Delivered on February 5th 2017 on BBC Surrey and Sussex
Yesterday in synagogue, we read the story of the Exodus. 600,000 Israelite families joined by diverse multitudes depart the land of Egypt.
That they wanted to leave was clear: but that there was a plan to get to a destination was clearer still. They would journey through the wilderness to Mount Sinai, receive the Torah, the way of life that Jews follow until this day. They welcomed those that joined them on their journey. Together, they would forge a new moral, inclusive nation that will one day make it to the Promised Land. Through this process they become a people.
In a week where Parliament debated Brexit we find ourselves in a divided and wounded country. Many MPs focused on their differing interpretation of the will of the people. In truth leaving the European Union for half the country is deeply painful and for the other half something to cheer. However, like in the Exodus story we need to find an end destination: a new settlement, a precise and realisable vision that embraces and serves the diverse nations, communities and peoples of these islands whilst maintaining good relations with our neighbours in an ever shrinking global village. In other words, for Brexit to stand any chance of working it needs to become Brexodus: it has to have both a leave point and a final destination: without that it simple becomes an exile, a Brexile if you like, into the wilderness for many many years to come.
Next weekend Jews around the world commemorate Shabbat Ha-Gadol (the Great Sabbath). Traditionally, it was one of two Shabbats that the rabbi would give a sermon. Now we work them harder. The rabbis would speak about the laws of the upcoming Passover Festival, the story of the freeing of the Israelite Slaves and the Exodus from Egypt. They would reiterate the importance of the concept of freedom and how we should utilise it to chose a path of moral responsibility and do good in the world.
At a time when populist movements and extremist groups want to deny others who are different to them their liberty, their lives or both it is important to reiterate shared societal values that bind all of us together. Today these values are the right to life, liberty, the rule of law, social justice and democracy, of promoting equality of opportunity and good community relations,. They are the foundation stones of the society we have built together enabling economic, scientific and social advancement.
Indeed, we need to scrutinise the philosophy of those wishing to do away with these freedoms whether they are populist politicians or political or religious extremists – and WE need to find the confidence to celebrate our shared values and humanity with pride.
Twice a year, the rabbi would speak: and on one of those days he would do so before our festival of freedom. If you are only going to speak up once in a while I can’t think of too many better themes than that of on freedom.
God spoke to Moses, saying: I have selected Bezalel of Judah. I have filled him with a wisdom, understanding and knowledge, and with all types of craftsmanship… I have also given him Oholiab of the tribe of Dan.
Why the need for Bezalel’s apprentice? Bezalel’s from the big tribe of Judah, his apprentice is from the small tribe of Dan. The two of them together represent a unity between the tribes to achieve a common purpose. The construction of the Tabernacle is no longer a project by a single dominant tribe but one in which all of Israel participate.
Some of humanity’s greatest achievements have happened through collaboration and unity: our greatest failures have occurred when one tribe has claimed supremacy over others.
In the last 100 years alone: the Somme, Auschwitz, Cambodia, Srbrenica, Rwanda stand testimony to this failure… At the same time some of our greatest scientific discoveries have been achieved when there has been collaboration and the political will to make progress. The last 70 years of peace in Western Europe is a miracle: unity between countries that came together to rebuild prosperity out of war ravaged continent: and in doing so created peace and security: from the fires of war to a relative Tabernacle of peace. We risk ignoring that achievement at our peril.
In Rabbi School we are exploring the sometime complex concept of pray and the views of leading 20th century rabbis on this topic. The course covers Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who is claimed by several traditions within Judaism. For me, Heschel is best remembered as the civil rights rabbi who went to Selma and marched alongside Dr Martin Luther King. He claimed at Selma he was ‘praying with his legs’.
In a number of his essays he expresses his concerns that 1950s American congregations had a disconnect from prayer. He paints a depressing portrait , perhaps for Heschel, of a generation who are forgetting how to pray: of synagogues turning into arenas rather than a community of full participants. He is critical of communities where the rabbi or cantor prefers to perform in front of his congregations rather than to lead pray amongst them For him you and leaning on his own Hassidic tradition have to put your whole self into prayer ‘in a complete turning of heart towards G-d” “in a yielding of the soul”.
Events always seem to takeover. Paris. Tragedy strikes again.I had accepted a few weeks back an invitation to attend the England v France match at Wembley with members of the FA’s Faith in Football group which I chair… what had been a run-of-the-mill friendly was now something far more.
Stepping out onto Olympic Way at Wembley with my son seemed like an act of defiance. It seemed that every fan walking down that road was sending a message and that every step was an act of faith.
The Wembley arch was lit up in red, white and blue. The words ‘liberté, egalité, fraternité’ emblazoned across the stadium.
We met my friends at the entrance. One of them had worn a hijab to the match said that although she had been nervous coming to the match dressed in religious attire she was surprised at how warm the England fans had been to her. There was a feeling of togetherness as 75,000 fans sang the Marseilaises: true that some did not know the meaning of the words “but they seemed to be completely turning their hearts to it” perhaps even “yielding their soul”. At half-time,we took a group photo. We decided to tweet and Facebook the photo: “Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Sikh at the footie. Most importantly friends together…”
As the match ended we took the long walk to Wembley Park. People were singing, embracing: french fans, england fans, football fans, humanity fans. We seemed to be walking with a common spirit. We had been part of something bigger than sport.
We stopped to queue before the tube station. My pocket was buzzing. Who was calling… I looked at it… Several hundred retweets… Our photo seemed to have captured something… It seemed just for a moment that our photo had captured a shared moment of hope… And the twitter sphere was responding accordingly…
As I walked on I thought to myself this is what Heschel meant when he said “Praying with his legs”…
Original BBC Broadcast below: