My (slightly edited) sermon from Shabbat Vayetzei, including a Bar Mitzvah of James:
James, your davar torah touched on some really very important issues about dreams. I want you to imagine that you live in your home with your family, a kind and generous brother, friends and relatives around you. But it’s special, there’s never a cross word between the brothers; parents don’t have to nag you because you do your homework and your chores without arguing (do kids still have chores to do for pocket money). All is peaceful and pleasant. Really it’s an unrecognisable little piece of paradise, well for most of us it is anyway.
You see, it’s unrealistic. Human beings do not live in such cosy idylls that look disturbingly like some kind of utopia (or perhaps dystopia) developed by a sci-fi author. It’s nonsense of course to think that life can be governed by perfect, amicable and rational or always positively charged relationships. We could not have the love, companionship, righteousness and care that human beings are capable of expressing. Because an absence of strife, bickering, fallings out and reconciliations would not be human. We might as well be the rock on which Jacob places his head – inanimate, hard, stonefaced. The imagined perfect idyll is not human at all. The endowment of the capacity to care for another person is what makes us human, but that same human-ness is what makes brothers fight and deceive their parents. Jacob, Esau, Isaac and Rebekah – they are a thoroughly human family, characteristic of the bible, we get the warts and all.
Yet, at the same time, the biblical story contains this counter point, the expression of something different, a perfected or devastated world; a world envisioned as either monumentally worse or hopefully much better. That vision is granted to the prophets who wince at the pain of a single injustice for fear of the bigger harm it does to society and their articulation of peace, justice and righteousness; and that vision is at the heart of the motif of Jacob’s dream. This is not a prediction. Jacob does not need to go to a therapist for dream interpretation, his dream is just like the dream you, James, mention of the late Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. It is one that describes an alternative world, connected to something bigger, more profound and potentially more hopeful. Jacob wakes and makes a promise based on his dream – the dream itself is a reminder that his destiny is for important things, if he will only choose to follow a path of becoming the patriarch. From the midst of the discord and threats against his life by his brother, under immense pressure and anxiety, he lies down and dreams that things will be alright. When he wakes, back with a bump of reality he strikes a deal – more circumspect than his dream state, he bargains with God, ‘If you do this, then I’ll do that’. But the vision, the dream, not literally of angels but of the importance of our task on this earth, is affirmed and cemented in the inanimate rock, anointed with oil, a marker stone hinting at something stable, permanent, enduring.
This week has been a hard week in which it has been difficult to permit myself to think that things will be alright. I don’t believe in divining the future, using charms, amulets and witchcraft. I’m not looking for my fortune to be told or my palm to be read. I’m looking for permission to think that it will be better, that one day, yes even in my lifetime, the shedding of blood on national, political and religious grounds will utterly and permanently cease.
On Wednesday I rushed to Facebook to check in with friends in Tel Aviv after a bus was blown up in a terrorist attack, and as the simple statuses popped up on screen that they were ok, I wept. My friends, my left wing, liberal, peacenik friends, the dreamers, who live in a region of the world filled with fear, violence and aggression (from many quarters), were close. But none were injured. And yet, the dream was not sullied, the vision was sustained. Those same peaceniks have been through it before. They’ve had friends killed in bombs, they’ve watched other perspectives gain ground, seem unassailable. But they’re still there, invoking dreams of a time without violence, of coexistence, of two states, of pluralism and tolerance.
Then I received a message from my colleague in Haifa. A close friend’s son had been on the bus in Tel Aviv and was in hospital. It’s hit my colleague’s family, his daughter in particular, quite hard. We’ve been here before, the escalation of violence, the war, or mini-war. Yet, on Facebook again there popped up from friends all over Israel and the world, messages of peace, of the possibility of reconciliation, plenty of criticism of the government of Israel and even more criticism of Hamas.
Forgive me for a moment then if I request here in the UK that we act a little more humbly than voice our crass indignation or gross expectation (and self-centredness) that we might change governments’ policies in the Middle East. It’s not as if we’re living there, enduring the atmosphere of violence and conflict that has embedded itself into the psyche of the peoples. Pardon me if I ask you not to conflate, simplify and explain away a highly complex situation with statements such as ‘it’s all because of….(the Occupation, the lack of partner for peace etc)’ or ‘INSERT BLANK HERE are the root of the problem’ (Hamas, Lieberman, Obama) or even ‘Israel just needs to win the hasbara, the public relations, war’. Only a sledgehammer on the rock would reduce it to these sound bite issues, ignoring: history, culture, sociology, global politics, local politics, media reporting and propaganda.
I have always regarded our duty in all of this to be one that navigates a path in which we retain a sense of the humanist, universalist Judaism, the humane response, conscious, for example, of the unimaginable pain of a family who have lost a loved one in a terror attack in Israel or bombing sortie in Gaza. I do not have easy answers to the politics and I do not have, in all reality, in spite of my self-delusions, access to influence politicians’ decisions. If solutions were that simple, then we wouldn’t be in the mess, and if I was such a marvellous analyst of geopolitics then people I respect would not hold very different opinions to my centre-left stance.
Our role is to retain and affirm, and reaffirm, a belief in humankind; James, our dreams are what enable us to do that. Our dreams are full of hope, of the tiny ember that will set light to the kindling that will be fanned into the flames of peace, of harmony, of the ploughshare not the sword, pruning hook not spear.
James, your vision for yourself described in your Davar Torah, is probably not far off what your parents dream for you. That you will grow up, healthy, thoughtful, aware of your history, conscious of whom you are and what is important in life, caring and kind. We cannot ask for much more for our children, our dream, the ladder of our dreams, than our earnest desire for everything, and I mean everything, good in the world to be bestowed on them. James, for you and your family, this Bar Mitzvah is a moment of fulfilment and of forward looking hopefulness. The timelessness of this moment in the sanctuary, secluded from the reality of the world is the dream, it is the counterpoint to strife and conflict.
Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former member of the Israeli Knesset and Orthodox Chief Rabbi of Norway, wrote recently in the Times of Israel on the subject of inclusion of diverse leaders in negotiations, that we must include:
“Leaders who believe in the necessity to respect the will of God in whose image we are all created and who understand that crushing His image by spilling the blood of the ‘other’ ultimately desecrates His Holy Name in the world.
“So for a moment, close your eyes and imagine how such a world could look. Now open them. The truth is that 80 percent of both Israelis and Palestinians support this kind of peace and long for it to happen. Both peoples lack the faith that the other side has the same dream. We need to foster this faith.”
James, life is full of the full blown spectrum of ups and downs, of emotions, behaviours and moral decisions for better or worse. That is life, complex, challenging and imperfect. Yet our dream, the dream you describe in your Davar Torah, is one like Jacob’s dream upon the rock, like the dream of Rabbi Melchior. It is the dream that is the counter point to the reality that allows us to imagine the perfect, the parallel vision of hope that runs alongside the day-to-day. It is the anticipation of being part of something bigger, more important, fundamentally whole and better. That is the dream of Liberal Judaism which we must internalise and about which we must speak.
So James, my hope for you on this day is that you will always hold on to the values, the ideals and the longings of your youth. That your dreams may become more complex but never sullied by cynicism or loss of faith in humanity. That you will be able to make independent choices to fulfil your dreams and when those choices seem hard you will have your family and friends around you. And James, that you will always make your parents, your grandparents and friends, as proud of you as you have done today. May this be God’s will, and let us say: Amen.