Sermon: Shabbat B’shallach: Rabbi Professor Tony Bayfield CBE

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 11 February 2017

For Oliver Weiner’s Bar Mitzvah:

Fitting study sessions with your grandfather into a life so heavily programmed that it makes your Dad – Matthew – look retired must have been the ultimate in pressure.  The best I can say, Oli, is you should think of it as character-forming – a bit like supporting Arsenal.

Oli and I began our journey together with a little-regarded but defining moment in early Jewish history.  The new Persian ruler Cyrus had told the deportees from Judah – now living by the rivers of Babylon – that if they wanted to go back home to Jerusalem they could.  But not a great number did.  Some years later, the Governor of Judah, Nehemiah, ordered a priest and scribe called Ezra to accompany him on a site visit.  They reached Jerusalem and were confronted by a woeful sight.  A start had been made on rebuilding the Temple but progress was pitifully slow, disorganised and clearly unmotivated.  Jerusalem and the surrounding area were now populated by those Judean peasants who’d not been taken – as the Jewish leadership had been taken – into captivity in Babylon.  The returnees had been absorbed by those who’d been left behind and were on the point of losing their identity, forgetting who they were.

So what did Ezra do?  He selected a place on the far side of Jerusalem, away from the Temple, and he built a simple, wooden platform.

On Rosh Hashanah 445 BCE – the best part of 2,500 years ago – Ezra assembled the people, ascended the platform and read the Torah to them from dawn until dusk, translating and explaining the meaning as he went along.  There was no visual spectacular intended to impress, no intimidating display of authority – just reading, translating and explaining Torah.  Much as you’ve just done Oli – though Ezra didn’t have the benefit of a sister to teach him to leyn.  As Simon Schama, that most vocal and voluble of historians, says: Judaism is a religion which centres on words.

Words, not pictures:  we’re all aware to some extent of the verbal nature of Judaism.  As our teacher Lionel Blue wrote: “Judaism is a noisy religion.  The faithful are rarely silent.”  “Jews argue incessantly and talk too much.” But let me offer you a deeper perspective, one that resonated with Oli.

We live within a culture in which Christianity has played a significant, formative part.  Christianity has a strong, visual content.  From the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to the crucifix in every Catholic church, the heart, the faith of religion – including God – is painted, sculpted, carved.  That isn’t to say that the genius of Christian art isn’t alive to and filled with metaphor, conscious of the limits of human depiction as much as the limits of words.  But an old man with a grey beard isn’t a stumbling block of Jewish origins, yet it trips up many a Jew in this obtusely literal, metaphor-sceptical age.

“Never feel you have to believe the unbelievable”, I said to Oli.  “Never feel you need to defend what reason and intuition tell you isn’t true.  Write your own commentary on existence, that’s what Jews do.”

Hebrew is the perfect vehicle for the Jewish obsession with language.  It has no vowels.  So, every consonant becomes pregnant with possibility and every word rich in layers of meaning: ‘Don’t read it this way; read it that way.  How about reading it like this’.  The richest texts invite you to probe their bottomless depths; the most difficult texts insist you challenge them – ‘It can’t mean that; it must be read differently’ is the distinctive tone of countless, endless generations of Jewish commentary.

Challenge.  That was what leapt out of the sidra for you, Oli and my eyes widened as the call of the words took hold.  Viyisa’u, Go forward.  Trapped, with the pursuing Egyptian charioteers behind them and the impenetrable sea in front of them, the Rabbis understood that the Jewish response is forward.  Not easy.   Despite the command, the tribes argued amongst themselves.  Until Nachshon ben Aminadav went in up to his nose.  And your amazing flash of insight, Oli – ‘Why up to his nose? – Because if you’re in up to your nose, you can no longer speak.’  Even though words are our life-blood, when even words are exhausted, we have to act.  We cannot turn back.  We cannot stay where we are.  We have to go forward and meet the challenge head-on.

Many of you’ll remember the brief narrative in Genesis about Abraham’s nephew Lot, trapped in the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah down by the Dead Sea.  Lot escapes with his wife and, as they flee, Lot’s wife is told not to look back.  But she does and turns into a pillar of salt.  Now notice the radical inversion.  How many legends have been born from remarkable natural phenomena?  Mountains that have been shaped by the elements to look like tables or animals, a causeway fit for the devil.  But here we have the reverse; here it’s the words which conjure the image and what matters is not a literal pillar of salt but the meaning it expresses, a stunning religious metaphor: ‘Don’t look back; don’t let the past enslave you; meet the challenges of today by wading in’.

Challenge.  “I’ll take on the challenges”, you said, Oli.  And I trust you, totally, to do so.  But I need to highlight the most alarming challenge you and all of us now face.  If you rest your life and faith on the importance and integrity of words, then language becomes sacred – not to be taken lightly, not to be abused, not to be exploited as an instrument of cynical public manipulation.  One of the most sinister, as well as wicked, of all the Nazis – the period your great-grandparents who, remarkably, are here with you today lived through, fought through, nearly died through – was Joseph Goebbels because Goebbels was the master manipulator of words, mixing them with subliminal images to de-humanise the human and turn the innocent and helpless into a threat.  Post-truth is not a new phenomenon. Arbeit macht frei defaced and shamed modern western culture.  Fake news threatens to do so again in the post-modern world.

2016 was my 70th year, a year which disturbed me as no year before. The air’s filled with slogans which at one and the same time are trite, vacuous yet also offer justification for selfishness, hatred and prejudice amongst the listening audience.  Never before have I heard so many words of contempt followed by protestations of respect: ‘No-one respects women more than me; no-one loves Muslims more than me.’  Words contrived to validate the hatred of the listener even as the speaker disavows them.  Simulated news items cynically placed in cyber space, infiltrated onto social media to subvert even the most objective of factual accounts.

My beloved Oli, I respect you and trust you with all my heart.  I can even forgive you for leading Ben astray.  But the challenge is awesome.  To centre your life on the truth of words – words which have flowed from the Torah that Ezra read, translated and explained 2,500 years ago through countless generations of Jewish minds, hearts and mouths.  Those words can, must never be read as telling you to lie, fake, exploit, hate or build walls round what you have.  They must only challenge you to reach out to others and do what is truly just and compassionate.

Ozi v’zimrat Yah you chanted – God is my strength and my song.  May God always give you strength to meet the ethical challenges of life; may God always sing as sweetly in you as God sang in you this morning.