Shabbat R’eih 5779 – Rabbi Miriam Berger


Sermon – 31 August 2019

It was just an hour and 20 minutes, no interval and one simple set – the inside of a couple’s home in the Cotswolds in 1988 Thatcherite Britain. He’s a Tory politician and she’s a hung-over, left-leaning housewife. The whole play is simply the conversation between them but as the marketing all too accurately states it is devastating and witty. We couldn’t have picked a more appropriate evening to see the newly released production of “Hansard” at the National Theatre. It was hours after Boris Johnson had announced his move to suspend parliament and the jibes at 1980s Tory policies were scarily poignant.

Yet one of the analogies used in the argument was one I found useful in dealing with today’s embarrassing bit of Torah. I promise my Hansard reference doesn’t need a spoiler alert, I can only recommend going for yourself and allowing the exhausting argument to unfold in front of you – to be honest it was the first time in the 13 years I’ve been the Rabbi here that I’ve been to the National and not seen an FRS member there so I was a little worried about what had happened to the community while I was on sabbatical but apparently there were members there the following night and others going tonight so I feel better!

Anyway getting back to the point. The analogy was a painfully and perhaps patronisingly simple one. Robin Hesketh MP tries to explain to his wife who is bemoaning Tory policy that party politics is like two parenting methods. Those who run along beside the bike without letting go and when the child falls they blame the bike, whisk the child off to comfort it and stick the stabilisers back on or those who stand back and encourage and when the child falls they don’t rush over but simply call out reassuring words until the child gets back on the bike for themselves and gives it another try. Wherever you sit on the political spectrum or if like me and so many liberally minded Jews of the moment you feel completely Party-less, you can obviously start picking holes and decrying the reality of either method but it’s less the analogy and more the wife’s response to it that worked for me. She points out to him that he’s only ever thought that the park was flat because he’s spent his whole life looking down at the world from the very high hill he was born on. The children he’s teaching to ride are hurtling down the hill at break-neck speed while he’s standing on the top of the hill spewing out niceties.

That is one of the fundamental problems with political discourse and one that isn’t recognised by the Torah either and the reason I used the word embarrassing for the image it gives us today of how the world works. The vantage point from where we are looking at the world skews our perspective so enormously that it makes the feeling of abandonment, painful and the need to reject everything angrily, an  inevitability.

This week’s portion paints a precursor to an event that takes place later on. We are told life offers us blessings and curses and that when we enter the land we will stand on two hilltops proclaiming the blessings and the curses. The image is Mount Gerizim where one pronounced the blessings, and facing it, Mount Ebal from where the curses are stated. Seeing the alternative facing us reminds us that we have choices and that we can make those choices with values and moral judgement, resisting animal instinct to make the life we choose for ourselves. The point is meant to be an easy one, you experience the blessings in life if you lead a good life, and experience the curses when you don’t. Yet it’s shamefully over simplified expressions of life like this that make religion, like politics, so fragile and tempting to run away from. As soon as one experiences that which can be construed as an undeserving curse on one’s household one so easily acknowledges that the way life is presented is a fraud. The problem is we don’t spend life at the top of Mount Gerizim, enjoying the blessings in life and looking on patronisingly at those on Mount Ebal, wondering why they don’t just choose a different life and join us having a good, blessings filled life.

Many of us do have the luxury of a privileged life on top of the mountain but I would say few, if any get to stay there on good terrain.  There’s no hilltop existence for any of us, no inevitability of x leading to y. As we find ourselves hurtling down the hillside on bikes there are no plain choices between the parent who will hug away our wounds or the one who will get us back on the bike after we fall.

The Torah paints an image of the world working with certainties; if you are good life will be good to you. Such fragile certainties are easy to become disillusioned and hurt by. Yet what does politics offer us? Do we assume benevolence and wisdom in our leaders’ decisions and allow ourselves to be passive bystanders? Or do we approach with suspicion and assume we are being hurtled into a state of purgatory?

So what do we do? Take our feet off the pedals and accept the fall, or look around us and see we aren’t the only one in this state and therefore must find a way of making the ride feel more stable for us all?

Alan Watkins and Imam Stratenus make the statement “we urgently need something better than democracy. So, the question is do we need to find wiser, more balanced, more experienced representatives to govern us? Or do we challenge the very notion of representation and all take charge? What if we all had a say in everything?” I’m not sure I buy into all their vision for the future as set out in their book “Crowdocracy” but I certainly do take on their cry for involvement. They write “we have an historic opportunity to transform ourselves from cynical and suspicious spectators to our current political system to engage participants and actors in the governance of our communities and society at large. It will require lots of people to engage in the process to collectively create a mechanism whereby we can all participate and then have the maturity to let go of what has been created for the benefit of all.”

I’m hearing too many people in fear, too many people frozen professionally trying to operate with their hands tied behind their backs, others worrying about what it means for the Jews, others about what will happen to their personal wealth or the impact of their lives in the coming year and many many with concerns about the environment, the health system, education which seem to have been put on the back burner for too long while Brexit is the only topic for debate.

We cannot allow ourselves to hurtle down the hill on our bikes nor bemoan the fact that we don’t passively stand on the hilltop enjoying the blessings. The only time I have ever felt a significant part of the political discourse was during the London Mayoral elections.  Through Citizens UK we worked with all the Mayoral candidates impacting what went into their manifestos, demonstrating the ground swell of opinions and offering them solutions created by experts in the fields.  We follow up routinely to ensure those promises made at election time are still on the working agenda.  It feels like now more than ever we need to build a strong FRS community group to represent us with Citizens UK and use our grassroots membership to start getting our voices heard. Let’s not bemoan party politics; let’s make “crowdocracy” a thing. Let’s not feel impotent but rather let’s use the platform we have to have our say.

I’m happy to move to the Aleinu to pray for a better future but so that we are not solely relying on the mountain top blessings, let’s use kiddush or emails or phone calls for you to tell me if you want to be part of our Citizens UK steering group to have your voice heard and put your concerns on our agenda.  This isn’t about Brexit, Anti-Semitism or your one issue, it is about saying I will not idly stand by – I want to be part of the people whose voices are heard.