Shabbat Ha-Chodesh 5779 – Rabbi Howard Cooper

Sermon FRS April 6th 2019

‘Freedom from slavery’ is a phrase that rolls off the tongue at Pesach time. It’s central to the foundational myth of Jewish life. As the Haggadah puts it : Avadim Hayinu… “we were slaves in Egypt and the Eternal, our God, delivered us from there…”. We tell it again and again. We celebrate it over and over, not only at Pesach but in our daily and Shabbat liturgy: Mi’mitzrayim ga’altanu, Adonai Elohaynu, u’mi’bayt avadim p’ditanu  “From Egypt You delivered us, Eternal God, and redeemed us from the camp of slavery” (p.218). It opens the Ten Commandments: “I am the Eternal Your God Who Brought You out of the land of Egypt, out of the camp of slavery” (Exodus 20:1).

The reminder is insistent, relentless: ‘be thankful you are no longer slaves…’

But why this repetition? Why is it so relentless? is this repetition only about collective memory, to keep alive our story,  our cultural heritage?  And to keep us grateful for the freedoms we have? I don’t think so. I think the urgency of the repetition has another, more hidden, aim: it is not only to remind us to be grateful, but to sensitise us as a people to a moral responsibility. And what is that moral/ethical responsibility? It must be to remind us to be as dedicated to the liberation of those who are slaves today as we are dedicated to remembering our own origins as slaves.

For slavery still exists. Not the slavery of shackles and transatlantic ships, but the modern slavery of 40.3 million victims of forced labour, forced marriages, sex exploitation and human trafficking (figures from UN’s International Labour Organization). Vulnerable, exploitable, exploited people – 71% are women and girls; 25% are children – form a global supply chain in the agriculture, construction, fashion, beauty and sex industries. Slavery is big business. Pharaohs large and small are raking in profits of around 150 billion dollars a year.

You might wonder what we, as Jews aware of the unethical dimensions of these practices, actually do? What does our historical memory commit us to do, today? As well as supporting campaign groups like Anti-Slavery International (https://www.antislavery.org/), you could be alert to where such practices might be happening a heartbeat away from ourselves – there are an estimated 13,000 people enslaved in the UK today. The Modern Slavery Helpline can be contacted on 0800 0121 700. We should never forget that one of the purposes of our Pesach celebrations is to keep us alert to the reality that slavery is not only a historic crime from the past. It is an ongoing experience – but with no intervention from a liberating God. If God is to work in the world today God has to work though us. The task of freeing others from slavery is in our own divine hands.

In the past I often used to speak the heart of Pesach as being about inner liberation: freeing ourselves from our own ‘narrowness’ – that’s what the word Mitzrayim means – narrowness of thinking and feeling, narrowness of beliefs and opinions. It was important, I thought, to find ways of using the themes of the festival to look inwards – as the Hasidim of old did. The Hasidic movement were always seeking to make the rituals and liturgy and texts of Judaism personal and existential – about our own life as a human being. This approach – and I borrowed freely from it, built upon it, developing a neo-Hasidic ethos and theology – this whole approach stresses the psychological and the spiritual dimensions of a festival like Pesach, the opportunities for personal change and development.

I still think it’s important to be reminded of this stance, this approach, to our Jewishness – the personal, psychological, the spiritual work that is integral to being a Jew – but I also think, more and more, that in a darkening world being Jewish is also a political act: we need to keep alive the vision – in cynical and daunting times –  of a certain moral and ethical vision of collective life: how we live together in communities, in societies, in nations, on the planet. So of course we can ask – what are we enslaved to in our lives? I would never deny the centrality of this kind of question, it’s vital. But just as vital, if we are going to have a space in the future, in the generations to come, to ask this kind of personal question – just as vital is the external question (what I am calling the political question): how do we act in the world to reduce the real slavery that still exists?

It isn’t straightforward for us, sitting here in leafy bourgeois Finchley to know how to address the reality of this. It might be easier to think of freedom from slavery as inner work. But it isn’t enough. I don’t have answers to this question about how to act in the world in relation to these crimes – but I do know that I want to talk about these matters, and encourage you to talk about them, to think about them, to help move mountains about them: move mountains of disinterest and mountains of inertia, and mountains of disdain.

The Jewish people is a visionary people or it is nothing. It has no purpose if it doesn’t stay focused on its vision that societies can be transformed and that the balance of creativity and destructiveness in the world, of love and hate,  can be shifted in favour of life, fuller life, liberated life, and away from narrowness and death. Abandon this vision and we might as well all pack up and go home – for without this vision personal Jewish life is just narcissistic self-indulgence, and collective Jewish life, community life, just becomes a feel-good social club, or part of the entertainment industry. And we’ve got Netflix for that.

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