Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Erev Rosh Hashanah – 30 September 2019
During the past year, there has been much to cause us dismay – even despair – from the ongoing Brexit shenanigans through our growing awareness of the threat of environmental catastrophe. But there have been signs of hope, too. Hope has come in the form of young people taking to the streets to demand action, determined to ensure their future and the future of the planet. 16-year-old Greta Thunberg showed us that, as the title of her collection of speeches puts it, ‘No One is Too Small to Make a Difference’.1 And she has made a difference already to our sense of responsibility. Greta Thunberg has spoken to all of us and for all of us with a single clear message: We must act now.
Greta Thunberg and those young people abandoning their classrooms for the streets have been our leaders over the past year – leading the way. And yet, look at how we continue to treat children: the ongoing stories of sexual and physical abuse, including within the family, of female genital mutilation and forced marriages, of child labourers and sex-trafficked teenagers.
There are many complex reasons why many children still endure unbearable suffering, even in an enlightened society, like Britain. Significantly, the two Torah portions set aside for reading on Rosh Ha-Shanah, both tell tales of the powerlessness of children and their suffering. There are two portions because, according to the rabbinic calendar, Rosh Ha-Shanah is observed for two days. So, traditionally, Genesis chapter 21 is read on first day Rosh Ha-Shanah and Genesis chapter 22 is read on the second day. Liberal Judaism only observes one day, but as the machzor, the High Holy Day prayer book indicates, Liberal congregations can choose which portion to read. Here at BHPS, we read them in alternate years. This year, it’s the turn of Genesis 21.
So, what we find in Genesis 21 and 22 and why are these chapters read on Rosh Ha-Shanah? I will begin by responding to the second part of the question. The rabbinic calendar assigns Genesis 21 to the first day because it begins with the birth of Isaac, Sarah’s son with Abraham. Genesis 22 follows on the second day because it focuses on how Abraham’s faith in God was tested when the Eternal told him to sacrifice Isaac – and he passed the test by proving that he was prepared to do it.
But Genesis 21 is not just about Isaac. We read that after Isaac was weaned Sarah, concerned to ensure that Isaac was not displaced by his older brother, Ishmael, urged Abraham to expel Ishmael and his mother, Hagar from the household. Abraham was not happy about it, but he did do it.2 And Genesis 22 is not just about Abraham. Isaac had already lost his older brother. How did he feel as he walked alongside his father to the place of sacrifice?3 Did he trust that his father would not offer him up to his God? These succeeding chapters in the saga of the first family of the Jewish people – incidentally, also the first family for Muslims and Christians – are terrible and terrifying tales. In both, parents make decisions that have a devastating impact on their children and change their lives forever. Ishmael lost his father and his brother. Isaac lost himself. That’s what subsequent stories about him seem to suggest. Why else was Isaac found wandering in a field at twilight when Rebekah arrived to become his wife?4 Why else, having been comforted for the death of his mother by Rebekah’s presence5, did he favour his venison-hunting son, Esau, who comforted him with his stews,6 and then fail to recognise that Jacob was impersonating his twin when the time arrived for Isaac to give Esau the blessing due to the firstborn?7 The text tells us that Isaac was old and his eyes were dim8, but it seems that the light went out of his life years earlier when bound on the altar, his father raised his knife ready to kill him.
Tales from the distant past. And yet, children are still thrown out by their parents, children are still subjected to their parents’ absolutist religious convictions. So, is there anything we can learn from the Torah portions set aside for reading on Rosh Ha-Shanah? After all, surely, at the very least, they offer negative lessons in how not to parent.
Let’s begin with that – those negative lessons. A family is experiencing unbearable strain because it is a composite family, involving ‘step’ parents and children. How might the tensions be resolved? Perhaps, as with Ishmael and Isaac, separation is seen as necessary? But who thinks this is the answer? The parents or the children? How would we know – unless the children are consulted. So, what do the children want? Maybe they want different things. But maybe, like Ishmael and Isaac, they have developed a relationship and want to stay together. The point at which Sarah tells Abraham to throw out ‘the slave woman and her son’ because ‘the son of that slave woman is not going to share in the inheritance with my son Isaac’, is when she sees Ishmael ‘playing’ – m’tzacheik.9 The verb m’tzacheik is an intensive form of the Hebrew root Tzadi Cheit Kuf to ‘laugh’ which is the meaning of Isaac’s name, Yitzchak, ‘he shall laugh’. What a tragic irony that just when, having been weaned, Isaac could enjoy ‘playing’ with his older brother, Ishmael was expelled, and Isaac was robbed of his laughter.
And what of the second family scenario? A devout man is consumed with his religious convictions to the extent that he is prepared to sacrifice his son to prove his faith in God. We might think that this is very rare. But how many people – in particular, men – are so certain of their political and/or religious beliefs that they will sacrifice their children to ‘the cause’? They might not actually kill them, but they will ensure that the lives of their children are utterly subjected. There are obvious examples: family life amongst religious fundamentalists of all persuasions; family life amongst political radicals and revolutionaries. And there are less-extreme versions of these families, that are nevertheless pernicious. When families demonstrate outside primary schools because they object to their children learning about diverse family structures, including those where the parents are two women or two men.10 When families insist on sending their children to denominational schools that teach ‘Creationism’ – the belief that the world was created in six days – and only focus on the teachings and values of their particular faith.11 How can one help children in these situations, when their parents have total control over their lives?
Good parenting begins with putting children and their needs first. In fact, in every setting where children are involved – a school, a congregation – for them to thrive, acknowledging and responding to their needs must be our primary concern.
In the past year, an unprecedented number of young people have celebrated their b’nei mitzvah at the synagogue – nine individuals in all. And I’m using the word ‘individuals’ deliberately. The sacred rites associated with becoming b’nei mitzvah may be the same for everyone, but each individual approaches this milestone in their lives completely differently and, importantly, we celebrate each individual as an individual, not as part of a group. In the past year, as we prepared to update our ‘Rough Guide’ to b’nei mitzvah for parents, the education committee made the decision – endorsed by the synagogue council – to include b’ mitzvah as a gender neutral option alongside bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah, so that each young person would know that we were treating them as an individual.
But expanding language is not enough. And so, each individual who goes on the journey towards becoming b’nei mitzvah is empowered to choose which section of the weekly Torah portion they wish to study and is enabled to learn and explore for themselves – both the portion, and what it means for them to be Jewish, to celebrate their b’nei mitzvah, to be part of the synagogue, to leave their childhood behind and to think about embarking on the journey towards adulthood. It is always very heart-warming to find out what young people at the end of their b’nei mitzvah journey feel they want to do in the future to make the world a better place. I could quote from every single b’nei mitzvah student who has addressed that question during the almost 19 years since I became the congregation’s rabbi. But lack of time permits me to quote from just one young person, so here’s what the first b’nei mitzvah student of the year, Leah Churchill, had to say in preparation for celebrating her bat mitzvah almost a year ago on 6th October 2018, when she read from the first portion of the Torah, B’reishit:
- I really care about justice, equality and fairness. I hope that I can contribute to making the world a better place to live in for everyone. I also think consideration for the environment and how we use – and damage – the world is something that’s becoming a more and more vital to think about. I want to join the efforts to make thinking about the environment a part of daily life, so that we connect that we all have a direct impact on the world, and therefore a clear responsibility.
I am grateful to all our young people for their thoughtfulness and commitment. One of the assumptions of traditional societies is that increasing age is associated with wisdom. Of course, it’s important to value older people – particularly, after they cease to be productive members of the society. But it is also essential that we recognise the gifts of young people. They may lack experience, but if enabled to develop their potential, lacking the experience of being worn down by life, their uncontaminated sense of justice and uncomplicated integrity can be a powerful force for good. We have seen this during the past year. We have heard the powerful voice of justice and integrity expressed by Greta Thunberg speaking into the ears of the powerful and articulating the demands of the young, as she addressed numerous fora, including the Climate March in Stockholm on 8th September 2018, the UN Climate Change conference in Katowice in Poland on 15th December, the World Economic Forum in Davos on 22nd and 25th January 2019,12 and most recently, the General Assembly of the United Nations, just last week.13 Let’s hear her plea to the adults of the world on behalf of the world’s children, a plea that shines with the clear-eyed perspective of a 16-year-old – the closing words of her address to the UK Houses of Parliament on 23rd April:14
- We children are not sacrificing our education and our childhood for you to tell us what you consider is politically possible in a society that you have created. We have not taken to the streets for you to take selfies with us and tell us you really admire what we do.
We children are doing this to wake the adults up. We children are doing this for you to put your differences aside and start acting as you would in a crisis. We children are doing this because we want our hopes and our dreams back.
The impending climate catastrophe apart, so many children increasingly come of age with little prospect of a worthwhile job and decent housing. We must put their needs first. As we read in the Prophet Joel15: ‘Your old shall dream dreams, your young shall see visions’. ‘The old’ tend to ‘dream dreams’ of the past. Surely, the time has come to confront the global mess we are in and set on repairing the world, so that instead of being overwhelmed by visions of doom, the young can be free to generate much-needed visions of hope. And let us say: Amen.
1 Penguin Random House, UK, 2019
2 Va-yeira, Genesis 21:9-11.
3 Ibid. Gen. 22: 6, 8.
4 Chayyei Sarah, Gen. 24:64-65.
5 Ibid. 24:67.
6 Tol’dot, Genesis 25:28.
7 Ibid. 27:18-29.
8 Ibid. 27:14.
9 Va-yeira, Gen. 21:9-10.
12 The book of Greta Thunberg’s speeches, No One is Too Small to Make a Difference, also includes addresses to Extinction Rebellion’s ‘Declaration of Rebellion’ in Parliament Square in London on 31st October, the European Economic and Social Committee on Civil society for reEUnaissance in Brussels on 21st February, the Goldene Kamera Film and TV Awards in Berlin on 30th March, the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 16th April, the Extinction Rebellion rally at Marble Arch in London on 23rd April and the UK Houses of Parliament also on the same day.
13 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/sep/23/greta-thunberg-speech-un-2019-address https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXywZ8mLaRY
14 See No One is Too Small to Make a Difference, pp. 67-68.
More sermons & pieces about the High Holy Days
[Sermon] Death, Time and Desert Island Discs13 October 2019 – 14 Tishri 5780
[Sermon] We have a choice13 October 2019 – 14 Tishri 5780
[Sermon] Belonging and connecting, sharing and repairing12 October 2019 – 13 Tishri 5780
[Sermon] Why be a Jew?12 October 2019 – 13 Tishri 5780
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