Sermon: Eikev

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 30 August 2016

I don’t want to dwell overlong on the Olympics. I suspect we’ve all had enough of them – and I know Rabbi Levy spoke about them last Shabbat. But there is one dimension that I’ld like to pick up on – and that’s the way ‘Team GB’ medal winners are referred to as ‘heroes.’ The Oxford English Dictionary defines a ‘hero’ as “someone of superhuman strength, courage or ability, favoured by the gods, especially one regarded as semi-divine and immortal. Also in extended use, denoting similar figures in non-classical myths or legends.”

Now what the Mo Farahs, Usain Bolts and so on of this world are able to achieve in terms of their Olympic prowess is pretty remarkable. And I’m prepared to admit, publicly, here, on Shabbat, in front of you all, that it might, just might have something to do with my body-shape, my weight-mass index if I wonder whether these people are ‘heroes’ in that OED sense of the word?

“Superhuman strength, courage or ability”? – clearly yes. They are able to do things which few human beings can do and that speaks volumes about rigorous training, tenacity and so on. But “favoured by the gods”?…. however we might understand ‘gods,’ I’m not sure.

2000 years ago, in Mishnah Pirke Avot, a man called Ben Zoma asked a similar question: “ey-zeh hu gibbor?” “who is strong? Who is a hero?” And he answered his question, not by referring to ability or physical prowess but looked instead to some inner quality. His response to that question “who is a gibbor?” was: “whoever controls their passions.” (Avot 4:1)

It started me thinking about who are the ‘heroes’ of our time? For me, at least, ‘heroes’ are those who, through their actions, become like a mirror in which I see myself and invite me to reflect on the question: “what would I have done?” And at this time of year one of those I think of is a man not many, I suspect, have heard of.

His name is Miguel da Unamuno. As the name suggests, he was Spanish, not Jewish. The only thing I knew about him related to an incident I read about many years ago which had made him something of a hero in my eyes. And then on a short break in Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands, quite by accident we came across his house, now a museum. I hadn’t known that he spent time on Fuerteventura.

Wikipedia tells me he was a writer, intellectual and philosopher; also, apparently, a serious practitioner of origami, paper folding, using the shapes he created to express his philosophy. From 1900-1924 he was Chancellor of Salamanca, one of oldest universities in Spain. Opposition to the dictatorial government of Primo de Rivera led to him being exiled to Fuerteventura. In 1930 he was able to resume his position as University Chancellor. By 1936 Franco was in power and Spain was sliding into civil war.

The incident in question happened in October that year, a little less than 80 years ago. A conference at the university brought together speakers from across the political spectrum, including one of Franco’s generals, Millan de Astray. His motto was Viva la Muerte, “Long live death.” One of his followers shouted it from the audience and Astray repeated it. Unamuno got up to address the students. “Just now I heard a senseless and necrophilious cry: ‘Long live death!’ That idea is repellent to me. General Astray is a war invalid. And soon there will be more of them if God does not come to our aid.” At which point Astray interrupted, “Down with intelligence!” he shouted, “Viva la muerte! Long live death!” Ignoring him, Unamuno continued: “the general and his like might win because they have brute force on their side – but they will never persuade.” Turning to Astray he said: “To persuade requires what you lack: reason and right. I consider it futile to exhort you to think of Spain.” (Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, Penguin 1965, p443-4.)

It’s a shame we have no visual or audio record of that speech. I imagine a man, bearing, as it were, all the weight of the world on his shoulders, addressing his students, knowing perhaps that the days of common sense and human decency are soon, if not already, over. I imagine him speaking with a mixture of weariness and deep sadness, but with great power, dignity and authority, yet knowing his words will probably fall on deaf ears. Shortly after he was effectively removed from any position in the university and died 2½ months later.

Unamuno had described General  Astray as ‘necrophilious.’ In psychiatry, ‘necrophilia’ is a perverse pattern of behaviour in which death, corpses and the like induce feelings of intense sexual excitement. Unamuno wasn’t making a statement about the General’s sexuality, but about his basic orientation in life – that he loved death and hated life. Erich Fromm, the psychoanalyst, uses the word, like Unamuno, to describe a character trait. (Erich Fromm, The Heart of Man, Harper, New York 1964, pp37-61) ‘Necrophile’ means, literally, ‘lover of death, of dead things.’ Its opposite is ‘biophile’, ‘lover of life and living things.’ Fromm talked of these two basic orientations in human life and how, in some people, the balance tips towards the necrophilious.

Necrophilia blocks growth, damages creativity, the development of potential and so on. Necrophilia stifles life, narrows it, drags it down. It’s the over-protective parent who stifles the creative urge in their child – not consciously, to be sure, but stifles it nevertheless. It’s the partner who constantly puts the other down, in public and in private, making them feel small and inadequate.

My wife used to run a children’s charity in Enfield. I remember her telling me about a workshop she once organised for 7-10 year olds. She put them into two groups – the happy family group, and the sad family group – and asked them to think about what made a happy family or a sad family. Kids in the happy family group talked about playing a game with their parents, going to the park for a walk, having meals together and so on. The sad family group was a mirror image. “We never talk to each other,” they said, “nobody listens to anybody”; “our parents never show any pride in us or take any interest us.”

None of the kids connected happiness and sadness with material possessions, with having or not having material objects. For those children, at least, happy and sad were defined essentially by the quality of their relationships, particularly with their parents. It was not about having but being. Sad children aren’t necessarily physically damaged, but their sadness is the result of a gradual extinction of their joie de vivre, of their faith in themselves as human beings, of their interest in, and excitement about, the world. Bad experience has inculcated a necrophile attitude to life in them.

Those attitudes get carried into adult life, of course.

So, for example, the famous story of King Solomon faced with two women, each claiming to be the mother of a new-born baby. How does he figure out who’s the real mother? By a biophile-necrophile test. He suggests cutting the baby in half and each woman taking half. One of them says “no, better give the baby to the other woman.” The true mother, the biophile, the lover of life, is prepared to give up her child rather than see it killed. The impostor, the necrophile, prefers to have a properly divided dead child than a living one. (I Kings 3: 16-28)

This biophile-necrophile spectrum suggests an interesting way of looking at attitudes – in ourselves, of course, as well as in others.

Eli read to us this morning from Moses’ farewell speech to the Israelites as they stand on the threshold of the Promised Land. He reminds them of the journey they’ve been on and of the tasks and challenges ahead. That speech ends 20 chapters later with a biophile-necrophile question:” See I put before you today life and death, good and evil, blessing and curse” – culminating in the admonition u’va’charta ba’chayyim “therefore choose life.” (Deuteronomy 30: 11 ff)

Clearly there are some for whom life is no longer something they want to choose: because they live with unbearable pain, unremitting hopelessness and despair, incurable illness or disease and so on. But they’re not, fortunately, the majority. So who, in their right frame of mind, wouldn’t choose life? I don’t imagine it’s a choice that even strikes us as one we need to make. So at one level the very suggestion seems stupid: Who wouldn’t choose life?

What, then, might ‘therefore choose life’ mean, then? What is it that we are really being asked to choose? The clue lies in the words connected with choosing life.

“See, I set before you life – and death; good – and evil; blessing – and curse. On the one side, life, good and blessing; on the other, death, evil and curse.

And at this time of the year in particular what could be more urgent than making that choice? “At this time of year”?….hard as it is to imagine, in the midst of the holiday season, sweltering under high August temperatures – yet, in just 5 weeks, we will be entering the Days of Awe, the High Holydays. We will be faced once again, as we are every year at this season, with that basic biophile-necrophile choice. Of course we’ll all choose life – but what is the quality of that life that we are going to choose this coming year?

Now that’s the question for our time.