Shared Hope and the Dispossessed

Mira Awad, Shay Alon (guitar) and Mark Greenfield (drums)

הַשְׁכִּיבֵֽנוּ יהוה אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ לְשָׁלוֹם וְהַעֲמִידֵֽנוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ לְחַיִּים
וּפְרוֹשׂ עָלֵֽינוּ סֻכַּת שְׁלוֹמֶֽךָ
Source of our life and our Sovereign, cause us to lie down in peace, and rise again to enjoy life.
Spread over us the covering of Your peace.(Evening service liturgy)

I’m about the same age as Mira Awad and our families have histories that are microcosmic reflections of the 20th century. Her Palestinian family were dispossessed in the birth of the State of Israel. My family were migrants, fleeing hardship and antisemitism in Eastern Europe in the turn of the 20th century and then dispossessed refugees fleeing the rise of Nazism in the mid-20th century. She and I have every reason to feel bereft of hope for humanity because the scars of family trauma run deep through the generations. Yet, I discovered quite the opposite as I sat with her for Friday night dinner and then heard her perform.

As I explained during the week to my children (who are born into a family of refugees on both sides, whether from Germany or Egypt, where my father-in-law was born and fled from in the 1950s) – Mira was a Palestinian Israeli who sang in Arabic, Hebrew and English. They innocently asked, “What’s a Palestinian and what’s Arabic?”

If ever there was a question loaded with the heavy weight of political discourse it was those two questions. Yet, I found great freedom in telling my children that the land of Israel was important to peoples not just a people. Jewish people live there and so do Palestinians and also Bedouin and Druze. I told my children, the Palestinians feel connected to the land and call it home and that Arabic is one of the national languages of the State of Israel. We share, at least theoretically, the land with other peoples. That was enough for two under 6 year olds. But it was a moment of great congruence between my values, my professional life and raising my children.

We share the land

The Hebrew is HaChevrah HaMeshutefet – Shared Society. We all teach our children about sharing. We teach them about the way in which we ask them to give up monopoly control even with the pain that might entail. And through sharing, our children discover that the enjoyment of life can actually be enlarged, not diminished. We teach that possession of a thing, of a space, is never absolute and we see the pain when they are dispossessed.  Sounds simplistic right? But I’m not simplistic: I know that children ‘sharing a toy’ is not the same as national aspirations for self-determination nor a counter to terrorism and the rhetoric of violence.

Yet, I still do not know how we’ve reached this point in the arc of human history. On Saturday night, I watched Mira with her stunning voice and beautiful music, justify describing herself as an optimist. She has every reason not to be optimistic. She’s a Palestinian Israeli, born to a Bulgarian mother and Palestinian father in the Galilee. Her family know intimately about the twists and turns of history, the impact of conflict and belonging. She knows the challenges of walking the complex path of identity, in which you can be attacked from all sides for being a traitor, participating in white-washing, and betraying your heritage. It’s for that reason she describes herself as an acrobat Bahlawan in Arabic (the title of her enchanting Album).

Bukra – Tomorrow

So as she gave a concert at West London Synagogue it saddened me to hear her introduce her song ‘Bukra’ (Tomorrow) by saying she was an optimist and that she was not going to accept being criticised for saying she was an optimist. She believed in tomorrow, not through naivety but a profound and strident humanist vision of tomorrow.

I was inspired by Mira, because she did not have to see beyond the depressing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, nor did she have to work for a shared society in Israel where Palestinian Israelis are one of the most obvious victims of inequality, racism and exclusion. But she did. Mira let us hear through her music (the most simple of shared human expressive forms) that we could all be humanists. To be a humanist is to recognise the essentially human failures but to believe in the hope for that other essential part of humanity – we can work together, feel empathy, strive for betterment, prosperity and create things for beauty and advancement of humankind, share time and space and make peace.

Shared Space

Our shared space for that evening was the West London Synagogue. Mira had joined us for the Friday night service, something new to her at WLS at least and then we joined her in the same space the following evening only this time I was in the pews and she was on the bimah. She listened to our prayers, for Israel, for peace and we listened to her songs of fragility, of love and of hope.

We need compelling visions of the future more than ever. Mira offered us just that.  Never should any of us have to apologise for a vision of trust, of faith in humanity and of peace. It is a disgrace that anyone should be forced to justify her optimism and it is a sign of the depths to which we have sunk that it is necessary. Only a fool would not see that human beings can inflict terrible acts of harm on one another. But only someone with no tomorrow would allow that to dominate their relationships.

The Zenith and the Faithful

We have lost sight of the truth that the thing we all are in search of most of all, is a kind of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Self-actualisation is at the top of the pyramid and is the most new-agey of concepts. But beneath that aspiration are basic needs of safety, security, family, friendship, respect and so on. We have reached a nadir in human relations. We suspect our fellow human beings of wishing us harm before we remember that what most of us want is a quiet, good life where we can provide for our families, feel valued and loved and safe and secure. Our mistrust of our neighbours will be civilisation’s downfall (and I’m not talking about the battle of civilisations, I’m talking about the work of advancement and betterment of the human condition).

It is time we left the lack of trust to our politicians. Religious leaders, musicians, artists, gifted voices: we are in the business of hope and of faith. And that faith and that hope begins with each other – our faith in human goodness and our hope that tomorrow we can share the creation of a world that is better, more radiant and more beautiful than ever. Let us be the faithful, let us be the hopeful for tomorrow.

Is a brand new day
Things can still be going our way
If we make it through the night
Soon will come the morning light.
(Bukra, Mira Awad)

A Rabbinate Only In Time Of War

A rabbinate only in time of war – I’m thinking deeply about the debate in Parliament today regarding bombing in Syria.

We all have our memories of 9/11. Mine is of entering the student common room at the Leo Baeck College amidst the first week of studies for the rabbinate. I turned on the television at the end of a day of ‘intensive Hebrew’ and saw the news. My rabbinate has been one almost wholly defined by war. Since the first week of my studies until today as I watch the news and the discussion of whether Parliament will vote in favour of air strikes in Syria. My rabbinate, in spite of it all, has been a rabbinate only in time of war.

In 2003 I felt such a great anxiety about the falling missiles that with my fellow rabbinic students we organised a meeting ‘Responding to War’. Not much came of it – though Rabbi Sheila Shulman z’l was a great presence at the meeting as my teacher. I dug out the sermon I gave in March 2003 as the sorties began and in this sermon I announced the meeting for ‘Responding to War’. It turned out it was part of a war in which we still find ourselves, that has had an effect on millions of people and that friends have been personally affected by. I now add a further text to my sermon by Yehuda Amichai, the great Israeli poet. Our spears are still not ploughshares, never mind musical instruments:

תוספת לחזון השלום / יהודה עמיחי

לא להפסיק לאחר כיתות החרבות

לאיתים, לא להפסיק! להמשיך לכתת

ולעשות מהם כלי נגינה.

מי שירצה לעשות שוב מלחמה

יצטרך לחזור דרך כלי העבודה.

Don’t stop after beating the swords

Into ploughshares, don’t stop! Go on beating

And make musical instruments out of them.

Whoever wants to make war again

Will have to turn them into ploughshares first.

And Aaron Was Silent – Parashat Shemini, 29 March 2003

It was a real dilemma for me this week – what could I talk about in my sermon that would approach anything meaningful during the war which we find ourselves in the midst of.

I must say that I have heard all too often, from Jewish quarters, about the rights and wrongs of the war.  Whether it is a war permitted according to halacha (Jewish law) and what texts can be used to support one’s position.

And with the media circus parading around giving 24-hour coverage I was not even sure if you may already have become over-exposed to the commentary on the war – thus making any comment by myself a rather pointless exercise.

My dilemma was confounded, could I reasonably give a sermon about something not related to the war?  Would it be an outrageous neglect of my duty to you as a community?  And maybe you have come to synagogue today to enter a different space, a holy dimension, that would be perverted by any discussion about war.

Instead I have decided to opt for a different perspective and perhaps introduce something new.

Last Wednesday, before the ‘war’ began, I purchased a new copy of “The Sabbath” by Abraham Joshua Heschel.  The weather was splendid and my afternoon lecture had been cancelled.  So I sat in the grounds of the Sternberg Centre and began reading – it is only a short book and yet is written in a way that I believe transforms the soul and one’s understanding of the universe.  One paragraph stuck in my mind and recurred to me again and again as I thought about the world around me:

“To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilisation, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature – is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?” (p. 28)

Today we create a palace in time, a sanctuary of peace.  That is why we greet each other with Shabbat Shalom – Sabbath of Peace.  A Shabbat that is in stark contrast to the world which exists outside of our temporary sanctuary.  Because Shabbat is a taste of the eternal – it spans from the moment of creation to the world to come.  And because of this the extract I just read from “The Sabbath” seems to hold a striking and uncomfortable pertinence for us today.

So, for those of you who have come today seeking refuge, a holy dimension, a moment set apart, a time in which we can contemplate a world in the future when

“Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war; But every person shall sit under their grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb them.” (Micah 34:3-4)

Shabbat is that dimension, it is holiness in time that reflects the dreams and hopes of the future into our lives as we live today.  Indeed it is significant that the first time the word holy (kadosh) is used in the Bible is for Shabbat – God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.  No creation is invested with holiness in those first seven days, only time – the time of Shabbat (paraphrase of part of “The Sabbath”).  A day set apart.

And there is a noticeable difference between the first six days of creation and the final seventh day.  Each day we are told that God says something and then it comes into being – the power of words thus forming a foundation stone for much Jewish thought, including the attitudes towards Lashon Hara (gossip) and the mystical power of the Hebrew alphabet.  Even today the power of words to affect us and change us is heralded by psychotherapy.

So the first six days are dominated by divine speech.  On the seventh day we are told God rests, blesses it and makes it holy but we do not know how this happens – there is no mention of speech or words.  One can almost imagine the tumultuous first six days that echoed from one side of the world to another as God created heaven and earth.  And on the seventh day an absence of speech must have filled the world – a silence that signified peace and repose.

But now let us turn to our Torah portion, in which we are confronted by a different silence, in a section that we did not read.  Two of Aaron’s sons have been struck dead for offering strange fire to God after the inauguration of the tabernacle.  Moses explains to Aaron why the death of two of his sons has happened, the text then says “Vayidom Aharon”.  And Aaron was silent.

The commentaries make little of this, identifying it as an example of Aaron’s piety – he had nothing to say against God about the severe divine punishment of his sons.  But for obvious reasons this was not satisfactory to me.  I wondered if instead he was silent in a way which we might describe as struck dumb – in a sense a numbness of the soul that acted as a defence against the horror that took place before him.

Maybe this is also what is meant in the paragraph at the end of the Amidah when we read “Even when others curse me, may my soul be silent”, which in Hebrew is nafshi tidom.  Aaron is silent vayidom and our souls we ask to be kept silent tidom.  Through our silence we can reflect on our place before God who is the source of creation.  Thus, when we feel ‘cursed’ or confronted by terrible events our silence allows time to be filled with something else which otherwise remains outside of our normal sphere of life.

In our silence we can hear the still small voice which Elijah experienced in the cave.  God was not in the mighty wind or the earthquake or the fire but in the soft murmuring sound (1 Kings 19:12).  And indeed the Kol D’mamah Dakah is the silent voice, and it has the same Hebrew root as vayidom and tidom.  When the world and people fall silent the presence of God is heard and felt as a powerful silence.  Maybe when Aaron fell silent or when we ask for our souls to be silent we are trying to connect to God who can feel very distant.

Today, on Shabbat we create a holy sanctuary in time a ‘mishkan’ – tabernacle – in which God can dwell and we can be silenced, struck dumb, and allow our numbed selves to be hushed by the world around us.  From within this silence we may hear the Kol D’mama Daka – the still soft voice which speaks in our hearts.

This holy presence of God, on the holy day, this spiritual time out from the clamouring media can then strengthen us and sustain us in our week ahead.  A week in which words again will resume their power to create and to destroy in a way more powerful than any tank or missile.  What else could have brought the world into being?


In conclusion I would like to finish with an extract of a book by Rabbis Homolka and Friedlander “The Gate to Perfection: The idea of peace in Jewish thought”.  The book concludes with a reference to the biblical prophets who themselves used the power of words to change the world around them.

“All we can do in a discussion about peace is to affirm hope: hope in God, hope in a world given to humans who must become aware of their task to fashion a better world.  And so we return to the prophets, to Amos and Hosea, to Jeremiah and Isaiah.  Their central vision has burned itself into the Jewish soul:  There cannot be peace without justice; and the sword comes into the world when justice is perverted and is delayed.  Peace then becomes the work of human hands; at that point, it becomes a blessing from God.”

As the seventh day was blessed and made holy, so may we be blessed with an ability to see a future when the world will be repaired under the sovereignty of God, when the wolf and lamb may lie down together and swords will be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.  Then with this vision silently sustaining us in the week ahead may we strive for it through the strength of our own hands and words.