WHY TISHA BE AV
There was this elderly Jew who every morning used to pray at the Kotel, the Wailing Wall, in Jerusalem. Every day, come rain or shine, he went to the Wall and prayed, and prayed shokeling (a Hebrew word which means shokeling). Under the Winter snow, under the scorching sun in the Summer, he was there, praying, with fervour every single day.
And there was this secular Israeli soldier, who was fascinated and curious. He wondered whether that man had family, and about the motivations of his devotion.
So one day the soldier approached the elderly Jew and asked him: "Pardon me, I'm curious… you come here every day, I mean it's admirable, I see you praying and praying, but you also seem to be a very lonely person… don't you have family, somewhere?"
"Of course I have family," says the elderly Jew "And my family is precisely the reason why I come here every day. It's the worse family in the world. My wife does not care about me -this morning she did not bother even to say Hello. My children are the worse children you can imagine they never visit, they never call except when they want my money. And before you ask, I have grandchildren too, but I cannot even see them because their parents are ... well, I prefer not to swear in a holy place like here. So I come here and pray, every day, and I ask God to make my life a bit better, to grant me some small pleasure like a smile from my wife in the mornings, or to see my grandchildren... And, I pray and pray... and ask God to make my life at least bearable…"
The soldier, impressed by so much devotion, asks: "And… does it work?"
"Young man -says the elderly Jew- don't you realise that I'm talking to a wall?!"
This story encapsulates so much of our relations with the remnants of the Temple in Jerusalem. For the soldier, the Kotel, the plaza in front of the Kotel, is a place of national pride. Military ceremonies are held there.
For the older man, the Kotel is a place of devotion. Not because our prayers are more effective there. We can pray everywhere; God is everywhere, remember.
But where the Temple once stood, we experience connection with Jewish history, and with Jewish hopes. This is a paradox. How can we derive hope from the sight of remnants, of ruins, of -indeed- a wall?
The Temple has been destroyed not once but twice. Thus: in our history, we have experienced the miracle of seeing the Temple rebuilt. Precisely that miracle is inscribed in our collective Jewish soul.
I am often asked whether I, a Reform Rabbi, look forward to a future rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. And I always answer that even the Orthodox do not actually want to rebuild the Temple in our days, in the current situation, because it would cause hatred and distress to our fellow Muslims.
The destruction of the Temple, which we will mourn in a few days, on Tisha beAv, had been caused by divisions and hate. Rav Kook teaches that, therefore, it must be rebuilt with love. No point to rebuild it, then, at the present conditions.
On this Orthodox and Reform agree. So this business of the Temple is not really a great deal of difference. We Reform Jews just happened to be more consistent, as usual.
But the memory of the Jerusalem Temple is part of the identity of us all, Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews. It is part of our collective Jewish history, it is a symbol of that hope and of unity. We all Jews have failed to keep unity at the time of the destruction of the Temple. And while we mourn that, we remember the many times, too many, when divisions and baseless hatred have prevailed.
So these are the reasons to keep Tisha beAv, to mourn the destruction of the Temple.
Because it is part of our history, a history of unity and, also, a history of disunity. Which are both parts of our identity.
And because of hope. Perhaps the most poignant description of Jewish feelings about the Temple has been written by Michal Avera Samuel, an Ethiopian Jewish woman who made alya with her family as a young child. let me read from her column. [it can be read here: https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/we-did-not-know-how-ethiopian-jews-discovered-the-second-temple-was-gone/ ]
"Up until the age of 9, I lived in a world where the Holy Temple in Jerusalem actually existed. Like my parents and teachers, I believed that the Second Temple stood in its place in Jerusalem and was literally made of pure gold. [...]
The ideal of Jerusalem was the force that provided us with the stamina to persevere during the arduous trek through the desert. It was the dream that kept us going. [...]
Then we arrived and discovered that the Temple had been destroyed.
Jerusalem did not appear as the place I had so badly yearned to reach. Learning about the destruction of the Temple only as I reached the gates of the Old City was an earth-shattering disappointment, and it left a great void in me that I have been unable to fill. [...]
Only upon maturing, and having overcome the struggles of integration into Israeli society, did I begin to understand how fortunate I was to have grown up believing that the Temple existed. The angels that I had imagined inhabiting Jerusalem, in some way, were my parents, who lived their lives striving to merit Jerusalem.
I and my fellow Ethiopian olim who have experienced first-hand the reason for the loss of the Temple of Jerusalem— senseless hatred and social injustice. More than all other people, we can understand the meaning of the destruction of the Temple and its loss in our lives, these days"
For these reasons, I, a Reform Rabbi, fast on Tisha beAv.
I mourn together with the many Michal of the world, in Ethiopia, in Israel and everywhere.
Because we share a common history and a common hope. The history of that Israeli soldier who struggles to understand the faith of his fellow Jews. The stubborn, poetic, determined faith of the many Jews who pour their hopes in front of the Wall.
Because, plainly and simply, we are all Jews.
I hope you'll join me. Fast begins on Wednesday evening, the service is at 9:00 PM.
WHY BE JEWISH? ASK HILLEL - AND SHAMMAI
There's a well-known Talmudic story that is about conversion, as well as many other things, as we shall see.
At the time when the Land of Israel was part of the Roman Empire, there was this Gentile, who one day went to the most famous Jewish leader, a Rabbi, who was at the time earning his living as a builder. The name of this Rabbi was Shammai.
So, the Gentile asked the Rabbi "Ehi, you, Jew, can you convert me to your religion in the time I manage to keep my balance while standing on one foot?".
Obviously, the question was clearly provocative. Shammai lost his temper and threatened to beat the offender with the ruler he had in his hands.
The Gentile knew there was another Rabbi in town, a newcomer from Babylon, with the reputation of being the opposite of Shammai and his name was Hillel. The Gentile asked him the same arrogant question "can you explain to me your religion in the shortest time possible?" To which Hillel gives the famous answer "What is hateful to you, don't do to another. And the rest is commentary"
The story is well known and often quoted, for a number of reasons. It shows that conversion to Judaism has always been possible. It also narrates how different approaches and different attitudes have always been part of Judaism, not only regarding conversion. Indeed, the two schools, Hillel's and Shammai's differ on a number of things. The important thing is that they are both equally legitimate.
Because of this story Hillel has the reputation of being more inclusive, more tolerant and less discriminating. Hence the foundation that caters for the needs of Jewish University students, is named after Hillel, because a more inclusive, less judgmental kind of Judaism is precisely what you need when you are at Uni.
Having said that, I must confess that I have a kind of soft spot for Shammai and I'd like to start a Foundation whose goal is to reply properly to provocative questions posed by anti-Semites.
But I think we'd better learn from this story, and from Hillel, if we look at the context.
Who was this Gentile? Clearly, a Roman soldier. His question was not in good faith: if you want to know more about a religion you do not disturb a person while they are busy working. This is the behaviour of someone who wants to prove how nonsensical the faith of the Jews is: how can you imagine reducing the complexity of the Jewish culture and faith to a single line? And if he was a soldier, it means he was carrying a weapon and perhaps wearing armour, which makes the time he can stay on one foot even shorter, and the question even more provocative.
How was the relationship between the Romans and Jews during this time? Let us forget for a moment the best movie on the subject: Life of Brian, by Monty Python. And let us focus on the main problem. The Romans' was a multicultural Empire. Each conquered and subjugated population had its divinities represented in an ideal Pantheon.
There is a building in Rome that perhaps served precisely for that: to collect, in a sort of a permanent exhibition, all the statues of the gods worshipped by the conquered populations.
But the Jews refused to play this game of multiculturalism, to place their God, our God, as a statue, in the Roman pantheon, and persisted to have their (our) ceremonies, our calendar, and our languages, without the concessions to the ruling powers that other populations were prone to, like adding the Emperor's birthday to the calendar.
The Romans did not get it. Why are you Jews are so strongly attached to your faith and your rules (circumcision, kasherut...) which you say have been commanded by God? Don't you see that you have been defeated? Our semi-divine Emperor is stronger than your God!
Another thing that we must take into consideration is the other faith that was around at the time of Hillel and Shammai: Christianity. It was related to Judaism, but it was a different faith and indeed the discussions between Jews and the first generations of Christians were, let's say, a bit more animated than they are today. But even today it is common for the Christians to quote a passage "Love your neighbour as yourself" that according to them summarises the entire Torah. They mean that we Jews in order to be "saved" must throw away all the rest and stick to that commandment.
By telling the Romans that Judaism can be summarised with "what is hateful to you don't do to another" Hillel is offering an interpretation of "Love your neighbour as yourself". As explained by several commentators "Love your neighbour" is a general statement, almost impossible to put into practice, first and foremost because how can I love someone whom I do not know? And how can love be commanded? By whom? (Those who believe that love can be imposed are called sociopath, and when sociopaths set up a group and want to impose their love over the others, you see what we have, Inquisition and wars of religion).
The Biblical statement "Love your neighbour as yourself" must not be taken literally, as the Christians believe. It must be put into practice according to the "negative" formulation by Hillel "You know what is hateful to you" (far easier than love someone you don't know) "then do not do to the other". Here you go, you have already a prescribed course of action, which the Roman soldier must take seriously. And, dear soldier, now go and study, because, to properly situate yourself inside these people, the Jews, you must learn what Judaism is and what the Rabbis and the teachers have said in their continuous effort to bring into this world lofty principles and values such as the love for your neighbor.
The commitment to learning is a cornerstone of Judaism. It would be too easy at this point for me to remind everyone that on Tuesday at 6:00 PM I will start a series of classes "We say/they say" on the differences between Reform and the Orthodox (which I promise are not so big, as you may be tempted to think they are). So, I won't say that it will be a wonderful opportunity for learning.
Rather: I want to conclude pointing out that both Hillel and Shammai, despite all their differences and disagreements, certainly agreed that being Jewish means commitment to learning and openness to interpretation. And you know what, I think they were right. After all the Roman Empire is gone for good, we are still here with our synagogues, real and virtual, and our services and our shiurim. There must be something good.
As a rule, we Jews do not do figurative arts. Artists who have tried to draw portraits of Biblical characters usually had a hard time to find models. They usually looked at the reality surrounding them at the time. And so, in Italian 18th Century haggadahs, Moses and Aaron are portrayed wearing the same clothing as Italian nobility. And on some Orthodox websites you can often find drawings representing the Cohanim and the Leviim working in the Temple in Jerusalem, and they look very much like the priests of the High Church.
Plus, and this is a serious inaccuracy, they are usually pale skinned, while Israelites at that time were most probably of a darker complexion.
Historical inaccuracies aside, this all makes sense.
These artists, who were often not even Jewish, worked with what they had at their disposal; they looked at the reality they saw surrounding them at the time. So you have Moses and Aaron who look like Italian noblemen, and the High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem who looks like an Anglican bishop.
But to sketch the main character of this week's Torah portion, Balaam, it is possibly harder.
The Torah describes Balaam as a diviner, a magician who earns his living by cursing people or enemies: He has a high professional reputation, and we understand that his fee is also very high. He requests lots of silver and gold from his customer Balak, in order to curse the Israelites, whom Balak despises.
What is the equivalent of a professional diviner? Those artists who portrayed Balaam, were mostly Christians, and they painted him as a prophet, with fierce eyes and a long beard. I may have to double check but my impression is that that diviner, or failed prophet, was portrayed as a Catholic by the Protestants, and as a Protestant by the Catholics. In the years of religious wars, there were no professional diviners around but the two branches of Christianity had their reasons to see their opponents in that light.
And what about today? There are not so many contemporary portraits of Balaam and we still find it difficult to understand precisely what a diviner is. What is, indeed, the contemporary equivalent of one who is paid to curse?
One can think of the realm of politics, or of the whole problem of fake news. The contemporary equivalent of earning a living by cursing people may be sending fake news over the Internet, and in this way destroying the reputation of your opponent (a curse, indeed). We all know that Russia has meddled in American politics, (and who knows, perhaps the British politics too), creating fake news and spreading slanders and lies on social media.
It is an intriguing comparison and perhaps idea for a short story (feel free to quote me).
There is an important difference between a diviner such as Balaam and the professional slanderer, troll, or spreader of fake news.
Balaam, the diviner, was reputed to have had some extraordinary power. Not only could he bless and curse, he was in touch with divinities and various supernatural entities. That was his reputation and that was the reason why he was paid so much.
It worked like this. Do you hate someone? Mr Balaam, with tens of years of professional experience, will curse your enemy and evoke some evil gods to cause him harm. In Biblical times the existence of these entities, gods, spirits, or ghosts, who followed the indication of human beings, the sorcerer, were taken for granted.
But this was not the Jewish world, and this was not how things worked among the Israelites.
It is not by chance that there are almost no Jews or Israelites in this week’s Torah portion. It is about the Jewish people, and the Balak’s attempt to cause harm to them by employing Balaam, but neither of the two is Jewish. This Torah portion, about a sorcerer and a diviner, describes a world that is not Jewish.
The Jewish God is not like the godlets and the spirits that Balaam evokes. You cannot use the Jewish God against your enemies, to get rid of them or to cause them damage.
Balaam himself knew this and before setting everything in motion he warned Balak by telling him that all his expertise and techniques are useless against the people beloved by God.
To put it in a very intellectually and complicate way. The world of Balaam and Balak is about human beings, who use gods for their own purpose. The world of the Israelites is about God, whose sovereignty we human beings acknowledge in our prayers.
The other important difference is that Balak and Balaam have no morality. They use their gods to affirm their power, as an instrument or tool. We Jews accept the sovereignty of God, as a source of morality and we follow the Torah, which is a moral and legal code.
The difference between magic and religion is not just a difference of opinions. It is a difference of morality. Those who believe in magic and those who believe in the use of supernatural forces, do not believe in moral principle, such as that all human beings are equal, created in the image of God and as such worthy of dignity and respect.
In the last lines of the Aleinu prayer, we express our faith on that day, ba yom ha hu, when all humanity will recognise that God is one. We hope for a day when all humanity will be free and will follow a law of truth, justice and compassion.
I had a glimpse of such an era, the Messianic era if you like, a few days ago, when we spoke with Rev. Price, from the Alabama church that is twinned with our Synagogue's building.
His hope, and the hope of his community for a day when racism will disappear and all humanity will live under a law of justice is so similar to our faith.
They also have a fight against idolatry, against the followers of the barbaric cult of racist supremacy. It's not a secret that the racists of the Ku Klux Klan have their own ritual and ceremonies, precisely as a religion, and an idolatry barbarian cult, so similar to that of Balaam. It is the same cult, the same ideology, of racism and white supremacy that threatens our life and our freedom as Jews and as human beings.
May they not prevail and may their curses become blessings as it did in the time of Korach.
As a Rabbi I have learnt I must never shy away from difficult conversations. So here's a controversial subject: I never liked Pink Floyd. I find their music terribly unoriginal and their lyrics to me are boring and repetitive.
I know it's hardly surprising to hear this from the Rabbi that I am nowadays.
But back when I was a rebellious teenager (as all teenagers are rebellious, mind you) you had to love Pink Floyd. Teenagers are looking for their place in life, they always challenge boundaries and conventions, and Pink Floyd appealed to them all. This was because their lyrics were out of place and usually about drugs, another topic favoured by teenagers. When teenagers grow up, they look at their former self with nostalgia, but this is not a problem for Pink Floyd because a new generation of teenagers is beginning to enjoy their music.
Which brings me to ask the question: Does Pink Floyd ever grow up? Are they themselves, I mean the former members of the band, prisoners of their will to please the teenagers in the audience, by giving them what they want to buy with their parents' money? I ask such a question every time I come across the outbursts and statements by Roger Waters.
The last one was a tirade against Sheldon Adelson, a Jewish billionaire, who according to Waters controls the whole USA government. Adelson is a casino owner, and therefore the American Government must be chaotic, but I tend to think that the Foreign policy of the largest superpower is not dictated by a casino owner. Roger Waters then continues with the nowadays' favourite piece of anti-Semitic propaganda: that the American police have learnt from the Israelis a way to kill rioters. It makes perfect sense that American policemen must travel to the other side of the world to learn that they can kill a person by placing the knee on their throat. And then Roger Waters goes on by explaining that Judaism teaches that Jews are a superior race, entitled to establish a State on other people's land and in order to achieve such a repulsive goal, we are allowed, by our faith, to meddle in international politics and to randomly kill members of the Afro American community.
Yes, Roger Waters has issued an half-hearted apology, after the problems experienced by a UK politician who was also caught up spreading these lies.
But let's be honest. In a few weeks he will most probably share another variation of the same garbage on social media.
Remember, this is the Roger Waters who supported the BDS, the movement to get rid of the only Jewish State on Earth, to be replaced by some Arab entity, that will deny both you and me the possibility to move there and find shelter (precisely as it was in the 30s) if and when things become difficult for us here.
And this is the same Roger Waters who maintains that "the powerful Jewish lobby" controls the world of the media and his colleague musicians do not speak out against Israeli atrocities because of the fear of such a lobby. All from a man who earns 90 million US dollars last year, so apparently the Jewish lobby does not manage to starve him.
And this is the same Roger Waters that is obsessed by purity. In his representation of the world, there are the oppressed Palestinians, and the Jewish oppressors, sorry: the Zionists prominently among them, (but as you can see the two categories overlap frequently). Palestinians are candid and innocent, and if and when they recur to violence, it is because of the Israelis, who give them no other option. And Israelis are of course evil, worse than the Nazis, genocidal and thieves of other people's land.
This is the world according to a teenager. We have all been teenagers. I am sure many of us are too embarrassed to remember what we were like, (whether Pink Floyd existed or not at that time), but we remember how we struggled with the world, the many moments we felt the world could not get us, because we were good and candid and the world was totally evil and bad? And how pure we were, and our intentions and desires were. How corrupt the world appeared, hence, the desire for some of us to rebel to tear it down. This is the way Roger Waters perceives and frames the world. I am not sure any Palestinian is happy to play a part in the theatre of Roger Water's mind. I, as a Jew, certainly am not, because my faith does not like purity.
Take this week's Torah portion. It opens with a list of complicated rules and norms about ritual purity, to prepare cleansing water to remove the sins of the people. It requires finding and slaughtering a very rare animal, a parah adumah, a completely red cow. It must be slaughtered, the flesh burnt, and the ashes kept and added to the water. This water will be used to purify those who have been contaminated by being in touch with a corpse.
It is a particularly complex set of rules. It is about a very rare animal. The Rabbis in the Talmud will make the ritual even more complicated than this. The Midrash will tell us that in all human history there can be only ten completely red cows. Nine of them in the past, so we have to be very careful in case we see a red cow, and call the Rabbis, as they have to examine and see whether we can resume the ritual of purification.
Until then, and here is the teaching from Judaism, we are all impure. There is not such a thing as complete purity, absolute purity, absolute lack of bad thoughts and evil inclination.
Impurity is part of this world and we must learn to coexist with it, rather than, as teenagers who refuse to grow up, aiming to establish a realm of absolute purity. And, on the basis of such an aspiration, vent our immature fury against what we perceive as being an enemy, of course evil and immorality.
The words and the speeches around the conflict in the Middle East have turned us Jews and the Palestinians into puppets for sick ideological representations, quite often anti-Semitic, such as Roger Waters. But our faith warns us against the perils of this kind of dreams and representations.
It's time for the pro-Palestinian camp to leave their anti-Semitic fantasies aside, and eventually grow up.
KORACH THE POPULIST
Donald Trump will probably be remembered as the first Biblically illiterate president in American history.
American presidents used to know their Bible. Obama and Reagan quoted generously from the Prophetic books. Both of them thought of themselves as warriors against Evil.
Jimmy Carter, before and after his presidency, was a Bible teacher at a Sunday school, which is a good example to mention when we try to recruit teachers for the Cheder, such as look at what a wonderful career may await you.
Donald Trump loves to be photographed with a Christian Bible in his hands, but he does not know the difference between the Old and the New Testament. Which raises serious questions on his reliability, because he took the presidential oath precisely on the Bible.
But apart from that, everybody knows that there is a long standing relation between Bible and American culture, which makes the gross ignorance of Donald Trump particularly remarkable.
Jonathan Sacks once noted how often the Bible is mentioned or referred to by English and American democratic political writers, as opposed to the French and the Germans, who got rid of the Bible and ended up in totalitarian regimes.
In popular culture, do you want to see how the Bible is important for the Americans? Look at the Hollywood movies!
Tens, if not hundreds, of Hollywood movies based on Biblical stories have been produced and directed in the history of American cinema. I know some a Rabbi (American, of course!), who checks the filmography before writing the sermon on the week's Torah portion. He wants to be sure that his understanding of the Biblical stories does not differ from the one that the congregants are familiar with.
But this week such an exercise is not needed. This week's Torah portion is Korach, and Korach is not a favourite topic for American movies, or movies at all.
Korach is, the text is clear, a noble man. He belongs to a prestigious family, and he can track his family tree with accurate precision.
His sons wrote Psalms that are actually part of the liturgy. Think of someone who went to Eaton like his father and his grandfather and you have the idea of whom we are talking about.
Despite coming from such a privileged background, Korach talks as a democratic leader, as a "man of the people".
The Torah portion opens with the description of Korach's challenge to Moses and Aaron:
“You have gone too far! All the people are holy, all of us, and the Lord is in our midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above?”
Which in a way makes perfect sense: it's true, every Israelite listened to the Revelation on Sinai, every Israelite escaped from Egypt thanks to the Divine Protection.
So why then, is Moses schlepping them around for years?
Who gave Moses and Aaron the power to lead the people, and the authority to rule over them?
It makes sense, I mean, at first reading.
But consider the context: the supposed "man of the people" is a privileged aristocrat. And, very importantly, he does not say what's wrong.
Commentators and Rabbis brought about many suggestions of possible arguments that Korach may have used to challenge Moses.
My favourite is as follows: "why do we have to put a mezuzah on the door, a small parchment with Hebrew text? I already have plenty of Jewish books in my home!”
Which is very sophisticated, you see.
It makes me think of those Jews in academia who know a lot about Jewish culture. They are the ones who have entire Jewish libraries in their houses! But as regards practicing Judaism... well, they just want to be like all their other colleagues; they do not want to put too much on show to the outside.
Anyway, this is Rabbinic speculation.
The point is, to say it in contemporary terms, Korach was making a big fuss only for personal ambition. Because he wanted to replace Moses and Aaron, and take the mantle of leadership from them, conveniently forgetting that Moses had been appointed as a leader not by "the people" (whatever this means), but by God.
There are not so many movies on the story of Korach, so you're excused if you do not feel familiar with the plot.
Let me remind you how the story develops and ends.
Moses consults with God, and then tells Korach to stand before God.
The next day, God appears to the whole community.
Remember: Korach started his rebellion claiming exactly that: God is in the midst of the people, all the people are holy, and God speaks to all the people.
Moses instructs the community to move away from the tents of Korach's followers.
And then the earth opens and swallows the rebels, their households, and all Korach's people.
Another interesting detail: Korach wanted to elevate himself over the leaders and he ends up deep down, in a literally inferior position, and there he dies.
In Rabbinic interpretations, Korach has become the symbol of the controversies "that are not for the sake of Heaven" as we have read in Pirkei Avot.
That is: all the disputes, the battles and the political fights picked up for personal ambition and not for the sake of the common good.
The Rabbis construct an opposition: between disputes such as Shammai vs Hillel, which is "for the sake of Heaven", in which both of the sides aim for the truth.
And disputes such as Korach, which are driven only by personal ambition.
But this distinction is clear in theory! At a practical level, in any political career, in any political confrontation, the line between personal ambition and sake of the common good is never clear as the Rabbis like to think it is.
Populism, the presumption to speak "in the name of the people", is a temptation for every politician.
Populist rhetoric and assumptions can be found both on the Left and on the Right.
Think of how often we have heard politicians on the Right telling that "the people" were fed up by experts and that it was time to listen to the voice, and to follow the directives of the alleged "ordinary man".
Then came the pandemic and we all learnt we have to trust scientists and experts!
Or think of how often, from the Left, we have heard the claim that "the people" are always right. We know what this "people" means: not us, the Jews, because we are not properly English, but members of another people, and our loyalty to Israel makes us indeed traitors of "the people", indeed.
This brings me to think about the movement, “Black Lives Matter,” which we see progressing in the USA and on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Is it a populist movement? A collection of rebels with no purpose other than to cause trouble, like the followers of Korach?
We may be tempted to say yes, that it is. Just look at the way they defy the rules of the lockdown and the social distancing that we are all to follow.
But on the other hand, the movement has serious reasons to exist.
For me and you the sight of a police officer is a source of relief, we feel safe and grateful.
Do not take it for granted. That was not the same in Germany, less than one century ago.
The sight of a police officer was not a cause for relief, for a Jew!
And this is now the case for many members of the Afro American community, and perhaps of the Afro British community. When they see a white policeman, their feelings are different from ours. And these days we may learn the reason for such distrust.
I opened this sermon with my personal profession of faith in the good of the American society, in the Biblically based idea of covenant among the different communities.
I think Europe can learn from such an ideal and perhaps we in the UK are in the best position to learn, because we also live in a Biblically based democracy.
Precisely for this we should not allow populists like Korach to take the lead, to become spokes-person of that movement, to build their own career.
This may happen if we do not listen and if we dismiss their legitimate quest for justice
Populism is harmful to all the society.
As in the story of Korach we all risk being swallowed down, and to lose the common ground which keeps us together.
May this not happen.
May we be able to listen and take sides.
Not only the cheesecake!
Let us talk about Shavuot. I know it has just passed but I think we should think about Shavuot a bit more, because -unfortunately- it is not the most observed or well-known Jewish holiday.
First of all, there are no symbols; no tangible, material, items that we can associate to Shavuot. On Rosh HaShana and on Yom Kippur there's the Shofar. On Pesach the Seder, with all the items we have on the table. On Chanukah there is the Chanukiah, and we light one candle each night etc.
What do we have on Shavuot? Cheesecake! Of course we all love cheesecake and I am sure that after this Zoom service we will help ourselves generously of a portion, but you can eat cheesecake all year round, (I actually do), without thinking of the actual meaning. That is because there is not a commandment to eat cheesecake on Shavuot, like there is a commandment to eat matza on Pesach, or to fast on Yom Kippur.
So, Shavuot is a bit of an enigma. A holiday we don't know much about.
There's another reason. Let us not forget that we in the UK, and in the Western world we live in a Christian or post Christian, civilisation. In this part of the world the calendar is largely Christian and the holydays are Christian. And we Jews like to observe our version of the Christian holydays, or at least we like to celebrate as close as possible to the time when the majority of our co citizens celebrate. They have Christmas, we don't have Christmas, but we have Chanukah. Both days when children receive presents, and we engage in an unhealthy festive diet They have Easter, and the related bank holiday, we have Pesach: both family holidays, or at least moments when the families get together. These holydays do not always fall on the same day, but often in the same period.
There is not a Christian equivalent of Shavuot. Actually, without having a look at the calendar it's easy even to forget that there is a day called Shavuot.
But then, there is a deeper reason whey Shavuot is so unfamiliar to many of us.
So let's do a bit of a recap. On Shavuot we celebrate the Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. And this is what we celebrate on Shavuot. This is, by the way, the reason why we have been awake all night, or as much as we managed, to actually study Torah, to reproduce the emotion and the feelings of our Israelite ancestors when they received the Torah.
One may ask at this point, (and indeed somebody asked for real), what is there here to celebrate? The Torah, the Law, is a set of commandments and precepts. A list of things we have to do and a list of things we must not to do. What's there to celebrate?
This is the kind of question that is easy to hear in a Christian civilisation, because according to many Christians, Judaism is a set of laws, precepts, and instructions whose only result is to turn the life of a Jew into an obsession. What's to celebrate in all these laws and precepts?
According to the Christian worldview the only liberation, is when the Jews reject this Law, an oppressive and outdated law, and become Christians!
I think the Christians get it wrong.
Because Shavuot is not only about law, it is also about freedom, but a particular kind of freedom, that we do not like to talk about. A freedom, that I would call, of the mature human being.
Let's get back to Pesach. There is a connection between Pesach and Shavuot. We have been counting the days of the Omer, fifty days, beginning from Pesach until Shavuot, which was yesterday.
Pesach is the festival of liberation from Egypt. Pesach is the foundation of Shavuot. First you have Pesach when that group of slaves escape from Egypt. Then they wander in the desert, and this is a wandering that we remember during the days of the Omer. And then the Israelites receive the Law, the Torah.
The process can be understood if we think to the maturing of the human being. When the Israelites escaped from Egypt, on Pesach, they were like children, like new-borns. Think of how important children are during the Pesach Seder. One can argue that the whole festivity is built around children. The freedom that the Israelites enjoyed on Pesach is the freedom of children, who believed they could do everything - and indeed they also committed a serious transgression, They built the Golden Calf, and worshiped it, because they thought it was legitimate, just like children who still have to learn what they can and what they cannot do.
When they received the Torah, on Sinai, the Israelites received another kind of freedom. The freedom NOT to do. The child wanted to do everything, wanted to eat everything, wanted to touch and possess and quite often destroy everything. This is what the Torah is about; teaching the Israelites, to this group of former slaves that have been wandering lost in the desert that they can say no. They can say no to certain foods, they can avoid certain kinds of (self-harming) sexual relations, that they can make choices, moral choices, in their own life and in their life as a society.
This is the reason why Shavuot is somehow difficult for us to grasp. We do not associate freedom with the power to say no, to make choices. We think that freedom means having access to everything, being able to use everything, having the power to use everything, and perhaps to use everyone. But this is the childish meaning of freedom.
On Shavuot we celebrate the freedom of the responsible human being, and our maturity as Jews to make choices and to act as mature human beings. It is a great and empowering meaning.
And, as you see, it's not only the cheescake!