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Sunday, 7 March 2021

Thoughts on Not Remembering - and a Grim Anniversary

 Are you finding that you can’t remember as you used to? That something is happening to your memory, not so much distant events in the past but about what you experience currently? You have a conversation – on the phone, on Zoom, ‘live’ in person – but soon after (very soon after) it’s gone? You listen to a talk, or a sermon, or someone explaining an issue (personal or collective), but hours later – or even minutes later – it has somehow disappeared?

I know that as we get older some of us have lapses of memory about names, or some words don’t appear in our minds as quickly as they once did. But I’m not talking about that. That’s a well-known phenomenon – it even has a colloquial name: ‘senior moments’. I’m talking about something else that’s happening (or I think is happening) – and it’s transgenerational; and, also, it has nothing to do with dementia.

I suspect that the way our minds now absorb verbal information – I am not talking about images, but words – is undergoing a profound change. I would like to understand this phenomenon better, but I am trying here to make a preliminary start to thinking about it.

I had thought that this was maybe a Zoom-era issue, and that the artificiality and limitations of Zoom, the ‘glass life’ world we now live in, is generating this difficulty in remembering what we hear through Zoom, what we hear on Zoom. (Do we hear through the screen or on the screen? I don’t know). But what I’m trying to get at precedes Zoom; though, paradoxically perhaps, this last year on Zoom has brought it to the fore for me, and made it possible to think about.

To put it in a nutshell, I would suggest that we are forgetting what we hear because for the last twenty years and more our brains have changed, subtly but irrevocably. How has this happened? I am beginning to think that with the omnipresence and availability of knowledge systems outside ourselves – Google, of course, but also messaging and communications systems that hold our information and history for us, including through audio and video recordings - our immersion for decades now in this membrane of externally held and retrievable knowledge means we no longer have to remember. And we know it. We can look things up, we can retrieve what matters. Or what we think matters.

This has penetrated deep into us. We forget what we hear because our brains are becoming conditioned not to hold on to words - but to look them up. Our capacity to remember from inside of ourselves what we have just heard is becoming atrophied. We don’t have to be fully attentive to the moment, to really Shema (“pay attention”). Those days have gone, it’s just sort of happened to us. Our smartphones and laptops have become extensions of us – memory resides within their reach, so we don’t have to remember for our selves. And because we know we don’t have to hold on to what we hear, we increasingly can’t – even if we want to.

What we might be left with after we have listened to someone for a while is a sense-impression, a feeling – pleasure, irritation, frustration, indifference, puzzlement, excitement – these are the residues that stay around for a while, rather than the content.

I think I first began to sense that reliance on technology was changing how our brains function while watching football. (This isn’t to do with words, of course, but sight). I began to realise that when I went to a live game and a goal was scored I couldn’t recall it a moment later, except in a very fuzzy way: I had become so used to seeing a replay while watching on TV that my brain was waiting for this at an actual game; it had lost its capacity to stay focused moment by moment on what was unfolding in real time in front of me. My memory recall – the internal capacity to ‘replay’ what I had just seen - had become dulled. And sometimes it just wasn’t there.

When I realised I wasn’t alone in this, I began to wonder what it meant for other areas of our life, like listening to people speaking.

And gradually I heard, more and more often, people say something like: “Yes, I was there, I heard them speak, but I can’t remember anything they said”. Now of course this can be to do with lack of attentiveness in the listener – as well as any lack of dynamism (or having anything interesting to say) in the speaker. But I am now more and more of the view that the changes going on in us are more fundamental.

I have a personal stake in this because I do, from time to time, share some thoughts in public – they are called sermons, although I prefer to thin k of them as ‘sharing some thoughts’. But if what I’m talking about here has some truth to it, then the tradition of sermon-giving is coming to an end. People won’t remember anything I say afterwards. People have said to me: “Well, I know your sermon will be on the synagogue’s website, so it’s okay if I don’t remember”. And maybe that’s the way it will be from now on. We become dependent on external technology and stop holding others’ words close to our hearts. Maybe I’m alone in this, but this creates a great sadness in me as I think about the implications of in wider contexts.

The doyen of contemporary American novelists, Don DeLillo, hints at this in his latest novel ‘The Silence’ where an event – unspecified – disables all electricity and electronic communications worldwide. His characters are left with their own words, thoughts, personal communications – from moment to moment – with no technological backup, no smartphones, no information-holding systems: nothing. Nothing except what goes on in their heads and between real living, existentially-stranded, people.  

When you are faced with dead screens and silent phones what do you have left? As one of DeLillo’s characters says: “The current situation tells us that there’s nothing else to say except what comes into our heads, which none of us will remember anyway”.

 

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I gave my first sermon about Covid almost exactly a year ago: on March 5th the first UK death from Covid was confirmed , and there were then about 100 confirmed cases, and a year ago this weekend the Prime Minister, announcing the first tranche of funding in the search for a vaccine, told us:   "It looks like there will be a substantial period of disruption where we have to deal with this outbreak." (March 6th, 2020)

That gets my prize for ‘Understatement of the Year’.

So as we move into March we are marking a rather grim anniversary. Year One of the new era. I’m not going to rehearse here the history of what we have gone through these past 12 months: you all know the ‘disruption’, to use Mr. Johnson’s word, that you have experienced. You know all about the multiple losses: to loved ones, and beloved activities, and loving contact; you know what you have suffered, what you have missed, what you have sacrificed, what you have lost out on.

And you know too that you’ve staggered on, through this past year, through this unfolding drama of history - though you might be unsure how you’ve done it, or what the cost has been, emotional and psychological; but you might glimpse from time to time the mental hardship below the surface, that’s tested your resilience, your robustness.

And you’ll know too what resources of generosity and compassion you’ve been able to summon up from inside yourself: what you have shared and offered to others; in what ways you’ve reached out and kept in touch, and sometimes created something new from out of the midst of this ‘disruption’.

Whether it’s been a surprise to you to discover how large your capacity is for change and adaptation, or been dismayed by how fragile you might have felt this year, it’s been a year that has really tested us.

And now I think we in the UK sense that we are in a new phase of the Great Disruption. Vaccines have been developed at miraculous, historically unprecedented, speed in a great collective transnational enterprise on behalf of humanity’s wellbeing. Although of course when the more small-minded politicians put their oar in, there have been, and continue to be, issues of nationalism and competitiveness in the roll-out and distribution of these vaccines. Nevertheless, the collective effort of the scientific community is surely a model of  how a global threat to wellbeing can generate a radical push to find solutions. This could act (though it may not) as a model for how to  address  the environmental crisis,  that other great threat to our wellbeing.  Not that science will help solve that problem – but global collective action could.

So the vaccines have led to the latest road map for opening up, here in the UK, and whether you are a member of a religious community or not I imagine you will be keen to see how this opening up will play out in your community, as well as the wider society in which we live.  

There are two ethical/religious principles in play as this opening up takes place. Whether it is a particular community or a national one I am hope two basic principles will guide us.

The first is that in a community – like in a country – we each have a collective responsibility to protect one another. Lives are at stake and whatever we decide we will keep in mind that the health and wellbeing of each of us is at the centre of our decision-making. There is a famous Jewish principle that “All Israel are sureties for each other” – in other words, we as Jews are responsible for the wellbeing of other Jews. But this particularistic teaching is a teaching we recognise is a gift to humanity for it has a universalistic dimension (and there are Jewish sources for this). We now know, and can say: “All human beings are sureties for each other”. The pandemic has re-enforced the wisdom of this: we each have a collective responsibility to protect one another. And that means, where possible, being vaccinated. Whatever the hesitations, prejudices, rumours that go around – vaccination is a moral responsibility.   

And the second principle to be guided by in decision-making relates to personal autonomy and freedom - which is valuable, and in a way sacrosanct, but we mustn’t make an idol out of it. (The Hebrew Bible is rather zealous in its attempts to persuade its readers not to make idols out of objects and ideas).

And this second principle is: your individual freedom does not include the right to potentially harm others. The classic example always given here is about one not having the right to shout “Fire” in a crowded theatre because of the panic it could set off. One implication of this is that if you refuse a vaccination you can’t demand to be part of a collective gathering.

So two ethical principles: collective responsibility and the sovereignty of, but necessary limits to, personal freedom.

[Based loosely on thoughts shared via Zoom for Finchley Reform Synagogue, March 6th, 2021}

Sunday, 24 January 2021

Freud, the Pandemic, and Our Emotional Well-Being

 One hundred and one years ago this weekend, on January 25th 1920,  Martha and Sigmund, a bourgeois Viennese couple, received some devastating news. The phone call came at noon. Their pregnant daughter Sophie, mother of two young boys, a six-year old and a thirteen month old toddler, had died: Spanish flu (so-called) with pneumonia complications. She was the second youngest of the family’s six children, and her father’s favourite daughter.

The flu pandemic had swept through Europe in 1918 and 1919 - brought to Europe, ironically, by American troops who’d come over to fight, when America entered the fray, late in the war. The flu ended up killing more Europeans than the war itself. And 27 year-old Sophie Halberstadt, as she then was, would probably be just another statistic if it wasn’t for the fact that her father was then, and has remained, a rather significant figure in the history of ideas:  for Sigmund is of course - Sigmund Freud.

Because of Freud’s renown, all the correspondence to and from Freud, and between other family members, has been preserved and from it we can gain an intimate picture of the sadness, the grief, in one family, a century ago – but it could be yesterday, and will, for some, sadly, be tomorrow.

This Shabbat in the UK Jewish community was designated as ‘Mental Health Awareness Shabbat’. Freud spent a lifetime thinking about how the human mind works, and he was passionately – we might even say obsessionally - devoted to what wasn’t then called ‘mental health’.  One way or another we are all the inheritors, willingly or not, of the mapping of the human psyche that he pioneered. Many aspects of what later became a multi-faceted, psychotherapeutic and self-awareness and  psychological industry - much of which would be unrecognisable to Freud, and the self-indulgence of which he might well hate – nevertheless have their roots in that long-left-behind central European milieu.  

Having heard the painful news, the first person Freud wrote to was his mother. And he came straight to the point: 

Dear Mother, I have some sad news for you today. Yesterday morning our dear lovely Sophie died from galloping influenza and pneumonia… She is the first of our children we have to outlive. What Max [Sophie’s husband] will do, what will happen to the children, we of course don’t know as yet…I hope you will take it calmly; tragedy after all has to be accepted. But to mourn this splendid, vital girl who was so happy with her husband and children is of course permissible.

I greet you fondly. Your Sigmund.

There is a lot one could say about this letter: its tender yet austere tone, both compassionate and dispassionate, both empathetic and fatalistic: ‘tragedy after all has to be accepted’. And its concluding sentiment - that although the reality of the loss has to be accepted,  to mourn this splendid, vital girl …is of course permissible - what of that?

That word ‘permissible’ might sound strange to our ears now, a century later, maybe even slightly chilling. What do you mean it’s ‘permissible’ to mourn!? Who could ever doubt that? Who needs to be given ‘permission’ to mourn? And yet what Freud intimates here is worth reflecting on, because what he’d discovered after 25 years of working with patients with all kinds of mental and emotional distress, was the vital importance of mourning, of being given permission – and giving oneself permission – to grieve fully and deeply and truly, to feel and express the pain of loss. 

One has to remember that 19th century emotional repression – active suppression of tears, the ethos of the ‘stiff upper lip’ - was not only a Victorian, British phenomenon, but a bourgeois belief throughout Europe. Particularly for men, but not only for men. Freud was one of the first to systematically explore the detrimental consequences of keeping a whole range of innate human feelings at bay, out of sight, suppressed: feelings that might be judged by oneself, or one’s society, or one’s religion,  or one’s parents, to be wrong; or to make you into a ‘bad’ person.

In that little word ‘permissible’ Freud is signalling to his mother something that he made the cornerstone of his revolution: it was permissible, indeed vital, to accept one’s deepest human feelings. Because every day of his professional life he was working with people who were blocked from doing that and were suffering from everything from depression to hysteria, neurotic anxiety to medically-undiagnosable bodily symptoms, psychosis to melancholia. And  a thousand other ‘mental health’ issues in between. Freud gave permission, gave space, for people to own up to, to own, their own feeling life. If this all seems simple and obvious now, it was a revolution then. But the journey that we have travelled in the last one hundred years so that this insight does now seem obvious is testimony to Freud’s contribution to our everyday lives.

The day after he wrote to his mother, on January 27th 1920, Freud wrote to a close friend, the Swiss pastor, Oscar Pfister, that our sweet Sophie in Hamburg had been… snatched away in the midst of glowing health, from a full and active life…all in four or five days, as though she had never existed. Although we had been worried about her for a couple of days, we had nevertheless been hopeful; it is so difficult to judge from a distance. And this distance must remain distance, we were not able to travel at once, as we had intended…there was no train, not even for an emergency. [This was post-War central Europe where transport links were still infrequent]. The undisguised brutality of our time is weighing heavily upon us. Tomorrow she is being cremated, our poor Sunday child!

So Sigmund and Martha aren’t able to be at the funeral of their daughter. We recognize distant echoes in our own times of how circumstances have forced us to lose out on so much - whether it is funerals and shivas, or hospital visits, or care home visits – there are so many losses we are suffering. I know that many people are feeling their own version of Freud’s sentiment: “The undisguised brutality of our time is weighing heavily upon us.”

A final few words from Freud before I switch from January 1920 to January 2021. From a letter a few days later to a Hungarian colleague, Sandor Ferenczi :

Dear Friend, Please don’t worry about me. Apart from feeling rather more tired I am the same. The death, painful as it is, does not affect my attitude toward life. For years I was prepared for the loss of our sons [During the War, Freud’s sons were away fighting and one of them, Martin, went missing in 1918 - it was a month until the family heard he’d been taken as a prisoner-of-war and he wasn’t released until mid-1919]; now it is our daughter; as a confirmed atheist I have no one to accuse and realize that there is no place where I could lodge a complaint….Deep down I sense a bitter, irreparable narcissistic injury.”

Actually I think Freud was in denial when he wrote that this loss hadn’t affected his attitude to life. You can’t suffer an “irreparable injury” and think it won’t impact your “attitude toward life”. The devastating loss of Sophie was in fact only compounded when Sophie’s younger boy, the toddler Heinele, whom Freud doted on, himself died - of tuberculosis - three years later. Freud mourned for them both for the rest of his life.

So where does all this history  leave us?

It’s clear that in these lockdown and pandemic times – and we are fast approaching a year now since our world was turned upside down – the question of how we are managing our day to day life is a major preoccupation. The newspapers, radio, TV and social media are full of advice on how to manage our emotional well-being: tips for survival, guides to lockdown living, how best to look after our mental health.  

And yet, when it comes down to it, and you dig into how each of us is bearing up, you don’t have to dig very far to touch into just how distressing we are finding this, how disturbed we are feeling, how frightened we might be, how insecure and uncertain we are about the future – and that is regardless of whether we have had the vaccine injection or not. We might not have emerged from a World War – but nobody I know is manging well, sailing through this, however brave a face we are putting on it.

Our mental health, our emotional well-being is being challenged, perhaps as never before in our lifetimes. And that is separate from those of us who might have actually lost someone to Covid over this last year. When somebody dies, however painful that is, we can mourn the loss. The loss is real, the grief is real, yet we sort of know what we are dealing with. But with the pandemic, what we are struggling with is a different kind of loss - and because we have never gone through this kind of loss before we don’t know what we are dealing with.

We just know that there are a variety of symptoms: be it an edginess, an unsettledness, an irritability, maybe sleeplessness, feelings of hopelessness or despair,  a low level anxiety, maybe we find we are being forgetful or tearful or finding it difficult to concentrate.

If there is one thing I would highlight here, it is something we may never have realised was so vital for our mental health, our emotional well-being: the real tactile contact we are used to having with other people. Live connection, sharing physical space with others, touching other people, being touched by other people, bodies in space together. How much we are missing this: the living, embodied  presence of other people, people we know and love, or people we see only once in a while, but also strangers, people in the street and in shops and on the tube and at football. Real people whom we mix with and interact with and keep us ‘in touch’ – what a powerful phrase this turns out to be! - keep us in touch with our own being alive, in our bodies, in our selves.

Zoom and the phone does not touch some deeper human need for embodied, kinaesthetic presence, a need we have never been deprived of before, and so never realised – and we are only just realising now – helps us feel alive. Breathing, sweating, smiling, grimacing, glowing humanity. We go out and interact and other people mirror our aliveness. And a lot of was happening at a subconscious level. And we have largely lost it.

Our sense of being fully alive – heart, mind, body, soul – becomes atrophied, slowly, if we have no physical connection with others. Why is solitary confinement the ultimate punishment in prison? In certain regimes it’s used to drive prisoners into despair or madness.

So we need to acknowledge that if we are abiding with the guidelines we are experiencing a collective bereavement. And maybe at some fundamental level that is why, psychologically, people might not be complying – it’s not just being anti-social, or bloody-minded, or perverse, or dressed up as libertarian ideology - it’s because unconsciously we all know that connecting to others makes us feel more alive. And aren’t we all determined, in our own ways, to try and feel and stay alive?

As Freud’s family tragedy illustrates in a small way, we are of course not the first to experience traumatic loss: the disorientation, dislocation, bereavement, anxieties about separation and loss that have to be endured month after month, sometimes year after year. It is part of the human condition.

In our situations there is much that we can do to help ourselves – as I mentioned, everywhere you look there are suggestions about how to survive lockdown. I imagine some of the things you do will help, some won’t. Sometimes you will just feel low, sad, morose, upset, disconnected from others, disconnected from your deeper more alive self. But for our own mental health it can be important, I would say vital, just to be able to accept those feelings. This is easier said than done. But - using Freud’s word - it’s ‘permissible’ to feel low: that’s congruent with what we are having to live through. Those feelings won’t last forever, they don’t last forever, even though when we are in them we sometimes feel as it they will.

We have resilience fused to our souls. In these weeks in our annual cycle of readings from the Torah we have arrived at that archetypal event, the liberation of the Israelite slaves from Egypt. It’s a universal story, and one for every era:  we will see this pandemic through, we will be coming out of Egypt. We may not have a Moses - but we will be coming out of Egypt, in God’s good time.

[based on a sermon given on Zoom for Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, January 23rd 2021]

Sunday, 3 January 2021

2021: "Stop The Pain"

 The  bright yellow graffiti spray-painted on the bridge was new. The local Council regularly paint over whatever gaudy images and casual obscenities habitually adorn the stonework. But someone had marked the New Year with an eye-catching face in profile (that also looked curiously like a £ sign). Yet what caught my attention – demanded attention – were the words arched up and round the image: Stop the pain

So this is how 2021 begins. Some much pain, for so many people, for so many reasons. And none of it likely to stop, any time soon. Least of all the deleterious consequences of enduring life under the inequalities of capitalism as we know it – my fantasy about the pound sign.  

As we begin a new year I have been wondering if it feels like a new beginning, or just more of the same? Do we begin the year with hopefulness, or burdened by anxieties? Or both? The news about the Oxford/AstraZenica vaccine has lifted our spirits in the UK, for sure, while at the same time the infection continues to spread and – at least in London – threatens to overwhelm the capacity of hospitals to function. Daily life as this new year begins is still fraught and constrained. We are living with so much uncertainty.

One of the challenges I find myself facing is whether to focus my thinking on the larger picture, or the small scale? The larger picture is our collective setting, our national picture, and that of course contains the brilliant scientific creativity and the exhausted-but-persevering health professionals and the dedicated care home staff and much put-upon teachers; and the neighbourhood support schemes and people contributing to food banks…and these are things we can celebrate and be grateful for, maybe sometimes contribute to on a local level.

But of course the larger picture includes too what has been revealed about the disastrous inadequacies in our social fabric in the UK – not just the systemic failures directly relating to Covid (the lack of government preparation for an epidemic, the cronyism afflicting the purchase and provision of PPE equipment, the bungling of the track and trace programme, the flipflopping over closing down and opening up  of shops, schools, gatherings in public and private) – but what’s been revealed too about the underlying societal fractures that have made this pandemic so much harder for so many: the endemic poverty in the country, the job insecurity, the food and housing scarcities, the cuts to benefits, the underlying fragility in people’s mental health and physical health and social wellbeing that all predate Covid. The skeleton beneath the nation’s skin has become frighteningly visible over these last nine months. And we probably sense that none of that bleakness – that “pain” - will disappear in 2021. 

Or do I focus on what I called the ‘small scale’ – which isn’t small scale to each individual. I think about the individuals in the synagogue community in which I work, each an irreplaceable soul, each one of us with our own rich inner worlds, our own private lives and memories and sensibilities, our own idiosyncrasies and insecurities and worries, our own secrets, our own language of feeling, our own history, all that we have shared with others and all that we have never shared with anyone…I think about the innate mystery of our own fragile, precious, being-alive-in-the-world – and how can that be ‘small scale’?  

But when I am called upon to speak, I still wonder: do I speak about the world outside – or about the individual, each of us an entire world in her/himself? Nothing is closer to us than our own personal inner world, in all its multidimensionality. How do I speak to this, the closeness of our worlds (you and me) - but also the distance, the untraversable space, between your world and mine?  How do I ever reach out of my world and speak to you in your world? It’s impossible, and yet I still attempt it, every time I write like this, (or speak on Zoom) - these curiously intimate and yet distanced contexts.

Large scale or small scale? We share the large scale – we all are witnessing and participating in this ongoing disaster of the pandemic. And whether we have had the vaccine yet, or are waiting anxiously for it, I imagine that many of us might be recognising the extent of the disaster unfolding with Covid in the UK, and what it is laying bare about our society. (For friends in other countries, I know there will be variations on this). It is revealing who we are and what we value – it’s showing us our generosity and our selfishness, our concern for others and our inward-looking-ness,  our solidarity with strangers and our head-in-the-sands-ness; it’s showing us what we are willing to protect and what we are unwilling to protect, what we can sacrifice of what we have grown used to and what we refuse to give up. All of this is being revealed, day by day. And maybe this is where the large scale meets the small scale.

We might feel shame at what is going on in our land, or outrage, or fear; we might feel inspired to protest, we might be clear and articulate about what needs to be transformed – or we might remain silent, we might just be intent on personal survival, just getting through this, ourselves and those around us we love. I am not judging, just describing.

We are all having to make these decisions – large scale and small scale. We might see the systemic vulnerabilities in our society, what’s happening around us in the streets and the hospitals, let alone what’s happening in the environment and to the air we breathe, the disasters of storms and fires and floods, we might see the large scale beyond our own city and land and continent - but still cling to the small scale, to our tender, precarious personal lives, where we shut our ears to the howling urgent cries of a planet under threat, nature tarnished, human nature despoiled, maybe we turn away from the larger world and just cling on – for dear life, as we say, ‘dear life’, yes indeed – hoping that gam ze yavo, as the rabbis of old used to say, “this too shall pass”. (Jews historically grew very accustomed to this resigned response).

As I said, I’m not judging this stance to events, I’m just trying to vocalise our choices.  This is where we are: caught between our own ‘dear lives’, and life itself in our country and on our planet. Large scale and small scale - and us, suspended between them, suspended over the abyss.

I wonder how it would be if we attempt to tell the story of these days we are living through - these weeks, these months, and it may be years – holding the large scale and the small scale in one picture, in one narrative? It may not be a sacred drama we are living through, but I wonder how we would tell the story of our times if we were modern day storytellers like the narrators of old, those inspired creators of the Torah who in the Book of Genesis (that we finished reading this week) were able to tell a story for the ages, a story that embraced large scale and small scale.

Just recall how they began their story, with the largest scale of all: the Creation of the world, the heavens and the earth and everything within it, including us – that’s how they began their sacred story, with a portrait of the natural world unfolding in all its majestic, evolutionary glory, stage by stage. That’s how Genesis begins, we know it well, with the largest scale of all.

And from there they created a story that moves through the ages, and the generations, focusing down stage by stage onto the small scale: the drama of a single family, Jacob’s family; and they focus in, with more and more detail, on the dramas of family life - the envy and the jealousy and the sibling rivalry; they  focus on those human interactions between Joseph and his brothers, and as the Book of Genesis draws to a close they focus on the worries and the fears in the brothers when their father dies; and the camera gets closer and closer and they focus in on  – how small scale can you get? – on Joseph’s tears (Genesis 50:17).

You see Joseph crying - “and Joseph wept” - though you don’t know if he’s crying because he is moved by what he hears, the brothers’ genuine wish for reconciliation; or because he is saddened, pained, that they have had to fabricate a story because they are terrified of him. (The story has no scene where Jacob tells his sons to ask Joseph for forgiveness – yet that is what they tell him nevertheless). But that’s the beauty of the Bible’s literary artistry- that we don’t know why Joseph cries, just as we don’t always know why we cry, but the tears come anyway.

And Joseph’s response – whatever those tears mean – is to say, in essence: ‘look at the larger picture, beyond our personal family drama, because there is a larger picture, a larger story, playing out through us: God meant all this to happen; all your rage and jealousy and murderousness towards me - it’s been for our collective good’ (see Gen 50:20). Well, that’s the age-old religious get-out clause right there. That we never see the whole picture. And that what we think of as something bad happening is actually part of God’s divine plan, that we can never see.

I think that kind of pious rhetoric is deeply problematic for us moderns. It’s rotten (and sometimes pernicious) theology – but it’s clearly the view of the Biblical storytellers, at least in this part of their grand narrative. (Though it might be more accurate to say that the storytellers have created a character who articulates that theology, while at the same time telling their story with their major character - God - completely absent throughout the whole of Joseph's life. 'God' is mentioned by characters but never present from chapter 37 onwards - a very dramatic change from the first 36 chapters of the book). 

But we don’t have to buy into that pious worldview to appreciate the intellectual and spiritual creativity – and daring - of those Torah storytellers of Genesis. Because what they created in this book was a grand beginning – the Creation of everything – and then they risked a narrative arc that takes us from that to...what? What are the last words of the book? That Joseph dies, is embalmed and his bones are put in a coffin. That’s the last image of the book. Joseph’s bones in a coffin (50:26). What a movement that is, from the beginning to the end, binding together the largest imaginable scale to the smallest scale! We end in the grave. The darkness of the coffin. From the darkness before creation, penetrated by God’s ‘Let there be light, and let there be life’, all the way to a narrative destination: the darkness of death, bones in a coffin. No light. No life.

What a radical piece of storytelling, a story retold through the ages, the generations: it’s our own story too, of course, a personal story – from our own creation and coming into the light of day, to our own death, the silence of the grave. 

That might be the end of the book, that desolate image - but it’s not the end of Joseph’s bones. Because they are kept safe during the long, harsh slavery years in Egypt, and then accompany the people in their desert wanderings and eventually are buried in the so-called Promised Land (Joshua 24:32).  

They are reminders that the small scale is always connected to a larger picture, whether we see it or not. Before he dies, Joseph makes his own bones into symbols of hope: ‘keep them as reminders of God’s promise, keep them as reminders of the larger story. Carry me with you. Carrying me will help you carry your larger story close to your heart’ (see Genesis50:24-5).

Let’s hope, during this new year of 2021, that - although we may not be able to “stop the pain”- at least we won’t feel like embalmed bones enclosed in darkness, that we  can keep sight of our larger story. Because there’s always a larger story. 


[Based on thoughts shared on Zoom for Finchley Reform Synagogue, January 2nd, 2021]

 

Sunday, 22 November 2020

What Don't We Want to See? - Dysfunctional Families, Blindness and Blessing

What a story!  A story* filled with the drama and dysfunctionality of family life, any family; a story at once both ancient and mythic/archetypal, and also completely up-to-the minute, the stuff of modern fiction, soap opera even, with its portrait of intergenerational conflict, parental favouritism, sibling rivalry, deceit between wife and husband – and if you throw in the motif of characters in disguise, as well as how the story dramatizes the working out of a larger destiny through the interactions of the human characters, we could also recognise the narrative as Shakespearean in its ability to speak to some of the deepest and most complex aspects of the human condition.

*(Genesis 27 – the text appears at the end of this blog)

And the Torah - that text so easily dismissed by the misinformed or those too lazy or self-opinionated to actually read it with unblinkered eyes – the Torah revels in the intrigues and character flaws it lays bare for us to see. This is how we all are, it seems to say, in our flawed humanity, our moral blindness, our competitiveness, our aggression, our deceptiveness, our hiding the truth from others and ourselves, our confusion between wanting to do the right thing and wanting to gain the upper hand, or be proved right.

All of that is in the text of Genesis 27: the storytellers – and what great storytellers they were, we could almost call them inspired – they show it all; and they show it within the family life of Judaism’s foundational figures, the patriarchs, the matriarchs – who came to be revered over the generations, but who our narrators don’t blush from portraying in all their small-mindedness and self-preoccupation.

That’s a great gift they have left us with – narratives and characters who are just like us, sometimes like us at our worst, and yet who are bound up in a tale, a story, larger than themselves, about which they, the characters, know very little. But if we are like them, then we can ask: is there any larger story, a sacred story, that we might feel we are bound up with, knowingly or unknowingly?

When I say that the Torah story is ‘our’ story, I don’t just mean it’s our ancient text, the Torah, part of our Jewish heritage. It is that of course, but it’s also our story because it talks about us. It talks to us and about us. It’s like a mirror sometimes – if we look closely enough at the text, into the text, we see (with a shock of recognition sometimes), we see ourselves. As we engage with this chapter we see, uncomfortably, problematically: well yes, we can lie, we can hide the truth about things, we can deceive, we can harbour aggressive and hateful  feelings to others – sometimes (say it quietly) to others in  our own family, for heaven’s sake.

Aye, there’s the rub. In the Torah, all of this intrigue, the narrators suggest, is ‘for heaven’s sake’ – there is a divine plan, unfolding in the background, rumbling along, sort of hard-wired into the unfolding drama. But can we say the same? Would we want to say the same? That our lives are held inside a larger, holding, story, in which unwittingly - in our folly and in our grandeur - we are playing a part?

The Torah text implicitly opens up this question for us. Are these stories just about what has been, about the past, about our mythological roots, our mythic ancestors? Is our sacred history just that – history?   Or is this Tree of Life (as the Torah is called) still growing? – is our life one of the still growing multitudinous branches of the ever-renewing, ever-flourishing, Tree of Life?

What would it mean to see our own small lives as still part of an unfolding sacred drama, a drama of the enactment of holiness in everyday life, a drama where we are expected to enact holiness in everyday life? Would we even want to see our lives this way? Wouldn’t we prefer just to be left alone?  How often have Jews wanted to say to the Holy One of Israel: ‘leave us alone, choose someone else for a change’. How often we might wish not to be carriers of this sacred story, a story still being written. How we might wish for our character in the sacred drama  to be written out of the script – retired to the Costa Brava, or killed off by the divine storyteller. But like characters in a Beckett play we are trapped, no way out: “You must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on.”

The chapter we read this week opens with the focus on Isaac, and we hear that ”his eyes were dimmed, failing to be able to see” (27:1), and the whole drama revolves around this image, the old man who can’t see. And maybe we are happy to be literalists and read the text in a plain sense – this is about blindness, and so he really can’t tell the difference between Jacob and Esau except by touch and smell – he can hear that the voices are different, his ears don’t deceive him (27:22), but he doesn’t trust that, he keeps asking for reassurance from his sons, as if he doesn’t know what to do with his doubts.  This is painful, and poignant. We know what it’s like to deceive – and to be deceived.

 

But the text offers itself to us with a different question bound up in its telling. We can’t only read it literally: it invites us to read it (as the rabbis of old would have done) symbolically, metaphorically. What is this ‘failure in seeing’? How much is this a story about Isaac not wanting to see, refusing to see? Maybe he doesn’t want to see that his wife and son are prepared to trick him, maybe he doesn’t want to see that he does actually prefer Esau, a man after his own heart, earthy and straightforward - prefer him to his other son Jacob, who is not only a heel and a trickster but is also Rebecca’s beloved (thus, perhaps, keeping wife and husband apart). Maybe he doesn’t want to see that he’s the author of a fractured and fractious family. Not seeing, not wanting to see, wishing to avoid seeing what is going on within families, is a psychologically true reality that transcends time and place and culture. 

That Isaac couldn’t see, didn’t want to see, speaks to us all and makes us ask the question: and what do we not want to see? What can’t we see, or refuse to see, that’s unfolding in front of our turned-away eyes? 

Each of us will want to answer that question in our own way. If we can bear it. It can be a painful, troubling - certainly disquieting - question. What are you choosing not to see, ‘turning a blind eye to’, as we say?

This week I think I caught a glimpse of something that I maybe didn’t want to look at, at least not look at too closely. And it was about family - not personal family, but the collective family. The Jewish family in the larger sense:  Jewish peoplehood and our history and the passing on of the vision from generation to generation.

And what I saw that was an eye-opener – but disturbing to look at - was what’s happened to European Jewry in the last 50 years.

When I was a young man, thinking of training to become a rabbi, more than a quarter of the Jews in the world lived in Europe. That was already a huge drop compared to before the War, when Europe and the Soviet Union accounted for fully 60% of world Jewry. But in the early 1970s, a quarter of world Jewry was still a significant number of Jews, and the work of reconstructing a Jewish life in Europe was something being taken on by the generation of progressive rabbis who were already at, or had graduated from, the Leo Baeck College. This post-Shoah work felt a powerful, and historically-necessary, and in its way sacred, task. And I wanted to be a small part of it.

So the shock of what I saw last week, that I didn’t want to see, is that actually the Jewish population of Europe has fallen by 60% in the last 50 years. Only 9% of the global Jewish population now lives in Europe. The centre of gravity of Jewish life is now overwhelmingly  in Israel and in America.

From the bubble of northwest London, where Jewish life is flourishing, and I am involved in a synagogue that is about to invest major funds and energy in rebuilding and renewing our own community building for the next 50 years – as if we are in some way isolated from larger historical currents -  maybe these figures and the bigger picture, the larger narrative that is unfolding around us, doesn’t matter. Maybe, like Isaac, we have to turn a blind eye to what’s happened to the European Jewish family of which we are a part. After all, life has to go on where we live it.

Maybe blindness to certain realities is a necessary attribute within an unfolding sacred drama. Is that the lesson of Isaac’s so-called blindness that I need to learn in our current context? The role of a strategic ‘failure to see’  in the service of a larger story? Maybe it is.  Indeed, maybe that is what the Torah text itself shows us in its own subversive way.

Because this whole drama we read of who will receive the blessing from Isaac - all the shenanigans and psychologically-fraught tension of the story between the brothers and involving the parents, is both addressing real human dilemmas and it’s a kind of charade, an elaborate piece of play-acting in which Isaac, the inheritor of the special Abrahamic blessing about the destiny of the people, is complicit.

If we read the text carefully - as I have tried to learn to do from my Bible teacher Rabbi Jonathan Magonet, whose understanding I am following here - what we discover as we read on into the next chapter of Torah, is that all the rivalry and battles over who will get the blessing in chapter 27, with all the frenzy and distress it stirs up in the protagonists, is in the end completely beside the point. They are squabbling over an ordinary patriarchal family blessing, a blessing of material prosperity and well-being. And that matters on a human level. It’s a life and death matter, yes, on a personal level.

But the next chapter opens with what is actually important, in terms of scared history, in terms of the larger divine drama that is being played out. For after the deception of Isaac by Jacob, and as Jacob is about to flee from his brother’s murderous rage, Isaac quietly calls Jacob and gives him another blessing - the Abrahamic blessing, the transgenerational blessing of fertility and inheritance of the land, the pre-destined land.

This is the real deal, the blessing of the God of Abraham - the spiritual blessing one might call it -  passed by Abraham to Isaac, and now passed on to Jacob as he leaves home; it’s the blessing that binds the carrier into the burden and promise of sacred history rather than personal family drama. And Jacob, the heel, the deceiver, the fraudster - he gets this blessing gratis. It’s his destiny. And Isaac has to turn a blind eye to the here-and-now personal intrigues and family dysfunctionality because he’s got his eyes focused on what can’t be seen, what can only be known about, intuited - maybe with an inner eye, maybe only in rare glimpses, when his eyes catch sight of eternity and the Eternal One.

So maybe European Jewry is down to only 9%, and maybe it is destined to fall even lower, but maybe – I console myself – it’s not about the numbers: that’s about material blessings so to speak; maybe we should keep our eyes (if we can bear it) on the larger drama: that we – and this can be Jew and non-Jew alike, anyone who cares about justice and righteousness) are characters in a sacred history, like holy letters inscribed in a holy text that we may never read; for the text is still being written, it’s still unfolding, and we may not be here for the next chapter, we may never have the larger vision of how the story will turn out. Just the knowledge that the text in which we appear is indispensable.  

A single letter missing in a Torah scroll makes the text possul, null and void. Each letter counts, each letter is precious, each letter in the holy story, our sacred story, is significant, beyond words. 

 [Based on a sermon given via Zoom for  Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, on November 21st 2020] 

Genesis 27

King James Version

And it came to pass, that when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see, he called Esau his eldest son, and said unto him, My son: and he said unto him, Behold, here am I.

And he said, Behold now, I am old, I know not the day of my death:

Now therefore take, I pray thee, thy weapons, thy quiver and thy bow, and go out to the field, and take me some venison;

And make me savoury meat, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless thee before I die.

And Rebekah heard when Isaac spake to Esau his son. And Esau went to the field to hunt for venison, and to bring it.

And Rebekah spake unto Jacob her son, saying, Behold, I heard thy father speak unto Esau thy brother, saying,

Bring me venison, and make me savoury meat, that I may eat, and bless thee before the Lord before my death.

Now therefore, my son, obey my voice according to that which I command thee.

Go now to the flock, and fetch me from thence two good kids of the goats; and I will make them savoury meat for thy father, such as he loveth:

10 And thou shalt bring it to thy father, that he may eat, and that he may bless thee before his death.

11 And Jacob said to Rebekah his mother, Behold, Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man:

12 My father peradventure will feel me, and I shall seem to him as a deceiver; and I shall bring a curse upon me, and not a blessing.

13 And his mother said unto him, Upon me be thy curse, my son: only obey my voice, and go fetch me them.

14 And he went, and fetched, and brought them to his mother: and his mother made savoury meat, such as his father loved.

15 And Rebekah took goodly raiment of her eldest son Esau, which were with her in the house, and put them upon Jacob her younger son:

16 And she put the skins of the kids of the goats upon his hands, and upon the smooth of his neck:

17 And she gave the savoury meat and the bread, which she had prepared, into the hand of her son Jacob.

18 And he came unto his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I; who art thou, my son?

19 And Jacob said unto his father, I am Esau thy first born; I have done according as thou badest me: arise, I pray thee, sit and eat of my venison, that thy soul may bless me.

20 And Isaac said unto his son, How is it that thou hast found it so quickly, my son? And he said, Because the Lord thy God brought it to me.

21 And Isaac said unto Jacob, Come near, I pray thee, that I may feel thee, my son, whether thou be my very son Esau or not.

22 And Jacob went near unto Isaac his father; and he felt him, and said, The voice is Jacob's voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.

23 And he discerned him not, because his hands were hairy, as his brother Esau's hands: so he blessed him.

24 And he said, Art thou my very son Esau? And he said, I am.

25 And he said, Bring it near to me, and I will eat of my son's venison, that my soul may bless thee. And he brought it near to him, and he did eat: and he brought him wine and he drank.

26 And his father Isaac said unto him, Come near now, and kiss me, my son.

27 And he came near, and kissed him: and he smelled the smell of his raiment, and blessed him, and said, See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which the Lord hath blessed:

28 Therefore God give thee of the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine:

29 Let people serve thee, and nations bow down to thee: be lord over thy brethren, and let thy mother's sons bow down to thee: cursed be every one that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee.

30 And it came to pass, as soon as Isaac had made an end of blessing Jacob, and Jacob was yet scarce gone out from the presence of Isaac his father, that Esau his brother came in from his hunting.

31 And he also had made savoury meat, and brought it unto his father, and said unto his father, Let my father arise, and eat of his son's venison, that thy soul may bless me.

32 And Isaac his father said unto him, Who art thou? And he said, I am thy son, thy firstborn Esau.

33 And Isaac trembled very exceedingly, and said, Who? where is he that hath taken venison, and brought it me, and I have eaten of all before thou camest, and have blessed him? yea, and he shall be blessed.

34 And when Esau heard the words of his father, he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry, and said unto his father, Bless me, even me also, O my father.

35 And he said, Thy brother came with subtilty, and hath taken away thy blessing.

36 And he said, Is not he rightly named Jacob? for he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing. And he said, Hast thou not reserved a blessing for me?

37 And Isaac answered and said unto Esau, Behold, I have made him thy lord, and all his brethren have I given to him for servants; and with corn and wine have I sustained him: and what shall I do now unto thee, my son?

38 And Esau said unto his father, Hast thou but one blessing, my father? bless me, even me also, O my father. And Esau lifted up his voice, and wept.

39 And Isaac his father answered and said unto him, Behold, thy dwelling shall be the fatness of the earth, and of the dew of heaven from above;

40 And by thy sword shalt thou live, and shalt serve thy brother; and it shall come to pass when thou shalt have the dominion, that thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck.

41 And Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing wherewith his father blessed him: and Esau said in his heart, The days of mourning for my father are at hand; then will I slay my brother Jacob.

 

Sunday, 1 November 2020

Finding Hope in Unsettling Times

 It’s a truism to say that these are strange times, disturbing times, vexing times: if you are not feeling destabilised in some fundamental part of yourself - somehow on edge, unable to fully relax, fully let go and enjoy life in all its abundant richness - if you are feeling you have lost some essential inner calmness of spirit, or hopefulness about life, if you are finding yourself unable to get to sleep at night, or waking unnaturally early and then unable to get back to sleep – if you are feeling any of that, or just unaccountably ill-at-ease, if this is how it is for you at the moment, I have two things to say.

First: you are not alone. You may not have a context in which you can talk about this, or get to grips with it,  you may not even have the words to pin down these unsettled and unsettling feelings: you just know things aren’t right. But I know that you are not alone in responding like this to what we are living with, and living through.

Secondly: I think this unsettledness you might be feeling, the edginess, the unpindownable sense of being ill-at-ease is entirely congruent with the external circumstances we are living through. What is going on is like a psychic – psychological and spiritual -  earthquake; for the tectonic plates beneath our feet are shifting. Things which have been stable in our lives are becoming – more rapidly than we can adjust to – unstable. Things feel out of control, we feel out of control – because things are out of control.

Let’s look at just a few areas where this is true. Obviously, close to home, there is Covid-19, with all its ongoing uncertainties and disruptions and questions. We are having to wonder not only about whether we and our loved ones will survive this next 12 months, but about what aspects of our lives will ever return to some semblance of – that dread word – normality. Nobody’s in control of this disease, anywhere in the world; and there’s no need for me to describe the UK government’s shambolic attempts to get a grip on the situation. We are having to manage daily anxieties about our own health, while at the same time adapt to how our everyday lives have been altered: in small, and sometimes large, ways we’ve had to leave behind a world with which we were familiar. 

How we met people , how we greeted people, where we travelled, how we travelled, where we prayed, where we played bridge, how we saw the doctor, how we planned for the future - so confidently, with such lightness of being – it’s all gone. We’ve had to leave it all behind, though we keep hoping we are going back. But we are not.  We can never re-set the  time button, however profoundly we might wish we could.  

In the annual cycle of readings from the Torah, we have reached the beginning of the Abraham saga (Genesis12). Abraham – not in the prime of his life, but in the second half of his life, and after a settled life in one territory - is told/commanded to leave behind his land, his birth community, his family roots, all the security of his life, and move on.

And our Torah text dramatizes how he seems to have been able to do this: he submits his own will, his own needs, his own ties of affection and rootedness in what was familiar and secure, he lets go of all that everyday human clutching at what he had, and submits to a call he hears, experiences:  an inner voice, urgent, insistent, unwelcome: Lech – Go. Lech – Let go. L’cha – it’s for you, for your own sake (12:1).

How are we think about that? We who can’t bear to let go, we who are feeling so destabilised, so ill-at-ease in our souls, as the ground shifts beneath our feet. I said back in March, when Covid first came over the horizon and we were preparing for the UK’s first national lockdown – just as we are now preparing for the second one  - I said that we already had the virus, all of us. It was in our heads, it was infiltrating into how we saw what was going on, how we felt about everything. And we still have that virus inside us. All those symptoms I described earlier are part of the virus we are still carrying.

And none of us have Abraham’s gift, or courage, or madness, to just ‘let go’, move on, leave behind what gives us our security and stability. But the tectonic plates are shifting and they are forcing us to let go and move on from the world we have grown accustomed to, and believed would last forever.

For example: who thought that American democracy might come to an end before our eyes?  These last four years have exposed - and in the weeks to come I fear we will see it confirmed – how thin is the fabric of America’s rootedness in democratic norms and conventions. And although that’s taking place 3000 miles from us, we are destabilised by what we see: the stoking of paranoid conspiracy theories, the assaults on truth, the championing  of hatred and divisiveness, the undermining of a scientific worldview, the undermining of public trust in the election itself. All of these spill over in one form or another into our own body politic: in our globalised world, the medical virus and the virus that corrodes social wellbeing are transnational.

When the word ‘fake’ is used as a code for ‘something I don’t like to hear’, where ‘reality’ becomes ‘what I decide it is’, where the dictatorship of feeling trumps rational thinking, we are in the world of psychosis. How can we remain unaffected by being witness to this? Even to say ‘witness’ is a distortion: we aren’t only witnesses; we are, willingly or unwillingly, participants in the world’s unfolding. The world’s unravelling.

What is being shaken – in the US, in India, in Turkey, in Brazil, in Poland and Hungary – is democratic solidity, and the rule of law; and the reverberations of this penetrate our psyches too. Around the world, autocratic governments, authoritarian  governments, xenophobic governments, are on the rise – and I guess if you are Andy Burnham or another  civic leader in the North of England, you might have a thing or two to say about autocratic government closer to home.  

So we know some of the factors causing us to feel destabilised. Along with Covid and this forthcoming inescapable collision between fantasy-based politics and democracy  in America, we know about the third huge tectonic plate that is shifting beneath our feet: the environmental crisis, and how we are no longer rooted in a secure way, in the way we all grew up, our homeland belief, that the natural world around us would somehow go on unfolding in all its David Attenborough-tinged wondrous profusion, its miraculous multiplicity, for ever and ever. As the planet chokes and microplastic particles enter our lungs and the brains of unborn infants, how can we not feel ill-at-ease? We are porous – physically, emotionally, psychically.

So: I’ve just named three of the tectonic plates shifting – and I haven’t even mentioned the economy here in the UK, or our imminent falling off the Brexit cliff, or the toxic levels of collusion between government and private companies to the detriment of social wellbeing. How do we find our feet in it all? Where is the solid ground?

Where do we find our hope?

Of course there are many places we can find it – though we may each have to construct our own anthology of sources of hopefulness. Many in the UK have been stirred by the campaigning vigour of our unofficial ‘leader of the opposition’, the footballer Marcus Rashford, in his battle to end food poverty in a country where 1.4 million children qualify for free school meals. Thousands of local businesses and many hundreds of thousands of individuals have marshalled their generosity and compassion and scarce financial resources in the face of the moral abyss of government cruelty, and have joined his campaign to ensure that Britain’s disadvantaged children have food to eat. There is hope in the deep wellsprings of  empathy and goodwill still alive in a nation battered by austerity and pandemic and government indifference.    

For those who belong to a religious community – like Finchley Reform Synagogue, where I speak from time to time – hope has arrived this week following a historic decision to move on, like Abraham: to create (after 60 years in one building) a brand-new synagogue/community centre/ multi-functional, environmentally-sustainable building. On Shabbat Lech l’cha – when we read of our mythic ancestor’s journey of moving on, following the divine call to leave behind the old and bring a blessing into the wider world - this communal decision was a celebration of hopefulness.

Yes, it’s in the time of Covid and we have no idea how long it’ll be before we can ever meet together in that new space; yes, it’s in a time of huge economic chaos and worldwide political uncertainty, and we have no real idea what the challenges of tomorrow will be for religious communities – we might have to become a neighbourhood food bank for the next 60 years or more; and yes, we don’t know whether the very air we breath will make life in the cities liveable for our children and grandchildren. But in spite of all these uncertainties - and they are real uncertainties - a decision of hopefulness was made this week.

And it takes religious courage to make that kind of decision. Religious courage, spiritual courage, Abrahamic courage even: leaving the old behind in order to bring the Judaic blessing on into a new era.

Yet I doubt that this kind of symbolic and practical adventure will make us sleep any more easily at night.  Jews have learnt to distrust the material world as a source of hope. A Judaic sense of hopefulness comes – (if it comes at all) – from our rootedness in another realm. A Jewish sense of hopefulness comes from an engagement with other dimensions of reality.

So when I engage with the language and themes of Torah - for example, exploring the dramas of Abraham’s life - I am provoked by the words, stirred by the dilemmas, inspired by the hope that is incarnated in the text. When God changes Abram’s name (Genesis 17:5) and then Sarai’s name (17:15), they aren’t asked if it was okay, they weren’t asked how they ‘felt’ about it. Our storyteller portrays these mythic progenitors of the Jewish people being  renamed by a divine force. Something is added to each of their names. This symbol of transformation acknowledges that change is possible.

Abram left behind his certainties and opened himself to following and listening to the divine – that gives me hope, it gives me inspiration that listening in, as deeply as is possible amidst all the distractions, listening in to what is going on around and within, listening in to the unfolding spirit of all being (otherwise known as Adonai), this kind of listening opens us to a reality that can guide and underpin - and provoke and sometimes, yes, destabilise - our lives. But it is filled with hope, that reality: to be the bearer of blessing is real. We can add something to someone else’s life – like God added a letter to Abram’s name - and it’s a blessing. Change is possible.

The poetry of Torah endures from generation to generation: it is our strength, it offers hope, over and over; we can bear the vicissitudes of life because we are caught up in a drama that is bigger than ourselves. It’s the only thing that is unchanging, that endures, as solid as rock in our lives, even though it is also as fluid as water, for it flows and ripples and is never still: we dip into it and it is never the same from moment to moment, for we are never the same from moment to moment, and yet we can always draw upon it, endlessly deep, ever-flowing, feeding the spirit, nurturing our souls, which are thirsty for meaning and for hope.

[loosely based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, October 31st, 2020]