Sermon: Ki Tetze – A great day to start school

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 17 September 2016

This has been a big week for my family.  Last Sunday our elder daughter Alice started at the University of Sussex.   It’s been going well.   She has settled in just fine in her Hall of Residence flat with six other students, made her room her own and been enjoying the freshers week.  Last year Alice was on the RSY_Netzer Shnatt in Israel – the experience our youth movement offers to young people to spend the best part  of a year in Israel, learning, volunteering and experiencing the land, which included sharing a house with eleven others just months out of school, so university was never going to faze her!

Alice’s first day of school, fifteen years ago also went well for her.   St Mary’s School in Finchley welcomed Alice to the reception year and she was fully ready for the experience. We are lucky parents, she has lapped up new experiences with enthusiasm all her life.

For the world though it was a terrible day – Tuesday September 11th 2001.   When we brought Alice and two of her friends from nursery came back from school early in the afternoon, the adults in the house could not turn away from what was happening but also needed to protect these young bearers of all our hope for the future from seeing what was happening in New York, and the incomprehensible terror.

The scale and the blanket coverage of the 9/11 attacks meant that it was not possible to turn away and be indifferent to them.  But surely we cannot be aware of everything that is going on in the world that is causing distress?

Our Torah portion today gives Jews a duty never to be bystanders.   Rabbi Moses Alshich of Turkey and Sefed, one of the greatest ever Jewish sermon givers wrote in the 16th Century, that Ci Tetze is the portion which gives us the terms of the central Jewish duty to “Love your neighbour as yourself”, V Ahavta L’Reiachah Camocha.  To say Love your neighbour as yourself is just too simple, too glib.  What does it actually mean to do it?

It starts with a wandering animal.  Someone’s ox or donkey is wandering and you don’t know whose it is.  It is your duty to look after it and find out who owns it and then return it.   (Deuteronomy 22:1-3).  The same of course would apply to a lost wallet, smartphone, dog, whatever.

As Ori said in his D’var Torah this is different from the terms in Roman Law derived systems whereby the finder of lost items is entitled to keep them and need not take into account the sense of loss of the person who lost them.   What makes the Jewish duty to return lost animals and property a term of loving your neighbour as yourself is the next phrase – lo tuchal l’hitalem. You must not be indifferent, uncaring, unconcerned.

That’s why you make the effort to return the lost item.  You know it would hurt you to have lost it – so you know that it hurts your neighbour – you love your neighbour as yourself.  Rabbi Miri Lawrence (p113 in Women Rabbis in the Pulpit) compares the Jewish duty here to the words of Atticus Finch to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird – “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”  Judaism requires us to jump into that skin – to consider how it would feel to be the person who is hurting and then act accordingly.  Eliza’s D’var Torah told us that even in times of war and extreme situations we still must do this – we have to consider the feelings and experience of those over whom we have won power.

What we can’t do, when we know that there is pain in the world is to turn away.  Rashi, commenting in the eleventh century, comments on the verse, do not be indifferent.  He wrote never cover your eyes so that you do not see something that you could make better.  It’s easy to do it – to cover our eyes so as not to see the misery of refugees denied a home, to cover our eyes so as not to see the trauma of the parents of the kidnapped girls in Nigeria, to cover our eyes so as not to see that it is regular people just like us who are the victims of the wars that continue to rage today.

Elie Weisel, the originally Romanian Holocaust Survivor and campaigner against injustice who died this summer wrote:  “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.  The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it is indifference.  The opposite of faith is not heresy, it is indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.”  (US News and World Report 27/10/1986).

He wrote this out of witnessing the Holocaust when that indifference enabled the murder of millions, out of campaigning against oppression in South Africa, Nicaragua and Sudan and out of trying to make the world remember the Armenian genocide of 1915.  In each case it was possible to say that the trauma was not ours, was too far away for us to do anything about, was a long time ago so better to forget.

A Jew must not do this.  You cannot love your neighbour if you are indifferent to his plight – whether he is just dealing with something small like the loss of a possession or of course, kal v homer, how much more so if he is facing the loss of his or his family’s life.

This week, timed of course for the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, twenty four Reform and Liberal Rabbis have together published a book called Terror, Trauma and Tragedy – Rabbinic Responses.  The Book is going to be launched here at Alyth on Thursday night with copies for sale at £5.   Rabbis Jonathan Romain and David Mitchell, the editors of the book will be speaking about what the book adds up to and Alyth’s own Rabbis Josh Levy and myself who have written chapters for it will also be speaking about what we have contributed.

The book includes chapters written by Rabbis trying to respond to shootings in their town, to the first terror attack in Denmark, to trauma in their own family, to unimaginable human rights abuses in the Congo, to the world known events like 9/11 and Britain’s 7/7 attacks, to terrorism in Paris and in Israel, and to times when it is complex to know how and where to sympathise, such as the Gaza campaigns.

In every piece, as I say in my chapter we are not speculators on what is happening, nor solvers of the crisis but rather creators of a safe space to distil meaning in Jewish terms amongst the troubles that all are going through or witnessing.   That is to make sure that we are not indifferent.

9/11 so well documented and now remembered. The remarkable memorial and museum in Manhattan makes sure that we are not indifferent to the death of nearly 3000 people fifteen years ago.  Perhaps more challenging is to ensure that we are not indifferent to the death of more than 1600 civilians in Afghanistan so far this year alone , the death of more than 16000 civllians in Iraq last year or more than 400,000 civillians in Syria over the past five years.

There is a sin that derives from this passage in the Torah.  It is the sin that we commit against God by persuading ourselves that we cannot do anything about it.  Perhaps we can’t stop Assad or Daeesh from murdering people but we can welcome those who escape to our country.   Perhaps we can’t make Iraq safe but we can provide a place where Shia and Sunni Muslims can meet and learn with each other as we did at the Alyth’ Iftar this and last summer.  Perhaps we cannot have any influence over Afghanistan but we can hear the story of a man who comes to our Synagogue’s Refugee Drop in and continues to deal with the trauma of the death of many members of his family by at least finding one space where he is welcome and can meet other people who care.  Indifference is not a Jewish option.

Come and join us on Thursday night as we work out how the Jewish community can avoid the sin of indifference.  And this year find a cause where your involvement and support means that at least one otherwise invisible part of our society is seen and cared for so that your love of your neighbour turns into action.