Shabbat Sh’kalim 5779 – Rabbi Miriam Berger

Sermon 2nd March 2019

BBC Breakfast provides the soundtrack to the morning in the Berger family home. No arguments, no nagging, mostly the three of us non-verbal as we go about the same daily rituals being replicated all over the country but for us being accompanied by the dulcet tones of our favourite Breakfast presents John, Naga, Louise, Dan and Charlie. It means we had been following the story of Tony’s fly by from the first time presenter Dan Walker had met him in Sheffield’s Endcliffe Park. The story for those who can cope with real human interactions in the morning or more likely those who resort to the radio, silence or dash out the house 5 minutes after waking up, let me fill you in.

Tony Foulds was an 8 year old boy playing in his local park in 1944 when an American Air Force plane, which had taken a hit by the Germans was trying to make an emergency landing. Avoiding a densely populated residential area of Sheffield the crew tried to come down in the park. Tony remembers playing with his friends in Endcliffe Park that day, looking up at the approaching plane, seeing the crew waving at them, standing and waving back and only realising after the plane crashed in the adjacent woodland that the crew had actually been gesticulating for them to get out of the way. Tony knew they had spared the lives of him and his friends at their own expense as all 10 US airmen on board died that day.

This moment clearly had a profound impact on Tony. He has visited the site every single day for the 75 years since then and has created and tended a memorial on the exact spot of the crash. Last Friday morning 10,000 people gathered in the park where the BBC had arranged for relatives of the US airmen who died there to meet Tony and to mark the anniversary of the crash with a fly past by UK and US military aircrafts.

The profound effects of witnessing the atrocity is clear and yet the impact of telling his story, has taken it from that of misplaced childhood guilt to a national moment of recognising the heroism of those airmen, the sacrifice our armed forces make in war, the lives lost and those saved. It allows us all to think of the life-long impact of conflict on the children growing up in war-torn parts of the world today and invites us to think of the ripples through decades and generations.  Suddenly his childhood moment, the emotion he has held onto for all these years becomes an opportunity for national discourse and an opportunity for a community to act.

This story reminded me that quietly caring about an issue, a cause, has very limited impact but shouting your story from the rooftops can change society.

In the special reading for Shabbat Shekalim we are told in Ex 30:12-13

יב  כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶתרֹאשׁ בְּנֵייִשְׂרָאֵל, לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם, וְנָתְנוּ אִישׁ כֹּפֶר נַפְשׁוֹ לַיהוָה, בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם; וְלֹאיִהְיֶה בָהֶם נֶגֶף, בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם. 12 Take a census of the Israelite people, each shall pay a ransom to God for being enrolled, so that no plague will come upon them.
יג  זֶה יִתְּנוּ, כָּלהָעֹבֵר עַלהַפְּקֻדִיםמַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל, בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ: . 13 Everyone who is entered into the records shall pay half a shekel.

As a rabbi who sees my role as trying to build community, this concept of Shabbat Shekalim is a gift for me. Not as a fundraiser that most people link it to (although we do have a new synagogue building that needs paying for  – Heaven forbid I let the opportunity slip away without mentioning it!) but for me the message of Shabbat Shekalim is one of avoiding the plagues in society by each having to contribute.

We can see the extent of the plagues which infest our society at the moment – we recite them as the modern plagues at our family Seder; indifference, prejudice, hunger, violence, abuse, bloodshed, torture, persecution, poverty, pollution.

Our Torah portion reminds us we need to put in our half shekel, not just as a financial contribution but perhaps more importantly the contribution is the way we step up, the way we are counted, the way we acknowledge we are part of the solution it isn’t going to be done by someone else.  Commentators often focus on the small amount, why only half a shekel and not a whole shekel? Many say perhaps to ensure everyone gives, make it an easy entry point then no one is excluded.

I think the shekel itself is a red herring. The point is to rid society of our plagues you have to stand up to be counted. You have to make your voice heard and you have to take people with you. You can’t be quietly tolerant while others are being loudly racist and expect to rid the world of racism. You can’t be subtly doing your bit for the environment and expect it to make a difference without teaching others to follow suit. We cannot feed the hungry without speaking out about injustice.  It is what has made the Jewish community so proud and supportive of Luciana Berger MP. She had put in her half shekel by her political career but the constant battle to keep uncovering the anti-Semitism she was facing, the fact that she didn’t take the easy route and simply keep it her own daily ritual of emails to delete or social media comments to ignore, allowed her to stand up on behalf of us all and say it cannot continue to be an accepted norm of Jews in the public eye.

Tony’s cause was to combat indifference. These were young lives taken in war and should be remembered but he took remembrance on as a personal cause. Only when 10,000 people stood in that park, when those servicemen’s families were witnessing their loved ones being celebrated at that moment the half shekel hit the community banking system to rid society of plagues. At that moment it surely influences the national discourse.

We are all witnesses to the plagues around us but how can we make our half shekel more than a personal gesture, how do we make it part of the national discourse? FRS can be a platform for the whole community to share their causes. 900 households, each with their own networks, our reach is bigger than you would think.  Use community, like so many members already do, to be their leaping off point to put in their half shekel and say this is the plague I have born witness to and this is my way of facing ridding the world of it head on. It doesn’t have to be big and public but does need to be loud enough to be heard and taken on by others. We see the issues spreading like virulent viruses, let’s be consciously part of spreading the vaccinations.