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Rabbi Deborah Blausten

1st Day Rosh Hashana 5781

You can listen to Rabbi Deborah’s sermon, together with Cantor Zöe singing Sa’akhi, Sa’akhi or read the sermon below.

When McDonalds opened its first store in Moscow in 1990 they faced a host of challenges. They brought a menu full of unfamiliar dishes and ingredients that needed importing, the logo was in the Latin alphabet, and indeed the very idea of fast food was a relative novelty. 

But their big hurdle wasn’t the bureaucracy, buildings or the burgers, it was far smaller, and it couldn’t be solved with clever branding and new supply chains. Their big hurdle was the smile.

In the Russia of the 1990s, what was known as the American smile had a bad reputation. “In Russia, we don’t smile at strangers” explained Yuri, one of the first employees at the new store. “We have a lot of proverbs that say, if you smile without a reason, it’s a sign of idiocy”. 

As far as Yuri was concerned, smiles are personal, real, intimate, and to be saved for the moments that really deserve them. But to McDonald’s, their smiling servers were non-negotiable. They were an essential part of creating the happy, easy, and fun culture that made up the restaurant experience. 

And so, the McDonald’s team got to work with training videos, role-plays, and a special phrase book, and when the new restaurant opened, it had a shining, smiling team and some slightly bemused and nervous customers.

 Despite his concerns, Yuri described the first customers as being “really happy”. The smiles, it seemed, worked. They offered an alternative mood and just as was hoped they created a distinctive culture. Yuri and his colleagues noticed calmer and happier customers as a result. 

So far, so good it seems, but while smiles make customers happy, the emotional labour of smiling isn’t so good for the staff whose job it is to wear them. Researchers have shown that whilst customers enjoy the experience more, staff whose jobs require a perma-grim experience high levels of dissatisfaction and a sense of disconnection. The dissonance between how they feel and how they must act leads, over time, to emotional exhaustion, burnout, and low job satisfaction. 

Smiling culture is performative, it hands employees a set of emotions and requires them to express them. In that sense, I think there is a parallel for us to consider this morning when our religious life does something similar to us. What happens to us when the words spoken in synagogue, and the things we feel and know from our experience exist in conflict?

The first paragraph of the Amidah, our central daily prayer that we have just concluded, contains a description of God that is borrowed from Moses in Deuteronomy (10:17)- האל הגדול הגבור והנורא which our prayer book translates as the great, mighty and awesome God. Yet, as the Rabbis of the Talmud observe, there are some occasions in the Torah where one of those descriptors is dropped. Something happens, and the script falls away- the actors are unable to perform. 

The first example that they give is in the book of Jeremiah. After the destruction of the second temple, surrounded by profound and overwhelming loss, Jeremiah calls out to God using the words האל הגדול והגבור, leaving out הנורא, the awesome, because he couldn’t see evidence of God’s awesome deeds that had previously saved Israel from destruction at the hands of enemies.

The second is from Daniel, exiled and living under Persian rule, who calls God האל הגדול והנורא leaving out הגיבור, the mighty, because he can’t see an expression of God’s might in the situation that the Jews find themselves in. 

Jeremiah and Daniel reached a point where they could not bring themselves to indulge the script; what was great about the world they lived in or the God who was supposed to be there for them? In the Talmud, Rabbi Eleazer has sympathy for them, and he suggests that God would too, teaching that because God insists we are truthful, they were justified in dropping one of God’s descriptors. He has sympathy for them, and to be honest, so do I. 

And yet, the full ha’el, hagadol, hagibor vha’nora phrase is the one that we know so well from our prayer books, the one we just recited this morning. The people responsible for this are the men of the great assembly, a group who took on some kind of religious leadership in the time after the prophets. 

Talmud tells us that they were called the men of the great assembly because of the fact that they restored the divine name. But what was so great about that? Surely it’s better to just be honest like Daniel and Jeremiah. 

I have a bit of a soft spot for the prophets, and I commend them for their honesty, for their ability to look at the world around them and validate the experience of their contemporaries, to say what needed to be said, to name the glaring elephant in the proverbial room. The world is not a great place to be right now, and Daniel and Jeremiah’s honesty and unwillingness to ignore their reality is compelling reading in 2020. 

Over time, I have come to understand the gift of what those who restored the full descriptor gave us. They acknowledged Daniel and Jeremiah’s need to be honest about their world, but they would not allow Daniel and Jeremiah’s experiences to set a new horizon, a new expectation, not for God, and not for people’s experience of life. Daniel and Jeremiah’s worlds, worlds that knew a real sense of dislocation, disruption, loss, pain, would not be the ones to set the benchmark. 

Daniel, Jeremiah, and Rabbi Eleazer understood the toll of pretending to feel things that you know aren’t true far before sociologists asked fast food workers how smiling made them feel. 

But the men of the great assembly knew something that the people behind the first Russian McDonald’s knew too. 

For a moment, when people stepped into the shop, the smiles did something, they worked, they created an alternative universe where people behaved differently. The smiles were aspirational- they said “this is what we want the world to feel like”. Living all the time in that mode is exhausting and feels fake, but living sometimes in that world feels possible, exciting, and refreshing. 

This Rosh Hashanah, as we are asked to examine our deeds and consider the way we want to enter the new year I find myself asking, “where are those places that uphold a vision of the possible”. When so much feels unfair and cruel in the world beyond us? Who does for us what the great assembly did? 

For me, at least part of the answer, is that this is the task of our congregation, this great assembly. That our job as religious communities is to act as custodians of the possible, not just in our religious language but in the things we do. Our prayers, expanded by our ancestors to make sure that the vision of different and better days was not erased, are a mirror of what we have the potential to create. 

It is not for us to look at the world around us, and  notice the systems, the structures, the ways of behaving and being that cause pain, hardship, and distress; to see people’s pain and accept it, to adjust our horizons and imagine that these experiences set our expectations of the world and of each other.

 In this tiny two thousand person microcosm, it is within our power to flip the script, to look at the world around us and to decide to do differently. To connect, to care, to treat people well, to feel responsible, to actively challenge prejudice, to not ignore the changes to our climate, to borrow Rabbi Howard’s phrase from last night ‘to be radically righteous and face the world with abundant chesed, loving kindness.’ 

We can do for ourselves, and for each other, what the men of the great assembly did for Daniel and Jeremiah. We won’t get it right all the time, but we can strive to create within this holy community, a vision of the world as it might be. 

This is not a sermon about hope, but rather it is one about belief, a deep seated fundamental belief that a world of selfishness, cold heartedness, greed, and willful ignorance is not it, that we can expect more from each other, that humans can treat each other well, humans can behave justly, that those things are not gone from the world. They’re not gone, they’re here, and we have the opportunity in community to nurture them, build from them.  

We all need space to be Daniel and Jeremiah, to acknowledge the world as we experience it, but we also need the experiences and the people who can act as our own great assembly, a place that safeguards our faith in each other, and in the god whose image we are made in, that despite the terrifying actions of some in our world, this is not it, that better, that different is possible.

As the hebrew poet Saul Tchernikowsky wrote:

You may laugh, 

laugh at all the dreams 

which I, the dreamer, can weave

Because I believe in humanity, 

For in you I still believe

 

Yet my soul still yearns for freedom

To no golden calf betrayed

I still believe in humanity

So strong is our spirit made

 

And i believe in the future,

However distant the day

When nation shall bless each nation

 And in peace shall make their way

 

My people too shall flower again

Generations shall arise

Their fetters of iron cast away

A new light before their eyes

Sun, 7 March 2021 23 Adar 5781