Shabbat B’midbar 5780 – Rabbi Howard Cooper

FRS 23rd May Sermon

Sermons at the moment are a strange business – when Shuli and I planned our service today she typed up the schedule, the running order, and in this spot she just put “Howard: Words”, which I liked. ‘Words’ sounds innocent enough.

So, words. I keep wondering each week: what can be said about where we are right now? I do have a sense about what words you might want to hear at this stage of this event of suspended reality (and unreality) we are living through. You might understandably want something reassuring, something to calm anxieties, something hopeful, something which acknowledges that we are all going through a situation that is testing our resilience, our patience, our tolerance about a more reduced life with its more limited possibilities; a situation that is testing us to find ways to manage the losses, big and small, that we are having to bear, and the sacrifices we are making.

You might want something that acknowledges what’s difficult – but that also says that if we are able to hold at bay our fears and disappointments and frustrations, then we will get through this together, that the ‘wilderness’ that our Torah portion spoke about today will be followed – hopefully in less than 40 years – by our emerging again into, if not the ‘promised land, flowing with milk and honey’, then at least a land of promise recognisably similar to the one we left just a couple of months ago.

I’d love to be able to feel confident about offering you this kind of confidence, this kind of hopefulness, of cheery optimism about the future.

The problem is that I’m not actually feeling that. If you want cheery optimism about where we are heading  then I guess the Prime Minister and his crew can give you that. You don’t need me for that.

What words I have are probably a bit more modest than that; a bit more, dare I say, realistic – because when I look around me at what is unfolding around us, in London, in the UK, what I’m hearing (whether it is in casual conversation or in the mouths of politicians) are various forms of wishful thinking.

What I’m finding hard to come to terms with is what it means to live through a genuine world-historical turning point, where one world is lost and another world has to be rebuilt, painfully and painstakingly, from the rubble of the old. A few of you, the oldest members of our community, know what it is to do this; but most of the rest of us, three generations now, those born after World War II, have no lived experience of this: we are going to have to make it up as we go along.

For if there’s one thing we can say in these uncertain times with any degree of certainty, it’s that whatever ‘normal’ meant for us in January of this year, ‘normal life’ will never return. And that is hard to get our heads round.

But the pandemic itself, and the economic and social consequences of it, are ensuring that that will be the case. It’s not just the real and painful losses of lives that we are having to come to terms with, but other kinds of losses too: millions of jobs will go, and businesses, and cultural sites – along with the freedoms we took for granted to meet, to gather, to celebrate, to shop, to fly, to go to galleries and theatres and cinemas. These personal freedoms won’t ‘go back to normal’ –  some of these ways of life will return, in one form or another, but they will have changed; and we will have changed because of the virus we carry now inside us, in our head, the mental virus, the psychological virus, which won’t just go away when – if – a vaccine is found.

We are going to have to learn to live with more fearfulness, more doubt about our well-being, more suspicion of others – none of which will make our lives more fulfilling or enjoyable. And if this seems bleak it is because in a way it is bleak. These are wilderness months we are entering, maybe wilderness years.

Any vaccine is, by the most optimistic scientific estimates/guesses – maybe 18 months away, minimum. So for the foreseeable future – in spite of the political narrative of opening up the lockdown in stages – as we make minor and major adjustments to our lives, the unnaturalness and discomfort (at some basic level of our selves) will continue.

But – and this is a big but – this is not only a gloomy prognosis, because we also glimpse that something else could happen, should happen, we have to make happen, as we rebuild from the ruins of the old. Even in these recent weeks, we’ve glimpsed the opportunity for future transformation: less pollution in our cities as roads are closed and streets are pedestrianised, less international business travel and co2 in the atmosphere as Zoom meetings replace what are suddenly seen as  unnecessary journeys,  less homelessness as new ways are found of providing housing for those who have struggled to own or even rent a roof over their head, maybe less inequality in society as previously denigrated occupations in care homes and delivery and nursing and cleaning and a host of others forms of earning a living  are newly seen as deserving better wages and conditions: less of all that, and more focus on what really matters in a society – which is our well-being as human beings.

Can the National Health Service really become pivotal in a new and expanded and adequately funded way to embrace physical health and psychological/mental health and end of life care, and social and nursing care for the elderly, and for people struggling with disabilities? A National Health and Welfare Service that brings together physical health and mental health and social health care. Is it just a fantasied ‘promised land’ to imagine that personal well-being, all-round personal care, could become the primary target of social and economic policy?

What an opportunity we have for a reordering of priorities! The air we breathe, the wages that citizens earn, the education our children receive, the jobs that are valued – that old ‘normal’ had deep fissures in it, huge injustices, major gaps in provision and care. Were we really content for ‘normal’ life in London to mean that life expectancy in Kensington and Chelsea’s Grenfell ward is 22 years shorter than in that same borough’s Harrods ward? ‘Normal’ life was/is often a social and political scandal.

This epidemic, beyond the personal inconveniences it has and will put us through, offers us a chance of changing parts of what is rotten in our society.  That one grim statistic about the gap of 22 years represents the scale of the task. The task is a political one, but the task that falls on all citizens of goodwill – and I know this community is filled with people of that kind of goodwill and  Jewish commitment to the values of compassion and generosity and justice – the task falls on all of us to be talking about these necessary changes now, while we are still suffering our own losses and diminishments. We need to talk about it with each other, within our larger Jewish community, and in our local communities, with local counsellors and MPs.

Cheery optimism about getting used to the so-called ‘new normal’ isn’t good enough. If that  ‘new normal’ is just a shadow-version of the old normal, a replay of all the old failures but with social distancing on top, that’s not an optimistic prospect. Real optimism is linked to the possibility of real change, where the fundamentals of what makes life worth living are re-ordered so that human growth, human flourishing, is the aim and the focus of our society.

We have a long way to go on this journey, it could take 40 years. But the next 40 weeks, and certainly the next 40 months will tell us if this once-in-a generation, once-in-three generations,  life-giving opportunity is going to be grasped or squandered.  I’m not holding my breath, but I am trying to find the words.

Yes – words are innocent. But words can also be weapons. Let’s hope that enough of us can find our voices, find the words, speak truth to power. We’ll have to see.

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