Sermon: Bemidbar: Each of Us Counts – A Royal Garden Party vs. Lurianic Kabbalah

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 10 June 2012

I had a very special experience earlier this week.  In my capacity as Chair of the Assembly of Reform Rabbis I was invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace.  It was as beautiful a day as you hope for to stroll around the Queen’s 40 acre garden, looking its best I am sure in the May sunshine.  The cucumber and mint sandwiches were lovely and the whole affair was really rather glorious.    Through the midst of the crowd of several thousand attending the party strolled Her Majesty the Queen, Princess Anne and Prince Andrew.

I say strolled and that was true for the Prince and Princess but not really for the queen who was accompanied formally as she walked through a corridor made up of the eager guests to the garden party some of whom were introduced to her.   I was not on of those selected to meet her but had had that opportunity some years ago at an event celebrating various religions’ perspective on creation.  I was rather tongue tied and certainly did not have the presence of mind of an Orthodox Rabbi standing next to may who took the opportunity to say the blessing mandated for meeting a king or queen – where you thank God for having given of His glory to flesh and blood, worth knowing for such occasions!

Our relationship with Royalty is rather unusual in terms of Jewish values.  Who we were was very clear at the garden party.  We were subjects rather than citizens.  The people who counted at that gathering were the members of the royal party.  We guests were certainly significant in that we had each been invited to recognise some kind of contribution to national life, but in the most gracious and Britishly subtle way – we were not really the people who counted.

This kind of set up gives rise to a healthy even if slightly undermining Jewish cynicism.  It won’t surprise you to learn that by the time the garden party was about an hour underway many of the Jews there had found each other and were happily yachnering on the lawn of the palace.   Our little group included the Chair of Leo Baeck College, the brother of Alyth’s Chairman, there for contributions to export, he thought, the wife of Edgware Reform Shul’s Rabbi, there as the Chief Executive of a charity and the public affairs chief of the Board of Deputies.  In a way we managed to make ourselves count by forming a community among the community of garden partiers.

In doing so we did 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 thistzitmtzum.  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 Vivienne 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.

On the High Holidays, for certain we call God our Sovereign, Malkenu, and we accept that we are subjects of the King of Kings.    But we also call God our parent, Avinu.   And one of the defining characteristics of a parent of any quality is that they treat each one of their children as a loved individual whose growth, development and achievements are of the utmost importance.   And note that in the piyyut, the liturgical poem Avinu Malkenu, it is Avinu, our parent that comes first.

First of all 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 back to the garden party.  What was really nice about it was that everyone there had some way in which they were doing something for our country.   Together the little knot of yachnering Jews, the Councillors who had served their borough for twenty five years, the people who had started a small charity to deal with a problem they saw in society, the GPs who were celebrating thirty years treating their patients and even Her Majesty the Queen about to celebrate sixty years of service to this country, could leave the party and continue to play their part to build a society which is that little bit closer to God’s will that we should live together in peace, harmony and care.  May we all be granted the strength to do so, and may we always know that whilst it is not us to each one of us to complete the task, neither are we free to desist from it.