[Sermon] As the decade of peh – ‘the mouth’ – begins

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Erev Rosh Hashanah – 29 September 2019

As the sun set this evening, the Hebrew year ended – and also a decade came to a close: the 5770s. This evening, a new decade begins with the year 5780. As many of us are aware, the Hebrew year date reflects the chronology in the Torah going back to Creation. We know that the world wasn’t created 5780 years ago, but the date reminds us to consider the world, this planet Earth.

In Hebrew, the date is represented by Hebrew consonants. The consonant for ‘80’ is the 17th letter of the 22-letter Hebrew alphabet: a Peh. Interestingly, Peh also means ‘mouth’. If you look at the letter Peh you will see that it looks like the profile of a face, with a nose and a mouth and a dagesh; a ‘dot’ for an eye.

Thinking of the decade of the 70s that has just ended, the consonant for ‘70’ is an Ayin, which means ‘eye’. So, from an ‘eye’ decade to a ‘mouth’ decade. Before I say more about that, let’s stay for a moment with Peh, the mouth – because the mouth is the most essential practical feature of our bodies – and not just for our human bodies. For babies, human and animal alike, life begins with our mouths; our wide-open mouths: crying out as we come into this world, then sucking hard on the breast for nourishment. And this is true, even for babies that are born blind or deaf and who grow up unable to speak.

The fact that 70 is represented by the letter Ayin, meaning, ‘eye’, and 80 is represented by the letter Peh, meaning ‘mouth’ is not significant in itself. But human beings are meaning-makers, and the change of decade invites us to make meaning as we face the unknown future. And so, this evening as a new year and a new decade begins, I would like to invite us to reflect on the Ayin and the Peh.

Let’s begin with the Ayin, with the eye and what it beholds. A decade ago, in my Rosh Ha-Shanah morning sermon for 5770, on 19 September 2009, I spoke about visiting the Eden Project in Cornwall and what I saw there. Already, ten years ago – and long before that – scientists had seen the extent of climate change and the impact on the planet. The Eden Project and other similar initiatives urged us to see, too: to open our eyes. Since then, surely, we have had a surfeit of seeing. We have watched news reports of extreme weather events around the globe – including, in this country, where just this past July, the UK recorded its hottest day since records began, and there were also flash floods across northern England, where a reservoir dam was even damaged, causing a widespread evacuation.1 We have watched David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet’ documentaries and seen the plastic waste polluting the oceans and killing the fish. And then, we have gone to the supermarket, and seen, as if for the first time, our shopping trolley pileup with items wrapped in plastic.

What more do we need to see before we are convinced of the need for change? Eighty years ago, a new century in the Hebrew calendar dawned at Rosh Ha-Shanah: 5700 – less than two weeks after the Second World War broke out.2 What haven’t people witnessed during the past 80 years? The loss of life and utter devastation caused by that war. The murder of one third of the world Jewish population and the destruction of tens of thousands of Jewish communities in the course of a few short years. Stalin’s purges and Pol Pot’s massacres. Biafra. Bosnia. Rwanda. Each place a watchword for unfathomable horrors. War after war. Genocide after genocide. Terrorism gone global. Meanwhile, the relentless exploitation and despoliation of the planet.

So now: 5780. The decade of Peh, the mouth. As for some of the other letters of the Hebrew alphabet, Peh has a final form, used at the end of a word.3 This final form is known as sophit meaning ‘end’. Will the decade of Peh mark the beginning of the end? This past year, the climate scientists gave us just twelve years to take radical action to reduce our impact on the planet before climate change becomes irreversible.4

It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed. We can feel helpless. Powerless. And yet, we have power; a power within us, imperceptible and yet strong. We can begin to acknowledge that power by pausing and breathing; breathing slowly and deeply, so that we are aware of nishmat chayyim, the breath of life within us that fills our mouths. We read in Psalm 81 (:10):

    I am the Eternal your God Who lifted you out of Egypt. Widen your mouth and I will fill it.

In parashat Yitro, the Torah portion that includes the Revelation at Mount Sinai, we are presented in Exodus 19 with a captivating image of the Eternal lifting the Israelites out of Egypt on Eagle’s wings.5 But what of the concluding phrase of this verse: ‘Widen your mouth and I will fill it’? I mentioned a few moments earlier the wide-open mouths of babies. Maybe, some of us long to be babies again; well- cared-for babies with mouths open wide to receive nourishment. As it is, as we enter the decade of Peh, the ‘mouth’, we find ourselves in a world where ranting populist leaders would fill our mouths with their malevolence. What is worse: President Trump spewing his stupidities, or hearing the crowds he incites roaring their hatred in unison? Trumped-up narcissistic leaders who exploit their power are bad enough. What’s going on when people avidly drink in their falsehoods, with mouths open wide to receive the venom and spread the poison? The era of ‘fake news’ is a time when lying has become a vicious virtue, toxic and all-pervading. Even the visual evidence – like the paltry attendance at Presidents Trump’s inauguration in January 2017 – can be annihilated by lies. And, of course, we don’t have to look across the pond. We have our own tamer version right here in the ongoing Brexit fiasco. Lies. Lies. And more lies. The country is split, and each side demonises the other. Meanwhile, an Eton and Oxford-educated egoist, fond of spouting classical allusions, spins his fantasies of reclaimed sovereignty and future greatness, and people desperate to be revived and find new hope gulp up the dubiously concocted cocktail.

So, what to do? Like the Israelites who cried out from their bondage, let us widen our mouths to protest fake news and xenophobia and the destruction of our beautiful blue planet. But more than this, let us ensure that our cry of despair becomes a call to action. This past Shabbat, the Torah portion was Nitzavim. Nitzavim begins at Deuteronomy chapter 29, verse 9 with the remaking of the covenant with the descendants of the slaves at the end of the forty years of wilderness wandering. It includes this marvellous passage, which we will read again on Yom Kippur (30:11-14):

    For this commandment, which I command you today is not too wonderful for you, nor too remote. / It is not in heaven that you need to say: ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and fetch it for us, that we may hear it and do it?’ / Neither is it across the sea that you need to say: ‘Who will cross the sea for us and fetch it for us, that we may hear it and do it?’ For the matter is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it – ki-karov eilecha ha-davar m’od; b’ficha u’vilva’vcha la’asoto.

The matter is very near to us in our mouths and in our hearts to do it. But before we consider what we must do, let us pause for a moment to reflect on the perspective offered to us in this evocative passage: the perspective from heaven and from across the sea. Hinneinu – here we are in this synagogue, in this city, on this island between heaven and sea. All life came from the sea and now, incrementally, we are destroying life in the sea. We inhabit a planet that revolves around a sun in a solar system that is a tiny particle in a galaxy that is an infinitesimally small speck in the vast universe. July marked the 50th anniversary of the moon-landing that culminated in Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong and Lunar Module pilot, Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon on 21 July 1969 and collecting 47.5 pounds of lunar material to bring back to earth.6

Maybe, one day, scientists will build bases on the moon out of moon-dust and launch rockets from the moon to Mars and settle there, too. But the solutions to our problems here on Earth do not lie out there. Again: ‘The matter is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it.’

And we can do it. If we work together. Let me quote from another Psalm – Psalm 90, verse 10;
The years of our life are seventy, or even with strength, eighty; yet their span is toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.

What are we alive for, if not to struggle to make the brief span of our lives as meaningful and worthwhile as possible – for own sakes and for the sake of our precious planet? A passage on the human lifespan in Pirkei Avot, the Chapters of the Sages, appended to the Mishnah, quoting this verse, identifies eighty as the year of ‘strength’ – g’vurah.7 An individual needs strength to live to eighty and to live beyond eighty. In this year of 5780, in the decade of Peh – the mouth – that lies ahead, may we all find the strength, individually and collectively, to speak out and take action to repair our broken world. And let us say: Amen.
 
1 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/whaley-bridge-dam-collapse-flooding-live-toodbrook-reservoir-weather-evacuation-a9033146.html
2 Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah in 1939 was on 14 September. WWII began on 3 September.
3 The other Hebrew consonants that have a form used at the end of the word are: Kaf, Mem, Nun and Tzadi
4 https://www.vox.com/2018/10/8/17948832/climate-change-global-warming-un-ipcc-report, http://www.blue-growth.org/Climate_Change.htm, https://www.theccc.org.uk/tackling-climate-change/the-science-of-climate-change/
5 Exodus 19:4.
6 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_11
7 Pirkei Avot 5:24. The Mishnah was edited around the year 200 CE.
 

 
 

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