Thursday, 1 October 2009

Two Whispers of Faith - A Kol Nidrei Sermon

I want to speak tonight about emunah - faith

In part because this is the root from which everything else grows, but in part because I’m not sure if we understand the meaning of faith and the value of faith;

Whether we think we have it or not,

Whether we describe ourselves as a person of faith or not.


A tale of a Guantanamo Bay Detention Center detainee I recently had the opportunity to meet.


Bisher Al-Rawi came with his family from Iraq to Britain in 1984 after his father had been tortured by Saadam’s regime. The father was a successful businessman and Bisher was sent to a posh country boarding school.

He founded a successful business, it involved taking mobile peanut processing plants to peanut plantations to extract peanut oil at source without having to ship the peanuts.

Then, in November 2002, on a business trip to Gambia Al-Rawi was arrested.

The British Secret Service tipped off the CIA that he had been consorting with Al-Qatada, a suspected Al-Qeda sympathiser, now in prison, and he was suspected of carrying some kind of electronic device that could be used for setting off a bomb.

It emerged immediately that the electronic device was a battery charger, purchased at Argos.

And it only emerged some years later that Al-Rawi’s contacts with the Al-Qatada were pursued at the instigation of MI5 – in other words Al-Rawi was working with the British secret service when the British secret service tipped off the Americans.

He was shipped first to Afghanistan and subsequently taken to Guantanamo where he spent five years before being released, uncharged.

He is now back, living in Britain with a job, a wife and a kid.


Guantanamo Bay was and I’m sure still is, a degrading, dehumanising oppressive place. When I say that inmates there have been treated like dogs, I mean interrogators would teach detainees lessons such as ‘stay, come and bark’ to, and I quote from a published interrogation log, ‘elevate [their] social status up to that of a dog.’[1] The culture of Guantanamo Bay was one of extreme control where inmates are rewarded for good behaviour with so-called luxuries – a toothbrush say – or punished for, say, failing to put their dinner tray away correctly, with the removal of these items.


Al-Rawi spent almost five years in this place, five years for the crimes of working with the British secret service and carrying a battery charger on an international business trip.

And after a time, perhaps unsurprisingly, this treatment wore him down. His lawyer told me that his sense of humour faded, he began to lose his positive outlook, his ability to concentrate. He was becoming depressed.


And then he made a decision.

He decided that he wasn’t going to play along with the reward and punishment ordering of life in Guantanamo that his captors offered him.

He was going to be prepared to be punished.

He would remain ‘in orange’ - the colour of punishment.

So he pulled some chains through the door of his cell and used them to smash up the contents of his cell and then he passed the chains back out through the cell door.

The guards responded by removing everything from his cell with the exception of an inch thick mattress, a copy of the Koran and the steel bunk and steel basin which were bolted into the concrete.

No comfort items – no spoon, no cup, no blanket, he was even denied toilet paper,

And after 30 days when these luxuries – the toothbrush and all – were returned, he did something else, non-violent, to remain in punishment. And the so-called luxuries went again.

And so he remained for the last eight months of his imprisonment.


And here is the part of the story that caught my attention.

He got stronger.

He stopped declining. His convictions, energy and vitality returned.

The less the prison authorities rewarded him, the stronger he felt.

He found a way to reject his external reality’s grasp over his inner state, his sense of himself.

That’s an incredible accomplishment, I’m going to call it a spiritual accomplishment.


Of course I don’t make the claim that there is any comparison between the foulness of Guantanamo and the genocidal horrors of Auschwitz, but I can’t help but be reminded of Victor Frankl’s masterwork – Man’s Search for Meaning.

Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist, spent the Holocaust in a series of labour camps including Auschwitz and has come closer than anyone else to understanding why some inmates coped and some could not cope with the appalling abuse, physical and mental, they suffered.


In the concentration camp, [says Gordon Allport, paraphrasing Frankl] every circumstance conspires to make the prisoner lose his hold. All the familiar goals in life are snatched away. What alone remains is ‘the last of human freedoms’ the ability to ‘choose one attitude in a given set of circumstances’[2]


Frankl is saying that those who survived had the ability to stop their external circumstances from riding roughshod over their internal compass.

He is saying that those who found a way to protect their internal sense of value safe from the horrors of Auschwitz were the ones who coped best.


When the exteriority of our lives is rendered dark that hurts. Of course it does.

But if we can find a way to stop the penetration of that pain from seeping into our soul, then we do something more than hold back the floods, we gain access to a strength that comes from a different place to the material challenges we face;

A place that is not susceptible to the slings and arrows of fortune.

A place which is, and I use the word even though it is so overused and mis-used, spiritual.


Spiritual – antonym – material.

The spiritual is that which exists beyond the reach of the material, beyond the calculation of exteriorities, exterior points of reference.

The spiritual is what is left once all the material, corporeal, tangible, finite elements of existence have melted away, or are transcended, or – as I think Al-Rawi did – are simply rejected.


I hardly need say that this is not the way we are encouraged to face our decrees –our material externalities by the world out there.

Secular society teaches us that we are as rich as our bank balance and as successful as our wages.

Secular society teaches us that the externalities of life make us who we are and hold the key to our feelings of worth; the silky smooth hair, the fast car, the new this, the newer that.

Even in worlds more profound than the commercial the temptation is still to judge our value by measureable exteriorities – we are as healthy as our blood pressure, as sensitive to the needs of the world as our carbon footprint. Measurable externalities all.


And there are two problems with all these scales of material success.

The first is that measuring worth against a material scale breeds discontent.

Partly we risk discontent when we look at our fellows.

We can’t help ourselves, comparing the size of our pay-packets, cars, pensions, houses.

And partly we risk discontent because there is always another level on the scale tempting us, wooing us with its siren call.

I remember reading that Roman Abramovitch had become disenchanted with his biggest yacht since it only had one helicopter port and he was now after a yacht which could handle two helicopters.

Two is always more tempting than one.

And all this labouring under the sun is nothing more hevel u’raut ruach – vanity and a striving after wind – ultimately empty.[3]


And the other problem of allowing our external circumstances to rule our inner sense of self is that our experience of living by external circumstance is rocky and uneven at best.

The sum of our material experiences refuse to move only ever upwards in a nice straight line.

We want all the increments on our journey to be channelled in one upwards direction.


From bondage to freedom, from darkness to light and from slavery to freedom


That sort of thing. We like our stories when they move in one straight upwards incline.

But life just doesn’t work like that.


Mi yanuach, umi yanua,

Who shall rest and who shall wander

Mi yishalev umi yityasayr

Who in tranquillity and who in torment.


Externalities ebb and flow, they come and go, they flirt with us only to deceive, and then reward us, all of a moment, and confound us in bounty as much as in loss.

Life is lived in choppy waters, not on a still pond, and if we measure our deeper internal sense of worth on the basis of external measurables we allow our sense of self to become tossed around like a boat in a storm.

We’re not sure if we are successful or not, valuable or not, worthy or not and we need to take better care of our soul.


And this is where faith comes in.

Faith is what we rely on when we are not relying on the material world.

Faith is what we count on when there is nothing material to count.

Faith is what holds us up when there is nothing in the exterior world we can hold on to.

Faith is the root of our sense of value, or worth, of identity that has nothing to do with external circumstance.


Esai einay el heharim – main yavor ezri

Psalm 121 – I lift up my eyes to the hills, where will my help come from!

Ezri maim adonai – osay shamayim v’aretz

My help comes from God who created the heavens and earth


My help comes from the place beyond corporeal heaven and earth.

Help comes from the place beyond the material world.


Gam ki eilech bgay tzelmavet

Psalm 23 – though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death


Though I find myself void of any corporeal, material comfort or support


Lo ira ra, ki atah imadi

I fear no evil, for You, God, are with me


These turnings to the spiritual, perhaps among the most beloved in the entire Hebrew Bible, are the turnings of those whose external circumstances offer nothing; no succour, no sense of value or worth.

They are tentative turnings of a person abandoned by the external, abandoning the external, reaching to the spiritual.

They give us an opportunity to feel that there is something on which we can rely, on which we can lean, even as the material world fails us.

And it is the turn to faith that provides the foundation stone on which our true identity, our true worth and our truest values are constructed.


Don’t get me wrong, faith is no invisible friend who will keep us engaged in witty conversation, or a teddy bear to ward who can be used to scare off the things that go bump in the night.

Faith can’t be measured out or counted on like a maturing pension which we might use to pay off the mortgage.

Faith insists on remaining aloof from the material world.

It won’t be pinned down.

It exists only to give us this grounded sense of value immune to the ebb and flow of the material world.


Faith whispers its truths.

And looked at, from the outside, a person may indeed feel that, faced with the pain and challenges of the material world, faith makes for a flimsy protector.

But that is to miss how faith holds us up most especially when, and maybe even only when we refuse to give the material world the power over our sense of self.

Faith works when, like the Guantanamo Bay detainee I met, we refuse to allow the external world to define us, to define our inner state.


So, what are whispered truths of faith?

What are the pillars on which we can rely when there is nothing in the corporeal world we wish to turn to?

Let me share three.


Vyivra et haadam btzelmo

And God created every human being in the image of God.[4]


No matter how rich or how poor, how healthy or how sick, how decrepit or how virile…

You, me, each of us is made up of Godliness folded in so tightly that it becomes matter. And inside and behind and beyond all this exteriority we retain that inner core of divinity l’olam vaed – and will do forever more.

That faith will withstand the challenges of the exterior world.


And a second truth


Atem nitzavim hayom culchem leav’recha bivrit adonai elohecha

You are all stood here this day to enter into a covenant with the Lord your God[5]


There is a covenant, we are in relationship, God - You – and I and my ancestors before me, a covenant that stretches back to the time I stood on the Banks of the river Jordan having spent 40 years wandering the wilderness. And through the good times and the bad, through the moments of elation and destruction I have stood with you and I refuse to let you, dear God, leave off standing with me.

And that faith has stood our people well through ills and worse for some three thousand years.

And when we hold to our faith in the covenant we know we are not experiencing our grieving alone.


And thirdly,

Well there is a third, but it deserves a sermon of its own. I’ll be giving that sermon after the Yizkor service in the morning.


For tonight, I’m leaving us with this sense of what faith is about – a grounding that transcends whatever the material world may throw at us with two whispered truths. The first is the universal truth that I, you, each of us is a physical manifestation of the  divine.

The second is the particular truth, that as a Jew I am in relationship with my past, with my God and with my people and that relationship retains power as long as I refuse to allow it to break.


And when I say ani mamin – I believe

This is my creed.

This is how I ground my sense of value and worth in a world beyond the material.

This is the creed that underpins my religious leadership of this community.

It’s a creed I commend to us all.

May it serve us well in the year to come.

May it come to us in peace, health and joy,


Gmar Tov

[1] Quoted in P. Sands Torture Team p.127

[2] In V. Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning preface p. xi

[3] Kohelet, freq.

[4] Gen 1:26

[5] Deut 29:9&11

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...