Shavuot 5780 – Rabbi Miriam Berger

Sermon Shavuot 29 May 2020

This is the letter I would have liked to have received and as I, as we, didn’t receive it, instead I decided to write it. Please indulge me for a minute.

It is addressed…

To the People of Great Britain

It reads…

“I am writing to you in order to express my deepest apologies. I behaved like the fallible human being I am and not the leader you would like me to be. I am a political strategist and the chief advisor to our Prime Minister but leading the country through a pandemic was far beyond any tightrope we could have possibly known we would have to walk.

The responsibility to save lives as well as prevent an economic crash that will have generations suffering, is weighing very heavily on my mind at all moments of the day and night. When the PM Boris Johnson started showing symptoms of Covid 19 I knew my job was about to get harder; but then when my wife started coughing I knew two things: First that at a time when I was needed at work more than ever I was going to be needed at home too. These work conference calls were not going to be the ones where I could be “cutely” distracted whilst I also built Lego towers with my little one.
But secondly because if my boss and my wife were both ill the chances were that I was going to be next. I was suddenly more scared than I have ever been.

When I told the PM we had to warn people that “lives would be lost” it had perhaps naively, and very genuinely never crossed my mind that those lives could actually be my own and the people I love and respect most in the world. My fear became very real and while I knew I needed to do everything I could do to look after this country I was fixated on being close to those who could look after me and my little family too. I wanted to be at home and suddenly home seemed very far away….”

The letter would continue to go on to explain the trip to Barnard Castle, not as some bizarre eye examination but as a naive celebration of life, on the day of his wife’s birthday. That when their mortality wasn’t being tested to quite the same extent, they wanted to celebrate life when reaching a milestone that only weeks before they had feared, in the darkest hours of the night, they might not reach together. Was it irresponsible he would ask? Yes. Is he apologetic? Deeply. Why? Because he realises it was a selfish act at a time where his own governmental strategy was relying on acts of selflessness and societal responsibility. However, in this dream letter he would go on to ask us all to accept his apology and see what he did as an act of stupidity. To hold himself up as a bad example but to thank all of us who made other choices and would ask us to see strength in a leader who is able to admit their failings and to respect the challenges that he is working tirelessly to rectify on our behalf as he and the whole of Westminster try and steer us through this terrible time in trying to do the right thing for the country.

Why on earth would I write this? I know I have probably riled so many of you who are calling for his resignation and I’ll be lucky if you are able to hear my explanation as you think I’m defending the indefensible. And I have definitely put a dampener on it for those who are enjoying the wealth of humour that has sprung from this situation – I know for certain my niece is disappointed with all his trips to and from Durham he never once offered to clear her university room and reunite her will all her stuff!

I must reassure all of you who are still listening and haven’t stormed off out of Zoom in a flurry of ‘leave meeting’, that I have not written it because I have any deep sympathy for Dominic Cummings or because I share his political views. I’ve written the letter because I have one serious question. And if you take nothing else from this sermon, if you only remember one thing, this is the point that the whole fantasy letter hinges upon, a simple word that we teach our children – sorry.

When did saying sorry fall out of fashion? When did it stop being ok for leaders to make mistakes and need to apologise? Isn’t it real leadership to admit mistakes and still be in a position to lead? Why does no one seem to trust us to admit that they messed up? Why does our leadership, political, royal and celebrity always choose spin over sorry?

Ours is just an average-sized synagogue of 900 households with two nursery schools. Yet the conversations around reopening the nurseries next week are fraught with anxiety and making the right decisions for all concerned. It’s a tiny microcosm of society and what I know for sure is that it’s really hard on this scale and I wouldn’t want to be in government right now for anything, but I am truly grateful to those who are and are trying to steer this ship through the stormiest of weathers.

We find ourselves in a world we never imagined, and in a world where wrong decisions can cost lives. Not just costing lives because of the spread of Covid in many ways – if it were, that would be easier – but it will also cost lives because some decisions will lead to extreme poverty and spikes in other factors like domestic abuse or mortality rates of untreated other illnesses. Mistakes and bad decisions will be made but how do we create a society where mistakes are admitted to and to some extent tolerated?

This Shavuot we celebrate the receiving of laws to create a just and fair society. Our celebrations however cannot be about the existence of the rules, they have to be about the society they go on to create. Good rules only create a good society when there is a good justice system. Yet justice is not just punishment for wrongdoing. Justice is also about an ability to admit when we make mistakes. Let’s learn to say sorry again. Cover ups and spin lead to mistrust and animosity at any level. Let us learn to say sorry in family, in community and in society at large. But in learning to say sorry we also have to learn to hear it and accept it as well.

I worry an electoral system, fuelled by the media, creates a society where we are looking for the leadership we didn’t vote for to fail but yet they are our current leadership and their failings become all our failings. We have to enable those who run the country to lead in the hope they can indeed steer us through the storm. Let us all looks for places where our voices can be heard to guide and advise without just looking for opportunities to criticise. Let us invite opportunities to apologise and enable leaders to reposition so that no one has to indefinitely plough on down a path, simply to avoid accusations of the crime of changing one’s mind as if that is a sign of weakness.

Every morning service we include a prayer for the royal family, the government of this country and all who have responsibility for its safely and its welfare. It has become the voice of British Jews to express hope as we offer ourselves as partners in working towards justice and peace whatever our political affiliation. This doesn’t stop us from being critical but perhaps it moderates vitriol and encourages leadership to express vulnerability and exude honesty.

Let us be part of building a future full of sincere apologies and an end of the need for spin and cover ups.

Ken yehi ratzon – May this be God’s will.

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