When we are children, we have a child’s view of God. A big bearded man in the sky with a benevolent smile, a beard and sandals. Maybe a maternal godhead, embracing us.
We imagine God as our idealised parent, fulfilling all our needs, giving punishments and rewards, guiding us to do right. We see the world as children because we have no other reference point.
Then, we become teenagers, and our worldview shifts. Suddenly, we are able to question authority, push boundaries, and assert our own independence.
We go through growth spurts, physically and emotionally. We close the gap in height with our parents so that we can see over their shoulders. They are no longer demigods, but imperfect human beings that we can challenge.
At this point, many of us give up on God. The childlike view we once had cannot hold, because the view we had of our parents has altered too. We realise that, if we can challenge authority, we can push back against the ultimate force we had imagined too.
I fulfilled the stereotype of a rebellious teenage atheist. I rejected the sky-daddy and all the nonsense of religion. This was a pretty lacklustre rebellion to my parents, who were themselves Marxist atheists.
I don’t remember the moment I stopped believing, or when I started again. But when I came back to faith, the beliefs I held were not the same as when I had been a child. I had to reconstruct God.
I took snippets from Jewish tradition. I listened attentively to my friends who were Quaker, Baptist, Muslim, Sikh, and Catholic, finding the parts that resonated. I reimagined what it would mean to believe in God if the Divine Parent surrounded by clouds no longer existed.
I realised that many others had engaged in the same thoughts too. All the while, when grown-ups had been talking about God, they hadn’t believed in the primary school version either. They had also gone through that process of maturing, and their ideas had developed with them.
It turns out that the God that atheists don’t believe in, the religious don’t believe in either.
This week is the Israelites’ coming of age.
Throughout Genesis, we only knew the God of stories. God created the world; God made people and gave them special purpose; God gave out punishments for wrongdoing and rewarded the good.
Now, we find ourselves in a situation in which we must rebel. We enter the Book of Exodus, where the Israelites are enslaved and forced to do hard labour. They are beaten and abused. Meanwhile, all around them, the Egyptian empire and the social order on which it is built are crumbling. We cannot believe in their gods, and we cannot find our own.
Our hero, Moses, sees through the nonsense. He stands up against his father’s power in the royal palace. He beats a slaver to death. He breaks away from the only regime he has known and runs into exile.
In the years that Moses ran away, he had to give up on all his old beliefs. The fantasies he’d held about his family. The dreams he’d had about what his own life meant.
He married a woman of a different tribe, Tzipporah, and worked for her father, Yitro. They were Kenites, and Yitro was a Midianite priest. Perhaps Moses could just have substituted his old beliefs for the Midianite ways. He would have simply worshipped a new pantheon of gods and taken on different customs.
Instead, Moses is forced to reimagine God altogether.
While tending his flocks, Moses meets his Creator in a thicket on a mountain. He sees a bush on fire, but not burning, that calls out to him and demands he remove his shoes.
Could this be one of the gods of Midian or Egypt? Could it be one of the spirits that inhabited the ancient world?
Moses must know. He asks “who are you?”
The voice from the burning bush replies: “אהיה אשר אהיה.” I will be what I will be.
This God does not have a name. It is not one of the idols that the nations worship. It is not something that can be held or controlled. This God will be what it will be. This God is the sum total of all that will ever exist.
When I teach bnei mitzvah children portions, I try to get them to understand what they are saying, so I teach them the roots of Hebrew words. They learn what is going on in each word of their parashah.
In Hebrew, every word has a root: three letters that hold all the possible meanings. Words like kaddish (the prayer for the dead), kiddush (blessing the sabbath), and kiddushin (getting married) all have the same root: kaf-dalet-shin. The root gives us all the words to do with holiness and making things special.
In nearly every parashah, we get to the unpronounceable name of God. The students nearly always try to pronounce it, but find it quite impossible.
We don’t say the word as it appears, but substitute it with “Adonai” (my Ruler) or “Hashem” (the name). That way the name stays sacred, or kadosh.
And then I teach them the root of this ineffable name. Hashem is a composite of three words: היה (what was); הוה (what is) and יהיה (what will be). God’s root is existence. God is the thing that always exists, and from which all existence comes.
When God says “I will be what I will be,” it means that God is everything. God is existence itself. God is whatever it means for something to actually exist.
This is the mature view of God. It is not a fairytale or a Santa Claus. It is a way of understanding all of reality.
This God will not do what it is told, or sort out your problems for you.
That’s why this God comes with a demand. “Go back to Egypt. Get over there and bring the people out of that land. Do whatever you can, bring everyone with you, and get yourselves free.”
When we are children, we have a child’s view of God. One who gives out punishments and rewards. One like an ideal parent.
Now, we are faced with the good of adulthood. The one who is the foundation of all existence. The one who gives all life meaning. The one who says: “I am not going to free you by magic. You will have to start freeing yourself.”
When did Moses stop being Egyptian?
When did Moses stop being an Egyptian?
When Moses was born, he was decidedly Hebrew. This fact was dangerous. The Hebrews were living under oppressive rule, enslaved and oppressed by hard labour. Fearing the Hebrews’ strength in numbers, the Pharaoh had decreed that all first-born Hebrew boys were to be drowned in the Nile. Staying Hebrew would have meant certain death for Moses.
So, he was raised Egyptian. His mother put him in a basket and sent him down the river, where he was picked up by the Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in the central palace. He was given an Egyptian name and raised as if he was a member of the Egyptian aristocracy.
But, at some point, Moses ceased being an Egyptian. One day, he saw a slavemaster beating a Hebrew. Seeing the Hebrew as his brother, and the Egyptian as his enemy, Moses struck back and beat the slaver. He killed the Egyptian. Moses fled into exile in the Midianite desert. He knew he was no longer Egyptian.
There are varying accounts of how Moses ceased being Egyptian. In the classic Dreamworks film, Prince of Egypt, Miriam and Aaron bump into him in the street, reveal to Moses his history, and persuade him to join the slaves’ revolt. The film is so ubiquitous that many imagine this is the Torah’s version of events.
This version makes for fantastic cinema, but doesn’t quite fit with the narrative presented in Exodus. In our story, Moses’s mother, Yocheved, and his sister, Miriam, put themselves forward to care for Moses in the Pharaoh’s palace. Surely his own family, having stayed with him since birth, who look more like him than Pharaoh’s daughter, would have raised him to know his history, even if only secretly.
As Rabbi Dr Jonathan Magonet astutely notes, the text suggests that Moses held onto both identities. In the same verse where Moses rises up against the slavemaster, he calls both the Egyptians and the Israelites his “brothers.” He goes out to join his brothers the Egyptians in surveying the building works, then beats the slaver in solidarity with his brothers the Hebrews.
Moses could have quite easily continued living as an Egyptian while knowing he was a Hebrew. Many people throughout history have held multiple nationalities without contradiction. The useful question is not when Moses became Hebrew, but when he stopped being an Egyptian.
Perhaps, as some of our commentators have suggested, the key lies a few verses before. There, it says that Moses grew up. Rabbis of the past have wondered what this growing up could mean. Surely it can’t refer to weaning or early childhood, because he has the strength to hit back against a fully grown adult wielding a whip. It must refer to a deeper maturity: Moses reaches the age where he can question the lies of Egyptian society. He reaches the emotional maturity to put his heart with the oppressed and rebel against injustice.
Moses was always a Hebrew, but he stopped being an Egyptian once he refused to identify with their system. As soon as Moses was willing to rebel against Egypt, he not only lost his identification with his enemy, but he lost the protection of being part of the elite family. He had to flee into exile. The only circumstance in which he could return was to lead the mass exodus of his people, the Hebrews.
It may seem surprising that Egypt and brutal slavery were so entwined that Moses could not remain Egyptian while opposing the evils of its system. How can it be that this country was so repressive that the slightest opposition made him stateless? How can it be that even a member of the elite, raised in the palace of the most powerful man in the land, could be rendered an exile just by standing up against the cruelest possible thing one human can do to another?
Of course, today we live in more enlightened times. We now live in a society where citizenship is awarded as a birthright, not as a reward for good behaviour. We have systems of international law that guard against making people stateless. Our government in Britain would never behave as Pharaoh’s did.
Or would they? Two weeks ago, the government passed a law through the House of Commons called ‘The Nationalities and Borders Bill.’ According to this new law, anyone who is entitled to claim another nationality can be stripped of British citizenship without warning.
This builds on the hostile environment initiated by Theresa May, which makes it harder for immigrants to reach Britain and easier to deport them. Similar policies have already been used to send away Carribeans who have lived in Britain their whole lives and to make refugees in this country stateless.
This new law expands these powers. And it affects us.
How many members of the Jewish community have held onto second passports in case antisemitism becomes destructive again? How many Jews do you know who are also dual nationals with Israel, South Africa, Canada, or a European country from which they were once exiled?
My dad and brother claimed German citizenship as part of post-Holocaust reparations. Now, this very fact makes them vulnerable to have their British citizenship revoked at a moment’s notice, without them even being informed.
Indeed, every one of us could be subjected to similar treatment. A study for the New Statesman indicates that 6 million Britons – a tenth of us – could now be deported by Priti Patel.
This law may not have been intended for us, but it could easily be applied against us. There is plenty of historical precedent. When governments want to issue repressive measures, they begin by attacking foreigners. Anne Frank was a German until the Nazis decided she was a Jew. Moses was Egyptian until the slavers decided he was a Hebrew.
Our community should be deeply concerned by these draconian measures. Whether out of solidarity with those who have already been deported from this country, or for fear that we, too, could fall victim to these new powers, we must be willing to speak up against it.
But there is reason to be hopeful. Earlier this year, when a Home Office van came to remove two asylum seekers from their home in Glasgow, their neighbours fought back. Two hundred local people surrounded the van and refused to move until their friends were freed. The immigration authorities were forced to capitulate and let the refugees free.
Our parashah teaches that the Hebrews could not be contained by the Pharaoh’s repressive measures. “The more they oppressed them, the more they rebelled.” Like our ancestors, we must be willing to do the same.
The more this government treats foreigners as enemies, we must be willing to accept them as friends. The more this government declares that people do not belong here, we must be willing to assert that they do. The more they say that people are illegal, we must be willing to loudly assert: nobody is.
No one is illegal. Everyone who is here belongs here. You cannot deport our neighbours and friends. You cannot take away our passports.
South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue; Parashat Shmot; Saturday 25th December 2021
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.
Stop doubting. Start doing.
Job was a man of complete integrity. According to his eponymous book of the Tanach, no matter what happened, Job was the epitome of Jewish righteousness. Then hardship fell, and Job began to doubt God’s justice.
This was hardly surprising. God had stripped him of everything, ridden him with disease, killed his children and destroyed his livelihood to test whether or not Job would remain faithful.
As it turned out, Job could only endure so much. His friends comforted him with explanations of how God must be righteous after all, but they were insufficient. Finally, Job began to snap. What if God was not just?
Just then, God burst out through the clouds. “Who are you to question Me?” demanded God.
After a lengthy excursus from Job’s inadequate interlocutors, we might expect a more thorough explanation. God has arrived and will explain the nature of justice.
Instead, God goes off on one about mythical beings. God talks about the Behemoth, an enormous bull-like monster that can rampage fields. God describes Livyathan, a fire-breathing dragon that cannot be killed.
And this, apparently, satisfies Job. Well, I’m not satisfied. I don’t know about you, but if I’m having doubts about my faith, “have you heard about the monsters God tamed?” won’t really cut it for me. You can’t respond to rational concerns by piling on ever more improbable legends. Now I’m filled with even more doubts.
But perhaps that’s the point. The author of Job, arguably the most philosophically complex text in our Tanakh, probably knew that these myths weren’t really an answer to the question posed.
The real answer, hidden within these poetic arguments, is that we don’t know. Whatever God is, it is beyond our comprehension. Whatever justice is, we cannot fully reason it enough to grasp it. ‘You don’t need to understand,’ is what God is really saying.
Similarly, our parashah this week concerns Moses’s doubts. We have come to the book of Exodus, and Moses has already run away into the wilderness. Out of a flaming thicket, God summons Moses to rescue the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt.
Just as God answered Job from the clouds, so too does God answer Moses. But the answer Moses receives is no more comforting. ‘You don’t need to understand,’ says God, ‘you need to get going.’
“What if I’m not good enough?” asks Moses. “You will be,” says God.
“Who even are you?” asks Moses. “I will be whatever I will be,” God roars back. “Tell the Israelites ‘I will be’ sent you.”
“What if nobody believes me?” asks Moses. “They will,” says God.
“But what if I can’t find the words?” asks Moses. At this point, God loses patience. “I gave you your mouth, I will give you the words! Now get yourself down to Egypt and set those slaves free!”
Miracles might be convincing to some. Logic and reason might work some of the time. But, ultimately, you have to act. When faced with injustice, there is little time to contemplate the nature of sin and perfection and God’s role in it. You have to get out and do.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was a Conservative theologian and civil rights activist, famously pictured alongside Martin Luther King Jr at the march on Selma. He said that Judaism does not require a leap of faith, but a leap of action. We are called upon, first and foremost, to act. Whatever we think about it can come later.
This might sound strange to us, educated in a Western thought system that teaches us to calculate and reason before making choices. But it was not strange to the Israelites. When God called on them at Mount Sinai, they replied “we will do and we will hear.”
According to the Talmud, a heretic accused Rava using this verse. Rava was sitting, so engrossed in study, that he didn’t notice he had trapped his finger in a chair leg and it was spurting blood everywhere. “You impulsive people!” the heretic said. “You still bear your impulsiveness of acting before you think. Listen first, work out what you can do, then act.”
Rava responded with the verse from Proverbs: “The integrity of the upright will guide them.” We trust in our integrity. We trust in our conscience. We can be moved by our faith that we know right from wrong.
I think, over the last few years, progressives have done a great deal of doubting. We have been introspective and thoughtful. We have wondered, internally and out loud, whether we are right after all. Perhaps, as nationalist ideas return and religious conservatism gains strength, we might be able to make compromises on our ideals and find a middle-ground with others.
This week, fascists marched on the White House. They carried Confederate flags into Congress. A Nazi showed up among the rioters wearing a shirt that said: “Camp Auschwitz” on the front, and “staff” on the back, as if taking credit for the mass murder of Jews. They proudly displayed nooses, the symbol of anti-Black lynchings. Every brand of far-right conspiracy theorist and white supremacist descended on Washington, and video evidence shows that the police not only tolerated them but let them in.
Where has all our doubt and consideration left us? In our desire to find common ground and engage in reasoned discourse, we now come across as morally ambiguous and uncertain in our principles. We have left an ethical vacuum, and fascists have stormed into it. Intellectual curiosity is little use against the blunt force of white supremacists seeking to violently cease power.
Rabbi Professor Tony Bayfield has pointed out that our uncertainty is what differentiates us from fascists. Fascists are, by definition, absolutists. They do not interrogate their views or consider other perspectives. Our advantage over fascists comes from the fact that we give arguments due consideration and approach our own convictions with humility.
He may be right. Doubt might separate us intellectually from fascists. But it is action that separates fascists politically from power. There is no joy to be had in feeling superior if white supremacists gain power in government.
This week’s events may have been a terrifying climax to Trump’s presidency. But it is equally likely that they are a prelude to worse events. American white nationalists are emboldened and convinced that they can seize power through either ballots or bullets, depending on whichever method suits them. The situation in Britain is scarcely different, where racists have not felt so confident in decades.
Whether Trump now recedes into the background or his racist ideas come to dominate the world will depend on how we act. It will not depend on what we think, but on what we do. Events are calling us to action. If we want to eradicate fascism, we must be willing to fight it.
By all means, have doubts. Moses doubted. Moses was unsure. But God said to him, ‘go anyway. Get down to Egypt and free those people.’
We must be willing to face the Pharaohs of our time with the same vigour. We must be able to say: “I have come to act because God sent me. I am standing for justice because I know it to be right and true. I am standing against racism because I know it to be wrong. I will free these people. I will uproot tyrants. I will defend democracy and advance the cause of the oppressed.”
The integrity of the upright will guide us.
Although we may not fully understand these monsters before us, we will slay them.
And we will vanquish fascism for good.
I am giving this sermon on 9th January 2021 at Newcastle Reform Synagogue for Parashat Shmot.
 Job 1
 Job 40
 Job 41
 Job 42
 Job 11
 Ex 3
 Ex 3:11-12
 Ex 3:14
 Ex 4:1-9
 Ex 4:11-12
 Ex 24:7
 BT Shabbat 88a
 Prov 11:3
 BT Shabbat 88b