Comfort Ye, Comfort Ye – A Sermon for Shabbat Nachamu

Unusually posting this now, not sure how it will work out previewing my sermon but since it’s written…!

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Nachamu, Nachamu: Comfort ye, comfort ye my people says the Eternal One.[i]

There is no comfort. How can there be comfort. The world is cleaved apart by rockets and missiles and our hearts are torn asunder by the devastation and death. Forget proportionality – this is all about humanity.

It is not the flowers[ii] of the field or grass springing up in the morning,[iii] they have long since faded.[iv] Now it is the bloods of thy brother which cry out to you from the ground O humankind, cry out against You, O God.[v] What fades is goodness, what fades is the presence of the Almighty. The Shechina, forever to go whither the Jewish people go into exile has finally succumbed, closed her eyes and ascended to the highest firmament, to weep.[vi] Alas how she sits alone.[vii] Alas how we sit alone.

We, the great and mighty humankind, the rulers and judges,[viii] generals, rabbis, imams and priests, the politicians, the citizens, from our young to our old, our water drawers and hewers of wood,[ix] we have ground down the truth which might otherwise sprout up.[x] As if to affirm everything that the angels argued over – in their divisions– at the time when God came to create humankind, we have proven once and for all that power, strife, deception and hatred are irrepressible urges. We no longer hammer swords into ploughshares,[xi] we hammer, hammer, hammer away at our divisions until there is no longer a sense of us and them, we only sense us, me, we, my band of brothers and sisters, my triumphant, powerful division. And you, yes you on the ‘other’ side. Before you think you’re better than me. You are guilty too – some of you more than me. Yes you too. I cannot measure our respective guilt but you must carry the sin that is too heavy to bear just like me.[xii] It is too heavy for us all to bear. Everyone who thinks they bear no responsibility for death and suffering, I say as my teachers before me, ‘Few are guilty, all are responsible’.[xiii]

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.

There is no comfort. How can there be comfort when the deep seated, evil of antisemitism lurks so close to the surface of modern Western societies. When the outspoken intention of the ruling power in the neighbour of the State of Israel is to wipe her off the map and with the State, the Jews too. And we are accused of genocide. And we readily believe the wheels of propaganda that churn out statistics, solutions, graphic images – uncritically, seeking confirmation for our biases. There can be no comfort. There is no comfort.

There is no comfort when our hearts are perverted and down trodden. When we wake up from our progressive idealism to realise that there really are people who are homicidal and suicidal in their intents to bring the disease of hatred and violence into civilisation. There is no comfort when we feel the belief in human progress and betterment slipping away from our grasp in the darkness of more and more and more conflict: Israel, Gaza, Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Cameroon, and on and on. We cry out, we proclaim. There is nothing but tears.

“For these things I weep; mine eye, mine eye runneth down with water; because the comforter is far from me, even he that should refresh my soul; my children are desolate, because the enemy hath prevailed” (Lamentations 1:16)

The enemy hath prevailed – the enemy is despondency and death of hope for love and human progress.

Comfort ye, comfort ye

What is comfort anyway? How indeed shall we be comforted? Is it comfort as the prophet Isaiah suggests that comes from the knowledge of the endurance of God and the covenant? I don’t think so, there is no comfort in that – it is too much of the long game to find comfort. Right now I have little hope in that adolescent platitude in which we seek world peace in our lifetime. And it’s rapidly looking like my children will grow up in a world filled with as much conflict as there was in the last century.

In 100 years we’ve advanced a long way – our machines of war are better, more efficient, more accurate, more cunning and we can even take to the web to give personal expression to our interpretation of the facts and figures. We’re all war correspondents now. 100 years – but as a blink of the eye in human progress.

The Jew, the only people in the world who for two thousand years has not really had anything even approaching a sovereign state, always vassal or minority, created a little less than a citizen[xiv] is now feeling vilified in the world for a desire for enduring self-determination in a land to which they’ve been connected for millennia – we have no comfort. How shall we sing the song of the Eternal One in a strange land[xv] – how strange is our land, this land here, that land there in the East. Humankind is estranged.

If the celebrity pundits and commentators are to be believed, Israel can exist but must be emasculated. The deepest desire is for dependency; the Jew, that is, dependent on the civilised West. See how the West came to our rescue when last our bodies were turned to ashes on the soil of the civilised West. You see now why the psyche leaves no room for dependency or consideration. You, they cry, didn’t care when we only lived amongst you. Now we’re supposed to believe you care and that we can depend on you? She can exist but now everything that her government touches is to be proscribed. You Jews can have your culture but don’t taint it with your violent, nationalist, racist, apartheid state. Come now, be good Jews, civilised like us, enjoy your culture – you know klezmer music, plays about the shtetl, what’s that film again ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. But wasn’t that guy Israeli too – you know Topol? Come now, let’s ban the shtetl too.

Comfort ye

I’m comfortable. When I check the news sometimes obsessively and become ever sucked into the cogs of the media I know for sure that it’s unhealthy. But then my house needs no bomb shelter. I am comfortable. I have not cowered over my children in the vain hope that should anything happen my body will shield their lives and they will live. Live for what? I do not live in fear of rocket or air strikes and that the only place of refuge be it school, hospital or refugee camp may also become a target. I am not an innocent stuck at the mercy of leaders who seem not to care about me and conflict that measures me by what is acceptable cost.

We turn to Job’s story, the universal narrative of human suffering. I have not witnessed the savagery of death of my whole family, loss of livelihood, of health. The children, God, the children. “And the Eternal One changed the fortune of Job, when he prayed for his friends; and the Eternal gave Job twice as much as he had before.” (Job 42:10) For the seven sons and three daughters who perished, he has seven sons and three daughters. A perfect restoration – surely not. There is no ‘replacement’.

I’m comfortable, but not comforted. I am devastated that we can see no way through to an end to our over powering influence on the fate of the Palestinian people. The occupation and control must end to play its part in our salvation, our redemption. It is immoral and disastrous. And I’m devastated that Gaza is also dominated by people intoxicated by religious zealotry, political power and evil hatred of the ‘other’ – including Jews. And as the poison of hate spreads, Israelis are not immune – there are plenty who spout bile and make me ashamed. We are comfortable here in St Johns Wood, but can we be comforted. Can the earth be comforted. Can God be comforted.

Comfort

God saw at the time of the creation of human kind that the righteous and the wicked would arise from him. God said to himself, ‘If I create him, the wicked will arise from him but if I do not create him how will the righteous arise from him?’ What did God do – he pushed away the wicked way from before himself and joined the attribute of compassion to Himself and created him.[xvi]

The astonishing thing is that the composer of this midrash knows the problem. There are those whose intent is wicked, who are wicked. That truly they could be the overwhelming force in the world. They will dominate and triumph in their wickedness no matter what. But for the sake of goodness, for the sake of righteousness we step out into the world. We must be the righteous – the risk was taken for us. But more than that meagre comfort we are reminded that evil, hatred and strife are permanent conditions of human kind, but in their inevitability is also the inevitability of righteousness. Even in the face of overwhelmingly negativity we must go to the lengths of self-deception. Hiding the inevitable and allying ourselves to compassion, to love, for the sake of our future – in imitation of God who held fast to the attribute of compassion.

Yet, in spite of this, a mere 10 generations later God is discomforted, “And the Eternal One saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And God was discomforted, regretful (vayinachem) that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him at His heart.” (Genesis 6:5-6)

This Shabbat begins the seven weeks of comfort (sheva denechemta), leading all the way to Rosh Hashanah, the days of repentance. In the Me’or Einayim, Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl writes:

“Comfort ye, comfort ye – repeated twice. The word ‘comfort’ is from the language of ‘God regretted [vayinachem] that He had made man’. It is the language of a different way of thinking – the language of repentance. And the doubling concerns the two ways of repentance. First from fear and after that from love.”

At a time when repentance is felicitous we can take heart, repent and pay off our guilt.[xvii] And that repentance of which we are speaking may begin with fear but must follow with love. There is no comfort except in love. When the time is right, and I pray it is soon, let it be now, here, today. But if not now then soon. Let us ascend up the stairs of repentance: in trepidation first but then in love. So that everyone will come to realise the heart of the matter is to love your neighbour and the stranger as yourself.[xviii] To love yourself, to love the Eternal One your God[xix] – Ve’ahavta. You shall love.

Rabbi David Rosen quotes Rav Kook as the ‘antithesis of religious nationalist chauvinism’ (in Judaism and Universal Morality – Reflections on Jewish Texts):

“Only within the soul that is replete with love of all beings and (above all) love of humanity, is the love of (one’s own) nation able to reach its full nobility and spiritual and practical greatness…One must strive greatly to love other beings so that (such love) will fill every chamber of the soul, so that one’s love of humanity will extend to every other human person.”

In this may we find comfort. Comfort ye, comfort ye My people says God. Let us be comforted – soon in our days and let this be God’s will.

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[i] Isaiah 40:1
[ii] Isaiah 40:6 but also in mind Yehuda Amicha, ‘From the place that we are right’
[iii] Psalm 90:5-6
[iv] Isaiah 40:7
[v] Genesis 4:10 (and associated midrashim)
[vi] Eicha Rabbah Petichta 24
[vii] Lamentations 1:1
[viii] Isaiah 40:23
[ix] Deuteronomy 29:10
[x] Bereishit Rabbah 8
[xi] Isaiah 2:4 – כתתו playing on כיתים of Bereshit Rabbah 8.
[xii] Genesis 4:13
[xiii] Heschel, ‘The Prophets’
[xiv] Psalm 8:6
[xv] Psalm 137
[xvi] Bereshit Rabbah 8
[xvii] Isaiah 40:2
[xviii] Leviticus 19:18, 34
[xix] Deuteronomy 6:5

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Neutrality and its discontent: thinking about Israel

The letter below is something written inspired by a request that came to me from a teenager. It is not really a direct response to the individual but rather prompted by the sentiment of the question asked.

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Dear Friend

I was told you were looking for some objective information about what is happening in Israel at the moment. That you wanted something ‘neutral’. I do not know if that is your word or how your thoughts were interpreted.

Truthfully the task of finding something ‘neutral’ is impossible.

There is an understanding of the region which we can derive from appreciating the development of the Abrahamic religions, the attachment to the land of Israel, the ancient history of the land of Israel and of Jerusalem over thousands of years. We should also learn from the Jewish connection to the land and the nature of Arab and specifically Palestinian identity and their connection to the land. We can derive an understanding of the region from global history – the nature of conflict, colonialism and the end of the Ottoman Empire. We can also gain understanding from the history of political thought, including the rise of nationalism (not simply right wing nationalism) – the development of the idea of the nation state and a people’s right to self-determination. We must not forget the modern history of the State of Israel. Nor should we ignore things like the Holocaust, the changing nature of Western political power, international law and so on.

But that does not add up to an answer to your request for me.

I am passionate about the pursuit of justice and peace, of equality for all and the upholding of human rights for everyone. I am also a Jew and feel deeply connected to the fate of my people. I am both a universalist and a particularist – such is the nature of 21st century identity. That means that when three Jewish teenagers are kidnapped and murdered just for being Jewish, I feel deep pain. Their murder reflects on who I am as a Jew too, because I am no different to them and were it my children in their shoes they would be no safer. But it also means when a Palestinian teenager is murdered in what appears to be a revenge attack I also feel deep pain. Jewish literature teaches the value of all life, not just Jewish life. And I am disgusted that an attack of that sort could be provoked and carried out by Jews. Life is both universal (values, ideas and experiences applying equally to all of humankind) and particular (as a Jew there are things I share with other Jews and their families).

But this conflict is also one which has existentialist importance. I cannot be ‘neutral’ when there is a desire for the extinction of both my people and their presence in the State of Israel. I also cannot be neutral when the genuine desire for a state as an expression of self-determination is denied to the Palestinian people and the State of Israel continues to have too much power over the Palestinian people’s destiny.

How can I be neutral when it is my friends running for the bomb shelter or leaving their children behind as they are called up for reserve duty in the army? How can I be neutral when the loss of life is a trauma and tragedy inflicted on both Israelis and Palestinians – victims of the machinery of violence and warfare?

I cannot be neutral when indiscriminate rocket attacks only do not leave a trail of damage and harm that it is hoped they will because of the investment of Israel in protecting its citizens.

How can I be neutral when innocent Palestinians are being turned into human shields by a brutal regime under Hamas in Gaza that I really think is more interested in wiping Israel off the map than its people’s longing for self-determination? How can I be neutral when I know there are those voices of hatred and revenge that grow stronger amongst Jewish Israelis and Palestinians?

We cannot be neutral. Neutrality implies something impossible – something without values, as if there are just ‘objective’ facts when it comes to human life. It is so complicated, there is much nuance and huge difficulty reading the picture unfolding at the moment.

And yet, I continue to work for peace, for justice, for a resolution, for two states with secure borders. I remain committed to nurturing love, empathy and respect for my fellow human beings. But I understand that is a tough thing to do if you’re living in the midst of conflict not sitting in the comfort of a North West London home – as I am.

My advice to you: read, read again, listen, really listen to everyone, understand, go back and read some more. Do not accept simple answers to complicated problems. Recognise that there is no one ‘version’ or ‘narrative’ that will offer objective truth. Read all perspectives deliberately – too often we only read materials that confirm what we already think/believe. Challenge yourself to read differently, from the other side. In the words of a good friend and colleague, “As well as reading from different perspectives – we need to understand that the truth does not lie between the different perspectives – we are not hoping to reach a compromise between two different understandings of history, but rather we need to accept that opposing narratives are both part of a multi-voiced, self-negatory, complex truth”.

Finally, hold on to the values that will one day, I pray, triumph – of truth, of justice, of peace, and of love.

Yours Rabbi Neil Janes