This week, we read one of the most well-known and poignant parts of the Torah and includes the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gemarra, the birth of Ishmael and Isaac, the banishment of Hagar and her son, the promise that both Abraham’s children will father great nations, and the near sacrifice of Isaac by his own father’s hand. So many parallels and messages we can draw from these stories to connect with our current world, it is almost overwhelming. But tonight, I would like us to focus on the very beginning of the portion, where we find Abraham sitting in the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day, looking out over the hot, empty desert. He has just circumcised himself at the age of 99 – that’s a commitment to God if ever there was one, and now, he is sitting, alone, in silence, being. And in that silence, in those moments of solitude, he connects with God. Maybe that is a link with a Divine being, or perhaps it is a moment just to connect with his soul, with the essence of who he is, what matters, to just touch a small part of eternity.
The Torah tells us that God created the world with words, each day, God spoke, and worlds were created, but then, after the words, the creation, the frenetic activity, there was silence, there was Shabbat, and in that silence and in those sacred moments, there was holiness. The kabbalists teach that God created everything in the universe with words, but then, from the silence, came our souls. The soul was not God’s word but God’s thought; we are thought, breath, being. And from that silence and that innermost soul, we find solace, comfort, and strength, like Abraham in the doorway to his tent.
These past four weeks, there have been so many words. Words that have wounded us in ways that are deep and sometimes unfathomable. We have been struck with the blows of vicious words, calling for our destruction, calling for the massacre of all people like us, of Jews. Our children and we are afraid to wear clothing that identifies us as Jewish, our youth cannot walk freely through their university campuses without hearing that the murder of their Jewish families is “justified,” it’s “understandable.” That the atrocities which rained down upon Israel just one month ago were to be expected, were repayment, were ok. Those actions are never okay. Never. And now there are more than 250 people still held captive; the fear they must be experiencing is beyond comprehension, their families in an impossible loop of unknowing, begging, pleading. Every life is a world, every person a universe.
We have been hurt; we are wounded in our hearts and in our souls. Friendships have been shattered, so many have felt the absence of those they hoped, expected to be standing beside them with comfort, with strength, with arms to hold them. “Where are you?” we have cried. “We need you. Why are you not here?”
This week, I read an article, Why Your Jewish Friends are Not OK, trying to explain the depths of our pain, the sorrow, the disappointment, the anguish, the fear. To explain that we who have been building bridges, saying “never again,” reaching out, teaching and building museums dedicated to peace, find our hands held out and nobody to hold them. We are feeling alone, abandoned, hurt. So many of us are wondering if our years dedicated to bringing harmony and peace, to saying, “We are alike, but we are different, and we can sit together in our difference,” believing that we can stop the scourge of antisemitism and all hate from rearing its ugly head in this world, may have been for nothing. When we see a plane filled with people fleeing the war in Israel surrounded by a vicious, violent mob ready to kill them, the pogroms of the past seem not to be relegated to history. We are suffering grief and trauma, not just for what is happening now, but also because of the echoes of the past, the fact that we find that the antisemitism, the vitriol, the “othering” was not much below the surface and a small scratch has opened a gaping wound once again. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat in her poem “Attack,” wrote of our feelings:
“We are all heart,
raw and beating.
does not leave a scar.”
This week I read a book by David Baddiel called: “Jews Don’t Count.” It has been sitting on my bookshelf, a gift from a congregant, and until now, I had not been able to read it. His thesis is that hatred and prejudice against Jews is treated differently from any other form. He argues that there are two responses to Jewish cries of antisemitism, which are antithetical to one another. Either that Jews deserved it, asked for it, or could not be victims because they were oppressors and powerful. Or that it is really nothing, there is a storm in a tea cup, and it is inconsequential. That book struck with a poignancy it would not have had, a mere four weeks ago. Then I listened to a podcast by Dara Horn based on her book People Love Dead Jews. I wanted to believe both she and David Baddiel were wrong, that Jewish deaths and loss and struggle was treated the same as everyone else. That a life is a life and the world cares the same. But then article after article said: “What would people be saying if x group was told that they could not go to campus, that it was not safe, that they should lock themselves in their rooms for their own protection, as Jewish students were told at Cornell University this week? Or what would we say if x group were targeted for the attacks of the 7th October, if posters of their kidnapped children and babies were torn down and defaced? Substitute “Jews” for another group and the outrage and the response would be very different.
We are hurting, we are in pain and we are tired, so tired. The vigilance, the discussions, the volumes of information hurled at us day and night, trying to discern what is real and what is true, what we should read and what we should avoid. Even choosing to click and open has become either an act of defiance or an act of complicity with a programme of manipulation that we cannot fathom. We are all feeling the bone-crushing exhaustion of hyper-vigilance; we never know when we will encounter something painful, hurtful. Our everyday has become consumed with this war, this threat to more than our physical selves, our families, but also to our very souls, our very being. It is a lot.
Sometimes the words I want to speak with you on Shabbat flow easily onto the page. These words tonight did not come. I tried to write a different sermon, I tried to say something else but these words were there, insistent, but I did not want to speak them. But these words were heavy, burdening, and so many of us are carrying them, these feelings of being alone, that we Jews are once again an island in a hostile sea.
But then I looked out from our island, and I saw that we were not alone.
Tonight, we are honoured to have with us, three members of the Hindu community, beautiful souls who have been instrumental in helping us to push away hate, advocating with us to ban the swastika, the symbol of peace and love, hijacked by the Nazis to be a mark of hate. And during this war, this war against our bodies and souls, they have held out their hands to us; they have gathered us in and said to us: “you are not alone. We are here, beside you.” Even at this holy time of Deepavali, you have acknowledged our pain and stood with us. We are so grateful.
And our politicians, the leaders of our country, state and community, they too have helped to build a bridge to our island and stood with us in friendship and understanding. We know the cost of speaking out, and we cannot express how important it is for us to have friends, at this time. And the police and our incredible CSG, protecting and caring for us, making us safe as we go to our schools, synagogues and in public spaces.
And many of us have also had friends reach out their hands and arms: a call, a text, a meal, a check-in. People have been there with us and for us. We have received messages of support and we must try and not be swept away in the waves of hate and the words intended to incite fear and violence. We can build our life raft, sail across those waters in a vessel built with words of love and support, with arms and hands held out in embrace and friendship.
And we can find hope and strength and comfort within the arms of our own community. People who know and understand. I have felt such pride at the way we have come together. That when we speak and protest and advocate, we do so from a place of seeking peace, of treasuring life. We cry over the loss of innocent lives no matter which side of the border they live. We do not seek death, we do not call for violence. We harness the power of love, fight against the demons of hate and plead, demand, pray for the safety and release of the hostages, we pray for the soldiers, their families, the people of Israel who are facing the threat not just to their lives but also their souls. There is a strength in their determination, in their resilience, in the wonder of the miracle that is happening there.
Within hours of the attacks, the country was mobilised. Thousands and thousands of volunteers, were not creating rockets, grenades, tunnels, weapons of hate and destruction, but building shelters, havens, homes for people who have fled, counselling for the trauma and loss, funerals for the massacred, comfort and support for their grieving families. Warehouses were commandeered and built for supplies, food, toys for the children. And we have seen lines of people snaking to donate blood, to deliver packages, to bring comfort, to care for one another and to focus on life, healing, peace. We should be so proud of Israel, and of our community, the mobilisation here to help, collect, deliver, buy, support, reach out. So many initiatives and all the while, reminding the world of the hostages, the innocent men, women, children and babies, who need to come home.
We are all a mass of emotions. We are scared, defiant, angry, hurt. We are grieving, aching for what was, for a return to the safety and security of October 6th. And we are tired… so very tired. So, this Shabbat, like Abraham, maybe we can find a way to take a few moments of quiet, to go and sit and be, to nurture our souls, to touch eternity, to find peace and spirit and love and hope, so that we can continue to build a world of peace and hear the songs of harmony and love sung in our world once more.
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