sermon · social justice

A peasant farmer was my father

A peasant farmer was my father

When my mind wanders, I like to think about where I would go if I could travel in time. Have you ever considered this? When you would want to visit?

Personally, my first thought is Paris in the 1890s. In my higher moments, I project myself into medieval Andalus, the Golden Age of Hebrew poetry in Spain. 

And, of course, I’d love to go back to biblical times. Wouldn’t it be marvellous to see the First Temple in all its glory? What would it be like to inhabit that world of prophets and visionaries?

But this time travel thought experiment always comes with a corollary. I’d have to be a rich man. No matter what spot of history I got dropped in, the only way to enjoy it would be to be part of the elite.

If I were sent back to biblical times without that condition, I’d probably be a peasant farmer. We like to imagine our ancestors as great kings and high priests. In reality, they were less than a small fraction of the ancient Israelite population.

95% of people in the biblical period worked the land. Dropped back to the time of David and Solomon, we probably wouldn’t be in their courts, but in the fields. 

I take a perverse pride in this knowledge.

Think how hard they must have worked to bring that ancient society into being!

As a peasant farmer in the ancient world, you would have about 3 acres, growing different crops, including grains, fruit trees, and olives. You would, almost certainly, have a chicken run and a small herd of goats. 

If you were really fancy, you might also have a cow.

Your home would be a collection of huts and tents, stretching out to include your extended family. Each would be a bustling, cramped place, with pots and pans and a fire stove. Your animals would potter in and out of your sleeping quarters. 

I am not trying to paint a romantic vision of any of this. Your life would be hard. You would pull a plough with your own hands and sow seeds with your back hunched over. You would cultivate and cut and glean your trees in the searing heat. 

You would spin your own wool, stitch your own clothes, bake your own bread, build your own dwellings, subsist on whatever you needed to survive.

Yes, all that is true for women, too, with an additional burden. You would give birth to ten children and breast feed all of them. You would count yourself incredibly lucky if all of them lived past the age of 5. If they did, they would likely be married off in their teens. 

No, there is nothing romantic about the lives of our real ancestors. 

But we should be proud of them. 

Peasants, labourers and serfs might not be the subject of great poetry and sagas, but without their efforts, nothing exists. There could be no food, no shelter, no community, and no culture, without their graft. That gruelling work made civilisation possible.

This week’s parashah tells us something of how they built ancient Israelite society.

If they had just stuck to their own homesteads, they would have had to survive on the paltry gains of subsistence farming. In a bad year – if rains failed to fall or crops failed to grow – they would simply perish.

So, our family, the farmers of the ancient world, signed up to participate in the agrarian state. 

The agrarian state was responsible for distributing food and creating common irrigation and transport systems. In ancient Israel, the centre of that state was the Jerusalem Temple. 

Our parashah explains the criteria for participating in its systems. You must not glean your fields right to their edges, so that you leave enough for travellers and strangers. You must donate a tenth of your grain and livestock to support those in the community who are most vulnerable, like widows and orphans. 

In some ways, this is the foundation of the earliest welfare state. 

But the poor are not the only beneficiaries of this redistribution. 

In fact, they were not even its primary targets. 

Our parashah begins with a ritual that Israelites must undertake each year. At each harvest of the year, you must collect your first and best fruits. You must bring these, the choicest of all the crops you worked so hard to create, and give them to the priests.

You must lift them above your head and say: “A wandering Aramean was my father. He was enslaved in Egypt, but God brought him out into this land of milk and honey. Now, I bring before you, the first fruits of the soil that God has given me.”

The priest will sacrifice it, perform closed rituals, and eat it in front of you.

That priest did not work to produce those fruits. He did not share in the exhausting work of raising children in a hovel, or run ploughs over the land. In fact, he wasn’t responsible for any land.

The priest’s sole job was to be the leader of the ancient cult. He was in charge. He profited from your work. 

That great Temple in Jerusalem, with all its priests and writings and rituals, only existed because the poor majority paid in and made it happen. That entire society functioned on the basis of our ancestors’ labour. How could they have done it without the work of the people who harvested the grain, built the bricks, and cared for the sick? 

I don’t resent the ancient priests. 

That work made possible great cultural developments. At that time, we couldn’t have had literary culture, organised society, music or scientific discovery without a class who had the leisure time to devote to such pursuits.

We then wouldn’t have benefited from the innovations in agriculture, technology, transport and trade that makes our lives today less horrible than they were in ancient times.

But, while resentment for ancient figures might not be productive, we should feel entitled to be critical.

After all, their world is our world. For all the social progress we have made, the divisions that defined civilisations millenia ago are only greater than they were then.

Far fewer people profit far more from the work of the majority than ever did in the biblical period. 

Almost all of us, I know, are worried about how energy price gouging, interest rate rises, and higher costs of living will affect us. Some are already feeling the effects of an economy where wages won’t rise but prices keep going up. 

Meanwhile, the energy companies and their shareholders are making record profits. These last few years, which have been so frightening for most people, have been a period of great abundance for the world’s richest. 

This is not accidental. The rich are not rich in spite of the poor. They are rich because of the poor.

Perhaps those inequalities were essential to create our current world. But how much greater would society be if we decided to eradicate them? Just imagine what we could accomplish if nobody had to worry about heating their home or feeding their family.

We could unleash the great talents of everyone, whether priest or pauper; shareholder or sharecropper; king or taxi driver. We could enjoy this world, with all its bounties, without the constant friction of struggle.

On reflection, if I could travel in time, I don’t think the past would be the place for me. I would prefer, instead, to make my way to the future.

I want to go to the time when technology is harnessed to benefit everyone in the world, regardless of who they are and where they live. An era in which it is not just a small minority that creams off the profits of the many, but when everything is redistributed between everyone. One in which the gains of civilisation are shared with all humanity. 

We can’t change the past. We can’t go back and rescue our ancestors from the harsh realities of peasantry. But we can build a different future for the next generation. We can make it so that the future is not defined by the same problems of the past.

Let us travel to that point in time together. 

Shabbat shalom.

Ki Tavo 5782, South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue

fast · sermon · theology

Tonight, we begin grieving.

Tonight, we begin grieving.

As the sun goes down, I will eat my last meal for 25 hours. I won’t bathe or shave or change. I’ll probably read a book, or some poetry, and contemplate what it means to be destroyed.

Tonight, the fast of Tisha bAv begins. It commemorates every disaster that has befallen the Jewish people. If we were to dwell on every time we had been injured, our year would be non-stop suffering. We would never have time to celebrate. 

So, we compound all our catastrophes onto a single day. Every exile. Every genocide. Every desecration of sacred texts and spaces. Every racist law and every violent uprising. As far as we are concerned, they all happened on this day: on Tisha BAv.

It is a day of immense profundity. The tunes are haunting. The texts are harrowing. It is the hardest fast of the year, taking place in the heat of summer, with long days and disturbing topics. 

For years, I marked this fast alone. Very few Progressive Jews wanted to participate. Many Reform and Liberal synagogues don’t mark it at all. I would turn up to Bevis Marks, the centre of Sephardi Jewish life in the city, where cantors from the Netherlands regaled us with their greatest piyyutim. But this occasion attracted so little interest from the people who shared my religious beliefs: the other Progressives. 

Why would they not want to mark it?

The first reason is emotional. It is difficult to sit in misery for a full day. It paints a tragic picture of our past, compounding every struggle we have faced into a single problem, overwrit by centuries of destruction. 

In fact, I think this objection is what really commends Tish bAv. Grieving what’s gone can teach us important lessons. It can put us in touch with our most challenging emotions, like guilt, misery and despair. 

True, if we went around all the time complaining about how difficult Jewish history had been, we would never move on, and we would be bound by a negative self-image. By placing all of Jewish suffering on a single day, we are able to confront atrocities, and engage with them, then move on.

Progressives have also objected to Tish bAv on theological grounds. As Reform Jews, we have no desire to return to the Temple or its sacrifices. We are the heirs to the rabbinic revolution, which rebuilt our entire religion after Jerusalem was destroyed. 

Because of the early rabbis, we became a Diaspora people; replaced animal slaughter with prayer; and substituted hereditary priests for a system in which all Jews could be equals. 

But those rabbis understood something profound. You have to engage with the past in order to progress from it. We cannot just pretend things never happened. 

Our rabbis pored over their ancient texts, repeated their oral traditions, and grappled with the world that had gone before. They may have moved beyond the time of the Temple, but they always referred back to it. They faced their tragedy, and rebuilt their religion.

Perhaps the biggest reason that Tish bAv is not given the respect it’s due is because it has been replaced. Since the Second World War, many Jews now instead mark Yom HaShoah or Holocaust Memorial Day.

This is understandable. The Holocaust was, of course, unprecedented in the scale of slaughter; the degree to which industrial machinery could be dedicated to human suffering; and the gleeful participation of so much of Europe in Jewish extermination. It is absolutely right to mark it and honour so many outrageous deaths.

But these events have their own theology. They teach that Jewish suffering was a thing of the past, now resolved. In the case of Holocaust Memorial Day, the problem has now been solved by the United Nations in international commitments to human rights. 

Yom HaShoah is part of the secular cycle of the Israeli calendar, a week before Yom HaAtzmaut celebrates Israel’s victory in 1948, and a fortnight before Yom Yerushalayim celebrates Israel’s Conquest of Jerusalem in 1968. Yom HaShoah suggests that the answer to Jewish suffering is the state of Israel’s military might.

These may well be the political views of some congregants, but they are not the religious views of rabbinic Judaism. Judaism shies away from simplistic answers to subjugation and refuses to allow genocides to be resolved by slogans. We actually have to engage with the horrors of the Shoah, and to understand that they cannot be explained away. We have to sit with our grief.

Tisha bAv poses an alternative response to our experiences of evil. It tells us to fast and grieve, but, unlike on any other fast, we are to carry on working. We can still do many of the things we would on a normal day. Our world is upended, but we must keep going. 

The idea of Tish bAv is that we can face destruction and, through faith and community, nevertheless survive. We can still hold onto our God and our values. Even while we are being destroyed, we are able to rebuild.

Consider how Reform Jews of the past responded to the Shoah in the 20th Century. While in the camps, Rabbi Leo Baeck preached Torah beside waste heaps. When he was liberated from Theresienstadt, he immediately published a work of optimistic theology, expressing his hope of Judaism’s continuity. Think of Rabbi Albert Friedlander, who, having escaped the Nazis, spent the post-war years establishing synagogues and saving scrolls so that our religion could be preserved. Their lives are a testament to Jewish hope in the face of despair.

That is the story told by Tisha bAv. That, yes, we have suffered, but we have also survived. We have refused to let Judaism be extinguished. Into every generation, we have passed on our values and our faith. We have always found ways to rebuild. Tish bAv teaches us that we may always suffer, but that we have also always carried on. 

So, tonight, we begin grieving. I hope you will join me at ELELS for our ECAMPS service to mark this important fast. We will read poetry, hear the chanting of the Megillah, and reflect on the tragedies of destroyed cities and vanquished people. And, through this sorrow, we will learn again the strength and creativity of our people. We will remember all those who have kept this Judaism alive.

Tonight, we begin grieving. Tomorrow night, we will begin rebuilding.

Shabbat shalom.