judaism · sermon · torah

That land had neither milk nor honey


“There are no cats in America and the streets are made of cheese!”

In one of my favourite childhood movies, a gang of mice pranced about the film screen singing these words. There are no cats in America and the streets are made of cheese.

In An American Tail, the protagonist is a seven-year-old Jewish mouse named Fievel Mousekewitz. In his home country, the mice are terrorised by cats. They struggle to eat and sustain their traditions. His whole family dreams of making the journey across the Atlantic to a new country where they won’t face these problems any more.

In America, they imagine, the cats, which represent persecution or kossacks or fascists or pogroms, won’t exist any more. After years of not eating, America will provide them with every food they have imagined. Over the ocean, even the streets will be paved with cheese.

As the plot unfolds, the mice arrive in New York. Fievel discovers that America’s streets are no more cheesy than the old country’s, and that cats are just as prevalent. In their new land, they will also be hungry, and persecuted, and tired, just as they were in the old. Their dreams could not be realised by moving from one country to another.

In this week’s parashah, Moses sends out scouts to survey the land of Israel. He asks twelve envoys to go into the country they expect to possess and report back on its contents.

I imagine this must have been a moment of great trepidation. We today know what other countries look like. We are able to travel abroad; we meet migrants from foreign places; we have access to people anywhere in the world through media in the palms of our hands.

Not long ago, such journeys were rare. People did not know how expansive the globe was or how similar and different people around the world would be to them. Perhaps travelling merchants brought fantastical tales from places they had never been. Some maps were marked with warnings of sea monsters and dragons. For the Israelites making the journey to Canaan, it would have been their first time leaving their valley in Egypt. Anything could await them on the other side.

When they came back, ten gave their report. The land has fertile soil, with large grapes growing on vines. But the people who live there are numerous and giant. We looked like grasshoppers to them. The cities are walled, fortified, and guarded. We have no chance of taking that land, and, even if we could, it will swallow up everyone who inhabits it.

Caleb and Joshua disagreed. They offered a minority report. We can do it. We can take this land. It is a land flowing with milk and honey. As long as you obey God and Moses, you can capture that place and live the life you have fantasised about.

According to our story, the other ten scouts were struck down with plagues and punished for their transgression. How dare they give such a negative report?

Only Joshua and Caleb go on to enter the Promised Land. Rabbinic commentaries make much of how courageous and optimistic those men were. They had faith. They believed in God’s strength and their own.

But here’s the thing. Joshua and Caleb were lying. That land was not flowing with milk and honey. They really were outnumbered. They really were about to take on fortified cities. It really was unlikely that an exhausted band of runaway slaves were going to be able to conquer an entirely new country.

All Joshua and Caleb were offering were politicians’ promises. They were giving false hope to keep people in line and stop them rebelling against Moses.

They say, at this moment, God decided that this generation would not enter the Promised Land. They were too rebellious and stubborn. Only Joshua and Caleb, who actually believed in God, would be permitted admission. This was their punishment: they will not know what the Land of Israel looks like, and they will wander further.

But, if they had entered the land, the whole Israelite people would have seen that the first ten scouts were right. They would have realised that Joshua and Caleb had fleeced them. They would have seen that Moses promised them a land that did not exist.

Preachers often lament how sad it was that Moses never saw the Promised Land. But how much sadder would it have been if Moses had reached it? Imagine if Moses had travelled all those miles, given up everything, fought with everyone, and struggled endlessly, only to see that the much-vaunted land of his ancestors was just another desert.

The lands of Israel are no more fertile than the plains on the east side of the Jordan. They are filled with inhospitable desert. While the Israelites have had to fight with Amalekites and Moabites to reach their destination, in the new country they will battle Canaanites, Philistines and other tribes. For all the promises of peace, the war is not over.

Moses had brought the Israelites away from Egypt promising freedom. In the new country, there will still be slaves. There will still be priests and kings to subjugate them. There will still be debts to pay and unaffordable rents and famines and strife. They will still see death, sickness, and injustice.

How tragic would it have been for Moses to reach that land flowing with milk and honey, where he would find that it had neither. The Promised Land was not as promised.

There were still cats in America. The streets were not paved with cheese.

At the conclusion of An American Tail, the mice eventually band together to defeat the cats. Using their cunning, technology, and finding surprising friends, they build a contraption to scare away their evil persecutors. They learn that there will be cats, but that they have to work in solidarity if they want to defeat them. They discover that streets are not paved with cheese, but that, if they find some, they can share it, and in those moments they will feel sated and free.

None of the spies could really give a report on the land, because it wasn’t a place they were going. It was somewhere they imagined they might build by common endeavour.

They could have said: “That land does not flow with milk and honey. But it could. We could make it feel like it was.”

Maybe we don’t learn those things from speeches and scouts’ reports. We only learn how to work together by doing it. We only discover what we are capable of if we try.

Only by working together can we make a world that flows with milk and honey.

Together, we can free the world of cats and pave the streets with cheese.

Shabbat shalom.


sermon · social justice · torah

After war

There is a particular kind of sadness that comes from remembering war. It is not only the needless loss of life, nor those who come home traumatised. There is something specific in the discomfort that comes after furious build-up, tragic participation, and ultimate reconciliation. 

In this week’s haftarah, Ovadiah promises a glorious war against Edom. The Edomites will be defeated and humiliated. Israel will be victorious and avenged. 

Ovadiah addresses Israel’s neighbouring nation of Edom: “For the violence against your brother Jacob, disgrace will surround you. You will be cut off for all eternity.”

He tells these nations: “The house of Jacob shall be fire, and the house of Esau shall be straw. They will set fire to it and consume it.”

In these bellicose proclamations, we get the feeling of the build-up to war. We realise, too, that Jacob and Esau are not just the names of characters in a story: they are representatives of nations.

Jacob is Israel. Esau is Edom. They are the respective countries on either side of the River Jordan. Their inhabitants imagine themselves as twin brothers, yet constantly in conflict.

This helps us make sense of the story in Torah this week. Jacob heads over to the river to make amends with Esau. He has been wrestling with his conscience and wants to make amends, but fears that if he puts forth an olive branch, Esau may kill him.

Jacob separates his clan into divisions to approach from different sides, like military battalions. He sends forward gifts and apologies with every single one. As he approaches his brother, he prostrated himself many times, bowing down in peaceful submission. Finally, they reach each other, hug, and cry. They are reconciled.

When we understand that these brothers are representatives of neighbouring nations, this is not just a story of family strife, or conflict between competing characters. It is the biblical redactors’ fantasy of what peace could mean. These countries could be united. Their bitter violence could be set aside. After years of fighting, people might once again embrace each other and cry with relief.

The special sadness of remembrance comes with contemplation after the war. What was it for? Whose interests did it serve? And how do we resolve to prevent it happening again?

After World War 1, poppies bloomed in Flanders Field, where some of the worst battles had been fought. Out of the trenches where so many had died, these scarlet flowers sprouted from the ground. They became a symbol. 

“Never again,” they said. 

Around 40 million people had died. Once it was over, many could no longer remember what they had been fighting for. The motivations of Empire and nationalism no longer seemed so compelling in the wreckage of war. Countries pledged to end the impetus to war with diplomacy, increased international cooperation and greater understanding between peoples.

After World War 2, the politicians once again pledged never again. Never again would fascism be able to rear its ugly head. They would combat, too, the root causes that had allowed Hitler to look appealing. No more would they allow such poverty and inequality to persist, giving way to racist scapegoats. 

The countries of Europe built social democracies, with universal healthcare systems and progressive welfare states. They said they would not repeat old mistakes. They formed alliances and international bodies that, they said, would prevent war.

For as long as I have been alive, Britain has been at war. Earlier this year, NATO troops finally withdrew from their twenty-year conflict in Afghanistan. It had begun when I was starting secondary school. Some of my friends enlisted to fight. 

At the time, we were told the war would avenge the World Trade Centre attacks; find Osama bin Laden; and defeat the Taliban. In the end, Osama bin Laden had never been Afghanistan and the Taliban emerged more powerful than ever. I doubt many of the victims of 9/11 feel much joy in seeing the war that has been carried out in their name.

When the war was declared, it was popular. Today, it is hard to find anyone who says they agreed with it.

Politicians declare war full of nationalist fervour and triumphant spirit, only to return defeated and bereft. Even the victors feel no glory once a war is won. They leave too much devastation in their wake.

Families are torn apart. Cities are destroyed. Lived are lost. Entire ways of life are destroyed. And, at the end of it all, the only thing to do is reflect on what went wrong. We promise once more to make peace.

The Torah’s narrative of Jacob and Esau offers us a glimpse of what peace might look like. It encourages us to look beyond the narrow excitement for violence proclaimed by Ovadiah and the promises of national glory. It reminds us to think of how much greater it would be to have peace.

Like the Prophets of old, we pray for the day when nation no longer lifts up sword against nation, and no more no peoples learn war.

May God grant us, and all the world, peace. 

Shabbat shalom.

I gave this sermon for Remembrance Shabbat, Parashat Vayishlach on Saturday 20th November at South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue

climate change · story · torah

Who built the ark

A boat is coming to carry people away from the flood.

You do not have a ticket.

You do not have the money to get a ticket. 

You cannot forge a ticket.

You fumble in your pocket anyway, despite knowing you will find nothing.

If you are wondering whether you know anyone who might be able to get you the money or the paperwork, you do not. You do not even know anyone who knows anyone.

The flood is coming. It has been coming for a while. It has reached others. You have heard reports. You have seen it yourself. You have met victims. 

You didn’t think it would come for you. At least, you didn’t think it would come for you to begin with. Now it is nearly here. 

So is the boat. But you are not allowed on the boat.

The boat is reserved for one man and his family. His name is Noah. He and his sons and their partners and their grandchildren will be rescued. You will not. You will not even be allowed on the ship even to serve them and clean up after them. You cannot stowaway.

Many said that floods were coming. They saw the weather signs. They felt the ground dry up. They knew the trees had stopped bearing leaves. They saw the black clouds and felt the stormy winds. 

You did not laugh at people who said the floods were coming. You did not join in with alarmist panic either. 

You did not commission people to make sure you would be insulated against environmental catastrophe because you didn’t have that kind of money. You knew you were powerless either way when the warnings came. 

You just kept working. What else could you do? You worked and raised your children and made sure you had shelter and a roof over your head. You had fun times with your friends and family. You tried to enjoy life. You tried not to think about it.

You got on with your job. 

And this is the kicker: your job is building boats. 

You are a skilled carpenter. You sand down wood and hammer nails and apply coats of varnish. You breathe in sawdust and work twelve hours a day and learn how to make the dimensions exactly right so that a ship of any size will float. 

You know the boat is coming because you are building it.

You were among the people commissioned to build the ark that is going to take that man and his family away.

You have never been able to afford to go on any of the boats you have made before. This will be no exception. 

Even with the floods already here and the rains rising all around you, you have no choice but to watch.

Noah will float away to safety on the boat that you are building, because he has the wealth to commission you. And the power to leave you behind. 

He has his wealth because his father, Lamech, had wealth. And his father before him had wealth; Methusaleh said he was so rich he could defy time. 

The family gained their wealth through placing indentured servants in long-term debt bondage. Their slaves would work the land without pay and Noah’s family would cream off the profits from their work. In that sense, Noah is no different from any other man who has wealth and power.

But he is different, because he will have a boat. People call him a visionary and a genius. People say he is a prophet because he knew that it was the right time to build a boat when he realised that floods were coming. Some of them stand on and watch in awe as you saw planks for him. 

In years to come, children will ask who built the ark. They will not say your name. They will chant back the name of the man who commissioned you to build it.

You are not building this boat alone. You are building it with hundreds of others. There are people who chop the wood, who transport it to you, who treat it, who clean it, who keep you fed, who watch the children, who make sure everyone is clothed, who design the ships, who furnish the insides, who create the infrastructure to make sure boats can be built. 

You are among many.

There would be enough room for all of you on this ark. Noah is taking his collection of exotic pets.

Nobody is impressed by your ability to make boats. They are impressed by Noah’s ability to commission you to make them. 

Many people do not share such reverence. They fight over the last scraps of food and clean water. They scramble to reach the highest perches, and push others out of them, even though it will ultimately be pointless because the floods will drown everyone. 

Everyone except the people on that ark.

They know that. People fight to reach the ship so that they can get a place on it. They will not get one.

Noah has hired the strongest people to prevent the others from fighting with each other. They form a solid ring to stop anyone reaching the boat. They control the food and water rations. The floods will drown them too.

The man they think is a genius because he has money will sail away on a boat you cannot afford to get on and leave the whole of humanity to drown.

Afterwards, he will tell the story from his perspective. He will say that everyone else was violent. He will say that you deserved to drown.

He will say that he was the only righteous person throughout the entirety of his generation. He will say that the flood was God’s will.

He will say that, if anything, he saved humanity. He will take the credit for the survival of the animals.

And you will be washed away.

So, why do you keep building?

Ark

I wrote this in response to unfolding environmental catastrophe. I will likely preach it in October for Parashat Noach.

sermon · theology · torah

Make yourselves fringes

.

I started wearing a kippah full-time out of the house about six years ago. I was growing increasingly religiously observant and wanted to see how it felt to physically mark my faith. I have worn the kippah almost every day since, and feel naked if I greet guests or leave the house without one.

The results have surprised me. First of all, Britain is way more accepting than I anticipated. I have lived all over London and travelled all over the country and never had a negative reaction. 

I am often met with positivity and fascination. Non-Jews ask me questions and start conversations I’d never otherwise have had.

Meanwhile, Jews come up to me to see if my kippah offers them a sense of belonging. It is like a hat that McDonald’s workers wear saying “ask me about our special offers”, except mine says “ask me about our special task.”

I am very aware that how I conduct myself through life now reflects not only on me but on Jews and Judaism as well. I have become an ambassador for Judaism. I feel obligated to live a more ethical life, and I wonder if that is, perhaps, the point. 

Religious clothing carries deep meanings for those who wear it, and has done throughout our history. The kippah itself is not mentioned in the Torah. It is a medieval innovation in Judaism. In the world of the Bible, the item of clothing that symbolised Jews’ distinctiveness and sacred purpose was the tzitzit. 

In this week’s parashah, Shlach, God tells Moses: “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: make for themselves fringes upon the corners of their clothes for all generations, and put a blue thread among them.”

Now, says God, whenever you see them, you will remember what God has commanded of you. You will do what is right instead of what you like. And these fringes will make you holy before God.

But why? What is it about these fringes that should serve such a purpose? Are they simply visual aids? And, if they are, what is it about dangling threads at the corners of garments that should work to remind us of holiness and covenant?

Rashi suggests that the reason is not fringes themselves blue strand among them. This, he says, was once the colour of royalty, and an expensive dye to acquire. The thread is a reminder to the Israelites of their shared regal status – an affirmation both of their equality between each other and of their special status in the eyes of God. 

But the blue string that was once part of the tzitzit can no longer be seen. The dye that was once used no longer exists. Although efforts have been made to revive it, for most Jews, our fringes have no dye. 

I think the fringes have a meaning of their own. To me, these tzitzit are meaningful because of where they are.

They are situated on the margins. They are so often translated as being “fringes.” They are at the edges.

In this way, they are like Jews.

Every Jew, no matter how visible or assimilated, knows what it means to be on the fringes. It might be the ambivalence we feel as Christmas rolls around, or the unease we feel at a cultural reference that doesn’t include us. It might be a story in the news that we know we are reading differently precisely because we are a Jew.

Throughout history, we have used our marginal position to better understand both the non-Jewish world we inhabit and the Jewish one we inherit. Jewishness gives us a perspective not everyone has: a sense of how life can look from the edges.

When we see tzitzit, we see ourselves: the fringes.

The great 20th Century philosopher, Hannah Arendt, argued that this was no coincidence. We are not just on the margins because others have put us there, but because that is where we are supposed to be. 

Arendt says that, even after the Jews were given citizenship and turned into emancipated members of European states, most Jews continued to be “pariahs.” 

They were marginalised, never fully accepted into European society. As a refugee from Nazi Germany, Arendt knew this well.

From this position as pariahs, Jews could either consciously embrace who they were or pretend they were assimilated. Arendt says we should be conscious pariahs. We should embrace our marginality. We should use our special position as outsiders to see things the way nobody else can.

But tzitzit are more than just fringes. They are the sacred part on the border that give purpose to the centre. Without its fringes, a tallit is just a scarf. The fringes are the visibly different part that mark it out as holy.

Is this not the role of the Jew in the world? Is this not what it means to be ‘a light unto the nations’; that we are visible reminders to the world of who God is and what it requires of us? Isn’t it exactly our holy purpose to transform the world from the vantage point of our difference?

We who turn up to synagogue, who keep up our strange ways of living at the weekend, who sometimes have unusual dietary requirements. Yes, we who sometimes don kippot and dress in fringes. We have embraced our difference and turned it into a point of pride. We have chosen to live a life by Jewish ethics, transforming society and ourselves. 

That is where these tzitzit point us.

They tell us not only that we are sacred for our place on the margins, but that we need to look beyond our space to the further fringes. There are others more excluded than we are, whose difference has made them more vulnerable and excluded.

The fact that they are fringe makes them, like us, sacred. They have perspectives we cannot. Their difference is spiritually powerful. It is not that we should pity the people more marginalised than we are, but that we should seek to bring them from the borders to the centre.

This Torah portion concludes with reminding us why we wear these fringes: God brought you out of the land of Egypt.

With that special deliverance came a sacred purpose.

Countless times, the Torah implores us: you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 

If our holy purpose comes from being on the fringes, we need to look to those further out for where to go. Torah tells us about its most marginalised people: orphans, strangers, widows. These are the people that ancient Israelite society too often left out.

In ancestral times, these were the people without income or papers. Judaism calls on us to look to those most marginalised people. Unless we are centering them in our decision-making, we are failing in our religious duties.

The tzitzit at the edges of our tallits remind us where to look. They tell us that the margins are where things matter most.

So, make yourselves fringes. Now whenever you see them, you will remember what God has commanded of you. You will do what is right instead of what you like. And these fringes will make you holy before God.

Shabbat shalom.

This sermon was inspired by the political philosophies of bell hooks and Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz. It is for Parashat Shlach at Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, to be delivered Saturday 5th June.

sermon · social justice · torah

A charter of Disabled people’s rights

Do not curse the deaf. 

Do not put a stumbling block in front of the blind.

Revere your God.

This week’s parashah is Kedoshim, the centre of the whole Torah. It is the centre in two senses: we are slap bang in the middle of our scroll. When the warden performs the hagbahh tomorrow, the Torah will look almost completely even on both sides.

It is also, I feel, the spiritual centre of our Scripture. This is the part of the Torah that tells us what the rest of it was for. All the stories and speeches that surround the rest of the text can be summarised in this portion. 

Many of the verses from elsewhere in Torah are repeated. Some of it might seem superfluous. Kedoshim reads a little bit like the Torah’s greatest hits, reminding us of some its most popular laws and aphorisms.

But the collection is not random. The smattering of commandments I recited at the beginning all have something important in common. They are about what rights and obligations people have in relation to each other.

This year has brought home to many of us that we cannot take our health for granted. Our bodies are fragile and the time on earth we have is precious.

If you were to become blind, or deaf, or sick, or old, what could you expect from society? What are the minimum standards that others owe you? And, if you are blessed with youth and good health, what must you do to honour others?

Do not place a stumbling block before the blind. You might think: of course! Who would do such a thing? Who would want to trip up the disabled? But cities are structured and buildings managed in ways that are full of stumbling blocks. Every staircase to access public transport; every meeting held miles away from places people can reach; every building without a wheelchair ramp; every space without accessible toilets; every show without subtitles; and every badly laid-out street. These are all stumbling blocks.

Do not curse the deaf. And again, you would say: who would do such a thing? Surely nobody would be so cruel as to insult people who cannot hear them! But this happens all the time. Every headline that calls disabled people scroungers; every job that refuses to make adjustments; every effort to make welfare harder to access; every time the price of medication is jacked up; every time a comedian makes fun of a disability… aren’t all these insults to the deaf?

These are all ways that disabled people are kicked while they’re down.

Instead, the Torah tells us we need to lift each other up.

May we be the ones to remove every stumbling block and replace every curse with a blessing.

Shabbat shalom.

This sermon is for Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, Parashat Kedoshim, on 23rd April 2021

festivals · judaism · sermon · torah

We are leaving the tight spaces

As a child, I loved Watership Down. Based on a book by Richard Adams, it was turned into an animated film in 1972. On rainy days, I kept going back to it, and my love has continued as an adult.

In Watership Down, a group of rabbits leave the only warren they have ever known to build a new burrow. They promise each other they will find a “strange and marvelous place where no one even stops to notice that you stare about you.”

Fiver, a small, stammering rabbit has profound visions. His brother, Hazel, explains them to the other rabbits and convinces them it’s time to leave. On the way, these escapees miraculously cross a great body of water, pass over a treacherous highway, lodge with suspicious friends and find terrifying enemies. But ultimately they reach their destination: an enormous, fertile hill, topped by a fruit tree. 

As an adult, I can now see that it was an allegory for the Exodus from Egypt. In fact, now that I look back, I can see how every event in Watership Down maps on somehow to a story in the Torah.

I come back to it with new eyes and realise that Watership Down made the biblical story relatable to me in a unique way. From my perspective as a child in England, I had no concept of what a desert was like and I’d never been to a Middle Eastern city.

But I knew the joy of tall trees and long grass. I knew what it was like to find the perfect hill on a warm spring day. Somehow the rabbits felt real in a way that even Moses and Miriam did not.

Don’t get me wrong. This was no pastoral idyll. Parts of the film were terrifying. Some people look back and wonder how it was even classed as suitable for children. It includes death, peril and violence between bunnies. 

But the most frightening part of all is not the journey the rabbits take. It’s Fiver’s vision of what will happen if they don’t leave. He imagines the rabbits trapped in their burrows, squeezed to death as men filled in the holes. He foresees them all being crushed in the tight confines underground. 

That is their Egypt. I don’t know whether Richard Adams had any knowledge of Judaism. In fact, I highly doubt it. But, somehow, with this image, he captured a great Jewish esoterical tradition about Egypt.

In Hebrew, the word for Egypt is Mitzrayim. The Zohar, a great medieval exploration of biblical mysticism, breaks down this word. Tzar, in Hebrew, is a narrow place. Tzarim is the plural: narrow places. The prefix ‘mi’ means ‘out of.’ Mitzrayim: “out of confined spaces.” Egypt is the narrow straits we must escape. 

Today is a special Shabbat in the liturgical calendar. This morning, we read the very last of Exodus. Tomorrow, we start the new month of Nissan.  It is called Shabbat haChodesh – the Shabbat of the Month. We leave Exodus and begin the month of the festival of Pesach, the celebration of our liberation.

That liberation does feel quite imminent to me, even if the Jewish calendar doesn’t quite match up with the government’s road map. We are on our way out of confinement and heading for open spaces.

The most profound moment on that journey for me has been getting my first dose of the vaccine. About a month ago, faith leaders were summoned by our local authorities to get the life-saving injection. 

I knew that this was not just important but felt like a holy moment. In the build up to being jabbed, I consulted with all my colleagues about what blessing I should recite when it happened. Everyone had different opinions

Some suggested we should say “rofei hacholim” – God heals the sick. Others thought the best prayer was “shehechiyanu,” the blessing that thanks God for allowing us to live to see the day. In the end, I said “hatov vehameitiv”: God is good and does God. It’s the prayer you say when something happens for your benefit and the benefit of the entire community. 

This week, Reform Judaism distributed our own liturgy for what we can see when the vaccine comes our way. Rabbi Paul Freedman has carefully compiled a single a4 document with words to recite in Hebrew and in English. 

The prayers are familiar, but the opening verses took me by surprise. Rabbi Freedman has chosen to start us off with a line from Psalm 118: 

מן המצר קראתי יה

Out of the meitzar I called to God.

The meitzar. The thing that causes distress. The small and confined place. The thing that presses us down. 

Out of the meitzar. Out of the narrow spaces. Out of Egypt.

Yes, that is truly what receiving the vaccine means. For over a year, we have been in narrow spaces. My French colleagues even call lockdown ‘confinement.’ We have been in our homes. We have been stuck in our front line workplaces and unable to go any further. We have only seen each other in small boxes, the narrow Zoom frames on our small computer screens. These have been our Mitzrayim. 

And now, as we turn to the new month of Nissan, we can finally see a way out. Our own exodus is beginning to feel tangible. In only two weeks, we will do our seder again online, and we will tell each other that we are leaving Egypt. We will promise each other to see each other next year in person. And this time, God willing, it will be possible.

So do take your vaccine when your turn comes. The Jewish community is responding well to the call from medical experts to get immunised, and I’m thrilled every time I hear that one of you has had the jab. 

If you have doubts and want to speak to a medical professional about what it involves, just ask and I will happily put you in touch with someone.

Please don’t hesitate or wait because you think someone else might be more deserving. Our epidemiologists and ethicists all say the same thing: when the doctors say it’s your turn, take your turn. Every immunised person protects many more people in the community.

We have known confinement and narrow spaces. We have lived in Egypt. And now we have been given our own little miracle. The vaccine is a sign and wonder. With an outstretched arm, you can receive it, and thank God that you will live to see another season.

The wide expanse awaits us. Soon, like the rabbits of Watership Down, we too will congregate in open spaces. We will sit under fruit trees on perfectly verdant hills surrounded by family and friends.

Our own Promised Land is in reach.

Shabbat shalom.

story · torah

A rock-eating worm built the Temple

This is the story of how the Temple was built.

This story comes to us from the Talmud. It was copied from the Mishnah. It belongs to the folk legends of King Solomon that may have predated it by some centuries. This is an old story. I sincerely doubt whether any of it ever happened, but I assure you it’s all true.

This is the story of how the Temple was built by a rock-destroying worm. When King Solomon decided to build the Temple, he brought up entire stones from the quarry. He wanted to carve those stones without swords. He knew there was only one way.

Somewhere in his kingdom there was a rock-destroying worm called Shamir. This monster was created at the very beginning of time, during the six days of creation in which light and darkness were separated and the first trees were planted. 

Some say the Shamir ate stones for breakfast; chewed through the hardest granite, making passageways like the holes in Swiss cheese. Some say it could cut through the rocks with only its gaze: a laser-like stare that sliced solid metal. Whatever were its methods, Solomon knew he had to have it.

In fact, the only way to catch this creature was to find something really soft. You had to wrap it up in cotton wool and barley bran. These materials would be too gentle and the Shamir would have no way of chewing through them.

Yes, this is all in the Talmud. This is our tradition. And if you feel like this rock-gobbling worm is far-fetched, I hope you will forgive me if I tell you that Solomon captured this creature by tricking the King of the Demons.

Solomon knew that Ashmedai, the world’s greatest demon, lived in the bottom of a pit on the top of the world’s tallest mountain. And the pit was filled up with gallons of rainwater that the demon swallowed whole every day, then waited for it to refill. 

Solomon sent his servant up that mountain and into that pit. The servant drained the pit of its rainwater and filled it again with fortified wine.

You might think that the King of the Demons would not fall for such a simple trick, and you’d be right. Ashmedai scoffed at the wine-filled pit and refused to drink from it. But days passed and the monster missed his gallons of water. Oh, he became so parched. Eventually, he gave in and took several enormous mouthfuls of the wine. 

Within moments, he fell fast asleep. Solomon’s servants tied him up and carried him back to Jerusalem. When Ashmedai woke up on the Palace floor, he roared at Solomon: “is it not enough that you have conquered the whole world, but now you must imprison me too?”

“I promise you,” said Solomon. “All I want is one creature. The shamir. The worm that eats through stone. I need it to build my Temple for God.”

Ashmedai sighed, and he replied: “I do not own the shamir. It belongs to the ministering angel of the sea, who has entrusted it to the wild rooster. Together they hide in the uninhabitable hills, where the rooster guards his eggs.” 

I’m quoting to you from the Talmud directly here, so you know that what I’m telling you is true. 

When Solomon knew where to find the wild rooster, he covered its nest with transparent glass. Seeing that it couldn’t get in, the rooster brought over the shamir to bore through the rocks. As soon as he’d seen the monster, Solomon knocked the chicken off of the nest and ran to collect his prize.

According to our tradition, that is how the First Temple was built. Overseen by Solomon, the King of the world, accompanied by Ashmedai, the King of the Demons, a stone-chewing worm carved out every brick. It snaked through all the pillars and ate at every rock. After years of winding through the granite, Solomon’s Temple was complete.

So, why did the Talmud come up with such a tall tale? Can it be that our rabbis really believed the Temple was built in such a fantastical manner? Somehow I doubt it. But nevertheless, I am adamant that this story is true. At least, I think it tells us something important we need to know.

Our rabbis were answering a textual problem. The Bible told us that King David was not allowed to build the Temple because there was too much blood on his hands. He had fought too many wars, subjugated too many peoples and built too much of his empire on the labour of others.

Only Solomon, whose name in Hebrew is cognate with peace, was able to overcome the violent tendencies of his father and build a Temple that would truly be fitting for God. How could he build such an edifice without getting blood on his hands?

When our rabbis imagine the construction of the Temple, they picture it as it ought to have been. No wars are fought to secure land. No natural resources are exploited to gain the raw materials. No workers are hurt in the making of the building. All that happens is a natural process, where a worm that would eat rocks anyway works its way through the stones to build God’s home.

The only people vaguely harmed are a demon who got drunk and a rooster that was knocked off its perch. This is the dream of how the Temple should have been made. It was created in complete peace and harmony with nature. 

By encouraging us to inhabit this fantasy, the Talmud draws our attention to the harshness of reality. Even the greatest and most noble civilisations are built on violence. Cities, skyscrapers and the highest cultures are all products of real graft. Human beings do interfere with nature. We do exploit workers. We do plunder natural resources and we do secure territories through war.

When we imagine a world where rock-destroying worms can carve out our accomplishments for us, we know that we are imagining something impossible. But the nature of Talmud is to challenge us to do impossible things.

The Talmud asks us to picture a different relationship between human beings, nature, and civilisation. In a world where the climate is being damaged in unspeakable ways, such imagination is required of us again. Humanity is at a juncture when we must completely rethink how to use resources and what kinds of civilisations we build.

That is what makes it true and that is why it still speaks to us today. The Temple was built by a rock-eating worm. Perhaps one day, we will build the world that way again.

I gave this sermon for Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, Parashat Terumah, on 20th February 2021. For the sources, look at Sotah 48b and the sugya beginning in Gittin 67b

theology · torah

Stop doubting. Start doing.

Job was a man of complete integrity. According to his eponymous book of the Tanach, no matter what happened, Job was the epitome of Jewish righteousness. Then hardship fell, and Job began to doubt God’s justice.

This was hardly surprising. God had stripped him of everything, ridden him with disease, killed his children and destroyed his livelihood to test whether or not Job would remain faithful.[1]

As it turned out, Job could only endure so much. His friends comforted him with explanations of how God must be righteous after all, but they were insufficient. Finally, Job began to snap. What if God was not just?

Just then, God burst out through the clouds. “Who are you to question Me?” demanded God.[2]

After a lengthy excursus from Job’s inadequate interlocutors, we might expect a more thorough explanation. God has arrived and will explain the nature of justice.

Instead, God goes off on one about mythical beings. God talks about the Behemoth, an enormous bull-like monster that can rampage fields. God describes Livyathan, a fire-breathing dragon that cannot be killed.[3]

And this, apparently, satisfies Job.[4] Well, I’m not satisfied. I don’t know about you, but if I’m having doubts about my faith, “have you heard about the monsters God tamed?” won’t really cut it for me. You can’t respond to rational concerns by piling on ever more improbable legends. Now I’m filled with even more doubts.

But perhaps that’s the point. The author of Job, arguably the most philosophically complex text in our Tanakh, probably knew that these myths weren’t really an answer to the question posed.

The real answer, hidden within these poetic arguments, is that we don’t know. Whatever God is, it is beyond our comprehension.[5] Whatever justice is, we cannot fully reason it enough to grasp it. ‘You don’t need to understand,’ is what God is really saying.

Similarly, our parashah this week concerns Moses’s doubts. We have come to the book of Exodus, and Moses has already run away into the wilderness. Out of a flaming thicket, God summons Moses to rescue the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt.[6]

Just as God answered Job from the clouds, so too does God answer Moses. But the answer Moses receives is no more comforting. ‘You don’t need to understand,’ says God, ‘you need to get going.’

“What if I’m not good enough?” asks Moses. “You will be,” says God.[7]

“Who even are you?” asks Moses. “I will be whatever I will be,” God roars back. “Tell the Israelites ‘I will be’ sent you.”[8]

“What if nobody believes me?” asks Moses. “They will,” says God.[9]

“But what if I can’t find the words?” asks Moses. At this point, God loses patience. “I gave you your mouth, I will give you the words! Now get yourself down to Egypt and set those slaves free!”[10]

Miracles might be convincing to some. Logic and reason might work some of the time. But, ultimately, you have to act. When faced with injustice, there is little time to contemplate the nature of sin and perfection and God’s role in it. You have to get out and do.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was a Conservative theologian and civil rights activist, famously pictured alongside Martin Luther King Jr at the march on Selma. He said that Judaism does not require a leap of faith, but a leap of action. We are called upon, first and foremost, to act. Whatever we think about it can come later.

This might sound strange to us, educated in a Western thought system that teaches us to calculate and reason before making choices. But it was not strange to the Israelites. When God called on them at Mount Sinai, they replied “we will do and we will hear.”[11]

According to the Talmud, a heretic accused Rava using this verse. Rava was sitting, so engrossed in study, that he didn’t notice he had trapped his finger in a chair leg and it was spurting blood everywhere. “You impulsive people!” the heretic said. “You still bear your impulsiveness of acting before you think. Listen first, work out what you can do, then act.”[12]

Rava responded with the verse from Proverbs:[13] “The integrity of the upright will guide them.”[14] We trust in our integrity. We trust in our conscience. We can be moved by our faith that we know right from wrong.

I think, over the last few years, progressives have done a great deal of doubting. We have been introspective and thoughtful. We have wondered, internally and out loud, whether we are right after all. Perhaps, as nationalist ideas return and religious conservatism gains strength, we might be able to make compromises on our ideals and find a middle-ground with others.

This week, fascists marched on the White House. They carried Confederate flags into Congress. A Nazi showed up among the rioters wearing a shirt that said: “Camp Auschwitz” on the front, and “staff” on the back, as if taking credit for the mass murder of Jews. They proudly displayed nooses, the symbol of anti-Black lynchings. Every brand of far-right conspiracy theorist and white supremacist descended on Washington, and video evidence shows that the police not only tolerated them but let them in.

Where has all our doubt and consideration left us? In our desire to find common ground and engage in reasoned discourse, we now come across as morally ambiguous and uncertain in our principles. We have left an ethical vacuum, and fascists have stormed into it. Intellectual curiosity is little use against the blunt force of white supremacists seeking to violently cease power.

Rabbi Professor Tony Bayfield has pointed out that our uncertainty is what differentiates us from fascists. Fascists are, by definition, absolutists. They do not interrogate their views or consider other perspectives. Our advantage over fascists comes from the fact that we give arguments due consideration and approach our own convictions with humility.

He may be right. Doubt might separate us intellectually from fascists. But it is action that separates fascists politically from power. There is no joy to be had in feeling superior if white supremacists gain power in government.

This week’s events may have been a terrifying climax to Trump’s presidency. But it is equally likely that they are a prelude to worse events. American white nationalists are emboldened and convinced that they can seize power through either ballots or bullets, depending on whichever method suits them. The situation in Britain is scarcely different, where racists have not felt so confident in decades.

Whether Trump now recedes into the background or his racist ideas come to dominate the world will depend on how we act. It will not depend on what we think, but on what we do. Events are calling us to action. If we want to eradicate fascism, we must be willing to fight it.

By all means, have doubts. Moses doubted. Moses was unsure. But God said to him, ‘go anyway. Get down to Egypt and free those people.’

We must be willing to face the Pharaohs of our time with the same vigour. We must be able to say: “I have come to act because God sent me. I am standing for justice because I know it to be right and true. I am standing against racism because I know it to be wrong. I will free these people. I will uproot tyrants. I will defend democracy and advance the cause of the oppressed.”

The integrity of the upright will guide us.

Although we may not fully understand these monsters before us, we will slay them.

And we will vanquish fascism for good.

Shabbat shalom.


I am giving this sermon on 9th January 2021 at Newcastle Reform Synagogue for Parashat Shmot.

[1] Job 1

[2] Job 40

[3] Job 41

[4] Job 42

[5] Job 11

[6] Ex 3

[7] Ex 3:11-12

[8] Ex 3:14

[9] Ex 4:1-9

[10] Ex 4:11-12

[11] Ex 24:7

[12] BT Shabbat 88a

[13] Prov 11:3

[14] BT Shabbat 88b

sermon · torah

Breaking the Cycle of Trauma

Trauma. No matter what we do, it seems contagious. If we talk about it, we’re passing it on. If we ignore it, we’re leaving an elephant in the room. If we follow everything the psychologists say and talk about it in exactly the right way, apparently it can still show up in our children’s genes. As if the trauma itself wasn’t worrying enough, we now have to be concerned that it might be inescapably hereditary.

As I and my peers embark on parenting journeys, or make the conscious choice not to, many of us keep circling back to the question of what we do with Jewish neurosis. If we have children, when do we tell them about the Holocaust, or the pogroms, or our fears? Should we tell them? If we do not have children, what role do we play in shaping the communities in which young people are raised? 

These are intensely sensitive questions. I do not want to dictate to anyone how they should feel about them, nor to project my own concerns onto other people’s families. But this week marked the anniversary of the Kindertransporters arriving in Britain, and a magazine asked me to comment on my family’s experience. It would be for a non-Jewish audience. I realised that I have spoken more about the existential issues around the Shoah to non-Jews than I have within the community, and feel that a conversation is overdue. 

Often, I feel like these discussions only take place in private conversations. Few of us are willing to publicly acknowledge how intergenerational anxieties shape our communal responses to everything from government policy to synagogue membership statistics. 

In particular, while the previous generation of Jewish leaders had people who felt comfortable sharing their own experiences and reflections on our collective traumas, as generations are increasingly separated from the events that caused the anxiety, we have become less willing to discuss them. It seems we have decided to move on without explicitly saying how we intend to do so or where we plan to go.

If we want to look forward to a Jewish future, we must first acknowledge its past. That begins, of course, with the Torah. Genesis can be seen as an exploration of overcoming intergenerational trauma. The story of the human family begins with Adam and Eve, who are cast out of paradise and subjected to the first experiences of suffering and pain.

Their children are Cain and Abel. In the first parashah, one jealous brother murders another. The survivor, Cain, carries a scar that he will pass on to his descendants as a remembrance of that violence.

Generations pass, but that cycle of sibling rivalry continues. Abraham’s two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, keep up that conflict, spurred on by competitive parents. Ishmael is banished into the wilderness with his mother. Isaac is almost sacrificed on an altar. Isaac does not speak to Abraham again. He and Ishmael are only reunited at the point when Abraham dies, when they come together to bury him.

Isaac’s children fare no better. From the first moment, Jacob grabs Esau’s heel on the way out of the womb. Isaac and Rebecca seemingly pit their sons against each other. Jacob tricks Esau out of his birthright. Laban tries to kill Jacob. 

Now, at the point when this week’s parashah begins, we expect the violence to be heightened. Jacob is trepidant, fully expectant that Esau will also try to kill him. He sends envoys of gifts, goodwill and messages of peace. Esau comes out with four hundred men, and it looks like the two parties will have to prepare for all-out war. Instead, Jacob bows seven times before his brother. Esau runs up to Jacob, throws his arms around him, kisses him, and cries. At the final moments of this parashah, Jacob and Esau bury Isaac together.

Healing takes time. It can take centuries. The span from Cain and Able to Jacob and Esau is 20 generations. That was how long it took for those brothers to make the first steps towards acknowledging the trauma they had inherited and trying to reconcile. 

Healing can happen in an instant. All it took was for Jacob to show humility and Esau to show compassion. Tears, heartache, and honesty can do in a few minutes what years of failed initiatives cannot. It requires a decision not to be defined by the tumult of the past. 

This brings us to the present. The behaviours of the patriarchs might be likened to the trauma responses of some of our own community members in facing the tragedies of the past. Some chose Isaac’s path of silence. Some, like Jacob, could not bear to tell the truth. Some even took up Cain’s route and engaged in violence. And yes, some, like Esau, made the decision to leave the past behind them and find new meanings.

I am not casting judgement on how any individual has responded to their suffering. I think, most likely, each of us has adopted all of these postures at some point. But what concerns me is how, communally, the British Jewish community has decided to interpret the Holocaust. It seems that, in our communal press and many of our institutions, there has been a tacit, possibly even unconscious, decision, not to move on from the past. 

Instead, we are constantly re-traumatised, reminded that another genocide could await us at any moment if we are not completely vigilant to even the slightest threat, however real or imagined. During the build-up to the General Election a year ago, I had to patiently counsel many terrified older people that there was no existential threat to Jewish life, and they could still sleep safely in their homes. We should never have reached the point where they felt so scared. 

I look at some of our discourse and despair at raising a child in the Jewish community. What values are we communicating when almost every response is an anxious trigger, rather than a measured engagement with reality? I think there are some who believe that constantly teaching our children about Jewish suffering will convince them into remaining Jewish. Even if they are right, at what cost does their Judaism continue? If they are only affiliated out of guilt or paranoia, what quality of Jewish engagement do they really have?

This is why making the conscious choice of Esau is so important. About ten years ago, I followed my dad to the site of Saraspils concentration camp in Latvia. At that time, we believed that this had been the site where his grandparents were killed. We now know it was Auschwitz. But I am glad we believed it was Saraspils, because that was a good place to pay respects. Little remained of the camp or the technology of genocide. The area had grown over with trees and plants and grass. Life had ended there, but life had also continued. 

We said kaddish, remembered their names, and talked about our hopes for the future. Then, as we walked back, we talked about what we could do for those facing similar violence today. It was a recognition of the past, an opportunity to grieve, and a chance to translate that suffering into meaning. I felt like I had my moment of reconciliation, if only brief, and I think the rest of my family felt the same way.

In 1982, Rabbi David Hartman (zichrono livracha) warned Israeli civil society that they faced a choice between being defined by Auschwitz or by Sinai. At Auschwitz, we learnt the wickedness of which people were capable. At Sinai, we learnt the wonders of what God could do. The Israelis could either define themselves by the trauma of the gas chambers or by the miraculous moral message of revelation. 

That essay has been cited many times, but I don’t think the British Jewish community has yet accepted that it might have lessons for us too. We are also faced with the choice of structuring our lives as if they are a moral calling from God or as if they are a cause to be constantly afraid of the rest of humanity. Only once we realise that we have taken the wrong path will we stand a chance of facing up to our trauma, and beginning to heal.

Shabbat shalom.

Saraspils concentration camp memorial

I gave this sermon to Glasgow Reform Synagogue for Parashat Vayishlach on Shabbat 5th December 2020

interfaith · sermon · torah

Who gets to be Jacob?

I am told that, as a toddler, whenever it came to game-playing, I had to be Postman Pat. No matter what the game was, I insisted on playing that friendly gentleman with a black and white cat. As I grew up, I had to compete with other children for different parts in our roleplay. We couldn’t all be the robbers, somebody would have to be the cops. Not everyone can be the Yellow Power Ranger and we can’t all be Ginger Spice.

Those were, at least, the parts we competed for in the 1990s. It was fairly low stakes, but it seemed quite important at the time.

But it’s nothing compared to the fight for roles that went on in the 5th Century CE. This big broigus was not just between two individuals, but between two whole religious groups: the Jews and the Christians. That battle was played out in two foundational texts of our traditions: a sermon by St Augustine of Hippo on the Christian side and the midrash, Bereishit Rabbah, for the Jews. Both were determined that they were Jacob, and the other side was Esau.

Which one would get to be Jacob?

At stake in this question is an ancient prophecy, told to Rebecca while she was pregnant: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will emerge from your body. One shall be stronger than the other; and the older shall serve the younger.”

When Rebecca gave birth to Jacob and Esau, she was not just birthing twins, but rival nations. A strong one and a weak one. An older one that would serve the younger.

We have Esau: the hairy, ruddy hunter. We have Jacob: the smart, younger upstart.

The contest over Isaac’s blessing and birthright laid out in our parashah was more than a competition between siblings. It was a war between peoples.

So which one is the Jews? And which one is the Christians?

As far as the Jewish texts are considered, Jacob must be the Jewish nation. Meak and smart? That’s us. Gentle but witty? Sounds Jewish. He even changed his name to Israel. Bnei Yisrael, the children of Israel, klal Yisrael, the community of Israel, daat Yisrael, the laws of the Jews. Surely Jacob must be us!

And meanwhile Esau… well, he’s Rome. He changed his name to Edom, which, granted, is on the other side of the River Jordan in Mount Seir, but was the birthplace of Rome’s most wicked emperor and Temple-destroyer, Hadrian. And look at those Romans. They’re the hairy, barbarous, fighting ones. They’ve got their swords and their empires, just as Esau had his bow and his field.

Bereishit Rabbah, our classical midrash on Genesis, spells it out for us.

Two proud nations are in your womb, one is proud of his world and one is proud of his kingdom. Two prides of their nations are in your womb – Hadrian amongst the gentiles and Solomon amongst the Israelites.

We’re Jacob. We’re the one that God has chosen. We are the descendants of Solomon, proud of the world of Torah and obligation. They’re Esau. They’re the other brother. They’re the descendants of Hadrian, proud of their ill-gotten Empire.

Except, of course, for one obvious problem. Jacob is supposed to be the younger brother. Aren’t we, the Jews, clearly the older sibling? Our revelation is much older than the Christian one and the kingdom of David long predates the Caesarian Empire.

This fact was not missed by our Christian interlocutors.

Foremost among these Christians was St Augustine of Hippo. Augustine was a Father of the Christian Church, a theologian living in North Africa. His ideas were definitive in Christianity for many centuries, and people of all religious stripes still reverentially refer back to his writings. As far as Augustine was concerned, Jacob had to be Christendom. Israel, God’s treasured child, was the Church.

True, says Augustine, the Jewish nation sprang from Jacob, but since then, they have gone on to become Esau. They’re the elder people whom God has rejected. Esau was born shaggy and hairy, which means full of sins. Just look at the Jews – that’s clearly them!

Augustine continues: the prophecy promised that the elder would serve the younger, but that never happens in the biblical text. Esau goes on to become very rich and both wind up blessed in their lifetimes. Clearly, this refers to events that had not yet transpired: that the real Jacob would go on to have the upper hand. Now look at the world of Augustine, where the Christian Empire spans the globe and the Jews are a fractured diaspora in their lands. Surely this is the proof that the Jews are now Esau, serving their younger brother, the Christian Jacob.[1]

This battle of biblical exegesis probably sounds quite twee today. After all, why should it matter which of our religions gets to be Jacob? But this battle for religious identity and purpose shaped interfaith relations in medieval Europe.

If the Jews were Esau, then the Christians had replaced them as Jacob. Judaism was superseded, no longer necessary, and its practitioners were hairy remnants of an outdated doctrine. As Esau, the Jews were a savage menace who needed to be tamed by the genteel, pious Christians in their role as Jacob. This Christian doctrine was the theological basis for Jewish subjugation in Europe.

Faced with such hostility and oppression, it was only natural that medieval Jews felt the need to double down and insist that they were still Jacob. They imagined that Christian dominion would only last so long but that the Jews would ultimately triumph. They could still be Israel, despite what was said about them.

The modern era has seen reconciliation between Jews and Christians. Over time, theologians and historians on both sides have come to emphasise their kinship over rivalry. Perhaps, in the conflict over who got to be Jacob, these twin religions forgot that they were, in fact, siblings. Perhaps, still stuck in childhood contests, our communities had ignored the way the story ends.

By the time of the story’s completion, Jacob and Esau are no longer warring for the same birthright. They have both struggled, and lost, and achieved their own blessing. In maturity, Jacob and Esau meet again and wrap their arms around each other. They weep as they realise that God’s blessing is not finite. They never needed to fight over it.

After 2000 years of struggle, perhaps we Jews and Christians can reach the same intellectual adulthood. The campaign for who is the favourite brother can be put aside as we realise that we are on twin paths. We are both children of the same Divine Parent.

Perhaps we cannot all be Postman Pat, or Ginger Spice, or the same Power Ranger. But everyone can be Jacob.

I will give this sermon at Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue on Shabbat 21st November 2020 for Parashat Toldot.


[1] ‘Sermon on Jacob and Esau’, Jacob Rader Marcus and Marc Saperstein, The Jews in Christian Europe, pp. 33-34