Sermon: Vayetze – I and You

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 21 November 2015

On December 7th I leave for three months of Sabbatical leave from Alyth returning to the Synagogue in early March. My purpose for this Sabbatical is to work with Rabbi Paul Freedman to complete the new draft Machzor for Rosh Hashanah. It means that if all goes well on next Rosh Hashanah you will have in your hands a new edition of Days of Awe in draft form bringing the experience of the High Holy Days into this generation, the last edition having been published over thirty years ago. To do this I will spend my Sabbatical somewhere not terribly exotic, but well supplied with the unique library of Leo Baeck College – Finchley.

Three years ago my sabbatical was rather different. I spent three months serving as a Rabbi in Cape Town, South Africa. The library wasn’t as good but Table Mountain, the Atlantic, Cape Point and the Cape Wine Lands more than made up for it. In the run up to my departure many kind members of Alyth gave me sage advice about how to live there safely. There was quite a spectrum of advice that I heard which I would never need in Finchley. The general theme though was – be very careful.

When you are driving around Cape Town keep your doors locked and your windows closed. When you pull up at a traffic light leave a few metres between your car and the car in front so that you can escape if a carjacking is threatened. Don’t ride a bicycle or you will find it stolen from under you. Join a gym so you don’t ever think about going jogging – it’s just too unsafe. With advice like that it’s a wonder that my family let me go!

Well I got there and for my first few days I was terribly terribly careful. Then I began to notice that I was the only person leaving a gap at the traffic lights. Folks in convertibles with the roof down were cheerfully pulling up chatting to the traffic light peddlers. Men and women on bicycles sped past in lycra without a care in the world. After restricting my jogging only to the Sea Point promenade where I had been told it would probably be safe, I followed the advice of my new Cape Town friends and spread my wings to run around many more of the beauty spots in the city.

Yes, at the Synagogue, Temple Israel where I was serving, people did have horror stories to tell of violent robberies that had occurred to friends and family, but they did not tend to have taken place in Cape Town and they were mostly, thank goodness, some time in the past.

There is no doubt that most of the groups of people in the city lived separate lives where they would only encounter the other in commercial or peddling transactions. Whites still lived with whites and blacks with blacks in different parts of the city. Educated people of all backgrounds did mix at work but it was still mighty difficult for a child from the townships to ever make it anywhere near to the mostly white middle class part of the city. Temple Israel was a rare place where there was some mixing – through people who had converted to Judaism following their religious convictions.
This now informal separateness was manifested in a way of speaking that I often heard on Cape Talk, Cape Town’s LBC, the radio station that I mostly listened to as I drove around the city. Often a person on one of the station’s regular phone ins would use the phrase “you people” – when what they meant to do was to assume a whole bunch of people shared an opinion contrary to theirs. The station hosts would often challenge this language but clearly in the minds of many callers the society was still stratified and a group of others could be objectified into a block.

I began by speaking about people in London’s assumptions that I would not be safe in Cape Town – but with the murders last week in Paris and the heightened concern for security that is still with us, perhaps Cape Town would be the safer place to spend a Sabbatical than Finchley? As Rafael Behr wrote in the Guardian on Wednesday, “ISIS is the most relentlessly slaughter hungry creed to stalk the continent of Europe since the 1930s.”

Of course in world terms we are safe here. Our murder rates are low, the British quality of life means that our lives are relatively long in world terms, our safety is looked after by the authorities and institutions with a responsibility to do so. But yet the ISIS threat naturally does not make it easy to feel that way.

That is because terrorist groups objectify people. As far as they are concerned we are “you people”. They don’t know us, they don’t identify us as individuals, they don’t see the image of God in us, they just see us as an “it”. When they attacked the Bataclan, the Stade de France and the Restaurants in Paris they did not care whether the people inside were Jews, Christians or Muslims. They were just a lumpen “it” of people. No one is safe when people are objectified.

The German Jewish Social Philosopher Martin Buber had a great influence on our end of the religious spectrum with his book “I and Thou”, published in 1923 in Germany. In it he made it clear that whatever religion or values you follow if you encounter people as objects, there to do what you need, there to be what you think they are, there to be used, our world will never be worth living in. Rather we must encounter each other as people with personalities, worth talking to, worth knowing, worth living with. In the German the original title “Ich und Du” conveys something deeper – this is Du – the you singular not Sie, the formal you plural – the one which means something similar to “you people”. No – you is you – not a bunch of yous.

Judaism is the religion of the individual just as much as of the community. The religion where if you take a single life it is as if you have destroyed a whole world. The religion where every person is called up to Torah by name as Gabriel and Nathalie were today. As Rabbi Josh said in his sermon last Shabbat as we heard the story of Esau and Jacob, whilst our Rabbis condemned Esau the person they also noted that the people descended from him were not to be objectified – “in Deuteronomy, we are commanded, – commanded! – “Do not hate an Edomite, for he is your brother”. Even where we struggle with the other, we must not descend into the hatred that is so easy to embrace, we must remember the potential humanity, the brotherhood, of the other.”
ISIS or Daeesh and all movements like them from the Nazis to the Stalinists to the Khmer Rouge want and need us to objectify each other – to join them in hating whole groups of people, white against black, Jews against Muslim, Arab against Yazidi.

They do not want us recognise the woman in the Hijab, the begging child, the homeless man, the well-heeled teenager as a person just like myself who I should get know and understand, who feels just as worried about the world as I do. Our best defence against terrorists is not fear and distancing ourselves from those who we think are different from us but rather strengthening ourselves and our societies to know each other, to live with each other and value each other. It means that whatever they throw at us there will not only be no victory for them but no progress for them.

In this dread and tragic week for Paris, for Israel, for Mali and like every week in the past years for Syria let us build a world of Chesed (olam chesed yibaneh). Let us build a world where we overcome objectification and in the spirit of the Book of Genesis, which tells the story of the Jews through the lives of named individuals, continue our lives knowing and caring about everyone around us. There is no “them” to be feared – there are seven billion yous whom it is our duty, one by one, to come to know.