Tuesday, 6 May 2008

God, Israel and I - on the 60th Birthday of the State of Israel

At the heart of so much of our faith is this relationship between God and humanity; we are, created in the image of the Divine and we are commanded to be like the Divine.

Imitateo Dei

It's probably the single most important religious idea I know.

And it sounds, certainly at first listen, absolutely great.

I am like God, like a god, I'll lob down some thunderbolts. I'll swoop out of the heavens, like Superman and rescue some poor mite from being swept over the raging waterfall.

Hodu Ladonai Ki Tov – Praise be to God for God is good.

Ki Lolam Hasdo – For God's kindness is eternal

But it doesn't always work like that.

Of course it doesn't.

A life lived in the image of God is a good deal more complicated than that.

And today I want to look, more deeply, more darkly, at what the image of God might really be about.

On this Shabbat, sandwiched between Yom HaShoah – a Day of Encountering the Holocaust and Yom Haatzmaut – the Day of Israel's independence.


The creation of the human being in God's image.

The heart of every great truth in our tradition.

My predecessor at New London Synagogue, Rabbi Reuven Hammer, included a rarely cited Midrash in his introduction to the Megillat HaShoah we read on Yom HaShoah.

It is a comment on the first human horror, Cain and Abel fight and Cain kills his brother.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai said, 'It's hard to utter such a thing, and it can't be expressed directly, but this is like two gladiators wrestling before the King. And had the King wished he could have separated them. But the King didn't want to separate them. And one triumphed over the other and killed him. As the man was dieing he called out, 'Let my case be pleaded before the King!' And this is the meaning of the Biblical verse – kol damei achicha tzoakim alay – the voice of the blood of your brother calls out to me.[1]

The King watches at the human struggles and doesn't intervene.

And the seemingly innocent man dies.

And the scream of how, good King, could you allow this to happen! Roars up from the earth.

And the King, of course, should be understood as God.

We are not told, of course, why God didn't intervene.

Who knows? Maybe God wanted us to learn our own lessons. Maybe God was too busy with other things.

It's hard to utter such a thing, and were it not for the fact of the text,

were it not for the fact of the murder,

not just of Abel but of the millions who perished in Auschwitz and Majdanek and before and since,

who could possible form such an opinion of God?

But the blood does cry out.

This is a religiously acceptable scream.

kol damei achicha tzoakim alay

In the language of Psalm 44

עוּרָה לָמָּה תִישַׁן אֲדנָי הָקִיצָה אַל-תִּזְנַח לָנֶצַח

לָמָּה-פָנֶיךָ תַסְתִּיר תִּשְׁכַּח עָנְיֵנוּ וְלַחֲצֵנוּ.

Awake, why do you sleep, O Lord? Arise, do not cast us off for ever.

Why do you hide your face, and forget our affliction and our oppression?

It's hard to utter such a thing.

It's hard to handle theological images of God this far from the thunderbolt lobbing, small baby saving Superhero.

It's hard to handle images of God that feel so … and there really is no other term for it … images that feel so human.

This King, looking over the gladiatorial arena.

Maybe there is some good reason for desisting, but at first glance, it doesn't feel that way. It feels wrong, it feels – if it is even possible to say such a thing - like a failure

Perhaps he's got a bit overexcited at the spilling of blood, like some onlooker at a bare-knuckle boxing match.

Perhaps he hasn't realised quite how much brokenness one moment's refusal to intervene would wreck on the history of humanity.

Perhaps he too worried about appearing properly Kingly to leap, Mercutio-like, into the fray.

Perhaps there was something else on the television that distracted his attention at the crucial moment.

It's just all so damned human that it gets difficult to work out which bits are really Divine and which bits are human.

After all we create the images to describe God who, we tell ourselves, actually created us in God's image.

This image of God created by an image of God to explain a God in our image.

Theology isn't a tidy science.

And while it might be cosy to have a safe, wholly beneficent God, a God of perfect Shalom, devoid of failure, free of human foible, this is not what the texts of our tradition teach us about HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy Blessed one who, in the language of Ezekiel, travels with a sword sharpened and polished.

It's not what the Rabbis, authors of Midrashim like the one we just encountered, thought.

The Rabbis and certainly the Psalmists created image after image of a passionate, emotional, jealous, occasionally violent God modelled after – well modelled after us.


Hodu Ladonai ki tov, ki lolam hasdo feels very different on the day after Yom Hashoah.

But I've made my peace with this all too human version of God.

God and I, we are in a relationship.

There is a story told about the great chassdic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Bereditchev, that he sent his students to interrogate a simple tailor in the days immediately before Yom Kippur.

You see, said the tailor, gesturing to a ledger book, I have a list of all my sins and errors of the last year. The time I overcharge for a simple alteration, the time I kept back the off-cuts of a bolt of cloth to make my son a shirt.

And here, he gestured to a much weightier tome, I have the sins of God; the babies taken from parents, the parents taken from children, and I said, 'I'll make you a deal God, you pardon me and I'll pardon you.

We don't really deal in Superheroes, as Jews, we are instead experts in human failings, human emotions, human relationships.

Even when everything seems so wonderful, we distrust the fairytale.

We break a glass at a wedding.

We say, at least we do when in Israel, Yizkor on Simchat Torah.

We are, as Jews, experts at taking our rough with our smooth.

We are trained, over thousands of years in dealing with the world as find it, even while dreaming of a far simpler, kinder planet.

Ani mamamin, af al pi – I believe, even though it is long delayed

We sung that at Yom HaShoah too.

And there is so much I need to look past.

I love God not so much with a perfect heart, but with a broken heart.

I believe in the powers of goodness and kindness and, God, if you are listening, I'll be here, throwing my energy, prayers and hopes on the side of loving kindness and hope and goodness as we stumble forward, You and I.

And this brings me to Israel.

Happy Birthday Israel.

I go through life with two versions of Israel. Two sets of images.

The first image begins with weary stragglers pouring off the boats into British Mandate Palestine, the last remnant the Nazis couldn't get to.

And they not only survive, they flourish in a dessert land, wringing milk and honey from the rocks.

The first image of Israel is replete with tembel wearing kibbutznikim, draining the Hula valley of its malaria infested waters.

As Aliyah after Aliyah makes their way to the miracle of the Middle East, my heart lifts – the Yemenites on their Magic Carpet. The Ethiopians on Eagles' Wings.

And the country is wrapped in a cocoon of the most expert security information and military might.

Israel can pick off a Nazi War Criminal at three thousand miles, or destroy a nuclear weapon installation before the Syrians even know its gone.

Nobel Prize winning laureates Eurovision song context winning Halleluyahs and Hi-Tech entrepreneurs all untied under the banner of the one true democracy in the Middle East.

Israel as superhero, defender of the world, indestructible and dazzling.

And then there is the other set of images.

A country shot through with tensions; charedi and secular, Ashkenaz and Sepharad, not to mention the Russians.

A country whose youngest and brightest have lost their way and are so wearied by the experience of compulsory military service that they skulk off to Thailand or Dharamasala and smoke pot till they can forget about it all.

A country where you can find whore-houses, economic slaves, even people prepared to murder Prime Ministers.

And then there are the images drawn from this hellish matzav – the situation as we can euphemistically call it.

On Tuesday the Ambassador told us that as Chief of Staff of one cabinet office or another he had been in rooms where decisions were made NOT to pursue one kind of military action or another for fear of causing civilian causalities.

And I know how to complain about the BBC, or the Independent or any of the rest of them.

And I know the Hamas have no compunction about using human shields to protect their own grubby lives while threatening maximum political embarrassment if the Israelis were to attack.

But dear God, dear Prime Minister, did fifty really have to die in one attack last week.

Is it really necessary to squeeze quite so hard?

I know I know, it's the Middle East and Western rules might not apply, but it's hard for me to look the other way, and as I Jew I don't think I should.

Israel, dear Israel

So here I am, with my relationship with Israel looking a lot like my relationship with God.

It's all very human.

We are all very fallible, given to over-reaction, trying to do the best we can but put under pressure that makes it hard for any of us to respond always with hesed, loving kindness, and tzedek, justice.

This is an uncomfortable message to give,

But then the Judaism I believe in is a faith for grown ups. We have been asked, many times, to be able to handle uncomfortable truths because they are just this – true.

And so we find ourselves this week caught between the woes of Yom HaShoah and the miracle that is the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel in relationship not only with a broken God, but also a broken homeland.

No longer the wistful paradise we could sing about in exile, or sat around a Youth Group bonfire, but the very concrete, bloodied, political reality that greets us every time we turn on the nightly news.

But I cannot walk way.

No of us are permitted to walk away.

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel commented, "When the Jews were

driven out and no longer dwelled in the Holy Land, the land continued to dwell in them."[2]

This country is part of my soul.

As the contemporary singer Ehud Manoar sings

Ain li aretz acheret gam im admati boeret

I have no other land, even if my land is aflame

Rak milah bivrit choderet

Only Hebrew can seep into my blood,

Can hu beiti this is my home.

We are taught in the Book of Psalms,

Walk about Zion, and go around her; count her towers.

Mark her bulwarks, consider her palaces; that you may tell it to the

Generations to come,[3]

The successes and failures. They are all part of the story

We should dance and sing on Yom Hatzmaut as we dance and sing at any wedding, broken glass and all.

Indeed this is the greatest wedding song of all

Od Yishama' Barei Yehuda Uvchutrot yerushalayim

There shall still be heard in the cities of Yehuda and the coutyards of Jerusalem

Kol Sasson vkol Simchah, kol chatan vkol kallah

The voice of joy and happiness, the voice of groom and bride.[4]

We have to learn to celebrate with our brokenness, allow our God, our relationships, our selves and certainly our homeland to be little battered and bruised.

And we still have to love.

And we still have to hope.

And we still have to sing.

I want to end with a remarkable poem from the greatest (almost contemporary) poet of Jerusalem, Yehudah AMichai.

This comes from his magisterial collection, Open, Closed Open.

The Jewish Time Bomb

On my desk is a stone with "Amen" carved upon it, one survivor fragment

of the thousands upon thousands of bits of broken tombstones

in Jewish graveyards, I know all these broken pieces

now fill the great Jewish time bomb

along with the other fragments and shrapnel, broken Tablets of the Law

broken altars broken crosses broken rusty crucifixion nails

broken houseware holyware and broken bones

eyeglasses shoes prostheses false teeth

empty cans of lethal poison. All these broken pieces

fill the Jewish time bomb until the end of days.

And thought I know about all this, and about the end of days,

the stone on my desk gives me peace.

It is the touchstone no one touches, more philosophical

than any philosopher's stone, broken stone from a broken tomb

more whole [shalem] than any wholeness,

a stone of witness to what has always been

and what will always be, a stone of amen and love

Amen, amen, and may it come to pass.

Happy birthday Israel

[1] Genesis Rabbi 22:9 citing Genesis 4:10

[2] Israel, Echo of Eternity

[3] Psalm 48 15

[4] Jer 33:11

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...