sermon · spirituality

In defence of large groups of people

The great sage of the Mishnah, Ben Zoma, once exclaimed:

How hard must the first ever human being have worked before he had bread to eat! He plowed, sowed, reaped, sheaved, threshed, winnowed, separated the grain from the chaff, ground the grain into flour, sifted, kneaded, and baked… and only then did he get the chance to eat. But I wake up and find all of these prepared for me.

He added:

How hard must the first human being have worked before he had clothes to wear. He sheared, laundered, combed, spun and wove… and only then could he put on a shirt. But I wake up and find all of these prepared for me.

And, of course, he is right. How many hands must have touched everything we enjoy. Ben Zoma knew this was true 2,000 years ago. How much more true is it now that we live in a globalised world with food, clothes and technology Ben Zoma could not even have fathomed.  Anything that anyone in this world does is because many people have worked together to make it happen.

But Ben Zoma also says something ridiculous. He imagines that Adam, the first human being, did all this alone. We know that is patently false. First of all, at the very minimum, Adam was accompanied by Eve in Eden. And, if we follow the biblical story, God provided that first couple with everything they needed. They could pick fruit off the trees without trouble and never bothered with bread. They didn’t even need clothes until they had left their paradise garden.

When Adam and Eve did leave Eden, they immediately found wives for their male children. The Torah doesn’t explain how they got there, but any other explanation for how humanity came about would be very troubling. The Torah knew that it was impossible for human beings to ever achieve something on their own.

And, in fact, the Talmud, where this saying from Ben Zoma is quoted, knew this too. This imaginary world where individuals only do things for themselves comes as part of a sugya that speaks in celebration of groups of large people. The Talmud marvels at the diversity of human beings, where every face and mind is completely different. It speaks in praise of migration, hospitality, crowded marketplaces and huge throngs flocking to the same place.

Human beings are social animals. From the off, we have done everything in groups. Before civilisation, we hunted and gathered in packs. When we first set up farmsteads and villages, we did so together, in groups. The modern world was built by people sharing technology, innovation, resources, and working together to develop them. The only evolutionary advantage that human beings really have is that we can organise in ways that no other animal can.

For the last year, some forms of collectivity have been permitted, and some have been forbidden. People have been allowed to meet each other in warehouses, factories, and takeaways, where they make and distribute things to those who can afford them.

People have not been allowed to encounter each other in parks, or houses, or community centres, or gyms. They have rarely been able to accompany the sick at their bedsides, or celebrate births and marriages, or share ideas in public forums. 

Now, as things ease, people are permitted to gather, but only if they are spending money. We can meet in shops, pubs, and restaurants, and even sit indoors without masks on. But very few of the community activities for children have returned. Older people in hospitals and hospices are still rarely seeing their families. 

Certainly, almost every form of protest or public demonstration remains criminalised, and it may stay so for a very long time. Like last summer, even with a nearly completed vaccination programme, the government is keen to rush people back to work, but reluctant to allow people time to just be together and heal. 

Still fearing the virus, despite minimal risk of transmission to the vulnerable, many people have given up on public transport. There is more regular car use in the UK now than at any previous point in history. I see people avoiding each other, avoiding making real contact, even though the option is there.

I look at this so-called ‘recovery’ from Coronavirus and wonder if anybody has considered what actually makes life worth living. We are not automatons, created to work like robots. The best part of being human is other human beings. We are social creatures, whose purpose is derived from what we can do together. 

And there is a place where people are supposed to be able to meet for just that purpose. Its name in Greek is ‘synagogue,’ which means ‘shared path.’ In Hebrew it is called a ‘beit knesset: ‘a house of meeting.’ In Yiddish, we call it ‘shul,’ which just means ‘school.’ This. This is it. This thing where we come together to sing in unison and study communally and hear how people are really doing, this is what life is supposed to be about. 

This. This place where babies are blessed, bnei mitzvah celebrated, weddings solemnised, healing recognised and deaths memorialised. This is how people recognise the humanity in others, and in themselves. 

This is my last service with you. I have absolutely adored working with you. I have got to know so many of you in such depth, without even leaving my home. I have heard about your families, your fears, your hopes, your dreams, and your life stories. I cannot wait to do that with you in person again.

We have weathered an entire year together through a pandemic. That much is remarkable. I have been so impressed by the ways you have continued to pastorally support each other online, and to provide essential services to the vulnerable. 

The next stage is going to be hard. It means meeting people face to face again. It means taking risks, being brave, and trusting each other. It means accepting compromises and imperfections. But above all, it means truly building a community that is loving and generative. 

I look forward to returning to Newcastle to see you all again in the building, in person, shaking hands, embracing, and catching up on the things that matter. I sincerely hope it will not be long before this community sings in harmony once more and natters over homemade foods at kiddush. 

At no point in our history has anyone managed to go it alone. The future sees us together.

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.