sermon · social justice

It could be you

A woman passes her baby over the fence to an American soldier. She does not know the soldier. She does not know if the baby will be safe. She does not know whether she will ever see the baby again. But she knows that she must give the baby to someone, anyone, so that he doesn’t grow up there.

A sixteen year old boy with a promising career as a footballer grabs on to the side of a plane. He begs. He hopes the plane will take him too. The plane takes off, flinging him to the ground. He dies instantly.

An elderly woman with nothing to her name takes off on a long journey across desert mountains by foot. If she is lucky, she will arrive in a squalid refugee camp and spend the rest of her days living in white tents managed by the UN. She probably will not be so lucky.

Today those people are Afghans. 

Only a few generations ago, they might have been you. 

Most of the people here have ancestors who fled just as these refugees do today.

The great migration of Jews into England came at the end of the 19th Century. They had been living in the Pale of Settlement in Russia and Eastern Europe for centuries. Under Tsarist persecution, Jews were confined only to certain parts of the Russian Empire. They worked as peasants and in menial jobs, building their own communities in the shtetls.

When the Tsar’s power was threatened and the Russian Empire began to crumble, his supporters blamed the Jews. For decades, state-backed mobs rampaged through the villages. They torched houses, massacred people, stole property and made life unbearable. We call these waves of antisemitic violence pogroms.

So, our forebearers fled. Most did not make it. Some arrived in England. When they did, they were met by hostility, racism, cramped housing and sweatshop jobs. 

Not long ago, the hordes of fleeing refugees were you. You know what it meant to be a stranger. Even if you do not remember. 

The Torah asks you to remember. According to our narrative, thousands of years ago, we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We were refugees from a famine in Canaan. We were wandering migrants with no home. We were enslaved and confined to one part of the Nile and worked hard labour building garrisons for the Pharaoh. We were mistreated and judged with prejudice. We are instructed by Scripture to remember how that felt.

This week’s parashah sets out the rights of migrants. Never abuse them. Do not exploit them. Pay them upfront. Don’t hold their property hostage. Give them dignity. Don’t mess them around. Make sure they have food and shelter. Look after them.

Why? Over and over again, Deuteronomy repeats: “Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt. That is why God enjoins you to observe this commandment.”

You have to support strangers because they are you. When you look at migrants and refugees, you are not allowed to see them as different. You have to look at them as you. It is the most-repeated commandment in the whole of Torah: to know what it is like to be a foreigner in a foreign land. Remember what this means.

Not everyone remembers. 

Last week, Danny Finkelstein wrote in The Times praising border controls. He took his family story of fleeing as refugees from the Nazis to advocate for keeping some foreigners out.

He wrote, and I quote here: “strongly believe in immigration control. And I am not in the slightest bit put off by the suggestion that this would have prevented my grandfather from becoming a British citizen […] yes, I would deny immigration to some very deserving and worthy people I would be quite happy to live next door to. Even people I would be happy to be related to. Just because I favour immigration for someone, that doesn’t mean I favour it for everyone.”

Personally, I cannot share Mr. Finklestein’s flippant disregard for immigrants, or join him in championing border controls. Like his, my family also fled the Nazis. Most did not make it out. Only a few, who were children, or who could prove they would be useful as nurses, were permitted entry. Under the current system, I doubt they would have been allowed. If I were a refugee today, I would not fare so well as my grandfather did.

But the reason I object to Danny Finkelstein so strongly is not selfish pragmatism. It is religious. It is because I truly believe what the Torah teaches about the rights of strangers. Those refugees are my ancestors who fled persecution. They are my progenitors from millennia ago who were strangers in the land of Egypt. Those Afghans, gripping onto planes and handing their babies to soldiers and walking for miles in the sun… they are me.

And they could be me again.

The only thing that stands between a comfortable citizen today and a desperate refugee tomorrow is luck. 

We in this room do not have to think about what we would do if our corner of the world was faced with famine or war. We do not have to imagine where we would go when faced with our own version of the Taliban.

But if ever I did have to think about this, I would pray that somebody, somewhere, had taken to heart the message of the Torah. I would want somebody to say that no number is too many, that their homes were open, and that my life mattered, no matter what I could provide.

Thankfully, there are people in Britain today, making precisely this case. 

The Jewish Council for Race Equality has put together a Jewish community response to the Afghan refugee crisis. It sets out clear actions the government must undertake to meet its moral obligations.

It must scrap its anti-asylum seeker legislation. It must stop deporting Afghans back to certain danger. It must allow more refugees into this country. 

I urge you all to sign this petition in support of these very reasonable demands.

These are really the minimum standards we must meet. The Torah never even thinks to introduce border controls or to police citizenship. Our Scripture assumes that migration is natural and inevitable. God’s instruction is that, once strangers are with you, you give them all the rights and compassion you would show to someone you have known all your life.

Torah repeats itself so many times to drill home this message.

Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt. That is why God enjoins you to observe this commandment.

Shabbat shalom. 

I delivered this sermon at South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue on 21st August 2021 for Parashat Ki Teitzei.

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.

judaism · sermon

We know darkness

It was a dark, cold and stormy night. Mendelsohn, an old man, knew that the end was near. “Call the priest,” he said to his wife “and tell him to come right away.”

“The priest? Honey, you’re delirious. You mean the rabbi!”

“No, no,” said Mendelsohn. “Call the priest. Why disturb the rabbi on a night like this?”

Darkness is familiar to most of us.

In this week’s parashah, God brings a plague worse than all those that have preceded. Worse than frogs, blood, boils and locust. God brings on eternal darkness. When it’s day, it’s dark. When it’s night, it’s dark. After a while, people lose track of whether it’s day or night. Nothing grows. It’s never warm. People can feel the lack of sunlight on their skin and in their bones. They’re agitated and grumpy. It sounds a lot like London in January.

The month of January is notorious for being the most miserable. The days are so short. The nights are so long. It’s cold and wet and it feels like it will never end. Personally, I find just getting out of bed a struggle. The idea of slogging along on a bus with cold hands and feet, dripping in my raincoat with all the other commuters, just feels unbearable. It’s not a coincidence that this is the time when people can be most unhappy.

In fact, this coming Monday is said to be the most unhappy day of the year. Perhaps consequently, today is Mental Health Shabbat. People are broke. We’re at our coldest. Our bodies are aching. The darkness feels like it will never end.

A few years ago, the darkness started driving me to distraction. I couldn’t sleep when I needed to, and when I needed to be awake, I felt constantly tired. I was itchy and irritable. I have a spine disease, which fuses the joints in my back, and this was the worst year I’d had for pain. I could barely move. All that pain made sleeping even harder, being awake even more tiring, and my mood even worse.

I tried all sorts of things to get my body back on track. I tried upping the dosage of painkillers. I started drinking camomile tea in the evening to soothe me. I invested in one of those SAD lamps that slowly lights up, creating a synthetic dawn in my bedroom. Still, I felt hopeless.

I tried something else as well. I tried praying. I got up in the morning and said a few words of gratitude. Thank you, God, Creator of the Universe, for giving me this day. I wrapped tefillin on my head and arms and took a few moments for reflection. It was a struggle. It required discipline. I forced myself to say thank you even when I felt like I had nothing to be thankful for.

But that discipline did something new to me. It made me reflect on what was good in the world. Even if everything was dark and cold and painful, I was still alive. That was enough.

I realised, with time, that I’d been trying to push myself to be something I wasn’t. I was cursing my body for being disabled. I was trying to pretend that it was dawn when it wasn’t. I was angry, all the time, at the way the world was. And I was angry at myself just for being angry.

I couldn’t handle that it was cold and dark because that was just the way January was meant to be. January was the way it was meant to be and I was the way I was meant to be. I was comparing January to July, when they’re completely different months. Neither of them are meant to be like each other.

I was comparing myself to healthy people, with all the mobility, flexibility and energy they had. That wasn’t the body I had. That wasn’t who I was. The problem wasn’t me and the problem wasn’t the month. The problem was that I was comparing everything to an artificial standard. As if there was one ideal body, one ideal night’s sleep, one ideal mind, one ideal season, one ideal month, one ideal day. No such thing exists.

Prayer gave me permission to stop trying to live up to false standards. When I pray in the morning, thanking God that I’m alive, I’m not asking to be any different. I’m not saying thank you for things I don’t have or wishing for things I did. I’m just acknowledging one reality: that I’m alive.

We live in a system that teaches us that we have to always live up to this perfect standard. Capitalism requires us to be productive. We internalise that attitude so that we worry when we’re not efficient enough. We can even take that attitude home with us, striving for an ideal of a perfect home that we can never quite attain. And we can’t attain that ideal because it’s impossible. It’s somebody else’s standard.

Judaism teaches us that we are created in the image of God. We are, each one of us, a mirror of the Divine. So, no matter what cards we’ve been dealt, we are the standard. Just by being alive, we are living up to the standard that God set for us.

That’s what’s enabled me to deal with the darkness. When things are at their worst, I remind myself that things can’t always be perfect. I cannot live up to somebody else’s expectations of me. All I can do is accept myself for who I am, and give thanks that I’m alive.

January is a difficult month. This week may feel unusually hard. But I believe that we can get through it. If we are willing to love ourselves for who we are, and accept what we are not, we can make this darkness a little easier.

Shabbat shalom.

rainy london

I gave this sermon at Mosaic Liberal in Harrow for Parashat Bo on 12 January 2019.