope. Many of you will be familiar with the story, which Rabbi Hugo Gryn told of his father in the winter of 1944, while they were together in a concentration camp called Lieberose. Having announced that it was the eve of Chanukah, he took a homemade clay bowl and lit a wick immersed in his precious, now melted ration of margarine. Before he could recite the blessing, Hugo looked at his father and protested “we need the food – we can’t afford to waste it on a candle.” His father looked at Hugo—and then at the lamp—and responded, “You and I have seen that it is possible to live up to three weeks without food. We once lived almost three days without water; but you can’t live a day without hope.”

But where can we find hope?

Well, this is where ‘schönreden’ comes in. One of the most powerful aspects of ‘schönreden’ is that you do it in conversation so that hopefully at times when we hit rock bottom we can find someone to lift us. Or we can find resilience from within and have a very private conversation with ourselves.
To inspire your own ‘schönreden’ let me share a few of my personal highlights that I need to be reminded of to lift me up as I look at the winter ahead.
I have been blown away by the generosity of a new sharing culture that has emerged over the past few months – from small acts of sharing errand runs with neighbours, to musicians and artists sharing their work freely, to the hundreds of facebook groups that have sprung up where people offer free advice and inspirations on anything ranging from zoom challenges to sharing sermon resources and prayer ideas. Who would have thought that more than 2800 people from around the world would gather virtually to “Dream Up High Holy Days 2020.”

I have been inspired by the creativity that has emerged over the past few months and that has allowed us to ellevate the talents of so many of our members – and even their pets.

A wonderful example of this creativity will also be today’s additional service starting at 1pm, which our Judi Herman has created together with Finchley Progressive Synagogue’s member and professional actor Elliot Levey. The service will feature music both choral and solo from NPLS choir and soloists and FPS members and professional musicians Dean Staker and Franklyn Gellnick. Among the readings of well-loved poetry and prose from this service, you’ll hear some thought-provoking new additions. Legendary singer Paul Robeson’s passionate love of Judaism is also spotlighted, with a chance to be stirred by his extraordinary voice singing in Yiddish.

And now that I have got into the swing of my ‘schönreden’ there is, of course, also the heightened sense of empathy and willingness to support each other that we have witnessed around us. There is my deep gratitude for recognising the many privileges that I personally enjoy – a lovely home, a secure and rewarding job, and above all else a loving husband with whom I now get to spend much more time than ever before and without whom I would not be fed or clothed and our house would have descended into chaos as he has been shouldering all the household jobs without a single word of complaint, allowing me to learn completely new skills like sound checking and operating cameras.

Watching all of you, our incredible congregation and your willingness to adapt to change and embrace it, has given me resilience and inspiration to not just accept change but celebrate it: what an incredible six months it has been to reflect on what is dear to us and what we probably wanted to change a long time ago but never quite got round to.

The Talmudic character, who for me embodies the art of ‘schönreden’ best, is Yochanan ben Zakkai who is said to have escaped burning Jerusalem in a coffin. The temple was destroyed, Judaism as he knew it lay in ruins, he had lost all worldly goods and he wept. He descended into despair but when he regained strength, he started to rebuild a new Judaism. He couldn’t turn back the clocks to life as it was and instead focused on that which had potential – inventing a vibrant Judaism as we know it today.

Yom Kippur is in our tradition described as a day of rebirth – we dress in white, the colour in which one day we shall be buried. We are reminded that we stand at a crossroads, so let me borrow the beautiful words of the illustrator and poet Joanne Fink:

Each step of our journey leaves an indelible mark on our souls.
The challenges you have been facing have forced you to grow in ways you might never have imagined.
Before everything changed…
Before the curveball rocked your world.
Before your life veered unexpectedly towards an unknown destination.
Before you became so weary that you weren’t sure you could take another step.
Before you began to open your heart to possibility.
Before you discovered that love makes the journey worthwhile.
And now, you stand here: at the crossroads of your old life
and the person you are becoming.
Celebrate the opportunity to re-envision your life’s purpose
The time will come for your soul to soar.
Transition leads to transformation,
and you are on the path to wholeness.

As we cast our eyes towards what will be for many of us a long dark winter, let us embrace the word ‘schönreden’ as our word for the year 5781. Let us recognise that the time will come for our soul to soar, that transition leads to transformation. Let us embrace hope even at times of sorrow, hardship and darkness. The great liturgical poet Marcia Falk puts it so beautiful:

Like awakening after a long illness
to find your health stole back in while you slept,
your sorrow, in its time, will retreat,
and the knowledge you carried all along
will re-emerge, whole and cleansed.
One day you will not thrash in the too-bright light,
looking for a corner in which to close your eyes.
One morning the weight will not be there
beneath your eyelids, the first thing you wake to;
it will not settle on your tongue like a lump of salt.
And because you have stayed this long
unrelenting, in the unrelenting world,
you know that time, though imperfect,
is diligent, and wrestles down grief,
and that all things are born small
and grow large –
except grief, which is born large
and grows small.

And so I pray that we shall all find strength from this community, from the power of this most Holy Day to embrace hope, which reminds us that sorrows while born large will slowly grow smaller and that even in the darkness, beauty is hidden we just have to shine a light on it.

Ken yehi ratzon – for this is God’s will.