It’s been quite a year. For me, personally, of course: I can’t believe that I went on sick leave on January 3rd, and have been absent from the congregation for almost 12 months. During that time, as I read the weekly and monthly bulletins, I have felt immensely proud of how the Shul has not only kept going, maintaining the regular schedule of activities, but flourished, as more people have got involved and contributed: to Shabbat and Festival services, to pastoral care, and to educational activities – including ensuring a weekly Access to Hebrew class. So, it’s been quite a year for the congregation as well. Thank you for pulling together and being such a superb community.
And then, there are all the events in the personal and family lives of the members and friends of B&HPS during the past year. Each individual will have their own story to tell. Meanwhile, the extremity of many events across the globe, have heightened our sense of terror, fear and danger – and also despair. As we have been commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, the first global conflict, and the devastating scale of the loss of millions of young lives, we have been all too aware that a century on the world is still not a safe place to live in – even on the level of disease: How ironic that almost 100 years after the flu pandemic of 1918-1920 that wiped out between 50 and 100 million people, the Ebola virus has been raging in West Africa since February, with the death toll reaching 7,388 by December 17.
Fortunately, with global cooperation, including efforts to create a vaccine, it looks as though the spread of the Ebola virus may be contained. The same cannot be said of the spread of hate-fuelled violence. Back in February and March, it seemed that the conflict in Ukraine and the antics of Russia’s President Putin, would take centre-stage in 2014. But then, on April 14, the Islamist Boko Haram militants in Nigeria, who had been launching attacks since 2009, abducted around 276 girls and women from their school. As of December, Boko Haram continue to hold most of them hostage – and to perpetrate new assaults.
As we know, Islamist terror has not been confined to Africa. On June 5, the Sunni Islamist militant group calling itself the ‘Islamic State’ went on the rampage, beginning its offensive in northern Iraq. Since then, ISIS or ISIL as it is now known has wreaked terror through Syria as well, taking its extreme agenda as far westwards as the border with Turkey – and now, eastwards, towards the border with Israel.
Thinking of Israel, we know that apart from the thousands upon thousands of people terrorised, injured and killed across Syria and Iraq, violent conflict has not been confined to the Islamists alone. On July 8, following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in June and the revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager, and in response to persistent rocket attacks into Israel, Israel launched a campaign it called ‘Operation Protective Edge’ inside the Palestinian Gaza Strip. Predictably, missile strikes gave way to a ground invasion, and in seven weeks of fighting, 2100 Palestinians and 72 Israelis were killed. Large parts of Gaza were left in complete ruin, and shockingly, UN schools were among the scores of buildings destroyed. Since then, successive parliaments – including, the House of Commons on October 13 – have voted to support the establishment of a Palestinian state, and right now, the Palestinian Authority is campaigning once again for United Nations recognition. Needless to say, Israel is campaigning vehemently against. Nevertheless, a recent poll shows that a majority of Israelis support a compromise with the Palestinians. So, will the outcome of the elections called for March 17 2015 make any difference to Israeli policy? Is there any hope of a negotiated settlement?
We are left with questions. While the Israel/Palestine conflict seems to defy resolution, following the withdrawal of British and American troops from Afghanistan after more than 13 years trying to defeat the Taliban, these fanatical extremists continue their deadly work. Perhaps the most shocking attack of them all, the murder by the Taliban on December 16, of 132 schoolchildren, and nine teachers, including the head teacher, when Taliban insurgents stormed a school in Peshawar, Pakistan.
What are we to make of this catalogue of violence and mayhem? I have not come here today to dampen our Shabbat spirits. I have chosen to highlight some of the horrific events of the past year because I am concerned, both, with the state of the world, and with how we, who live far away from these horrors, respond and live our lives here and now. I’m sure many of us have made donations to numerous emergency appeals, have signed online petitions, and may even have joined the occasional demonstration. But the issue I want to raise is not so much about how we respond here to what is going on there, and it’s not just about our capacity for compassion and empathy.
Developments in technology and the establishment of round-the-clock news coverage on our TVs, smart phones and tablets, means that many of us witness world events in real time, enhanced by HD digital images perennially flashing across our screens. Meanwhile, as almost complete immersion in world events becomes possible, ibox technology has millions hooked on avenues of escape from the harsh reality of the world around us that are almost totally dominated by images of extreme violence and destruction. Escapism seems to demand extremity and the bombardment of the senses. It’s almost as if in the face of the terrible images of real life and death in places like Syria, many people have lost the capacity to feel and sense their own less extraordinary real lives.
And I’m not just talking about developments in mass popular culture. The current Channel 5 TV series, ‘Ben Fogle: New Lives in the Wild,’ which focuses on people who have gone to live in extreme faraway locations – often with extreme weather conditions – raises questions about what motivates people to go and live on the edge. I found programme 4, broadcast on December 12, particularly provocative in this respect. In it Ben Fogle visited, and I quote: “40-year-old Gaynor Leeper, who gave up her job as a communications manager to live in a hand built cabin in northern Sweden, where she now trains huskies with a husband Milos.” That brief description does not mention that the couple live without running water or an inside toilet, and survive on meagre packaged foods in temperatures averaging -24°C. Okay, so as a middle-class Jew I find the notion of choosing to live in freezing temperatures incomprehensible, but how is it that ordinary people, who want for very little, feel the need to go to such extremes just to feel alive?
It seems to me that the core issue is an absence of meaning – which highlights a disturbing irony caught up in the world events I reviewed a few moments ago. Whatever we think about ISIS and Boko Haram and the Taliban, and however outraged and disgusted we are by their fundamentalist ideology and murderous terror tactics, what all these extremist groups have in common is a powerful sense of meaning and purpose. As the failed strategies of the British and Americans in Iraq and Pakistan have demonstrated, it is not possible to defeat violent extremism with military violence, and the resort to torture is as ineffective as it is unethical. Taking up arms against these extremists and torturing those captured only serves to reinforce their sense of grievance and their dedication to their mission.
The only response that has any chance of overcoming these forces of terror is one rooted in the determination to make meaning out of chaos with the assertion of the life affirming values of dignity, compassion, justice and equality. How did the schoolchildren who survived the Peshawar massacre respond? By putting on their school uniforms and going back to school. How did Malala Yousafzi respond when, as a 15-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl, who campaigned for girls’ education, she was shot in the forehead and left for dead by the Taliban? By summoning up her personal resources to survive the attack, and re-dedicating her life to the cause of education for all the world’s children.
Very few people here in Britain face such grave challenges, but each individual has the responsibility to do their best in the context of their circumstances to realise their potential; each one of us is challenged to do all that we can to make our lives matter – whoever we are and wherever we live – and to make efforts to enhance the lives of others around us, and make our contribution to repairing the world.
This is one of the messages of the Joseph story we are reading about at the moment, which occupies the last four portions the Book of Genesis (chapters 37 to 50). Was Joseph singularly different, or was he simply, more aware of the need to make his individual life have meaning and purpose, and to make a difference to the lives of others? Because Joseph succeeded superbly, we think of him as exceptional, but perhaps all that was exceptional about him was his capacity to dream, and his determination to realise his dreams.
And so, too, Malala Yousafzi: a Joseph – Yosef – for our time; with the vision to see beyond oppression and persecution; the courage to re-build her life; and the determination and application to make a difference, and inspire others to follow her example.
I have focused on particularly appalling events in the world during the past year. Round the clock visual news coverage thrives on sensational images. We know that there are plenty of people the world over living ordinary lives just like us – even in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria, even in Israel and Gaza. Every single one of us has but one life to live. May all of us – each one of us – live our lives as fully and deeply as possible in the year ahead: for our own sakes, for the sake of our loved ones and our congregation, for the sake of all the different communities we inhabit, and for the sake of the world. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
27th December 2014 – 5th Tevet 5775