Thought of the Week: 7 July 2016

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 6 July 2016

There’s an apocryphal proverb, supposedly Chinese, “may you live in exciting times” – but I’ve never managed to figure out if it’s meant to be a blessing or a curse.

While we’re thinking about the Chinese, the world Jewish population is, so I am informed, smaller than the statistical error in the Chinese population census. Indeed, when I speak to non-Jewish groups, I often begin by asking them how many Jews do they think there are in this country? I give them a range of options from 350,000 through ½million; 1, 3 or 5 million. We do a show of hands and they invariably choose at the higher end of the range and are quite flabbergasted to learn that we might not even number 350,000.

There is something quite remarkable about Jewish survival. I don’t want to use the word ‘miraculous’ but the fact is that there is something miraculous in how such a small, scattered, often despised, physically attacked and socially disadvantaged people has survived. And I’m not just talking about numbers but also about our spiritual survival. ‘Spiritual’ is not quite the right word, but it’s acknowledging that our survival hasn‘t just been a matter of numbers; that if such a small, scattered group has survived it is often because they feel a sense of purpose to that survival. It’s not “we must survive because of the glories of our past,” which would be a pretty moribund reason for wishing to continue. But we have weathered many storms, not just survived but flourished, maintaining our way of life, customs, practices while at the same time being part of the society in which we live. We have managed to do that while yet remaining flexible and open to change. It’s quite an achievement.

But being small, statistically insignificant, often on the margin of society, has meant that we are seldom in the driving seat, things tend to happen to us. That, of course, was a major factor in the development of political Zionism in the 19th century: only in our own land, it argued, could, would we be able to take control of and shape our own destiny. Only then might we cease to be like flotsam on the ocean of world affairs, pushed this way and that by currents beyond our control.

For the past two weeks we’ve been living with a deep sense of uncertainty about the future. A decision was made which we have yet to fully absorb, with no real idea of knowing how it is going to affect us. Cats have been set among political pigeons and the sense of uncertainty about the future engendered by the Referendum vote is compounded by a sense of stupefaction, bewilderment and amazement at the leadership shenanigans going on in the political parties.

Whichever way any of us voted, we must all, surely, at this time, feel anxiety and trepidation. Pleased with, or saddened by the result, none of us know what it’s going to mean.

The word goes out, a proclamation is made. Given the accelerating rate of climate change, the melting of the ice caps, the continuing deterioration in the environment, the world’s leading scientists have issued a stern warning: the sea-level is going to rise by 15 feet in 3 months time. World leaders go into panic mode. Religious leaders suggest what we should be doing, how we should be responding. The Pope calls on all faithful Catholics to go more often to confession; the Archbishop of Canterbury counsels his faithful to pray more fervently. And the Chief Rabbi? He tells the Jewish world: “you’ve got 3 months to learn how to breathe underwater.”

May “May you live in exciting times” be a blessing and not a curse!