Friday, 30 October 2015

Looking out of the tent - Parashat Vayera 5776

The Torah portion opens with Abraham sitting in the tent - petach haohel

Tradition open on all sides so can see the coming visitors.

Tradition that open in all four compass directions, Yama V'Kedma, Tzfona, vNegba
Inspiration for the Chupah, similarly open on all for sides - let the love out
And off he goes, even in pain - told the pain is great.
I don't remember, but prepared to take Rashi's word for it.

Interesting idea that at the birth of Judaism openness. Looking out, looking forward. Very New London kind of approach to Jewish life. Not interested in the cloistered, self-ghettoised approach to Jewish life - the sort of Jewish life that cowers in the face of the world 'out there.'

Want to look out from Abraham's tent, and share what I can see from the four compass directions of Jewish life, Yama V'Kedma, Tzfona, vNegba.

Kedma first - literally first or before, the East, the direction of the rising Sun. For me, as a 
Jew today, Kedma is my history.
Where do I come from.

Masorti as a chain of tradition folding back. My ancestors manned the ack-ack guns during the Second World War, came across from Eastern Europe to Brick Lane at the turn of the last century, wandering back through a family tree put together by a third cousin, back into C17 in, of all places Siberia. Several centuries before that, now lost in time, presume my ancestors were Ashkenaz Jews of Central and Western Europe who were steadily expelled during the 13th-15th centuries into the Pale of Settlement. Before that wonder if my ancestors were part of the greatest Jewish settlement of the turn of the last millennia - in Bagdad. Maybe they made their way to Bagdad as part of the great exodus from the Land of Israel that occurred in some 1700 years ago - you knew, I hope that Bagdad was the centre of Jewish life for almost a millenia  - and then, of course, before that the Land of Israel before the Romans made life there too difficult, before the Temple was destroyed. And then before then the first exile, the First Temple, and before that the wandering in Sinai - slavery in Egypt and before that, stretching back beyond the limits of known history the time when Abraham sat in his tent and entered into a covenantal relationship with God - a way or bridging the gulf between the divine and the human, the infinite and the finite.

Not really interested in history as fact, I'm pretty sure that at some point someone converted in, I've no idea if I'm a genetic descendent of Abraham Avinu - that's not the point. The point is, I count myself into the Kedma - the past. And when I look out at the world I carry my past with me, this covenental relationship with God, as articulated through thousands of years of a tradition that unfolds back into the mists of time, back to the time of Sinai, the evolution of Rabbinic Judaism - the writing of the Talmud, the codification of the Shulchan Arukh. My past become my spectacles - the way I look out at the world. I see a shelf of meat in the shop, and I think like someone who cares about Kashrut. I read of the oppression of minorities and I think like someone who still feels the experience of Egyptian bondage. When I look out my tent in the direction of kedma I carry my past.

Tzafona - understood as the North, literally means hidden. Referred to what was behind the mountains North of Jerusalem, the dangerous places where the Assyrians would come pouring down on ancient Israelite territories unseen until, God forbid, it all got too late.
For me, when I look out my tent towards Tzafona I see, or rather I don't see, the hidden future. It's hidden, but that doesn't stop my looking. Doesn't stop me asking the questions about our future as Jews. Who are we going to be.

JPR report, by some increasingly nearby point half the Jews of England will be Chareidi. Partly their high birth rates, and good luck to 'em, and partly our, in that dramatic image from the birth of Jewish Continuity, dropping off the cliff.
Had a conversation with someone this week. Their aged parents are members, she's not. She wanted some rabbinic advice regarding her young daughter, not looking to give her daughter a meaningful Jewish education - oh no - just a once in a decade, perhaps, check in with a Rabbi. And she took great pains to explain to me that she feels very Jewish and she wants her daughter to feel very Jewish - but what, I wanted to ask - did that amount to more than a present at Chanukah and pack of Matzah once a year. And where will that journey from commitment in one generation, to tenuous in the next lead in a generation to come. And I'm not worried about the Chareidim - they will get on with a kind of Judaism that they understand as the will of God - what about our kind of Judaism - I'll have more to say about our kind of Judaism later.

But when I look out at the future I worry about these kinds of things. Joseph - you did great today, you have the potential to do great in the future. But what will your Jewish future look like. Have I, have we as a Synagogue failed to give you a meaningful shot at a Jewish future. I worry about this sort of stuff.
And it's not just about numbers and levels of knowledge. It's about the kind of Judaism. There is a worrying trend within Judaism that Judaism seems, increasingly, to speak in voices that are reactionary, bitter. There are, particularly in a certain segment of religious discourse in Israel, voices that are frankly racist. This week marks the 20th anniversary of the attack on Yitzhak Rabin, killed by a Jewish religious extremist still venerated in the settler community in Israel. And other attacks, both in the last week - in my weekly words wrote of the knife attack - from a settler on Rabbi Arik Asherman of Rabbis for Human Rights - and more murderously on Arabs.
When I look to the hidden future, worried that we are becoming a religion of bitterness and hostility to the other. Want to be part of a different Jewish future. Need more love.
Nachmanides “The Torah commands that there be no jealous stinginess in your heart. The same best wishes you have for yourself, you should have for your neighbour. There is no withholding in love.”

These are things I worry about when I look out towards the hidden future.
And the other two directions - yama v'negba. Understood as West and South, but literally towards the Sea and towards the desert.
Somewhat playfully - when look towards the sea, cooling, it's the Mediterranean, it's a lovely sea, lapping gently at my ankles.
When look towards the desert it's different, deadly exposed, burning sun - threat. Nowhere to hide, life laid bare.

Judaism is both these things for me - the comfortable and the uncomfortable.
Has been said of journalists, Priests and it was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who said it of Rabbis.
The job of the Rabbi is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Rabbis, and the tradition as a whole is a mix of gentle lapping seas and brutal exposure to the desert.
 Of course comfort. To make Shabbat with my family.
I love it - I love being part of this fabulous community and will miss it while I am away over the coming months. Partic at the difficult times when I look out the tent in the direction of the Yamma grateful for the comfort my tradition can bring to my own life, and to those I care for. Feeling I am being cared for.
Reb Simha Bunem - piece of paper in each pocket.
On one is written, for my sake was the Universe created.
Created in the image of God. When see that in the eyes of those I love, wonderful.
But there is another piece of paper - I am but dust and ashes.
Prophetic texts - what are you worth.
Who do you think you are kidding.
Not doing enough to end the suffering, the poverty and the loneliness of the world.
Not interested in Jewish guilt, not interested in the threat of fire and brimstone. But deeply discomforted by the voice of our tradition that says, 'Nu?' you call that a fast, you call that caring about Judaism, it's not good enough.
Demand that we do better.

When look in one direction see Judaism as a wonderful comforter.

When look in the other acknowledge Judaism as a provocateur, challenging me to live more closely aligned to the values I profess to care so deeply for.

This is what I see when I look to the Yamma and to the Negba - to the sea and to the desert.

So this is what I see when I look out of my tent.
My past, as a Jew.
And our hidden future.
The way in which Judaism can offer comfort.
And the exposure to a critique that insists I am not doing anything like enough.
How many of you look out your tents this way?
I welcome you to join me, because I think this is how we have always looked out of our tent.
Because I think this is precisely how we should be looking out of our Jewish tents.
Shabbat shalom

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