Children from Calais

My thought for the week for West London Synagogue written from a sukkah of annual leave!

As we begin the cycle of Torah reading again with Simchat Torah, I am reminded once again of what I consider to be the stunning messages of the story of creation about humanity. Let me give three examples: firstly, we are all equal to one another and equally important – since only one person was created at the beginning, in the image of God; secondly, that we have the capacity to make choices about the lives we live – it makes no sense otherwise for God to give Adam and Eve the responsibility not to eat of the fruit of the tree; thirdly, that we are never far from violence and whole worlds depend on our avoidance of it – as shown by the story of Cain and Abel.

Our Torah is a magnificent text that has never ceased to inspire interpreters and readers in every generation.

In her sermon on Yom Kippur, Rabbi Julia asked us to write to our MPs to raise our concern for child refugees in Calais, citing her own family history of escape from the clutches of Nazism. Since then, the first children from Calais, with family already in the UK, have begun to be processed and reunited with their families. Rabbi Julia’s reflection of recent history is exactly what the rabbis described about the 36 exhortations in the Torah not to mistreat the stranger (in Hebrew the ger). I’m teaching 2nd year rabbinic students at Leo Baeck College the very text that reminds fellow Jews some 1800 years ago not to mistreat the ger and not to accuse the ger of failings which we also have. Why? The sages of the Talmud say because the Torah repeatedly states, “You yourselves were gerim (strangers) in the land of Egypt”.

In other words, we are all strangers.

The lazy reporting of the first children who have come to the UK from Calais has featured photographs of people who do not look like minors, prompting some truly ghastly invective on social media. The photographs are not reliable. We should ask ourselves about what kind of care we expect for people who are being processed for asylum claims and what purpose is served by encouraging us to doubt their legitimacy? What dignity should these people be afforded as human beings and especially as children? After all, Ben Azzai, the sage of the 2nd century, says the greatest principle of the entire Torah is that we are all made in the image of God – stranger or not.

Monsters of Absurdity

Here’s the poem I’ve referred to several times, sung by the amazingly talented Rona Kenan:

Legacies and visions

Moses is now at the tender age of 120 is conscious of his legacy, that’s why he sings his song we heard this morning. His is a life lived in periods of 40.

40 is a symbolic age. Presumably it also had a great deal of truth in the ancient world, of being a lifetime or generation. So Moses’ life was symbolically three lifetimes. He led the children out of Egypt. He received Torah at Sinai. He wandered in the desert for 40 years until reaching the edges of the promised land. Each would have been an accomplishment worthy of one person, but Moses leads through these three lifetimes. It’s Moses’ life that becomes the paradigm for Hillel the Elder’s life – who also according to tradition lives to 120.

In a wonderful twist, lately, modern Israelis have adapted the wish that we live to 120 on our birthdays. They now say ‘עד מאה כעשרים’ – may you live to 100 like a 20 year old.

Birthdays of significance – and I had a very dear friend who said that after ill health every birthday was significant and an achievement – they are time to think about what has gone and what is yet to be. And what, as Moses finds standing on the edge of the promised land in our last weekly Torah reading of the year – what we might not even see realised in our lifetime.

We’ve begun a new year of 5777 and in that curious syncopation of the Jewish year, our Torah reading is just catching up on the new cycle. So we’ve not let go yet of what was but we’re already striding through the days to what will be.

This year will be 100 years since the Balfour Declaration and 50 years since the Six Day war. After the Six Day War Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his book ‘Israel: An Echo of Eternity’:

Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. And He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:3-4)

But that word will not go forth from Jerusalem unless all of us – Jews and non-Jews – have tasted profoundly the intensity of a waiting for the word. The burden is upon us Jews but we will not and must not do it alone. All of us must learn how to create in this dreadful emptiness of our lives, how to be illumined by a hope despite disaster and dismay.

The Bible is an unfinished drama. Our being in the land is a chapter of an encompassing, meaning-bestowing drama. It involves sharing the consciousness of the ancient biblical dwellers in the land, a sense of carrying out the biblical legacy. It is like the ladder of Jacob pointing to Jerusalem on high.

The State of Israel is not the fulfilment of the Messianic promise, but it makes the Messianic promise plausible. Even while our faith is fading, the power of biblical words, of biblical promise, is challenging, pursuing. Israel will abide as long as the power of the biblical word prevails.

The crisis in Judaism goes beyond the issues of creed and observance. Even if we could reach a consensus on theology and law, the question of the adequacy  of present-day ethics and observance would remain. Are personal observance and traditional study, are synagogue and Hebrew schools, attuned to the earnest wrestling with the issues of massive obtuseness and the dying of the hearts? Are customs and ceremonies, are services and sermons, an adequate antidote to the massive dehumanization, to the emerging monsters of absurdity? Is Judaism as presently understood equipped to confront the challenge of the world?

Genuine history is enshrined in our rituals. Yet ritual, loyalty, theology, remain deficient unless there is an ongoing responsiveness to the outbursts and to the demands of immediate history, of our situations.

The integrity of our lives is determined by seeing ourselves as part of the historic context in which we live. Failure to be open to the demands of our historical situation liquidates one’s own position of meaning. In order to be responsible, we must learn how to be responsive…The house is in flames and the clock ticks on…The ultimate meaning of the State of Israel must be seen in terms of the vision of the prophets: the redemption of all men. The religious duty of the Jew is to participate in the process of continuous redemption, in seeing that justice prevails over power, that awareness of God penetrates human understanding.” (Israel: An Echo of Eternity, pp. 222-225

The Balfour Declaration and the Six Day war are significant moments in the course of history of the young nation state, Israel. With the death of Shimon Peres we were reminded of how young the State of Israel really is. The land that Moses stood looking out towards in our Torah portion has held the dreams and imaginations of the Jewish people for millennia. At the table at Seder night at Pesach we conclude ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’ on Yom Kippur we conclude publicly with ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’. “Look upon Zion, the city of our solemn gatherings; thine eyes shall see Jerusalem a peaceful habitation, a tent that shall not be removed, the stakes whereof shall never be plucked up, neither shall any of the cords thereof be broken.” Said Isaiah (33:20). “Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem” wrote the Psalmist (Psalm 122:6) and “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.” (Psalm 137:5). To paraphrase the poem of Judah HaLevi, the medieval rabbi and poet, given to me when I stood at the Kotel when we made Aliyah as a family, ‘we are in the east and our hearts in the uttermost West’.

Next Year in Jerusalem –  בשנה הבאה בירושלים

As I drove home from synagogue after Yom Kippur on Wednesday I listened to the latest instalment of ‘The Promised Podcast’.

The latest edition of the podcast was every bit the vision of Israel that I would like to hear about. After some discussions, the programme turned to Yom Kippur – and the three presenters wrote their own ‘al cheit’. The sins they felt they had committed – in a non-navel gazing, though slightly self-flagellating, kind of way. The presenters reflected on politics, on family, on the world, on insularity, on international affairs, on humanity. It was moving and beautiful and it was, I think, a Zionist dream.

Then one of the presenter’s daughter (Dara Efron) was invited to contribute. He’s in the USA at the moment on a sabbatical and had invited his daughter to pre-record a segment reflecting on the week. Here are her words:

“This past Monday, 4 in the afternoon, we unleashed our dog to go walk to the Yarkon. The Yarkon is a river, it’s also a great nice green park in Tel Aviv. And we were walking with friends from our congregation to do tashlikh…my favourite ceremony … And I was just caught by how many people were there enjoying their chag. Right next to us there was a man with his three year old kid on his shoulders and they asked us what we were doing and I explained and they also … did tashlikh. In the river there were tons of boats, kids in peddle boats, celebrating their birthday and rowers rowing … There were people juggling and people tightrope walking … Groups of people milling around and having fun, having picnics, groups of mothers and babies and cyclists and people blowing the shofar and everyone just having a good chag. So Chag Sameach – Shanah Tovah”.

How much more of a perfect picture of the brilliance of the dream. I’m talking that downright romantic image of what it could mean to be a Jewish and Democratic state. Where there is no problem in describing people marking Rosh Hashanah in the park with rowing, juggling, shofar blowing, dog walking and introducing a complete stranger to the ceremony of tashlikh. And tightrope walking. I always find my Rosh Hashanah is not complete with a tightrope walk. It was reminiscent of this time last year when I was in Israel and my friend’s son went to his circus skills club and worked on the trapeze to the sound of Bruch’s Kol Nidre.

It brought me back to the poem that I have mentioned now three times over this period – by the Poet Saul Tchernikovsky entitled ‘I Believe – Sachki Sachki’:

אאמינה גם בעתיד,
אף אם ירחק זה היום,
אך בוא יבוא – ישאו שלום,
אז וברכה לאום מלאום.

ישוב יפרח אז גם עמי,
ובארץ יקום דור,
ברזל- כבליו יוסר מנו,
עין-בעין יראה אור.

יחיה, יאהב, יפעל, יעש,
דור בארץ אמנם חי,
לא בעתיד, בשמים –
חיי רוח לו אין די.

And I shall keep faith in the future, Though the day be yet unseen Surely it will come when nations All live in blessed peace.

Then my people too will flourish And a generation shall arise In the land, shake off its chains And see light in every eye.

It shall live, love, accomplish, labor In the land it is alive Not in the future, not in heaven – Its spirit shall henceforth thrive

You see, what haven’t mentioned until now was that this poem – a humanist poem believing in the spirit of every person – is also unashamedly committed to the flourishing of ‘my people’ in the land.

This is a dream of a particular flourishing of the Jewish people, living in a world of peace.

Blessed Peace

But look, we’re not there yet and I’m seriously worried after the UNESCO resolution (comment by my teacher Jeremy Leigh) yesterday about the Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock. The antisemitic resolution effectively ignored (even if it didn’t rewrite history) the Jewish connection to the land and Jerusalem. And I’m worried because this issue is the touch paper that has caused at least two rounds of serious violence against Jews, though all Israelis were caught up in it. You will remember the spark for the Second Intifada was (and I should add falsely) all laid at the feet of Ariel Sharon’s walk on the Temple Mount. And in recent years, rumours about Israel’s intentions have been used to fan the flames of violence leading to stabbings and attacks up and down the country.

Peace is not something that can be achieved in this way by UNESCO. And it won’t be achieved by denying our people’s connection to the land of Israel or effacing our yearning and spirit from the holy places. True peace will only come when our vision is allowed to live alongside the Palestinian aspirations and the universal vision.

Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. And He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:3-4)

Let us pray for that time and on our way there, let us marvel at the journey of our people, begun with Moses, and still unfolding before our very eyes so young and yet so old – of tightrope walking, juggling, rowing, dog walking, tashlikh and shofar blowing.