judaism · sermon

The tribes that broke apartheid

We are all members of tribes. Human beings are tribal creatures. We organise into packs and stick together. We identify into groups. 

You are probably a member of more than one tribe. You are a member of this synagogue, which binds together hundreds of families into a community. You might also have your workplace, neighbourhood group, union, political party, youth movement, charity association. 

Tribes are a core part of life. And it is this week, as we receive the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, that the Israelites become a tribe. When we left Egypt, we were slaves. We were a mixed multitude escaping persecution. Now, as we stand in the wilderness, we form into something stronger. But what kind of tribe do we become? 

In 2008, a group of researchers got together to study different tribal cultures. David Logan and his team looked at hundreds of workplaces and social groupings to see how they operated. While all these groups formed tribes, they found that there could be very divergent kinds. 

These researchers divided up the tribes into five kinds, based on their cultures. At the lowest level, Level One, were those tribes that functioned worst and, at the highest level, Level Five, were those that functioned best. 

Interestingly, as we look at the stages, it seems like exactly the progression the Israelites go through as they form as a tribe. They begin low on these researchers’ scale and, as the story continues, they advance to higher levels of performance. 

At Level One, tribes take the attitude that life is awful. They systematically sever relationships with other tribes and pool with people who think like they do. They are entire groups of angry misanthropes. These are the kinds of people who say “everyone is horrible, so we’ll be horrible, too. People will attack and rob us, so we’re going to get them first.” People who think life sucks will be toxic towards themselves, their own group members, and anyone they consider an outsider.

This is the Israelites at the start of the Exodus narrative. They are crying out for help under tyrannical persecution. They are a mixed multitude of all the lowest classes of Egypt, and have no concept of anything but toil. They don’t even trust Moses when he tries to start setting them free.

At Level Two, tribes say “my life is awful, but there is better stuff out there.” The world might be a good place, but I don’t have access to the goodness in it. These are the kinds of people who will bemoan how persecuted they are. They will complain that other groups have better jobs, or get taken more seriously, or produce better culture, or have more influence. These tribes don’t believe in themselves enough to make positive changes for their own tribe, let alone others.

This is the next stage for the Israelites. They decide that there is a better world out there. Their lives are horrible but, if they left Egypt, they might get a taste of something better. They get up and go, seeking to find a new life as they leave through the Sea of Reeds.

In a Level Three tribe, the mantra is “I’m great, and you’re not.” Here, people are competing for prestige, wealth, and honour. These are groups where everyone wants to compare notes about how much better their kids are doing in school, or how much better their careers are going. The tribe can do good things, but only because it creates cultures where individuals flourish.

That’s the level we reach at the start of this week. Betzalel emerges as a fantastic architect and interior designer, showing off his skills at the Tabernacle. Aaron and his family come forward to be priests. They show how well they can perform religious rituals. But, because they have no defining values, they end up worshipping a golden calf and recreating the same systems they knew in Egypt.

Stage Four is where really impressive tribes begin to emerge.  These are groups where people are united by something greater than their individual competences. They turn from small groups into something large and meaningful. They are actually conscious of being a tribe, and united by values. They extend their reach by connecting with other tribes and finding points of value alignment. 

Only now, as Moses presents the Ten Commandments, can the Israelites reach Stage Four. They are a conscious tribe, united by shared values. We, these freed slaves, have one God. We reject idols. We honour our families. We hold time sacred. We refuse to engage in murder, theft and lies. We are one people joined by a shared vision of what a just society could be. Anyone who shares that dream can join us.

But that is not the end of the journey. The highest level is rare, and most groups never get there. 

The fifth level is when a tribe is united by values that affirm life, each other, and the future. We only see glimpses of this kind of tribal behaviour in Tanach – on those incredible occasions when the prophets extend their message full of joy about who humanity is and hope of what it could be.  

The researchers who ranked the groups only offered one example of a tribe that reached such a high level. That was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. 

This was convened in 1996. With Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the end of formal apartheid, nobody knew which direction the country would go in. Some anticipated civil war, or resurgent racist nationalism.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu brought together thousands of tribes from all across South Africa. He set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which would aim to restorative justice between all people. Victims and perpetrators faced each other, to speak honestly about what had happened during apartheid, and how they could make amends.

He united people on a programme that they could be better than they had been. He coalesced people around a vision that they could be honest with each other and foster a future based on cooperation. 

Consider what courage and moral fortitude that must have taken. For decades, black, Indian, and Coloured South Africans had been subjected to segregation, poverty and violence. The anti-apartheid activists had faced imprisonment, state abuse, and separation from their families.

After all that, Tutu took these tribes to a level we almost never see. He created a culture where people believed in themselves, in each other, and joined by a vision of joy and hope. 

When Desmond Tutu died just over a month ago, it reminded people of what a giant he had been for religious people worldwide. His theology was one that still intimidates many. He preached true universalism, arguing that God was not a Christian, but belonged to every religion. He advocated sincere justice, never shrinking from social issues. And he believed, despite all he saw, that people were capable of fantastic things.

That was what made his assembly of tribes exceptional. Only those who see the best in people and hold the greatest of values can take people beyond what they know. If we are to defeat the racism, segregation and division that plague us today, we need to muster similar attitudes.

So, which tribe will we Jews be today? Will we sit at the bottom rung, only believing the worst about the world? Will we be like those who complain that we don’t count but others do? Will we create a culture where individuals can flourish but don’t cohere as a whole group? Will we unite around clear values and come together consciously with pride? And can we achieve that rarest of things: a level where we affirm what is wonderful in ourselves and the world, and foster unity around a joyous vision of the future?

The faith that inspired us at Sinai tells us today: we can achieve remarkable things. If we believe in ourselves, we will.

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