This is not a Shabbat Shalom

Once again the news of devastating violence, on our doorstep in Paris, has filled our news and the bloody sight of trauma has sickened our hearts and blackened our souls. We sit here in our synagogue and shed tears of pain and sorrow. We pray for those who have been afflicted with the most horrendous atrocities by the will to violence. On this day in which we wake up to the continuing unfolding news, a day on which we celebrate a young man become Bar Mitzvah and a day on which we show how much we cherish one of our most remarkable spiritual leaders – Rabbi Harry Jacobi – we find ourselves asking grave questions of humanity and of our future.

The Enlightenment, Our Judaism

The pall of death has filled the streets of Paris and we know this is not the first time and though we pray with every sinew in our body, this will probably not be the last. The cry of the French Revolution, Liberte, Egalite and Fraternite, uttered over 200 years ago, is an easy summary of the Enlightenment. And the enlightenment is also at the heart of our Judaism. This cry has been trampled, by the scientism, deification of false idols and abject racism by the Nazis. As I know many of us understand too well. And now we see the cry trampled by the violent, anti-democratic, fundamentalist trends of movements like those of the perpetrators of the attacks last night in the 21st century.

Liberte, egalite and fraternite: In its most simple, the cry is one of freedom. That each person should be able to live their life unhindered by an external authority and yet subject to laws decided by the people not the will of a real or imagined God. It is a call for the equality of all regardless, without distinction – equal before the law and as citizens. You can hear the trope of our synagogue life – Reform Judaism is intensely humanistic in the sense that we choose to be Jewish and we choose how to be Jewish. No Divine writ can be invoked to control us. Reform Judaism regards everyone as equally bound up in the covenant and fate of its followers – regardless of gender, sexuality or any other labels we ascribe to people.

Defending our values and ideals

And now once again we are forced to defend our values and ideals. For they do not only come under threat from the perpetrators of terror. The point of terror is to cause us to change our behaviour, to cause us to lose our most cherished ideals. We end up doing the work for the terrorists. The ideal of democracy is at the heart of the autonomy and humanism of the enlightenment. The ideal of the universalism of our philosophy, that everyone must be treated equally, that our ideas must be applied fairly to all of human life and that every human life is sacred, of limitless importance.

These are the values and ideals built into the fabric of our Judaism and cemented in the foundations of our democracy. The threat to who we are is not just that terror will stop us living our lives, it’s that it might stop us believing in our ideals too. The harm caused to the lives of so many reverberates through the lives of millions more. Many of us have lived in parts of the world during conflict or witnessed terror attacks. The sound of a bomb never really escapes you once you’ve heard it once. The crack in the fabric of our civilisation and the hearts torn asunder never really heal up.

Rachel weeps, God learns to weep:

It is the heart that has been ripped apart that causes us to weep. Our figure of Jacob which we read in our Torah portion will eventually marry Rachel and it is Rachel who becomes the bereft mother, weeping for her children after devastation – רחל מבכה על בניה – Rachel is weeping for her children (Jeremiah 31:14). It is not that she wept in the past, she is weeping. Every day the loss is felt and every day she weeps. She refuses to be comforted, for her children are not – כי איננו.

In the period after the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE some of the most incredible literature of loss is written by the rabbis. A literature that speaks volumes about bereavement and about theology. There is one text in particular, from Eicha Rabbah which describes how God learns to mourn. God asks the ministering angels: “A mortal king, who is mourning, what should he do?” The angels answer him, “He sits in silence.” God said, “I will do likewise.”  As it says, He sits alone in silence (Eikha 3:28). Again the ministering angels said to God, “He sits and weeps.” God said, “I will do likewise.” As it says, The Eternal One God of hosts called on that day to weeping and eulogising (Isaiah 22:12).

God learns to mourn because we mourn. Here is the protest of the rabbis. It is scandalous to think that the Creator is so unmoved He does not even know how to mourn. Yet to weep is to be moved. And notice that God’s weeping follows God’s silence. We may feel in the midst of deafening silence of all that is good, of all that is Godly, but that will change.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 59a we read:

“When the Holy One, who is blessed, calls to mind His children, who are plunged in suffering among the nations of the world, He lets fall two tears into the ocean, and the sound is heard from one end of the world to the other, and that is the rumbling.”

I read this text as a reflection of God’s absence, and a search for signs of deus absconditus in the natural order of things – the search for just a tiny morsel of communication from God in the fragile state of exile that the Babylonian sages found themselves in. In the words of Jeremiah:

“Let my eyes run with tears, day and night let them not cease, for my hapless people has suffered a grievous injury, a very painful wound.” (14:17)

And still we pray

God hears the sound of every plea and God weeps with us.  Yet, God cannot redeem our world.  That is our task and God waits constantly for us and God learns our pain. For as Yehuda Amichai writes in his final volume of poetry, ‘Open Closed Open’:

תפלה בצבור: האם לבקש, תן לנו שלום

ביללות ובצעקות שבר או לבקש בשקט רגוע

אבל אם נבקש בשקט, האל יחשב

שאנו לא צריכים שלום ושקט

Communal prayer: Is it better to ask, “Give us peace”

With cries of woe, or to ask calmly, quietly?

But if we ask calmly, God will think

We don’t really need peace and quiet.

We pray and we don’t pray quietly because today we need our prayers to soar above the clamour of violence and take with them the pain, the loss and the shattered sense of wholeness that fills our world.

After prayer comes work

And then when we’ve done praying I take my lead from my colleague Rabbi Harry Jacobi who led us through the post-war rebuilding of Judaism and Europe. We work together to make things better. Jory your Bar Mitzvah will always be remembered I know, but I want you to remember this commitment that we make as progressive Jews. It is a commitment to work hard. It is a commitment to celebrate a Bar Mitzvah, to rejoice in a young person coming up to the Torah, conscious that life is always full of joys and sorrows. To seek a world that is made whole again. To piece together the fragments of light and to shine that light as brightly as possible. It is something that we cannot do on our own. That is the reason that last night I contacted the Progressive synagogues and my colleagues in Paris, leaders of the Jewish community who will be feeling uncertain once again. That is why I emailed our interfaith network of ministers in Westminster, to draw the cords of solidarity tighter. To build our capacity for working towards peace and justice.

The thing about your Torah reading Jory is that Jacob and Esau eventually reach a reconciliation. It’s not perfect and some commentators cast aspersions on their genuineness of Esau, but reconciliation it is nonetheless. In fact, the book of Genesis can be seen through the lens of reconciliation – Ishmael and Isaac bury their father together. Esau and Jacob kiss. Joseph and his brother are united once again. The Torah is not telling us to turn the other cheek, but it is telling us that the future can be made better. Human life can be reconciled to peace. We can discover a life that is better and it will take us all. It will take us all to defeat the evil scourge and it will take us all to the rebuild. Jews, Muslims, Christians, those of any faith and none.

Cling to our ideals

And from the midst of our building a better world together we must cling to our ideals. Remember our ideals of liberte, egalite, fraternite. Jory, West London Synagogue has been here for 175 years. In that time its members have witnessed all manner of change. Yet there are certain constants – our belief in the potential of humankind, our sense of equality and commitment to help those less fortunate and refugees, our relentless pursuit of peace even from amidst war or terror.

101 years ago, Rabbi Morris Joseph preached this sermon (copied from here in this synagogue, albeit in the early days of World War One, in September 1914 – I was reminded of it as we had marked Armistice Day just this week in synagogue:

“Now; when war grips us with its horrors, it is for us to range ourselves definitely on the side of peace, on the side of all the great souls among mankind, from the ancient Hebrew prophets onward, who have saved the world from going down hopelessly into the pit, and to resolve that the human race shall be permanently PURGED FROM BLOOD GUILTINESS, and the awful voice that crieth against it from the ground shall cease its lament and its denunciation for ever.”

Let us pray then on this Shabbat, horrified by the news from Paris, when we witness the youthfulness of a Bar Mitzvah and the wisdom of our teachers, that we can remain on the side of peace and that we can save the world from going down hopelessly into the pit. May this be God’s will and let us say: Amen.