Sermon: Masei – The Dangers of a Risk Averse Culture

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 9 August 2016

A few weeks ago Nicola our oldest daughter Alice and a friends of hers and I set off for a holiday abroad beginning at Gatwick Airport. We parked the car in a car park a couple of miles from the airport and with the other people gathered there boarded a bus for the last bit of the journey. I hulked the suitcases up onto the rack – bit heavy but I could manage it.  If I had had difficulty I am not sure what I would have done as prominently placed as you boarded the bus was a notice saying “please do not ask the driver to help with the loading of bags – for reasons of health and safety help cannot be provided”.  Whose health and whose safety makes it worth banning the giving of a helping hand?

Some years ago, Baroness Rabbi Julia Neuberger gave the Rabbi David Goldstein Memorial lecture for Liberal Judaism. She was then President of Liberal Judaism, on the national stage Rabbi Neuberger was best known as the Chief Executive of the Kings Fund – an expert in the provision of health care and social services.  And it was on these subjects that she enlightened a large audience for her lecture entitled “the moral state we are in”.

Rabbi Julia began the lecture – with the story of an advertisement that was shown on television a few years ago. Its aim was to encourage people to consider becoming social workers and it showed a heart warming scene that would make anybody think – what could I do in that role.  The advert  was set in a dingy flat with a elderly woman portrayed as rather frail and helpless and clearly miserable because of the dark and dank conditions in which she was living. The social worker comes into the flat in the advert, he talks to the lady and changes a dead light bulb. The brightness that then floods the scene shows you the viewer what difference is made by a bit of common sense from a friendly social worker like you could be.

That was the advert – but the trouble was that the scene was quite false – in fact in most local authorities the social worker climbing on a chair to change a light bulb would, far from being an example of good commonsense  practice, have been up for a disciplinary procedure for breaching health and safety rules.  What the social worker should have done is to make a risk assessment of the dead light bulb situation, report it back to his or her manager, passed a referral to the borough maintenance department, if the property in which the elderly woman lived was a council property and if not then possibly to Borough Occupational Therapy, then at least two workmen would have come for safety’s sake, accompanied by the social worker to change the light bulb properly. How many council workers does it take to change a lightbulb?

Our Synagogue has in common with all charities been required every couple of years to file a risk assessment of our activities.  Fifteen closely types pages assessing the exposure to risk of the  North Western Reform Synagogue to everything from racially motivated attack, to potential damage to its reputation to competition (from who – the Church of England, Islam the United Synagogue, Marks and Spencers?).

All of these are required areas of risk assessment under the Charity Commission rules and were met with resigned incredulity in the questions after the lecture by the Liberal Judaism Movement officer who had to carry out the review for that registered charity.  He reflected on his twenty years as a voluntary scout master where a lot of what he had done with his scout pack had been about enabling young men to take risks and try something new – from abseiling down mountain sides to simply being away from their families for a few days on camp in order that they could learn to take personal responsibility.

Had the Children of Israel been a registered charity and had Moses had to fill out a risk assessment before obtaining the Ten Commandments it is likely that we would never have received the words are represented by the Hebrew letters Alef to Yod in the Tree of Life behind me. Remember that in Exodus Chapter 19, just before the commandments are received we are told the state of Mount Sinai.  It was mountain all in flames and shaking, The Almighty had threatened to break out and consume the people if we went the wrong way about going up the mountain. There was the sound of constant Shofar blowing risking great damage to eardrums. The commandments being received on two tablets risked breakage or loss of the single copy.  A proper risk assessment would surely have concluded that Moses should never have gone up the mountain at all.

Surely if you are not willing to take risks then some of the most significant moments and transformations in  your life can be denied you , just as they would have been denied our people if Moses had not gone up that mountain despite the risks.

So often in the Torah the Children of Israel bemoaned the risk that they took in coming out of the land of Egypt – from the certainty of slavery where at least they had food and shelter into the uncertainty and self responsibility of freedom, but if they hadn’t done so, if they had not taken the risk they would never have been in the position that we find them in our torah Portion – ready to enter their promised land – rather than lost as a people as slaves among the Egyptians.  Every one of the journeys which they took, recounted in the portion was itself a risk to take.

Jeremiah the prophet of our Haftarah portion, as all prophets, all who challenged the set up of the societies in which they found themselves, was a risk taker.  He as a young man was able to stand up and say what what he knew he had to say – inspiring words that helped his people to retain their faith in God up to the point of their liberation.

There is a big problem if we become overly risk averse, if the risk avoidance culture continues to grow.  It was a problem identified squarely by Julia Neuberger in her lecture – risk aversion stops us from reaching out to help just when we are needed, it discourages us from caring for those to whom we do not have a close connection, it can make us stand idly by while the blood of our neighbour is shed – just not to get involved in case it is the wrong thing to do.

We retreat into a safety zone of our family, our close friends, familiar routines – we don’t volunteer because we might risk being sued if do things wrong, we don’t seek opportunities to improve the world and relationships between people because that’s just too risky.

The prophets, Jeremiah included told us about a society in which people would not take risks – it was one where the widow and the orphan and the stranger were shunned because they lay outside the safety zone of the privileged.  In her lecture Julia told us of some of the lamentable effects of a risk aversion culture – she talked of the reduction of opportunities for children in Council care to have contact with anyone but the professionals employed to look after them – because the enormously elaborate risk avoidance structure there is now makes it nigh on impossible to volunteer to do anything to make contact with them.  She told us of the hugely exaggerated assessments of danger to their children that so many parents hold which stop them from enabling their children to get out a bit into the world.

Of course we have to take care not to put others or ourselves in dangerous situations.  Judaism establishes that responsibility in many ways, for example the commandment to put a parapet on a flat roof in the Book of Dueteronomy and Maimonides understanding that it is a mitzvah to keep yourself away from things which may damage your health.  Reform Judaism is currently caring for hundreds of our children on the Shemesh Summer Camp and the Israel Tours which help our children to grow through risking doing new things and making new friends – and doing so with care for their safety but also encouragement to take a risk.  When the Rabbis speak of the need to put a fence around the Torah (to protect our teachings from becoming corrupted) they also make it clear that that fence should not be higher than what it needs to protect – lest the young shoots be smothered.

Every Jew has the potential to be one of those shoots whose willingness to try something new, to reach out beyond where you are comfortable, to take risks to speak to people who might need your help, to give care beyond the everyday easy stuff, to volunteer your time and energy even when you are not sure exactly of what you are doing.  If we only do what we are certain about our society cannot grow to respond to the world around. I hope that we will never keep ourselves so much in our comfort zone that we fail to reach out when we are needed.