Sermon: Bemidbar 2015 – The Ocean is a Wilderness

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 26 May 2015

On 13th May 1939, 930 German Jewish refugees boarded the Hamburg-Amerika Line’s “St Louis” with Cuban landing permissions.  They set sail from Hamburg with 10 Reichmarks each and a suitcase – having had to surrender all their other assets. In the face of adverse comment of an anti-Semitic nature in the local press the Cuban government revoked the landing permissions.  The United States refused to take the refugees even though 734 of them had quota numbers to enter the USA as immigrants.

The ship was turned round to return to Europe and docked in Antwerp where 287 of the passengers were granted permission to enter England – 244 to France, 214 to Belgium and 181 to Holland thanks to the efforts of the Joint Distribution Committee.  Of course many of those who went to countries which were later taken over by the Nazis did not survive the Shoah.

Although England was third only to the United States and Argentina in the numbers of refugees that she saved from death – taking in 52,000 Jews – the Daily Express, in its editorial on the issue on 19th June 1939 was less than charitable saying “The plight of these refugees wandering helplessly over the seas searching in search of a home, won the sympathy of the world.  The decision to allow some of them to land in this country was approved by public opinion.  This example must not set a precedent.  There is no room for any more refugees in this country.”

In July 1947, a passenger ship destined for Palestine and named the Exodus was stopped and boarded by the British navy. The ship was crowded with Holocaust survivors determined to make a new life for themselves in British-controlled Palestine. The British, facing Zionist resistance and trying to keep promises made to the Palestinian Arabs to limit Jewish immigration, were determined to stop it. Accordingly, when the Royal Navy boarded the ship 20 miles out from Haifa, a full-scale battle ensued.

Three immigrants were killed and dozens injured as British troops beat the passengers on to three separate prison ships. From there these Holocaust survivors were transported back to Germany and were once again placed in camps.

The world was horrified; an American newspaper ran the headline “Back to the Reich”. Delegates from the UN Special Commission on Palestine who watched what occurred were similarly shocked; the Yugoslav delegate cited that what happened to the Exodus “is the best possible evidence we have for allowing Jews into Palestine”.

Since then, the fate of the Exodus has achieved legendary status: Leon Uris used it as the basis of his 1958 bestseller of the same name; an award-winning film starring Paul Newman came out in 1960; and the former Israeli foreign minister, Abba Eban, drew a direct link between the Exodus story and the ending of British rule in Palestine.

The sea and the ocean is a wilderness on which you set sail at your peril if you do not have a destination ready to accept you.   The Jewish people have known this experience and we share our history down our generations.

It should drive us to empathy with the multitude who take to boats on the shores of North Africa in the hope of reaching asylum in Europe, or from Myanmar and Bangladesh in the hope of a dignity and human rights in Malaysia or Indonesia.   The danger they face is staggering.  So far in 2015, in the Mediterranean alone. 1700 would be migrants are known to have drowned as their boats failed.  That’s 17 times as many people killed as were in the same period last year when the Italian Navy was committed to saving lives on Europe’s behalf.

As we pray here in Alyth this morning there are hundreds if not thousands of people crammed into boats on the Mediterranean and the Andaman Sea – trying like our people did in the past to cross the wilderness – not the land but the sea and not on their own but under the control of people who have charged them impossible amounts of money.

People do make it – according to the UN 200,000 migrants entered the European Union following a sea crossing of the Mediterranean in 2014.  They come from Syria, Eritrea, Sudan – repressive countries where violence, disrespect of human rights and economic disaster create conditions that none of us would want to raise our families in.    In Judaism we cannot just see them as people who are not us and thus beyond our care.  Rather every person counts and we must empathise with their situation.

In doing so we do something quintessentially Jewish which reaches into the very heart of Jewish theology and mysticism.  We start with the way that Judaism thinks of creation.  As the leading theologian of Reform Judaism, Eugene Borowitz, puts it (A Touch of the Sacred pp71-72), in Christian Society and also by many Jews who grow up in that milieu “creation is usually thought of in spatial terms and is seen a moment of externalisation.  That is God puts the creation “out there”.

Think of the ceiling of the Vatican City’s Sistine Chapel.  Michaelangelo pictured God as a mighty muscular hand stretching full length to one fingertip and bringing Adam into being.”  God, as it were, extends into our world to bring it into being.  God at the top, humanity down below.

Rabbi Isaac Luria in sixteenth century Safed felt otherwise “If God is everywhere, he reasoned, there is no “out there” in which to put creation!  In order to create anything, God must first contract.   God, said Luria, creates by pulling back.  Luria called this tzitmtzum.  This act leaves a void that enables God’s creatures to have a space in which to come into being.

But when God withdrew he left behind in the space in which we come to be a residue of God’s reality, “like the little bit of oil left when we think the jug is fully empty”.  Luria’s Kabbalah calls this residue remaining beams of God’s creative light, once contained in vessels so that we could behold them but too strong for the vessels to contain – so they shattered, the process that Luria calls sh’virah.  Then the problem with our world is that that we live among the shells or husks of what might have been.  Yet some sparks of God’s energizing light remain.

This is why every one of us counts, just like we heard in our Torah portion today from the book of Numbers. Every person of the Israelites was individually counted.  “If every bit of God’s divine sparks could mystically be restored to their proper place in God’s being then all things would become as they were intended to be.   Through human acts of tikkun olam, which literally means ‘repair or restoration of the world’, what Rabbi Luria understood as following the Torah in its full mystic depth – God’s wholeness of creation would appear.”

This means that humanity has the power to bring the Messianic age – to heal the world, piece by broken piece.  And, critically, every single one of us has our contribution to make to this healing.  No King or Queen, or President is any more responsible than you or me.  We may each have a task suiting our talents and skills, but none of us can defer to another person we think greater than us to do it.

You can see this illustrated clearly in so many places in Judaism.  For community prayer to begin we need a minyan, ten people to make it communal.  In the Altneuschul in Prague, the oldest Synagogue in Europe, there is a jail cell attached to the shul which was used for miscreants in the community.   This cell has a porthole open to the Synagogue so that the man in the jail could be counted in the minyan for the services in the Synagogue.  Everyone counts.  When you are called up to Torah, as Harry was a while ago with two others, you are called up by name as each of us has a name and an identity.  Each of us counts individually.

In God’s eyes, as it should be in our own, we are individuals with a sacred task to participate in repairing the world in our lifetime, if at all possible.  So no Jew should ever despise another person, no Jew should ever act as if someone who is different from them does not count.  We must always find and support the potential of each other because the person we are facing may just hold the key to one of those sparks of God’s light which must be restored to its proper place.

So we cannot wish away the plight of the 2015 boat people.   We need to encourage our government to join with the others of Europe and through the United Nations the world.  People in danger of drowning must be rescued.  A humane system of processing the claims of those who have a refugees right to asylum, perhaps through camps in North Africa and Lebanon which are outposts of potential receiving countries should be set up so that you don’t need to set out into the dangerous seas to have your case heard.

And all of this, in a religion where everyone counts should be our concern.  In our hearts we should place ourselves alongside the desperate people in those boats knowing that in their lives was once our people’s experience too.  We pray that they will find safety and security as we wish for ourselves.