Sermon: Lech L’cha – ‘Hearts No Trumps?’

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 12 November 2016

Like most Rabbis, beyond my work at the Synagogue I do a number of voluntary things for our Movement for Reform Judaism and the Leo Baeck College.  One is that I serve as one of the two Rabbinic Assembly representatives on the Rabbis and Cantors Remuneration Working Party.  It basically means I am a union rep for Rabbis and Cantors as we negotiate our salary and benefits standards with representatives of Synagogue Chairs and our Movement Board.  We meet every four months or so and I have been doing this for many years.

We met this past week on Wednesday, when to be honest everyone’s mind was on rather more world shattering events than the appropriate length of a probationary period in a new post before Rabbinic pension benefits should kick in.  A short way into the discussion our working party Chair noticed that the last time we had met was in mid-June 2016.

This led one of our working party members to quip that had we at the end of that June meeting walked out to the nearest William Hill, put a hundred pound accumulator bet on Britain voting to leave the European Union and Donald Trump becoming US President our winnings today would have been so huge that we would never have had to worry about the level of Rabbinic salaries again.

Unlikely though both outcomes seemed back in June the eventual results, though they have both brought great upsets to what was expected to be the established order, were close, very close.   For leaving the European Union 17.5 million people.  For Remaining in the European Union 16.1 million people.  For Hilary Clinton becoming American President 59,938,000, for Donald Trump becoming American President 59,704,000 – hang on you might have thought but didn’t that mean she won?  No because to win the American Presidency you have to win the vote state by state and thus the votes of the “electoral college” – so 228 votes to Clinton and 279 votes to Trump meant that Donald Trump won.

I will never understand why on earth 46% of eligible American voters did not vote in the American election and 38% of eligible British voters did not vote in the EU Referendum – why would you give up your right to make your opinion count – and leave the result to chance?   Hillel said “Al Tifros min haTzibbur” – never separate yourself from the community. [Mishnah Avot 2:5] Failing to vote is a sure way of doing so and letting the community run off without you.

Elections didn’t used to be like this.  Rather than results of just over half versus just under half, elections used to show great swings in the people’s will. In the 1975 Referendum on staying in the European Union 67% voted to remain and 33% voted to leave.   In the 1972 American Presidential Election Richard Nixon gained 520 electoral college votes against George McGovern’s 17, representing popular votes of 60% against 37.5%.    In the past you could tell a nation was changing.

Not so these 50-50 contests of our days.  Undoubtedly democratic results have to be respected or we undermine our own hard won freedoms, which this poppy represents today.  But when its 50-50 you have to remember that half the country thinks the other way to the result and respect it.

To me this meant, as woke up to the same very odd feeling on Wednesday morning as the radio gave me the news of the Trump victory as on that Friday morning in June when I woke up to be told that my children would not have freedom of movement and trade in the European Union, that everything had changed and nothing had changed.

The values I live by given by my Judaism and shared by people of goodwill everywhere have not changed, even if the context in which we live them has utterly changed.  I still believe that humanity should care for each other and not put up borders. I still believe that we have a responsibility to steward the planet for future generations. I still believe that we are all equal in God’s eyes. I still believe that we make a much better future if we work together than if we drive ourselves apart. It’s just that since June in the UK and since Wednesday morning in the US the work got much harder – but surely for the sake of Jewish values shared with so many people of goodwill we are not free to desist from it. [Mishnah Avot 2:16]

In recent years, in many ways, these values have at least been in the rhetoric of politicians.  They have not always done well in helping put them into action.   The rhetoric of leaving the EU and of Donald Trump the election candidate was opposed to most of these values – but with half of the people not supporting their ideas will they ever have the power or will to put their rhetoric into action?

Essentially this means that if the most divisive ideas of Brexitieers or of Donald Trump are promulgated we need to do what Jews have, since the days of Abraham, always had to do – swim against the tide, push for better ways of living which consider our future generations, spread our values so that others hear and work with us.

In our portion today Abraham was given the most awful news.  He would be the father of countless generations – but four of his generations would live in slavery in Egypt. -[Genesis 15:15]  He heard that the path ahead, the covenantal path was going to be hard.   But of course he did not give up.

As Jews we have been here before.  Preparing for the class I teach at Leo Baeck College on Thursday this past week I came across this piece in a sermon given by Rabbi John Rayner in 1984 decrying a rise in intolerance in his time.  He asked “what are the symptoms?   Self-Righteousness and arrogance, intransigence and refusal to compromise, a tendency to lecture rather than listen, to brandish slogans rather than engage in thought, to distrust the democratic process of rational persuasion, to despise and demonise those who dare to disagree with you, a readiness to resort to verbal abuse and physical aggression, and more generally, that prideful obduracy which Scripture calls the hardening of the heart.”  [ A Heart of Flesh, 27 September 1984 in “A Jewish Understanding of the World]

If these symptoms remind you of the tactics of anyone’s recent election campaign, now as then, these are ways of being which Judaism stands against.   Pharaoh with his hard heart is the eternal opponent to the mercy and compassion, listening and care of our ideal of HaRachaman, the merciful God.

Rabbi Josh in his Alyth Thought of the Week [11/11/16] considered another issue that we are going to have to stand against.  “we are faced with the challenge of how to explain this to our children.  How to teach them about the importance of truth, of respect, of thoughtful language, of preparation, when the opposite has triumphed.  We are experiencing a crisis in our political discourse – a crisis not just of politics but of ethics.  The events of the last months in America have demonstrated the extraordinary power of anger and resentment, that they can conquer thought and debate.  This is not a question of political position.  It is not about detailed policy difference, about whether we are of the left or the right (or the frustrated middle).  It is about the values by which we live our lives.”

The time has come to learn again from Abraham.   It is Jewish values not power which have ensured the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people against all of the odds over the past millennia.   It has been the Jewish principle of not going after the majority to do evil which is set out with clarity in the Book of Exodus  (23:2).

Our time has come again to stand for human unity, for the preservation of the world for future generations even to the disadvantage of our own generations, of care for the stranger and the disadvantaged of our time, of promulgating the belief that all people are created in God’s image, even those who live in a different country to us, or live a different culture to ours.  It is just that the work has become harder from now on.

If Abimelech, the tribal leader of the next tribe along from Abraham [Genesis 20] had walked into the Beer Sheva branch of William Hill to put a hundred pound bet against the survival of Abraham’s values to the year 2016 – through the best of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – he would have thought that he was onto a sure winner.  Surely Abimelech would be right to assume that all the empires of the world would crush what Abraham stood for.  But our being here today shows that he would have lost the bet – and it is our duty to ensure that the forces of intolerance and division never win it.