Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
28 May 2016
Four weeks from today we will know results of the European Union referendum, and whether the UK electorate has voted to remain in the EU or to leave. Believe it or not, this is a Jewish issue. It is a Jewish issue, not because the outcome of the election either way is of critical importance to the Jewish community here in Britain in particular, but rather because the decision to remain or to leave turns on our values; the values at the heart of Jewish teaching. As it happens, these values also underpin British society and infuse the laws of the European Union. For example, the EU’s ‘Social Chapter’, agreed upon by all the member countries, includes rules about working hours, working conditions, payment for work, health and safety, gender equality, and the protection of children and young people1.
Let me reassure you: I am not about to make a plea on behalf of, either, the ‘remain’, or the ‘leave’ campaigns. This is, after all a sermon, not a political speech, and we are gathered here in a synagogue and not at a European Union referendum debate. Rather, in the midst of a binary political discourse in which both sides are making cases that contradict one another, and it’s very difficult for the baffled electorate to make sense of the arguments and to discern the facts, I would like to suggest that the decision we take about in which ‘box’ to place our crucial ‘X’ on June 23rd should be informed by our values.
In considering our values, the Torah portion, B’har, read last week in progressive congregations and this week in orthodox ones, provides a rich resource2. The parashah focuses on the sabbatical year, the Sabbath for the land in the seventh year, and the Jubilee in the fiftieth year, following seven cycles of seven years. Seven is a an important number in Jewish teaching, and the law concerning the Sabbath for the land in the seventh year, reflects the law concerning the setting aside of the seventh day of the week, as a day for ceasing from work – the root of the noun , Shabbat, Shin Bet Tav, means to ‘cease’3. The number seven is also integral to the two festivals that fall six months apart, and used to mark the beginning and the end of the annual festival cycle in biblical times: Pesach, ‘Passover’, in the spring, and Sukkot, ‘Tabernacles’, in the autumn – both of which last seven days4.
Pesach and Sukkot were originally Pilgrim Festivals, associated with the agricultural cycle, when our ancestors would go on pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem with their offerings. And there was also a third Pilgrim Festival, Shavuot, ‘Weeks’, celebrating the early summer harvest5. Significantly, Shavuot falls on the fiftieth day after the first day of Pesach, that is, on the day after seven cycles of seven weeks6. Meanwhile, the seven-day festival of Sukkot is followed by an additional and ‘concluding’ eighth day, Sh’mini Atzeret, which brings to a close an intensive festival period that occupies the first three and a bit weeks of the seventh month of the Jewish year7.
Clearly, seven is fundamental to the way in which Jewish time is regulated – which makes the additional day beyond the seven days and beyond the seven cycles of seven weeks rather curious. If we live in cycles of seven, how can there be an additional day that lies outside the cycle?
This question is even more pertinent in relation to the fiftieth year beyond the seven cycles of seven years that we read about in parashat B’har. We learn at Leviticus chapter 25 that the fiftieth year was to be inaugurated with the blast of the shofar on the tenth day of the seventh month, on Yom Kippur. We read further in Leviticus 25:10-13:
You shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a Jubilee to you; and you shall return everyone to their possession, and you shall return everyone to their family. / A Jubilee shall the fiftieth year be to you; you shall not sow, neither reap that which grows of itself, nor gather the grapes of the unaddressed vines. / For it is a Jubilee; it shall be sacred to you; you shall eat the field’s produce. / In this year of Jubilee, you shall return everyone to their possession.
As we can see, the fiftieth year was like an additional sabbatical year for the land. But it was also much more than that: it was a year of ‘liberty’ – d’ror – and designated as a ‘Jubilee’ – yoveil. We get a sense of the tone of d’ror, ‘liberty’, when we see that the word also means, a ‘flowing’ or ‘free run’. Intriguingly, there is also a singular reference in the Hebrew Bible to d’ror as a bird, a ‘swallow’. And so, in Psalm 84:4 we read: ‘Even the sparrow – tzippor – has found a home, and the swallow – d’ror – a nest for herself in which to set her young …’ A bird, of course, when not building a nest, is free to fly and roam the skies. So, d’ror, ‘liberty’: being free as a bird. And: what of the noun, yoveil, ‘Jubilee’? Yoveil is another word for ‘ram’s horn’ – the more familiar one being, shofar. A related noun, y’vul, means produce (of the soil). But there are also other related nouns, which connect more closely with d’ror. For example in Jeremiah 17:4, yuval means a ‘stream’. Similarly, in Isaiah 44:4, there is a reference to another word for ‘stream’, yaval, in the phrase yivley mayim, ‘streams of water.’ So, both d’ror and yoveil signify a sense of moving freely: as birds fly, and as water flows.
While the sabbatical year was practised – and continues to be practised in Israel today – there is no evidence that the Jubilee year was ever implemented. Indeed, the portion raises several issues involved in returning owners to their original property. Perhaps, the fiftieth year beyond the cycles of seven is by definition, unattainable and beyond reach. Nevertheless, the vision of a year beyond the perpetual cycle, a year of free-flowing freedom, in which those who have become impoverished return home to their original landholding, is powerful – so powerful, that it was the inspiration for Jubilee 2000, the campaign directed at freeing indebted countries from their debts to the rich and powerful nations. At the core of the concept of the Jubilee is the notion, rooted in the Israelite’s experience of liberation from slavery that the cycle of impoverishment and dependency cannot be allowed to continue in perpetuity. But that’s not all. The rationale behind the Jubilee as set out in B’har is not simply the need to break the cycle of deprivation. We read at Leviticus 25:23:
The land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is Mine; for you are sojourners and settlers with Me.
V’ha-aretz lo timmacheir litzmitut; ki–li ha-aretz; ki-geirm v’toshavim atem immadi.
Ultimately, even the original owners do not own their land-holdings because the land belongs to the Eternal One. In this context, there can be no distinction between natives and sojourners. We are all sojourners. The Jubilee is a reminder that beyond the acquired unequal economic reflexes and habits of human society there is an ultimate reality.
So, how does this all relate to the EU referendum? Most of the arguments presented centre on two key issues: which option would ensure the greatest benefit for the British economy and which option is more likely to stem the tide of immigration. Both of these options make assumptions about what best serves ‘British interests.’ Neither of these issues addresses our values. Imagine, how we might think about the decision before us, if we removed the presumption of ownership from the discussion; if we understood that British citizens do not own Britain and that the member states of the European Union do not own Europe. Imagine, how we might think about the decision before us, if in place of this ownership presumption, we considered instead, the right of each and every individual to a home and to a secure place to live and work and to bring up any children that they may have, wherever they lived, natives and sojourners alike. What conclusions might we then reach about the choice before us?
Perhaps, we might conclude that it is our responsibility as British citizens to ensure that everyone has a home and the opportunity to work and thrive. Perhaps we might conclude that the values of integration and inclusion are preferable to those of separation and exclusion. Of course, as Jews we know all about separation and exclusion; our historical experience as a persecuted minority, compounded by the horror of the Nazi policy against the Jews of Europe that began with segregation and ended with annihilation. Separation from others has also been a Jewish strategy: to ensure the survival of the Jewish people, we have often deliberately kept ourselves to ourselves – a strategy still pursued by some segments of the Jewish community today. Interestingly, there are parallels between Jewish inwardness and the island mentality found in Britain: ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle’ – with the drawbridge up.
But just as the evidence of continuing Jewish existence demonstrates that Jews can remain distinct as a people, while interacting with other peoples, the evidence of Britain’s membership of the EU, demonstrates that Britain can remain a distinct nation, while participating in Europe. Further, when people look beyond borders and boundaries and see themselves – British, Jewish, whatever their religious, cultural or ethnic identity – as part of humanity, and recognise their shared needs with every people, nation and living creature across the globe, then acknowledging our differences and varying experiences, we nevertheless understand that ultimately, our common home is planet Earth.
I mentioned a few minutes ago that the festival of Shavuot falls on the fiftieth day, following a seven week period. The Torah teaches us that the priest would wave a sheaf – omer – of grain every day during this period, beginning the day after the Shabbat of Pesach, so it was only with the conclusion of the 49 days of waiving the omer that the people reached the festival of Shavuot – which had no date8. The rabbis, who took responsibility for the reconstruction of Jewish life after the destruction of the Temple, later fixed the date of Shavuot as the 6th day of the month of Sivan by counting the days of the omer, not from the day after the Shabbat of Pesach, but from the day after the first day of Pesach – that is from the 16th of Nissan.
So, what is the point of counting the days until Shavuot, when we know the date of the festival? The counting makes more sense when we remember that with the Temple destroyed, and with it the system of offerings, the early rabbis invested this purely agricultural first-fruits Festival with new meaning as z’man matan Torateinu, ‘the season of the giving of our Torah’9. With no priests to conduct sacred ritual and, specifically, no sheaf of grain to waive, by counting each day of the seven-week period, we identify with the journey of our newly liberated ancestors, who walked through the wilderness from Egypt to Sinai, from the moment of freedom to the challenge of responsibility. Today is the 35th day of the omer, making five weeks of the omer – with two more to go. Shavuot begins this year on the evening of June 11th; the EU vote will take place on June 23rd. When we complete the omer counting, the countdown to the referendum will continue. May the twin challenges of freedom for all and social responsibility motivate and inspire us as we exercise our right to vote and make our decision. And let us say: Amen.
1 ‘The Social Chapter is a document produced by the EU and agreed upon by all the member countries, which contains details of the most important employment and social rights that should be available in these countries. The document includes rules about working hours, working conditions, payment for work, health and safety, equal treatment between men and women, and the protection of children and young people.’ See: The press release of the European Commission released on 5 February 1997 and Chapters of the Acquis. See also, the European Social Charter, ‘a Council of Europe treaty that guarantees fundamental social and economic rights as a counterpart to the European Convention on Human Rights, which refers to civil and political rights. It guarantees a broad range of everyday human rights related to employment, housing, health, education, social protection and welfare’.
2 There is a divergence between the Torah readings in the progressive and orthodox congregations in the Diaspora because while Progressive Judaism, like Israel, celebrates the seven days of Pesach as set out in the Torah (Exodus 12:14-20; Leviticus 23:5-8), Orthodox Judaism in the Diaspora celebrates an additional eighth day in commemoration of the time before the calendar was fixed (see: Jewish Encyclopedia). Since this year, the seventh day of Pesach fell on a Friday, this means that while progressive congregations resumed the weekly Torah reading cycle on Shabbat, orthodox congregations in the Diaspora continued with the festival reading for the eighth day, only resuming the weekly Torah reading the following Shabbat. Consequently, progressive congregations are one week ahead in the annual Torah reading cycle. This situation will persist until August 13 2016 (see the Liberal Judaism Lectionary).
3 The Torah prohibits work on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11; Ex. 23:12; Ex. 31:12-17; Ex. 34:21; Leviticus 23:3, Deuteronomy 5:12-15), and mentions five activities that are specifically prohibited: Lighting fire (Exodus 35:1-3), collecting manna (Ex. 16:22-30), ploughing and harvesting (Ex. 34:21), and gathering sticks (Numbers 15: 32-36).
4 See the biblical festival calendar in Leviticus 23: verses 4-7, 34-36 and 39-43.
5 See Deuteronomy 16:16 for reference to the three Pilgrim festivals.
6 See Leviticus 23: 15-16.
7 See Lev. 23:24-36.
8 See note 6.
9 Va-yikra (Leviticus) Rabbah, the collection of midrash (commentary) dated between 400-600 CE, commenting on Leviticus 23, provides a rabbinic reference to the omer counting, locating it in the Exodus narrative: When the Israelites left Egypt, Moses told them that they would receive the Torah after 49 days, so they counted the passing days. In the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 86b, we read: ‘Our Rabbis taught: On the sixth day of the month [Sivan] were the Ten Commandments given to Israel.’ A later collection of midrash, Sh’mot (Exodus) Rabbah, chapter 31 (c. 10th-12th centuries), mentions the “Festival of the Harvest on which the Torah was given to Israel.”
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