I want to talk to you about three things this morning and, since it’s a sermon I will only skim the surface, but I’ll be great, you know I’m doing great, everyone thinks I’ll be great. I could ramble incoherently for a few minutes and then finish with a flourish to tell you how great I’ve been. You’d all believe me right? If I say what I want you to believe often enough and for long enough you’ll end up accepting it. Psychologists have studied these things – they call them heuristics of persuasion. It takes too much effort to think, so instead we have shortcuts that tell us what is true and what isn’t true. In an age when visual media is paramount, I’m at a disadvantage really, because I’m going to make you work hard for the next 10 minutes. And at the end you’ll thank me! And if you don’t thank me, I’ll double my sermon length next week.
So my three things – remember that, three things. Legacy, Language and Truth, and Boundaries. Legacy, Language and Truth, Boundaries.
First, our reading this morning is a text that has at its heart the question of legacy. In the ancient world, legacy was easy. You had a parcel of land, you died, it was inherited. With a bit of luck you might have done better than expected and expanded the parcel of land. Easy. Today legacy is different. It’s not just the property we bequeath. A legacy is the impact we have on the world around us and how long the ripples of our existence will remain visible after we die. A legacy can even mean these days the impact you have in a role before you retire or lose your job. But I want you to be bolder than that. I want to ask you about the legacy we are collectively leaving the world. Historians will currently look back on this moment in time and wonder if the world underwent a collective melt-down. Populism is on the rise along with a virulent strain of racism, anti-semitism, islamophobia and isolationism. The daughters of Zelophehad present a cogent case for radical changes in the laws of inheritance in the Torah. It may not have gone far enough and been undermined by our Torah portion this week. But you tell me about the legacy that moves from one in which women can inherit maybe 4000 years ago to one in which challenging structural inequality leads to ridicule because it’s PC gone mad. Or the legacy that witnessed all the devastation of genocide and conflict on our doorstep, including the Srebrenica genocide we mark this week, yet still public discourse comfortably slips into an aggressive painting of stereotypes and scapegoats whole communities – of refugees, Jews or Muslims, and anyone who stands in the way of a return to that oldest legacy of only valuing money, land and power.
Language and Truth
And so let me turn to one of the most shameful legacies, outside of geo-politics, is that grown adults have turned social media into outlets for their unfettered impulses to speak about others and to propagate lies and for us to believe them. This is language and truth – point 2. If I were a Freudian I would say that the internet has somehow switched off our Ego and Super-ego. And you know what is the biggest disgrace. It’s not that adults are acting out their fantasies of how to speak about and to each other – that is bad. It’s not even that we are willing to believe and share anything, because belief trumps critical thinking. The biggest disgrace is that we have invited our children into that space. They can now witness the normalisation of death threats, rape threats and all sorts of other vile things. They can now see that you do not need to work hard in interpreting your world, because it’s more fun to be swept up in a tornado of ‘feelings’ and ‘beliefs’. And that is a legacy that will take years to undo.
The book of Numbers is the Book of the Wilderness ‘Bemidbar’ in Hebrew – which is also from the root ‘davar’ – word. Because it is only in the wilderness, without any protection, that we can encounter God and hear God’s word. Yet it is unprotected that we’re most vulnerable. We’ll latch on to any snake oil dealer and tell ourselves they’re telling us the truth. So in our vulnerability we have eroded the power of language to define and create truth. And we have eroded the power of language to strive for nobility, civility and betterment of our world.
Finally, in an age of the internet we might think that geography means nothing. We can connect with people around the world in an instant. Yet, whilst these physical barriers to communicating have eroded, we have entered an age where the boundaries of nation states have been set upon to make them bigger, stronger, less permeable. Where the big barriers become battlegrounds to reject anyone who is deemed not to belong. It’s this discourse that surrounds Brexit, Big Walls of Mexico, attitudes towards asylum seekers, hostile environments. And whilst nation states feel the popular pressure to fortify their borders, we see a similar pattern in the boundaries of community – who is in and who is out. In the Torah portion this morning, we hear about the Levitical cities – since Levites had no tribal inheritance they had cities throughout the promised land in which they could live. The boundary for the city – which becomes furthest distance one can travel on Shabbat before one is considered to have left one’s ‘home’ – is 2000 cubits (about 1 kilometre).
But listen, in the Mishnah (mSotah 5:3) this boundary is debated due to an apparent contradiction in the biblical text. And it turns out that perhaps the first 1000 cubits is for a field around the city and the second 1000 cubits is for fields and vineyards. The boundaries of the city are not fixed in quite such a concrete way. And what is more this discussion in the mishnah occurs ‘On that day’ – which day? The day on which Rabban Gamliel was deposed from leading the community and removed a guard who prevented access to the study hall to students deemed unworthy. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azaryah opened the doors to all and ‘that day’ became a great day of learning. On which my teacher Dr Josh Kulp says, “true wisdom comes from intellectual exchange with fellow students and not from isolated speculation or from the gathering of the elite.” Perhaps there is a poetry in this – the cities have boundaries that are not solid, neither should the study hall – the centre for discourse about life for the rabbinic community. Our walls of discourse must be as permeable as possible. They do not have to be non-existent but we can be confident enough that in our evolving community our ideas should stand up to scrutiny by all.
That is not to say we stand for nothing and admit anyone, but rigorous, civil and thoughtful discourse should be the defining feature of what happens within. I teach a session on a famous incident with Rabbi Jeremiah who is thrown out of the study hall for seemingly mocking the essence of the rabbinic community. The power in the story lies in the fact that he is discussing a case of a pigeon which hops from its coop until it stands straddling an arbitrary line that determines who owns it when found. Just like the bird, Rabbi Jeremiah straddles the lines of being in-and-out of his community. The rabbinic response is, well rabbinic, you must be one or the other and so he is ejected – positively stating where he is thought to stand. But our time is different, most of us stand with one foot in and one foot out of all sorts of issues. At least we vacillate. Only the foolhardy or the zealous are definitely in or out. The rest of us experience the permeability of boundaries. The danger of putting up walls (figurative or literal) is not that we have borders and boundaries – all communities and nations need those. The danger is that we fantasise that they are solid – keeping us in and the interloper out.
So our Torah portion has led us on a journey through thoughts for our world today. I ask you what is your legacy that you wish to leave future generations – what impact do you wish to have in the world around you and how will you make that happen?
I ask you how do you use language to create worlds – and what do those worlds look like? Are you sucked into the lazy feeling/believing space where you’ll forgo hard work and critical thinking in favour of falsehoods and snake oil?
And finally I ask you how confident do you feel about who you are and what is that doing to the boundaries that you seek to create in your community, your society your country? Because with confidence and engagement comes openness to be challenged and a willingness to strive for the truth in dialogue. Barriers are not borders and boundaries, they give us false hope that we will be protected from evil people and ideas and often this sense of safety behind seemingly impermeable barriers is the biggest lie of all.
So we say, Chazak chazak venitchazek – be strong, be strong and let us be strengthened. Chazak uvaruch – Be strong and blessed.