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Sunday, 31 March 2013

Leaving Egypt

So, we have left Egypt, left it behind. Monday night, Tuesday, Tuesday night last week, we told it, narrated it, rehearsed it. We were in Egypt, we slaved for Egypt, we knew Egypt like the back of our hands, our weather-beaten, calloused, workers’ hands, it was bitter, bitter as midnight, we were lodgers in Egypt so long that Egypt was lodged in us, and we left, in a hurry, in a rush, in a mad exodus, all panic and mayhem around us, blood on the doors, the smell of sacrifices, the smell of death in every home but ours. We left it, we left it all behind - a plague on their houses! - no provisions for the journey, just a suitcase of memories, hardship, nothing in our hands except our children, grasping them tightly for the journey ahead, our treasures, our children, our hope for the future, for what will come to pass when we are gone, when we have passed over...

Bitterness, the soul’s sour lament, it’s what we know: our history, our slavery, noses to the grindstone in our daily toil, don’t look up, keep on going, hard-bitten, slaves to the job, slaves to our rulers, slaves to the markets, slave to those who control our daily bread, give us today our daily bread, we left in haste, no time to bake, no time to let the dough rise, no time to look back, no time to question, no time to leaven the conversation with yiddischer humour, or tales of  defiance, just urgent unleavened haste, no going back, we didn’t know where we were going, only away from this, away from here, away from here...

Would we have stayed if we had known? Would we have clung to what we knew, this everyday slavery, serving masters who held our lives in their hands, would we have stayed enslaved to the familiar drudgery if we had been told that after this was only wilderness, wandering, desert and death, so we could serve again, an unseen master, the ruler of all? Would we have left if we’d known that the choice is only who to serve, do you serve man or do you serve God?

Bitter-sweet freedom when this is the choice: freedom from slavery, yes, but no freedom from being caught up in another kind of service, bound into a history, fettered to a story and the telling of a story, chained to a tradition that won’t let us go, that claims us for itself, that holds us bound, spellbound, in its vision, that manacles us to a promise: you will be free to the extent you bind yourself to this story, remember this story, retell this tale, tell it to your children – ‘I am making you free so that you can bind yourself and your children and your children’s children to the wheel of  Jewish history’.

And you will never be liberated from this: the task of freeing those bent low – for you were bent low; and reaching out to the poor – for you were poorer than poor; and aiding the widow and the orphan, for your rulers made too many of you widows, your men-folk martyred under the lash; and too many of you orphans, your parents ground into the dust, their names never recorded; and centuries go by and the story is always the same...

And I the Eternal One am making you free so that you will never be free of this story, never be released from indebtedness, never be freed from the obligation of repaying Me by remembering the strangers, all strangers, in all lands, and in all generations, for there will always be strangers, and you will always need to be reminded, remembering where you came from, remembering that Egypt will always be with us, that slavery will always be with us  - slavery to ideas, slavery to hardship, slavery to the need to earn a crust of bread, slavery to people with power, slavery to isms, fascism, monetarism, consumerism, cynicism, idealism – slavery and Egypt are always with us. As are strangers: strangers who don’t belong, strangers not like us, strangers who seek asylum, strangers whose faces don’t fit, strangers who are new to our land, strangers who don’t know our ways, strangers seeking a better life – strangers like you through the ages.

Would you have left Egypt this week if you had known that you will always be strangers, always seem strangers to someone else who imagines you are different to them? Would you have left if you had known that the only way to be free is to live for the stranger your brother, the stranger your sister, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt? Ah, I the Eternal One,  bless Egypt for teaching you this lesson, for without this lesson in your souls, without this lesson in strangerhood bound like a sign upon your hand and like frontlets between your eyes, without this knowledge in your hearts of what it means to be outsiders, I would have no-one to be my hands in the world to reach out to, to look out for, those who live on the margins, who are neglected, impoverished:  the strangers who lead lives of quiet desperation, whose lives are of no account - really no account - to the new Pharoahs who arise, the new masters of the universe, the new rulers in their gated ministries and their boardrooms and their hushed corridors of power.

Would you have left Egypt behind if you knew this was your fate? Would you have walked out of the pain that was known into the pain that cannot be imagined? Would you have walked into the wilderness of millennia, yoked to this mission of memory, of telling the story of liberation in order to enact that liberation over and again for those who need liberation?

Would you have left Egypt, if you had know you had to leave Egypt again, again and again, every year when springtime comes - or even when springtime does not come, when the season freezes as if in chilling mimicry of the new Pharoahs’ austere and frozen hearts, cold, cold, like the desert at night?  Would you have left Egypt if you had know that Egypt is still here and now, and that you would have to struggle for your freedom every day of your lives, straining the bitterness of enslavement out of your hearts? would you have left Egypt way back then if you had known it may still be inside you wherever you go: your narrowness of perception, your limited vision, your constrained hearts, your embittered souls? Would you have left Egypt if you had known how hard the journey would be – when you have only Me to rely on, Me to trust, Me to guide you, Me in my unseen majesty, Me in my infinite and imminent presence, Me inside you, whispering in your ear, here I am, be still and listen, here I am, serve no-one else, be bound to nothing else, be bound only to my boundless lovingkindness, be bound only to Me so that you can be released from serving anything except Me.

This is your freedom, yetziat Mizraim, the leaving of Egypt:  here with Me you are free. Here is the promised land, here I am, here and now. Here it is. My promise. My promised land. Entwined with me, here you are free. Bound up with Me, this is what it means to be free. Bound into me, nothing to choose, nothing to lose, except your chains. I am what I am: your wilderness, your promised land. Here I am.

[This piece was inspired by Marge Piercy's extraordinary poem 'Maggid' and offered as a sermon at Finchley Reform Synagogue on Chol Ha'Moed Pesach, March 30th 2013]

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Obama and Holiness

The prophetic text from Malachi that we read before Pesach (Passover) has an extraordinary sentence in it. The passage in which it appears speaks about the return of Elijah as the herald of a new age - a tradition that we still think about on seder nights with the cup of Elijah, that fifth cup of wine we never drink, the cup that symbolises all our unfulfilled hopes, personally and as a people. While we talk that night of how oppression turned into liberation for our mythic ancestors, Elijah’s cup is a powerful symbol that we live in an unredeemed world, a world where freedom is still sought by so many, where so many kinds of oppression – economic, political, social, individual – are so prevalent in so many lands.  ‘History could make a stone weep’ (Marilyn Robinson, Gilead). It symbolises what could be, what should be, but is not yet in being.

At the climax of the book – which is also the climax of all the prophetic literature gathered in the Hebrew Bible – the author-poet says that Elijah’s messianic role is not played out on the world historical stage, it is neither political nor economic, it is personal, it’s about family: ‘He will reconcile parents with children and children with parents’ (Malachi 3:24). Intergenerational reconciliation is seen by Malachi as at the heart of messianic hopefulness.

If destruction is to be averted, says the prophet - ‘so I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction’ - there has to be a change of heart: hayshev lev avot al banim – Elijah will ‘turn the heart of parents towards their children’.  And then ‘the heart of the next generation will turn towards their parents.’ Where there is conflict and argument, hostility and lack of understanding, there will be a new openness, new bonds of affection and care and understanding. This, says Malachi, is what the messianic age looks like - or rather, this is what needs to happen if anything else is to be transformed on a societal level. It begins with family life. It’s close to home, sometimes in the home. It’s a very Jewish vision, a down-to-earth, pragmatic vision. A change of heart at the centre of everything else.

That message was powerfully evoked during by Barack Obama, in his remarkable address to young people when he arrived recently in Israel. His talk embraced Jewish history and Jewish destiny and Jewish purpose. (He would have made a good rabbi – if he wasn’t a Muslim (joke)).

 Over the last 65 years, when Israel has been at its best”, he said, “Israelis have demonstrated that responsibility does not end when you reach the promised land, it only begins....Israel has the wisdom to see the world as it is [this is Jewish pragmatism], but -- this is in your nature -- Israel also the courage to see the world as it should be [Jewish purpose/destiny/vision].  Ben-Gurion once said in Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles. Sometimes the greatest miracle is recognizing that the world can change. That’s a lesson that the world learned from the Jewish people” [Jewish ‘chosenness’].

He spoke of the story of Passover - “a story of centuries of slavery and years of wandering in the desert; a story of perseverance amidst persecution and faith in God and the Torah. It’s a story about finding freedom in your own land. And for the Jewish people, this story is central to who you’ve become” – and acknowledged that its themes had a resonance wider than the specific ‘Jewish’ story: “But it’s also a story that holds within it the universal human experience, with all of its suffering but also all of its salvation.’s a story that’s inspired communities across the globe ...To African-Americans, the story of the exodus was perhaps the central story, the most powerful image, about emerging from the grip of bondage to reach for liberty and human dignity -- a tale that was carried from slavery through the civil rights movement into today. For generations, this promise helped people weather poverty and persecution while holding on to the hope that a better day was on the horizon. For me personally, growing up in far-flung parts of the world and without firm roots, the story spoke to a yearning within every human being for a home.”

And thus he was able to make the case for a Palestinian state and an end of occupation, he was able to make it in the name of Israel’s long term security, and of the need for peace - and justice. And in doing so he did something that politicians rarely do. He asked people to imaginatively inhabit the lives of others different from themselves. Speaking of the Palestinian people he said: “put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes” - have you ever heard a politician ask people to imagine the world empathetically through the eyes of others? it’s usually naked self-interest that they are appealing to, even if it is dressed up differently -  “it is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements, not just of those young people but their parents, their grandparents, every single day. It’s not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It’s not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands or restricting a student’s ability to move around the West Bank or displace Palestinian families from their homes. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land”
All of this was punctuated by cheers and applause from his audience. Some have criticized Obama for demonstrating in his speech such unfeigned admiration for the State of Israel, and for insisting on it as a ‘Jewish state’ (and thus calling into question the status of the 20% of the population who are not Jewish) but it seemed to me that this was still a brave speech. And it was one delivered by a politician attuned to holiness, to the need to translate holy living, Jewish holy living, into the realm of everyday life. It was about a change of heart - turning the hearts of the Israelis to the Palestinians, and the hearts of the Palestinians to the Israelis.
Sometime it is ‘outsiders’ who see most clearly what is that we have that is so special as we tell our collective story, our great mythic narrative of liberation from slavery. 
The story contained in the Haggadah tells of the survival of a tribe, a people – the ‘miraculous’ survival of a people, through the generations, through history, a people who choose to gather each year to tell of their miraculous survival as a people. One of my favourite passages in the Haggadah is the one that tells of a group of rabbis in Bnei Brack – five of them - gathering in secret to tell the story two thousand years ago. So far away in time - and yet already the need to tell the story, the miraculous story of liberation and survival. And we join with them on Seder night – telling the story of their telling the story – passing on to the next generation this story about storytelling, and the role of storytelling in the survival of the people.
It is a night when we are grateful to be able to gather together, as a people – in families, with friends, as a community – and when we allow our questions to emerge. And one question that it feels incumbent on us to ask is what is this survival for? Is it survival for its own sake - are we akin to the Armenians, or the Aborigines, with a collective identity and history and set of cultural traditions? - or does Jewish survival have a further purpose?  The story we tell suggests that the answer, perhaps disquietingly, is yes: survival in and of itself is fine, we can appreciate what it means, but it is not the end of the story. The story of our liberation from past oppression points towards a task, a responsibility. On this night we remember that we have a destiny as well as a history. And that destiny, as Obama reminded his audience, at the end of his bravura speech/sermon/vision , is timeless:
“as a man who’s been inspired in my own life by that timeless calling within the Jewish experience -- “tikkun olam” -- I am hopeful that we can draw upon what’s best in ourselves to meet the challenges that will come, to win the battles for peace in the wake of so much war and to do the work of repairing this world. That’s your job. That’s my job. That’s the task of all of us”.
He didn’t end with ‘Amen’ – he’s not, after all, a rabbi - but he could have done.     

The cynical dismiss Obama’s speech as rhetoric, lacking in practical suggestions, making all the right noises to seduce his hosts. But at least he articulated the vision, spoke of the moral need to transform ‘what is’ into what ‘could be’, what ‘should be’. On seder night we recall the journey our people have made from ‘what was’ to ‘what is’ – let us find ways to move the conversation on from ‘what is’ to what should be.

[loosely based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, March 23rd, 2013]