(A sermon) Tell the Israelites to go forward (Exodus 14:15)
Imagine that moment of crossing the Sea of Reeds. Could you? Pursued by the Egyptians, Moses begins praying and God says to him, מה תצעק אלי – why are you crying out to me? The midrash, one of my all-time favourites, interprets this to mean: why on earth are you praying to me now? Moses, my friend, you’ve picked one hell of a moment to stop and pray. I mean you could pray on the other side, but now? Seriously? Come on, why are you crying out to me. Get on with it, do something, lift your staff up.
The midrashim feel the hesitancy in this moment. It’s a scene from a movie where the motion stops and the viewer doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. Of course, the other famous midrash has Nachshon ben Amminadav impatiently plunge into the sea when the rest of the tribes are fighting over who will be first, and he causes it to part.
Why are you crying out to me?
Moses, I’ll tell you what, pray on the other side – Mi chamocha be’eilim Adonai – who is like unto you God among the gods (Exodus 15:11).
This is THE moment of change. It is what we resist so often as communities, the threat of change, of youth, of action. Every action carries with it a change and that can be scary or inspiring. It’s up to us.
The Advocacy Academy – The tools for change
Last night I was in Brixton surrounded by the most incredible energy at the second birthday of the Advocacy Academy. It’s a brand new charity, established by Amelia Viney (a trustee of Liberal Judaism) that I think needs supporting and is giving young people a voice, giving young people the tools to advocate for themselves and their communities. Giving young people the skills and opportunities to build their confidence and tackle the things that make them angry.
Helen Hayes the local MP was there as the patron of the Advocacy Academy. She had listened to these young people before and supported them in reaching out to their constituency MPs, but you could see she was moved again.
I can’t tell you how stunningly powerful it was to hear a young man talk of his battle with depression and suicidal thoughts only to discover a confidence to address it and to bring the issue into his school assembly. Or the self-described angry black woman, a young woman who found a voice to deal with racism and misogyny and many other oppressions and is writing about it for her local paper. We laughed and were moved as we heard another young woman who had finally found her place after coming out as Bisexual to her parents in front of Helen Hayes in Parliament in front of an audience of 70 people. The young man who wanted to address housing problems in his neighbourhood who proclaimed ‘We own Brixton not the developers’. The young woman with a disability who realised what she could do, not what she couldn’t, who told me that she wanted to finish her degree and set up a charity to support other young people with disabilities transitioning from child to adult services. And the young Colombian woman who is establishing a forum for other Latin ancestry young people to celebrate their identity, who has got her MP to bring on board charities and host an event at parliament.
Young people who have something to say. Who have a change they want to make. Who feel ignored or disempowered, voiceless and worthless. They hear society say you don’t count and you’re up to no good. And it makes them angry. And here was the Advocacy Academy giving them the skills to use that anger. It was moving, we cried with them, it was inspiring and it was led by the young people who had such composure and grace and talent. It reminded me why I was so passionate about youth work for most of my young adult life and why I think communities are so important.
And you know what else. It was about making a difference. A change. It wasn’t prayers for redemption. It was being the force for redemption.
And so I suppose it was fitting that on my way home from Brixton I walked through Kings Cross only to spot Rabbi Laura Janner Klausner and George Gabriel of Citizens UK preparing to greet young refugees on their journey to being reunited with their families. The courts had found that these minors, alone and living in the squalor of Calais had the right to be living with their family in the UK. It was some comfort after the death two weeks ago of 14-year-old Masud from Afghanistan, who died trying to get here to his sister. This was a sea crossing of a completely different sort. Citizens UK had taken action.
I had gone from hearing of the next generation of Nachshon ben Amminadavs to witnessing what our current leaders are doing waiting at the Eurostar terminal.
The crossing of the sea, a crossing of the channel.
What is redemption, what is freedom?
And you want to know what made me angry? I felt like here at West London Synagogue we’re doing great work helping the destitute asylum seekers. But we’re Moses praying from the edges. I’m Moses here right now. It was coincidence I was at Kings Cross, WLS had nothing to do with it at all.
מה תצעק אלי – Why are we praying now?
What did those stunningly courageous young people in Brixton have in common with the incredible work of Citizens UK – a non-partisan organisation committed to civil society and making politics work for all communities? What was in common – they saw the sea, they saw the channel and they were determined to make it part.
I want us to be making the change in a serious, systematic way. Whether it’s social care for older people, a housing crisis, discrimination or protecting the rights of refugees. To do that we need to be on the inside, not the outside. The Advocacy Academy taught me an important lesson. We need to take risks like join Citizens UK, we need to be advocates for our civil society, using all the privilege and power we can muster. We need to be doing, not praying. We need to be angry that the world is not right and then we need to be angry enough that we are willing to change the world, not provide a salve for the symptoms.
So if you’re angry about any of the issues I’ve brought up then let me know so we can work together.
עזי וזמרת יה ויהי לי לישועה – God is my strength and song and will be my salvation.