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.


festivals · sermon

But Ruth was a Moabite

In the Louvre, there is a towering stele, engraved with glyphs in an ancient language. Cast into the stone are the words purported to come from King Mesha of Moab. It tells of how the kingdom of Israel waged war against the Moabites and subjugated them.

He tells how King Omri decided to destroy the house of Moab forever. How he occupied land and oppressed the people. How the Israelites demanded tribute from the Moabites and forced them to send hundreds of men as captive slaves.

And our sources? Our sources agree. The Bible tells the same story. In the book of Kings, Mesha, king of Moab, is described as a sheep breeder who had to hand over 100,000 lambs and the wool of 100,000 rams. He is treated as a despised servant, mocked for his weakness at being conquered. Our Bible groats that the Moabites were utterly destroyed.

But. But Ruth was a Moabite.

Ruth came from the plains of Moab where there was famine and joined herself to Naomi’s household. She joined with them and was a model of love and kindness. She was strong and noble. Ruth is still the model of decency. And she was a Moabite.

These weeks, we turn to the book of Numbers. Almost the entirety of this chapter is a polemic against the Moabites. It tells of never ending war. It talks about how the Moabites feared the Israelites strength and number; how the Israelites went and crushed them. It triumphantly promises that a scepter shall rise out of Israel and smash the forehead of Moab. Death to Moab. Death to the Moabites.

But… Ruth was a Moabite. Ruth was a Moabite. Could she be included in these celebrations of ethnic cleansing? How could anyone do that to Ruth?

In the Psalms, God jokes that Moab is a washpot. The basin in which God’s feet are cleaned. Ezra laments in disgust that Israelites would ever marry Moabites. Numbers calls the Israelites who married Moabites harlots. Deuteronomy treats this intermarriage as a sin.

But Ruth was a Moabite. And Ruth married Boaz. And their story is the one we turn to when we want to understand true love. Their union is how we imagine all marriages should be. For them, marriage wasn’t a problem. It was a joy. Who could forbid such a thing?

When King David took power in Israel, he set out to conquer and destroy the Moabites. He trapped them in the valley and allowed nobody to leave. He split the Moabite camp in two with a line. On one side, he massacred them. He killed them without exception. On the other side, he enslaved them, and kept them as degraded servants.

But Ruth was a Moabite. And Ruth married Boaz. And they has children. And grand-children and great-grandchildren. And one of those descendants was David. Yes, King David, too, was a Moabite by ancestry. He was a product of one of those forbidden unions.

In so many places, the Bible speaks of destroying and degrading the Moabites. Only a few verses in one solitary book speak of Ruth as a Moabite, and position her as a source of love and the originator of the Israelite nation.

The Bible is not so much a book, but a library in discussion with itself. It is a compendium of different contradicting voices.

Somewhere, at some time, some voice thought it was important to say that Ruth was a Moabite. And she was a model of love and kindness. And she took better care of her family than anyone could. And she was the pinnacle of loyalty and devotion. And she was the grandmother of King David. And she was a Moabite.

You might wonder why anyone would bother. The entire Bible is a torrent of hatred against Moabites. Every word is oppositional. All the history speaks of war and conquest. Why would one lone author put their head above the parapet to suggest something otherwise? Why would it be worthwhile to say that Ruth was a Moabite?

But think about it. There are countless verses of contempt for Moabites, and only one that suggests they are worthy of love. And which one do we remember? Does anyone today feel any animosity towards the ancient tribe east of the Jordan? Does anyone still take pride in Israel’s long-gone military victories against its neighbours?

No. But people remember that Ruth was a Moabite.

Empires rise and empires fall. Nations come in and out of being. The names of kings and warriors are lost to the ages. But one loving word can last a thousand lifetimes.

The voices of hatred and jingoism are fleeting. They cannot be sustained. But the voice of love – the voice of humanity – that speaks out across centuries and spans generations. It lasts long after the malaise has subsided.

Ancient Israel was a great kingdom. It was able to conquer lands and bring neighbouring nations to their knees. It could compel people to erect stone monuments to their own misery. And the thought of it makes us, at best, uncomfortable.

But, now, all we take pride in is love. The love our people have had for their God. The love our leaders have had for their Torah. The love they have had for each other. They love they have had for strangers.

Gentle words. Small memorandums of compassion. Fleeting acts of kindness.

A verse. Ruth was a Moabite. Remember that, Ruth was one of them.

Shabbat shalom. Chag sameach.

sermon · theology · torah

Make yourselves fringes

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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 · theology

Why do people get sick?

Why do people get sick?

In a year when so many have experienced ill health, it is worth asking why this has happened. Throughout the pandemic, we have been reminded that some will get the virus with no symptoms; some will get the virus and recover; some will get the virus and will not recover. But what determines who gets sick and who gets better? Who decides who has to suffer and who will not?

There are plenty of medical professionals in this congregation who can answer part of that question much better than I can. Statistics, underlying factors, mitigating circumstances, health inequalities, access to medicine. All of these things certainly play a role. 

But they don’t answer the fundamental question that animates us: why? Why my loved one? Why me? That is not a medical question but an existential one. It is about whether there is a God, whether that God cares, and what a religious Jew might do to change their outcomes. 

For that, we look to the Jewish tradition. Let’s start with this week’s parashah. Here, we read one of the earliest examples of a supplicatory prayer. Moses sees his sister, Miriam, covered in scaly skin disease. He cries out: “El na rafa na la.” God, please, heal her, please. We hear the desperation in Moses’ voice as he twice begs: “please.” Don’t let her become like one of the walking dead. 

In this story, there is a clear explanation for why Miriam gets sick and why she gets better. Miriam’s skin disease is a punishment. She insulted Moses’ wife, talking about her behind her back with Aaron. 

When she gets healed, it is because she atones for her sins and Moses forgives her. She goes to great lengths of prayer and ritual to have her body restored. Sickness is a punishment and health is a reward.

In some frum communities, you might still hear this explanation. All kinds of maladies are offered as warnings for gossiping. When people get sick, they’re encouraged to check their mezuzot to make sure their protective amulets are in good working order. 

In some ways, these are harmless superstitions. When everything feels out of control, why not look for reasons and things you can do? But hanging your beliefs on this is dangerous. Plenty of righteous people get sick and plenty of wicked people lead long and healthy lives. 

If you follow the logic of this Torah story, you run the risk that, when your loved one’s health deteriorates, you might blame them for their ethical conduct, when really there is nothing they could do. It is a cruel theology that blames the victim for their sickness.

In the Talmud, the rabbis felt a similar discomfort. They decided that skin diseases were an altar for atonement. When people got sick, it was God’s way of testing the most beloved. The righteous would suffer greatly in this world so that they would suffer far less in the next.

When Rabbi Yohanan fell ill, Rabbi Hanina went to visit him at his sick bed. He asked him: “Do you want to reap the benefits of this suffering?” Rabbi Yohanan said he did not want the rewards for being sick, and was immediately healed. 

We hear these ideas today, too. People will say that God sends the toughest challenges to the strongest soldiers. But I don’t think this theology is any more tenable. How can anyone say to a child with cancer that their sickness is an act of God’s love? Who could justify such a belief?

No. The truth is that these theories of reward and punishment should leave us cold. We live in a world full of sickness and suffering, and it’s attribution is entirely random.

Maimonides, a 13th Century philosopher, saw that these explanations for sickness did not work. He was a doctor; the chief physician to the Sultan in Egypt. He had read every medical textbook and saw long queues of people with various ailments every day. How could he, with all his knowledge, think that sickness was a punishment or a reward?

Maimonides taught that God has providence over life in general but not over each life in particular. God has a plan for the world, but is not going to intervene in individual cases of recovery. He disparaged the idea that mezuzot were amulets or that people could impact their health outcomes with prayer. 

I feel compelled to agree with Maimonides’ rationalist Judaism. Sickness is random and inexplicable. So is health. The statistics and medical knowledge that I set aside at the start of this sermon have much better answers than I can muster.

So, what do we do? We, who are not healthcare professionals or clinicians seeking a cure? 

Like Moses, seeing the sickness of Miriam, we pray. We pray with our loved ones, not because we think it will make God any more favourable to them, but because it is a source of comfort to those who are sick. Praying with someone shows that you love them and care about their recovery. We do it for the sake of our loving relationships.

Like Rabbi Hanina, seeing the sickness of Rabbi Yohanan, we visit the sick. We attend to people, not because we imagine we can magically cure them with words, but because company is the greatest source of strength in trying times. We go to see people in hospital, not for their bodies, but for their souls.

And, like Maimonides, we approach the world with humility. We refuse to believe in superstitions that are false or harmful. We accept that we live in a mystery and there is much we do not know. 

In this time of sickness and difficulty, it is very Jewish to ask: “why do people get sick?” The Jewish response to questions is to ask more questions. And the most Jewish question we can ask here is: “when people are sick, how can I help?”

Shabbat shalom.

I gave this sermon at Newcastle Reform Synagogue for Parashat Behaalotchah on 29th May 2021.