Sermon: ‘They are Believers’ – Having confidence in ourselves and those who follow

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 25 January 2020

Compare this week’s Torah portion with last week’s and you’ll notice something rather odd.

At the burning bush, Moses is given three signs that he can show to demonstrate that God is with him:
The first, he can throw his rod, the miraculous origin of which we read about in our haftarah this morning, to the ground and it will become a snake.  And that happens in today’s portion, when Aaron does just that.
The third, given by God if the other two don’t work, is that he can turn the water of the river to blood.  Again, this happens in the text we read today – the first of the plagues.

But the second sign given to Moses he never uses.

At the bush, God tells Moses to place his hand into his bosom.  He draws it out and ‘hineh yado m’tzoraat ka-shaleg’ – ‘behold his hand had tzara’at, a skin condition, it was like snow’.  Returning it to his breast returns the hand to its normal state.
But this sign, Moses never demonstrates in our story.

The rabbis and commentators ask why.  The conclusion of many is that this wonder is not in fact given as a sign for the people or for Pharaoh, but for Moses.  Indeed, not just as warning but as punishment.  Like other biblical examples of tzara’at in the rabbinic imagination, that of Miriam, for example, it is understood to be a punishment for lashon hara, of ill speech.

Which raises the question, about what or whom does Moses speak ill?

In his first encounter with God, Moses says of the people, “But they will not believe me”.  And midrashically, this is understood to be an act of lashon hara about the people.  The rabbis have God reply, “You say of my children that they will not believe; yet they are believers.”

In other words, Moses’ failure of confidence at the bush is not just about him, but about his perception of the people that he will lead; and that, this tradition concludes, is an act of slander.

This crisis of confidence in ourselves is a perennial problem for the Jewish people.  The 20th-century Jewish thinker and writer Simon Rawidowicz is best known for a short essay that he wrote in 1948.  It is called “Israel – The Ever-Dying People”.  It’s short and you can read it in its entirety via Google books.  And I encourage you to do so, as it is beautifully written.
In it he suggests that one of the defining features of the Jewish people is that every generation of Jews speaks as if it is the last.  As he begins, “The world makes many images of Israel, but Israel makes only one image of itself: that of being constantly on the verge of ceasing to be”.

It’s an idea that he traces through Jewish history.  He begins in the Mishnah, where Tractate Sotah ends with a series of statements beginning ‘mi-she-meit’ – ‘when so and so died’:
When Rabbi Meir died, there were no more makers of parables, when Rabbi Azzai died there were no more diligent students, and so on… When Rabbi Yehoshua died, goodness departed from the world… when Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai died, the splendour of wisdom ceased… when Rabbi – Yehudah HaNasi – died, humility and the shunning of sin ceased”.  In total, there are 13 statements of things lost, apparently never to be restored.

Rawidowicz points out that even next generations of rabbis were not so happy with this idea; they understood this – to use the midrashic language – as an act of lashon hara against themselves:
Rav Yosef said, you should not say humility died – d’ika ana – for there is me, Rav Nachman said, you should not say the shunning of sin ceased –  d’ika ana – for there is me.

Nonetheless, Rawidowicz identifies this as a repeating pattern – “the poignant refrain of mi-she-meit echoes up to recent times” he wrote.  “There was hardly a generation… that did not consider itself the final link in Israel’s chain”.  From Maimonides to Leopold Zunz, to Bialik, we see this trend.  It finds its clearest modern expression in the writing of Yehudah Leib Gordon, the nineteenth century haskalah poet, “For whom do I labour?” he wrote, “Who… will tell me that I am not the last poet of Zion?”

From where does this phenomenon come?
In part it reflects our relationship with those outside of us; the challenges of Jewish existence that we are especially aware of on this Shabbat morning, two days before the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz; the sense of fragility that has accompanied us through thousands of years of history.  Rawidowicz points out that the earliest non-Jewish document that mentions Israel by name, the thirteenth century BCE Egyptian Merneptah Stele proclaims, “Israel is desolated, its seed is no more”.  No wonder we have internalised this message.
Yet, of course, it was not the case.  Rawidowicz points out – and remember he was writing in 1948 – that we could actually take comfort from this observation: for these thousands of years Israel has survived, able to withstand such crises.  “No people was ever so incessantly dying as the people of Israel”, as he puts it.

Rather, it seems to me that what it reflects even more is not fear of the other, but a lack of confidence in ourselves.  And a lack of faith in the generations to follow.

We see that regularly in scare stories about demographics and Jewish life – ‘Will we have Jewish Grandchildren’, as Jonathan Sacks unhelpfully and prematurely asked in the mid-nineties, proclaiming the threat of assimilation.
A couple of weeks ago I sat in a strategy session asking what our Judaism and our synagogues would look like in the future.  And around the table there was a great deal of this voice:  the only Judaism that would grow is Charedi Judaism, our institutions can not work, our message is not getting through.  As Moses would have put it “But they will not believe me”.

But just as the rabbis understood this as an act of lashon hara, so must we.

There is a great deal of reason to be optimistic about our Jewish futures:
Come here on a Friday morning and see the building turned into a full buggy park for Baby Den.
Sit in a Bar/Bat Mitzvah meeting as I did last night with more families than the room can hold.  One of the drivers of our building project is that with one Beit Tefillah, one prayer space, we are pretty much now full for Bar and Bat Mitzvah with no more shabbatot available.  The next year group we are currently booking in has over 70 young people in it.
Observe our mentor or hadracha training and watch the next generation of Jewish leaders begin to engage with their new roles and responsibilities.
Be here on a Friday evening as hundreds of people of all generations enjoy tefillah together.

And it is not just here – synagogues and other institutions which are open, innovative and welcoming, which are defined by intentionality, hard work, thoughtful use of resources – they will continue to grow, and thereby they will grow new generations of Jewish life.

This is not to say that our community and the Jewish community more widely is not without challenges.  Rawidowicz is correct to warn that “exaggerated optimism is no less dangerous than the pessimism of Israel’s end”.
There are plenty of things that we here need to get better at: ensuring that the level of engagement we currently have with our young people extends into our adult community; applying the same level of quality and innovation that we bring to tefillah across our communal life; finding real individual responsiveness in a community of 3500 souls – no mean task.  And these are challenges we will address, with innovation and hard work.

Outside our doors, many of the synagogues in our movement need to address more core challenges – ones of culture, of approach, of governance, of safeguarding.   But if they do, there is no reason to assume that they will not thrive too.

We should be deeply wary of the lack of confidence that many have internalised.  Of what it does to us.  Wary of the negativity that we sometimes hear, the pessimism, the voice of Jewish Chicken licken that the sky is constantly about to fall upon our heads.  It is a deeply depressing, and disincentivising voice, one that defines our Judaism negatively, in terms of mere survival.  It has the effect of removing the joy from what we do – which is so inherently positive, joyful, life-enhancing and affirming.
As Rawidowicz warns, “It has depressed the best and greatest, darkened the light of their lives, poisoned the well of their creativeness.” “What good, what meaning, what value, can there be in the efforts of [those] who [are] the last?”

This is the trap into which even Moses falls when he says of the people, “But they will not believe me”.  It is a pattern into which generation after generation of Jewish leaders and writers have fallen despite all the evidence of our durability.  And it is a trope which too many who lead our communities today are still willing to repeat.

To me every week when we pass a scroll down to the next generation at Bar or Bat Mitzvah as we did to Yoni this morning, it is a rebuke to that lack of confidence, an answer to the voice of the Mishnah, ‘mi-she-meit’.  It is a proclamation as the Talmud would have it ‘d’ika ana – for there is me’.
Or, as the rabbis have God reply, punishing Moses for the slander of which we too can be guilty:  “You say of my children that they will not believe; yet they are believers.”

The task is for us to believe in them, too.