Sermon FRS 20th June 2020
I’m always amazed at how maturely and confidently our Bar and Bat mitzvah youngsters are when they read from the Torah, and present their ideas to the community. I’m awe-struck, in a way. They are certainly very, very different from the shy and tongue-tied child I was on my Bar Mitzvah day. It’s not only the maturity and confidence though, I also hear their wisdom coming through. When I heard Abigail talk about learning from the Levites in her Torah portion that “you can’t keep everything for yourself and even though you are in a good position you still have to give things up…” and to have the humility to recognize there needs to be “some kind of limit on what [you] are allowed to have” I thought ‘Wow, there goes 50 years of laissez-faire neo-liberal free-market economics!” – if Abigail can see through the fraudulence of a system that has led to such obscene inequalities in wealth and well-being in our country and globally, then we need to really treasure the clear-sightedness of that ethical vision that she is talking to us about.
And when Ira reflected on the challenges of leadership and that “you don’t change people’s minds just by having authority on your side, but by your actions” – and that those actions, as Ira mentioned about Aaron, included dealing with chaos and panic through calmness and focused interventions about the plague, I thought ; “Well, Ira, from your mouth to Boris Johnson’s ears”. These youngsters in the community who understand – who have that clear-sighted wisdom to realize – that authority on its own is not enough, it has to be translated into determined action, are showing us that they are developing the qualities we desperately need to make a better world.
Teenagers often get a bad press because, from an adult perspective, they are experienced as being like toddlers: they don’t want to do what they are told. But not enough is said – and here I’m following the thoughts of the Irish novelist Anne Enright who wrote about this recently – “Not enough is said about how kind they [teenagers] are – usually to each other – how unguarded in their affections and hopes. They face the future with clear eyes…This is what they are built to do, to refuse the experience of the generations that precede them and make their own path”.
Actually maybe we should invite Anne Enright to visit this community, with its extraordinary programme of Bar and Bat mitzvah, because then she’d have to qualify her belief that teenagers “refuse the experience of the generations that precede them”. You can hear from both Ira and Abigail that through thinking about the Torah texts that they have read from, they are learning from past generations; but they are engaging with that experience critically, and thoughtfully, and with moral discrimination, working out what of it they can accept and what they want to reject. And that’s the hallmark of maturity – in teenagers and adults alike – the capacity for critical thought and moral discrimination.
But Anne Enright is spot on when she goes on to say “Teenagers can be cynical or anxious, they can be wry, but they also have a natural belief in a better world…”
I think many adults lose their belief in a better world. Cynicism or anxiety can take over – as well as disappointments suffered along the way – and we can find it hard to imagine that our youngsters are going to inherit a ‘better world’, or be able to shape a ‘better world’.
We are beginning to see – even if we don’t want to – the huge damage we have done: to the planet; to our social cohesion; to the well-being and quality of life of so many living with multiple deprivations. This current pandemic we are living through – which some people understandably compare to a plague – is revealing a lot about what is rotten in the state of England, and the state of many nations around the world. Thankfully we no longer believe – as the authors of the Bible did, and so many generations of religious believers, Jews and Christians did, up until modern times – that plagues are a punishment from God. But this global plague we are now in the midst of is making clearer, day by day, that those who sadly die from Covid 19 are not dying in some random pattern, but that poverty, inequality, belonging to certain historically marginalized and underprivileged ethnic groups, is having an enormous effect on the statistics of who will live and who will die.
In a way, this is a kind of punishment we are going through, that no single person or god is responsible for, but that we are complicit in. And this is a terrible thing to say. A terrible thing to have to face: that in sections of societies where injustice and deprivation have been allowed to thrive – they are proving more vulnerable to this plague than other parts of society. We are not, and never have been, ‘all in this together’. I am not sure we can bear this knowledge really, I’m not sure that we have the adequate mental and emotional and spiritual resources to think about this.
But we are going to have to.
And we are going to have to re-discover in ourselves that teenage hopefulness in a better world – not in some Pollyannaish way, but in a real and purposeful determination to work towards it, individually, in communities, as a nation. To re-awaken within us that innate kindness, that teenagers know about and that has been activated in so many people in the UK over these last few months. Nationally we are faced with the need to garner that generosity and kindness and use it concretely to build and shape a better world. But in doing so we are going to have to learn about sacrifices; learn, as Abigail reminded us, that there does need to be “some kind of limit on what [you] are allowed to have”.
For those of us from the Golden Age, of post-War Britain, who never really believed that, and lived as if it weren’t true – we thought we could have it all, and there were no limits – we need the humility to recognize how destructive this has turned out to be.
Can we learn? – from the Levites, who didn’t own, but served?
Can we learn, as Abigail told us, “you can’t keep everything for yourself and even though you are in a good position, you still have to give things up”?
Only time will tell.