Shabbat Chayyei Sarah 5780 – Rabbi Miriam Berger

Sermon 23rd November 2019

Sometimes we have to talk about something just in case one person needs to hear the message. When I speak from the bimah I don’t always know how my words are being heard: whether the words are resonating with someone or making them feel uncomfortable; whether they feel I am talking directly to them and if what they hear is going to make them act differently in the week ahead. Sometimes people quote things I have said in a sermon years after I have long forgotten delivering it, so there is always the hope that the memory of this sermon will be triggered decades from now if it needs to for someone. I take the responsibility seriously that comes with having this kind of platform. I try not to coerce. I’m not the fire and brimstone rebbe but I am the rabbi who knows I can tell people they aren’t alone in their distress, their fears or their isolation in life and if they hear their greatest secret being spoken about from the bimah, perhaps they also know they aren’t as alone as they once felt. So, when an organisation says help and asks us to think about the potential impact of every rabbi in every synagogue across the county within every denomination preaching on the same week about the same theme you can imagine the power of the platform. If just one person sitting here today hears these words and takes comfort, takes action or gets help then it was worth the other 249 taking ten minutes of their day to sit quietly and listen. If just one teenager who is sitting here today remembers it even vaguely in a time of crisis in decades to come it will have done its job.

The scary thing is that statistically it isn’t just one person sitting here today that will hear this and think I am talking to them because the numbers of those who are affected by domestic violence is one in four of the women in this room.  That makes it potentially lifesaving and society-changing scaled up by every rabbi who took on the call for action.

The message we have all been asked to support is one that ‘Jewish Women’s Aid’ is challenging us with to bring the dark and dangerous reality of domestic violence and bringing it out of the shadows and into our synagogues, shining a light on the issue and on the incredible places where support is available. This shabbat we are marking this coming Monday’s annual UN-designated International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (IDEVAW).

JWA explains that “For most Jewish women experiencing domestic abuse and sexual violence, it is a huge secret which they are too ashamed, embarrassed or fearful to admit is happening to them. Yet they are not as alone as they think. Violence against women happens everywhere, including in the Jewish community. One in four women experience domestic abuse, and one in five women experience sexual violence. Any woman can be affected by violence against women: any age, any levels of education or income, from any strand of the Jewish community.

The problem is that most people don’t see it, and don’t talk about it. Hence the reason why JWA are asking for our help in changing that: in challenging the community to open their eyes, to acknowledge it happens, and to ensure that every Jewish woman and child affected by domestic abuse and sexual violence knows where to get help.”

Our kids grow up doing the mitzvah of singing songs in Jewish care homes, it is taken for granted that they know there is a place for them when they are in their later years and they will know where to turn to if they find themselves caring for an elderly relative. Our children grow up knowing hospitals and charities are there to treat cancer, research cures and support us.  As they get older, they know what precautions to take to try and avoid certain cancers and what to look for to find the earliest signs for the best chances of survival.  But when you are cowering in fear from the person you chose to marry, how would you know there was support waiting for you if no one spoke those taboo words of domestic abuse out loud because everyone would prefer to think it doesn’t happen in the Jewish community. When you are feeling ashamed or vulnerable, alone or dirty who knew the Dina Service was there to support victims of all forms of sexual violence unless we say those words out loud and make sure we can all be a signpost to those who confide in us.

This week’s parasha gives us a gift to know what relationships should be based on. I love the test Avraham sets to know who the right wife is for Isaac. Not find Isaac a wife with ‘a good sense of humour’ or see who passes the ‘Tinder swipe test’ but pure and simple kindness. The stranger who offers the traveller a glass of water and goes the extra mile to water their camels too.

A husband should love his wife as much as he does himself and should respect her even more than he respects himself”, the Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 62b reminds us.

Maintaining the dignity of a person is so great that it may override halacha,” Babylonian Talmud Brachot 19b expounds.  Our homes need to be filled with kindness and respect. That is where the expectations should be, but what is domestic abuse if it isn’t only a diminishing of dignity and a lack of respect?

The current police and government definition of domestic violence and abuse is that it is “an incident, or pattern of incidents, of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between people who are or have been intimate partners or family members”.

Kindness and respect in a relationship are the real foundations, and if fear, violence and control seem to be more present than kindness and respect, there is help, there are people to listen and support you to keep you safe whatever choices you make going forward.

I hope I’ve wasted your time today. I hope you didn’t need and never need to hear these words but one in four is a terrifying statistic because it means so many are simply not seeking help and support and are living with that fear and indignity.  I hope my words and those spoken by other rabbis in other shuls today will give people the courage and strength to seek help if they need it and to know we, their communities and Jewish Women’s Aid is there to support them. I hope we all took the invitation seriously and I hope those that needed to hear it, did so, because no one needs to be alone.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה  הפּוֹרֵש  סֻכַּת שָלוֹם עָלֵינוּ  וְעַל-עמוֹ  יִשְרָאֵל  וְעַל-כָּל-הָעוֹלָם

Blessed are You God, spreading the shelter of peace over us, over Your people Israel and over all the world.

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