Sermon: BeHar – Famous Last Words

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 25 May 2016

Have you ever hear Radio 4’s “Last Word” programme. It is broadcast every week and its format is to spend five minutes or so summing up the life of a fascinating person who has recently died.  As you can imagine in recent months it has included features on all of the celebrities whose passing has made the world a little more dull – David Bowie, Prince, Victoria Wood, Terry Wogan, Ronnie Corbett. Each is remembered by people who worked closely with them, who were deeply influenced by them or have something, on sober reflection, to add to the gushing obituaries which will have been in the news in the few days after their death.

For me the greatest value of the programme is the pieces about the people who I didn’t know anything about and who, on hearing about them I end up wishing I had when they were alive, like as a Rabbi I often feel after a funeral for a person whom I never met or got to know properly in life.   Recently this has included Joe Medicine Crow, the native American leader, Papa Wemba, the Ghanaian pop star and General Meir Dagan, the founder of Mossad.

Last week’s Last Word included a woman who was a member of Alyth and at whose funeral I officiated, Lily Dubowitz.   Lily lived through the Nazi takeover of Budapest, went into hiding with her mother, then left for Australia and returned to England to become a paediatrician, becoming world renowned for developing, with her fellow paediatrician husband Vic, the Dubowitz scale for assessing the progress of new born babies. Lily Dubowitz’s name became a byword for this process so that medics still speak of a baby who they are monitoring being Dubowitzed! That’s a last word to be proud of.

Perhaps it is down to careful planning or perhaps it is by chance but some of us are given the opportunity to say just before we die something of great profundity that is never forgotten.  As the poet Lord Byron drew his last breaths he said sweetly “Now I shall go to sleep, Goodnight”.  Queen Elizabeth 1st expressed a thought that would strike a chord for all of us “All my possessions for a moment of time” – just before her final moment.   Lady Nancy Astor seeing all her family gathered around her bed in her last minutes woke briefly to say “Am I dying or is this my birthday”.  Surely Oscar Wilde must have planned his last utterance – so characteristic was it of the great humorist: “Either that wallpaper goes or I do”.

Spike Milligan, one of the greatest comedians of the past century, definitely planned his – it is inscribed on his tombstone in a graveyard in Winchlsea in Irish Gaelic (he was born in Ireland) – “Duirt me leat go raibh me breoite”,  not what he said but what he had always planned for his epitaph – in English it means “I told you I was ill”.

I suspect that pretty much all of us know the first words of the Bible “Bereshit Bara Elohim et ha shamayim v’et ha’aretz” – in the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth.  But how many of us know the last words of the Bible?  Just what they are is slightly controversial depending on whether you go for the order of the Hebrew Bible preserved in the Christian Bible (where the Bible ends with Malachi the last prophet and his words about the end of the world and Elijah’s return), or whether you go with the order given in every Jewish bible published since the early centuries of the common era – where the last book of the Bible is the Book of Chronicles.  What are the Bible’s not quite so famous last words?

They concern the exile of the Jews to Babylonia from Judah and how their seventy years in exile “fulfil the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah (referring to our Haftarah portion today), until the land had enjoyed her Sabbaths; for as long as she lay desolate she kept Sabbath, to fulfil seventy years.” And finally how Cyrus the king of Persia allowed the Jews to return to their land to rebuild the Temple.

Our Torah portion sets out the way in which the economy of Israel is to be built.  There is to be hard work to gain the best fruits of the land but every seven years it is to be left fallow to recover its strength as agricultural land – a Sabbath for the land.

Every seven times seven years the land itself is, through the Jubilee, to return to its original tribal holders so that land accumulations in the hands of a few families do not happen.

Earlier in the Book of Leviticus it was stressed that every seven days there is to be a day of human and animal rest, the Shabbat, where nothing new is created (Leviticus 23) and that of every field we own and crop that we grow a portion is to be set aside for the poor and the stranger to glean and feed themselves for free. (Leviticus 19)

The last words of the Bible say that because we did not observe these laws – we kept hold of everything for ourselves we were driven out of the land and kept out for seventy years so that it could make up for the time of our greed.  From observing the laws of Leviticus and their spirit in our time comes blessings – very special blessings – not only of prosperity but of being satisfied with that prosperity and living in safety and security to enjoy it and living in a way which is the opposite of being a slave – truly free.  Why? Because as Rabbi Yehoshua Engleman says “if you hold onto something too tight the Bible says that you will lose it” – just as the Jews lost their nation of Judah.

The Bible, in its last words tells us clearly what failure for a society would be.

Failure is a society where selfish interests dominate – where everyone grabs for themselves and is unable to let anything go for the good of others.  Success in the bible is a society where people build their own prosperity but in the context of giving themselves rest and those around them as well, where busyness is not constant but rather there are times and spaces to refresh ourselves.

Success is a society where the poor, the dispossessed and the stranger (meaning for us the refugee and the recent arrival) and those deeply disadvantaged in the world can count on us with any level of prosperity to see that what we have is God’s gift to us – earned with our God given talents or through what we have been able to build on previous generations.  Thus we do not fully own it but rather some of this prosperity must be shared with those whose lives have not been as favoured as ours.

Success is a society where the country in which we live is cared for – the modern day equivalent of shmittah – the seven year lying fallow of the land – the Bible is clear we can use its produce – but not without any limitation, not without ensuring that what is beautiful about it remains.

Success is a society where in every succeeding generation there is enough opportunity to build prosperity – that is the message of the Jubilee – God is a sharing owner of the world not like Pharaoh of Egypt who is an accumulating owner – trying to grab everything for himself.  We in the image of God should also ensure that our society enables all to share in prosperity in the long term.

In Pirke Avot (5:10) there is a passage which speaks of four kinds of people with respect to how they treat what they have gained.  The person who say what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours creates an unforgiving and uncaring society like that of Sodom in the book of Genesis, a society which disappeared into such violence that it seemed destroyed.  One who says what is mine is yours and what is yours is mine creates a society that is unrealistic – the word used in the Hebrew means un-educated.  We can’t live like that for long as all the incentive to effort and work would quickly disappear. The person who says what is mine is mine and what is yours is mine is wicked accumulating all to themselves.  But the person who says what is mine is yours too and what is yours is yours is understanding the true message of his religion (in Hebrew the word is Hasid) because in this society no-one becomes destitute.

We who want to be part of the shaping of the future of our country and of Europe should be looking out for generosity of spirit, a care for all people, preservation of the land for future generations and a continued sharing of prosperity.  Only in this way can we enjoy the blessings which the Torah speaks of – not behind walls living in fear of the dispossessed as has happened in a number of countries but in a society of opportunity for all to reach their potential so that we can be satisfied with what we have and live in security with each other.

The last words of the bible say fail to do this and expect trouble in the future.  The first words of the bible say everything is possible when you see the world not as the possession of humanity but as the ultimate expression of God’s creativity and of partnership with humanity.