Sermon: Tsav & Shabbat HaGadol – “Power and Self Control and Chicken Farming”

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 8 April 2017

I am not one of life’s natural farmers.  Perhaps, way back in my family history, on the steppes of Eastern Europe or the hill terraces of Portugal some of my ancestors may have been sons and daughters of the soil but as far as I can tell none of the attitudes or talents necessary to make a success of farming have been passed down to me.  Yet, in common with the many many Jewish young people who used to spend some time on a Kibbutz in Israel, it was a farm hand that I became in the summer of 1981.  I was a volunteer on Kibbutz Degania, the first Kibbutz ever founded in Israel in 1909, and situated by the beautiful shores of the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee.

Most of the considerable wealth of Kibbutz Degania is actually gained from the manufacture of Industrial Diamonds, which takes place in a factory on the Kibbutz, but for the good of the souls of its inhabitants and in order to ensure that something of the Zionist pioneer spirit remains intact, there is also a substantial agricultural enterprise on the Kibbutz or at , least 35 years ago there was!  I, in common with the other volunteers was first set to work in the banana groves,  Planting banana trees in the height of summer when it was over 100 degrees in the shade – except that, because we were planting banana trees there was no shade.

We volunteers took to singing black spirituals like “I’m gonna lay down my burden down by the riverside”  as we dug, feeling empathy as each sweltering hour passed with the slaves of the American south in past centuries and even with our ancestors in Egypt, feeling that even if we did not truly know what it was to be a slave in Egypt at least we knew what it was to feel like a slave in Israel.  “I’m gonna lay down my burden” incidentally was just the right song to sing as the riverside mentioned in that particular song was the River Jordan and we were planting Banana trees only three hundred yards from the source of the Jordan itself!

Having worked under these conditions for some weeks, you can imagine my relief when I was asked if I would like a transfer to an indoors job.  Yes, I would be sheltered from the scorching sun, yes no more digging, the hours sounded OK  – 1.30-8.30 and I would be working with youngsters.  It wasn’t quite as good as it sounded however as 1.30-8.30 was 1.30am to 8.30am with a break at 4.00am for a Nesher malt beer, and the youngsters that I would be working with were young chickens – 6 weeks old and ready to be packed into crates to be taken off to the abattoir.

The job of my gang of volunteers and Kibbutzniks was to pick up the chickens by their legs six at a time, three in one hand and three in the other, and pop them into a crate – and then repeat the operation a few hundred times each morning until we had cleared a few thousand from the chicken house to be emptied that day.

Now as I said at the beginning, I do not have farming in the blood and picking up a chicken in the past had meant taking a cellophane wrapped pack of very dead chicken of the shelf of a supermarket.  So, you can imagine that I approached my first morning as a live chicken handler with some trepidation.

These were live animals – they could and did run away, they could and did get in the way and they could and did peck at me and worse.  But I was much bigger than them, I was much stronger than them and I had a job to do.  It was incredible and very frightening how quickly I stopped treating these chickens as fellow creatures – they became objects, occasionally obstructions to my task and within a day or so I had become almost brutalised by the experience as far as chickens were concerned.

What had happened was that I had lost that part of my self-control which enabled me to feel empathy with these creatures.  I was not cruel to them, but neither was I kind.  They, the chickens, obviously, did not want to be picked up and packed into crates but that is what I had to do.  I would imagine that the same thing happened to the taskmasters over the Children of Israel when we were slaves in Egypt, the same thing happened in the reality TV show produced in 2002 (The Experiment, BBC) where a group of people played the role of prison warders dressed in khaki uniforms and mirror sunglasses and another group were prisoners – it had to be halted due to the level of brutality that had developed, the same thing happened to the average Nazi Concentration Camp guard.  They lost the ability and the inclination to show compassion and care for a fellow creature, but with consequences that were disastrous for humanity.

In all of these instances a person finds him or herself in a position of power, where he can make decisions of life or death over another person or animal.  Without self-control, his actions can so easily become dangerous and tragic.  Whoever it was who set off the chemical attack in Khan Sheikoun in North West Syria this week, not the General who commanded it but the airman who pulled the trigger had allowed himself to become a brutalised dispenser of power over the lives of others.

Religion in general and Judaism in particular, is to a great extent about finding a good and positive way of exercising control over our sinister potential especially when we are in a position of power – so that we use our God given powers for good and not evil.  Without that control we could go either way.

Each one of us has the power to do dreadful things of which Judaism aims to make us ashamed and, on the other hand, each one of us has the power to do very good and constructive things of which Judaism aims to make us feel justly proud.

But also each of us can choose to do nothing with our God given power as human beings, neither to intervene when others are doing evil nor to offer support when others are trying to do good.  Judaism considers this just as unacceptable as doing something wrong when we know it to be so.  Rather we are to so discipline and control ourselves so that we are always working for the good as we perform acts of g’milut chasadim – loving kindness.

The opening verses of the full Haftarah portion for Shabbat HaGadol are addressed against those who use their power for bad things.  Malachi, the last of the prophets, speaks in the voice of God saying, “I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness against those who oppress their workers by refusing to pay them their due wages, those who care nothing for widows and orphans and leave them to suffer in poverty, and those who use their power to persuade others to spread lies and malicious gossip.” Malachi 3:5. These were and still are people who have failed to use the guidance of their religion to control themselves.

Just before the section of the Sedra which Harry read to us today there are the instructions for the guilt offering.  This was a sacrifice which was given in the Temple by a person who had already made up with a person whom he had offended or from whom he had stolen, and who wished to demonstrate to himself and to God that he was going to choose a better way to live by means of the offering.  He had thus gained control of his power to do evil and instead turned to the good.

Much of the Torah and of Jewish texts in general is concerned with rules to enable us to control ourselves when we have the power to hurt others.  Many of these rules we observe, often not conscious that they have been inculcated into us through our Jewish or other religious tradition.  You have the power to steal every time you are in a shop and the shopkeeper is looking the other way, but Judaism tells you to control yourself so that you do not.  You have the power to let every week pass without recognising the significance of God’s creation, but every time that you celebrate Shabbat by attending a service or lighting the Shabbat candles, you control yourself to ensure that you do rest in the way that God has commanded.

You have the power to forget the victims of the Shoah and ignore those who suffer oppression throughout the world, but every time that you observe Yom Ha Shoah, the Holocaust Remembrance Day or observe the festival of Pesach, you control yourself to do service to their memory or their reality.

For those of us who are or become employers of people, you will have the power to treat your workers without compassion, harshly and unfairly, but your Jewish religion will give you the principles of interpersonal relations which will enable you to set bounds for yourself and to do the right thing by them.

We truly have power, the power to ignore the needs of others, the power to abandon the oppressed of our age, the power to damage the society around us.

We have the potential self-control to place the needs of others at the top of our priorities, to extend the hand of friendship to one who might be at first a stranger but who through our love can become a neighbour, the self-control to protect people and to give our talents to the communities around us.

When we exercise the self-control to eat Matzah when the world is full of tasty chametz over Pesach, when we have the power to grab anything but control ourselves to eat only what our tradition allows us this week, we train ourselves to be able to use our power for good.   Maimonides (in Hilchot Deot and Guide iii,26) told us that’s the real purpose of any kind of kashrut – to train us in self-control.

Cen Yehi Ratzon