Sermon: Shabbat Sh’mot – ‘Driving East from Jerusalem’

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 25 January 2017

I have spent more time in Jerusalem than any other part of Israel.  It was the first place in Israel that I properly visited when I was twelve years old.  Then it was the place to which I and some friends naturally gravitated on a back packing trip around Israel when I was eighteen, staying in a hostel in the Old City for many days as we explored the city.  When I went to Israel for the Summer during my time at Leo Baeck College for Ulpan it just had to be Jerusalem for me – so much to see and experience, so many places to learn.  I shared a flat in Talpiot Mizrach and over months came to love the city even more.

So on our Alyth Israel Trip for 2017 we will be spending some very welcome time in Jerusalem.   We will go to the Cotel to pray in the Egalitarian Section which has now been established, and we aim to do so with one of the activists of Women of the Wall, who work to ensure that the Cotel is open to all Jews and their diverse ways of prayer.  We will study at three great places of learning in Jerusalem, our own Reform Hebrew Union College, the Conservative Yeshiva and at Hebrew University where we will enjoy a special seminar on the challenges of civil society in Israel.  We will also of course get to wander through the streets of the city enjoying the sights, the shops and the cafes and many of us will continue to stay in Jerusalem for Shabbat at the conference of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.  We will do all that and more seeing Jewish Jerusalem and loving it.

Eleven years ago in Jerusalem I also got to do something else.

On the Finchley Progressive Synagogue trip to Israel we drove just a couple of miles from Talpiot Mizrach, where I had lived as a Leo Baeck College student, east into the West Bank to visit the Palestinian village of Al Shayk Sa’ad.  One morning, three years before our visit, Israeli government building contractors placed four car sized boulders at either end of the village of Al Shayk Sa’ad.  The effect of this had been to see the population of the village reduce from around 2000 to 800 as all the cars inside the village at that time were now stuck there making it very difficult to commute to work or to bring supplies into the village.

At the time the village was campaigning to have the security barrier (in Hebrew ha’Geder) diverted to keep the village within Israel – the Geder was around forty yards from the entrance to the village on one side and half a mile or so on the other side.

Following the most beautiful day in Jerusalem, praying at the Cotel, walking through the old city and enjoying a cup of coffee on Ben Yehuda Street just like the old days, visiting a colleague, Rabbi Daniel Sperber, in his ancient old city courtyard house, here we were being given a tour by its residents of this, it seems, deliberately underprivileged Palestinian village, just two miles away.

I wanted to find out why the village was blocked off and wrote to the Israeli Ambassador of the time, Zvi Heifetz, to ask.  I did not receive a reply.

I have always been convinced that there must be security in Israel for our Jewish State to be liveable within but there must also be the continuing ability for Palestinians who want to live peaceably with their neighbours to build themselves a good life and healthy communities.  The organisation Rabbis for Human Rights was continuing to work with the people of the village to get the issue justly resolved, the boulders removed and the village brought back to life.  In the end though what happened is that Al Shayk Sad is now the first village on its side of Jerusalem to be on the West Bank side of the security barrier. The wish of its Palestinian residents to live in Israel was denied.

Judaism has at its heart a vision of justice for the world.  A balanced vision of justice where rights and responsibilities are equally incumbent upon us.  Whilst Jews have the right to a state of their own expressed after the dream of two thousand years in today’s State of Israel, so too do we have the responsibility for that state to live by the values of justice which are at the heart of the Judaism which governs it.

There is a commonly known Midrash which tries to answer the question of why Moses was chosen to become the leader of the Jewish people.  The Midrash invites us to picture Moses as a shepherd – in the very part of the portion that Abbie read for us  – and imagines God watching Moses chasing after an escaped kid from his flock, finding it by a pool of water and then carrying it gently back to the flock full of compassion for the thirst which caused it to run away.  The Midrash then has God say to Moses:  Because you have shown compassion to the flock of a human owner, you shall lead My flock, the people of Israel.”  (Exodus Rabbah 2:2)    Compassion for every individual is the mark of leadership.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book, “The Dignity of Difference” identifies three incidents is Moses’ early life, all covered directly in this Torah portion which give us another reason why Moses is chosen by God to be the leader of the people.  First he intervenes to rescue an Israelite from a cruel Egyptian taskmaster, then he intervenes to stop two Israelites fighting (the two who force him to go into hiding in Midian) then he protects the non-Israelite daughters of Jethro from non-Israelite shepherds who are preventing them from watering their flock. “Moses recognises the universal character of injustice and fights against it, regardless of who is perpetrating it and who is the victim.”  Because Moses didn’t compromise the standards of justice that he stood for in all situations he was made of the right stuff to be the lawgiver for the Jews.

To act with justice emphatically does not mean to be lax with people, to allow offense to be caused with no consequences, to allow people to hurt each other.  But it does mean to find a point at which justice has been done and then to allow people to get on with their lives even when it is horribly challenging.

Rabbi John Rayner wrote a prayer included in the Liberal Jewish Prayer Book Siddur Lev Chadash which includes these words:  to be just is to be angry when justice is violated, to choose just means to right wrongs, to wish that the guilty be convicted and the innocent acquitted, to withhold judgement until the facts are known, to demand justice for others as well as yourself, to demand justice for other peoples as well as your own.

To me what stands out in that prayer is a phrase which has enormous meaning given the challenging direction in which the Western World seems to have been heading over this past year – “to be just is to withhold judgement until the facts are known.”  That is why the Alyth Israel Trip taking place in the middle of May this year is boldly going to places that an Alyth Israel trip has never gone before.

We are going right to the centre of the places where we can learn about the challenges to justice in this year of the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War.

We will be visiting Sderot where the residents living just a mile from the Gaza border have to cope with regular rocket attacks, more than daily at times.  We will be visiting Nazareth where Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs together deal with the challenges of living in a relatively poor town in Israel.  We will go to Efrat in the West Bank where a thriving settler town will challenge our understanding of what being an Israeli Jewish settler means. We will visit Palestinian peace activists in Hebron to hear how they feel progress could be made. We will go to a village in the hills near to Hebron to hear what the expansion of Jewish settlements means from the Palestinian farmers, and we will hear a private briefing from the Israel Defence Force on what they have to do to keep our brothers and sisters in Israel safe.  Everywhere we will hear from local people who really know life there – not just pundits.

Please come to join Rabbi Josh and I.  We have ten places left on this trip.  Your conversations with friends and family and work colleagues about Israel and your perspective on the challenges our Jewish state faces will be very well informed by what we learn together.   It is an easy thing just to stand up for the interests of your own people – but that is not how the justice of Moses happened.  You have to go out and see the burdens under which people live – then you can act.

So I pray that we will be brave, like Jeremiah in our Haftarah who took on the challenge of standing up for his belief in the Jewish people, to demand and work for justice in our lives ahead for all – following the example of Moses in our portion.  Judaism’s true value is not only what it does for our lives but what it does for the lives of those whom Jews are inspired by their faith to help and support.  This is what it means when it says Torah tzivah lanu Moshe, Morasha Kehilat Yaakov – the inheritance of the community of Jacob is the values that Moses’ teaching inspired.

Click here for the Alyth Israel Trip 2017 booking form.