Shabbat Nitzavim – Va-yeilech 5780 – Rabbi Deborah Blausten

There once was a fox who was walking along a riverbank when he saw fish fleeing from place to place, dashing and darting frantically and stirring up the water.

The fox said to them: what are you fleeing from?

They replied: We are fleeing from the nets that people try to catch us in.

He said to them: Do you want to come up onto dry land? It’s safe up here and nobody is going to try and catch you in a net. They’ll never think to look for a fish on the river bank.

The fish said to him: And you are the creature they call the cleverest of animals? You are not clever; you are a fool. If we are afraid in the water, our natural habitat which gives us life, then in a habitat that causes our death, all the more so. Why would we leave the water for the bank? The riverbank has none of the things on it that we need to live. You are made for the land, we are meant to be in water, even though in water people try to catch us. Though it is dangerous, it is always better to be here.

The story of the fish and the fox sounds like a Grimm’s fairy tale but it actually comes from the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 61b). It is a parable told by Rabbi Akiva in response to the edict of the Roman empire that Jews were not allowed to publicly engage in the study and practice of Torah. Akiva would still convene assemblies in public and engage in Torah study, and it made him a target for Roman attention. One of his fellow Jews asked him ‘aren’t you afraid that the Romans will come after you by doing this?’

And so Akiva told his story, explaining that for Jews, the fish, Torah is the water. Quoting this week’s Torah portion he says “So too, we Jews sit and engage in Torah study, about which it is written: “For it is your life, and the length of your days” , if we fear the Roman Empire so much that we cease from its study, we will abandon the habitat in which we can live and thrive.”

Rabbi Akiva’s argument is that it is better to be in the water, gathering and studying Torah even with the threat of the Romans- the nets- than to go up onto the river bank and be away from Torah, and thus also away from the environment that allows the fish- the Jews- to thrive. It’s a common sentiment, we hear stories again and again, particularly during the upcoming chaggim, of Jewish resistance, of refusal to abandon customary religious practice under external pressure.

But what happens to Akiva?

The Talmud continues: ‘Not a few days passed until they seized Rabbi Akiva and incarcerated him in prison’. The next bit is told in our Yom Kippur martyrology service. For the Romans took Akiva, and they killed him, horribly.

I’ve been thinking about Akiva’s response to the ban on assembly and studying this week, as I’ve discussed with many people their fears and feelings about the impact of increased coronavirus related restrictions in England, and particularly the prospect that these restrictions will have a huge impact on the ability of Jews to gather in the ways we might have hoped to; around dinner tables with large families, and outdoors to hear shofar and do tashlich.

I read a comment on a notorious Jewish Facebook group which read ‘this is an assault on our religious freedoms, once again the ability to be a Jew in this country is under sustained attack’. I read it, and I felt sad.

We are incredibly fortunate that as Jews on the cusp of 5781, in this community in particular, that our choice is not one of river or riverbank. We are, to extend and possibly destroy the metaphor, amphibious. We have learnt this over the past 6 months. Our community can thrive online and offline, and the choice before us is not one where we are asked to choose between living Torah, prayer and community, and being safe. This is not just true in Reform parts of the community, even in more traditionally halachic spaces, great attempts at innovation have been made to allow for passive streaming of services so that people can be together but safely online.

Our authorities are not the Romans, and the inability to assemble in public or private in large groups does not need to mean being cut off from the ability to express our Judaism and use these upcoming chaggim.

We have all heard the stories that suggest that the particularly high toll in the Jewish community earlier in the pandemic might be connected to the timing of purim celebrations. Our local authorities remind us that there are significant pockets of outbreaks again within social groups of jewish teenagers in north london.

Paradoxically, the threat to our community lies not in the inability to gather physically but in what might happen if we do. And yet, we know how important it is to so many of our community to have that moment of gathering, of being present and being all together. It’s why we have spent time developing a full set of COVID secure opportunities over the chaggim- online services, but also public health approved in person opportunities, particularly the drive in services running three times on rosh hashanah, the ability to arrange a visit to the synagogue building for a walk through service and time with the ark, and our drive by tomorrow where you can collect your honey cake, machzor, and say a safe and distant hello to the clergy and volunteer team.

Eitz chayim hi l’machazikim bah. Torah is a tree of life, it is meant to sustain and uphold us. If Torah is to be our life and the length of our days as is set out in our parasha, let it be because our Judaism brings meaning and connection, a sense of purpose and place to each one, not because the pursuit of its observance sets a limit to those very precious days.

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