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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]


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