Why are we here today? There are many possible responses to this question. Some of us are here today on Rosh Ha-Shanah morning because we were here last year, and the year before, and the year before that. Of course, I realise that the use of the word ‘here’ needs to be qualified. This year, we are here in our beautiful new synagogue building; we are celebrating the Jewish New Year for the first time in our stunning new congregational home – and isn’t it wonderful! But the response that says I’m here today because I’m here every year is not about physical location. It speaks of habit and commitment.
As it happens, some people are attending a Rosh Ha-Shanah morning service for the first time. It’s a new experience – at turns, bewildering and fascinating and awe-inspiring. Some people are here because Rosh Ha-Shanah marks a threshold between the past year and the unknown future that lies ahead, and they appreciate the opportunity to make a new beginning. Some are here because they are consciously choosing to embark on a journey of t’shuvah, of ‘return’; of self-examination and repentance that will conclude on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Some are drawn to attend each year, not just because that’s something that they always do, but because they are enticed by the prospect of listening to the blasts of the shofar, the ram’s horn, which is the distinctive defining ritual of Rosh Ha-Shanah.
I’ve mentioned a few possible responses to the question, why are we here today? There are many more possible responses. No doubt, some of you are reflecting on your reasons for being here, as I speak. Ultimately, the question is not, why are we here? The question is why am I here? Whatever our responses, each one of us is addressed by this question. And then, another question clamours for attention: what am I doing here? After all, we are not spectators. We are not onlookers witnessing a spectacle. Each one of us is a participant in the drama. And despite our familiarity with the drama – like a play by William Shakespeare, so well-known that we are able to anticipate the famous speeches and what’s going to happen next – the script of our particular Rosh Ha-Shanah drama is only an edifice. We are the characters, and however well we know the familiar lines of the liturgy, we are challenged to find between the familiar lines our own language to explore the unique drama of our lives and articulate our tasks and our responsibilities towards others.
The word ‘journey’ has been so overused in contemporary culture that for many people it has ceased to convey real meaning. That is very unfortunate because it is a very important word – or rather, concept – that expresses something fundamental about the existential human condition. We share so much with all the other creatures of the Earth, but there is a crucial defining difference: our awareness that life is not just about surviving today. We are conscious that we are on a journey from birth to death. And so, even those who are here today because they were here last year and the year before, are aware that with the passing years, quite apart from the particular events and moments that mark each year of our lives as distinctive, we are experiencing the physical signs that tell us that we are growing older.
And so, we are not simply here today, each one of us is summoned here today to act; to reflect on the past year; to think about what we did and what we didn’t do; to examine our relationships with the significant people in our lives, and what we have done and not done to nourish and cherish those relationships. And we are challenged to act because whatever we do or don’t do, as the Latin dictum puts it, tempus fugit, ‘time flies’; so let us transform the inexorable journey of our lives from birth to death into a journey of purpose and meaning.
Significantly, the human existential condition is also, specifically, the Jewish existential condition. The narratives we find in the Torah tell us that the story of the Jewish people begins with a journey: the journey of Abraham and Sarah, our first ancestors, who left their land, their kindred, and their family home to walk towards new horizons. From that first journey: journey followed journey followed journey. Interestingly, the Torah uses very simple language. It speaks of ‘going’ and ‘walking’: the Hebrew root, Hei Lamed Kaf conveys both. There is no sense of urgency or menace: to go is simply that; to put one foot in front of the other. But the sense of purpose is important. That’s why it is appropriate to speak of a journey. A journey has a destination. In the case of Abraham and Sarah, they were on a journey to a land that the Eternal One promised to show them.
But of course, that first journey was complicated. For one thing, it had a beginning, but it turned out to be an endless journey that did not end even, with their deaths – first the death of Sarah;  then the death of Abraham. And it also included other journeys – not least, the three day journey that Abraham took with his son Isaac from B’eir Sheva, where the family lived, to Mount Moriah; a journey that occurred shortly after, at Sarah’s behest, Abraham had banished his first-born son Ishmael and concubine, Hagar, from the family home into the wilderness. Both of these perilous journeys constitute the Torah readings for Rosh Ha-Shanah, which we read in alternate years. This year, we will be reading about Abraham and Isaac’s excruciating journey.
We learn from these two particular journeys that taking a journey involves courage, trust and hope: the courage of Abraham and Isaac; the courage of Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham’s trust that he would not, in the end, have to sacrifice his son, and as Isaac walked alongside his father, his trust that his father would not do him any harm. Hagar’s trust that she and her son would not be abandoned to die in the desert. And for all these characters in these epic dramas, perhaps a sense of hope, also, helped them to overcome their fear of what lay before them: the hope of survival; the hope of a future.
From the days of our first ancestors until today, migration has been an integral element of Jewish experience. In the contemporary debates about immigration, which reached a crescendo in the EU referendum campaign a few months ago, the on-going assumption seems to be, not only that immigration is a problem, but that somehow migration is abnormal; as if people haven’t been leaving their home countries for millennia. And then there is the curious opposition that is created between ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’. While many would say that Britain and other countries should provide a refuge to those in flight from persecution, they also argue that the borders should be closed to those who are motivated by economic considerations, and are simply in search of a better life for themselves and their families. The basic problem with this argument, which assumes a binary division between ‘migrants’ and ‘refugee’s is that it ignores the stark reality of poverty and economic hardship in so many countries across the globe. Yes, many millions of people are driven from their homes by war, persecution and tyranny, but many millions more don’t have enough food for themselves and their families. As one of the richest nations in the world, the insistence that a distinction be made between deserving refugees and undeserving migrants is outrageous. Just imagine the desperation for migrants and refugees alike that drives them to leave their homes with the few possessions they can carry and take such hazardous journeys.
So, what to do? In an ideal world, there would be no borders. But we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world, dominated by a global capitalist economy, in which the division between the haves and have-nots is getting wider, not narrower. We live in a world, pockmarked by despicable tyrannical regimes, riven by conflict and division, ravaged by war. In such a world – the real world – we have to prioritise, and, of course, the number one priority for the prosperous nations, including Britain, must be to ensure safe refuge for the millions in flight from violence and terror – in particular, those fleeing from the deadly conflict in Syria. In this respect, let us applaud German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who in the immediate aftermath of bomb and knife attacks in Germany this past summer that increased the volume of anti-immigration hysteria to fever pitch, reasserted Germany’s commitment to take in refugees. Of course, it’s no accident that Germany is providing the lead. Given the recent history of that nation’s descent into hell during the Nazi period, followed by its division between the capitalist West and the communist East, the affirmation of humanitarian values represents the only decent antidote to tyranny.
Interestingly, the narratives in the Torah also reveal a distinction between ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’ – on both an individual and a collective level. And so, in the story of Jacob and his twin brother Esau, after Jacob cheated Esau out of their father’s blessing as the firstborn, he fled from Esau’s wrath, terrified that Esau might kill him. We read that Jacob ‘went towards Charan’: va-yeilech Charanah,  to the place where his grandparents and his mother came from. But Jacob’s journey does not represent a simple reversal of those original journeys. The verse begins: Va-yeitzei mi-B’eir Shava – ‘He went out from B’eir Sheva.’ As I mentioned earlier, the Hebrew root Hei Lamed Kaf, simply means to ‘go’ or to ‘walk’. By contrast, the Hebrew root, Yud Tzadi Aleph means to go out, and is also used for the exodus of the slaves from Egypt. Unlike, Abraham and Sarah and Rebekah before him, who went on their journeys, Jacob ran for his life.
Nevertheless, despite this distinction between the experience of those who go and those who flee, the justice legislation in the Torah makes it clear that when it comes to geirim, sojourners, regardless of how they came to be sojourners, they are to be treated equally with the home-born. In parashat K’doshim, Leviticus chapter 19, known as the ‘Holiness code’, which will be our Torah reading on Yom Kippur afternoon, we find these verses:
And when strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. / The sojourners that sojourn with you shall be to you as the home-born among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt: I am the Eternal your God.
Ki geirim heyitem b’eretz mitzrayim – ‘for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.’ Our sojourn in Egypt was over 3000 years ago, and even the continual repetition of that experience in the daily liturgy, each Shabbat, and every year at Pesach, with the associated Pesach rituals, cannot transform what happened long ago into felt experience. Tomorrow (October 4) marks the 80th anniversary of ‘The Battle of Cable Street’, when, proclaiming ‘they shall not pass,’ the residents of the East End came together to prevent Oswald Mosley’s fascist ‘black shirts’ from marching through the streets. But only a tiny number of Jews now remain in the East End, and we have largely lost touch with the experience of grandparents and great grandparents who arrived there in flight from persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe. Indeed, even our proximity to the Sho’ah, and the presence of refugees and survivors from Nazism amongst us, cannot bridge the gulf between their experience of terror and tyranny and our lives today.
Of course, as soon as we think about the presence of refugees and survivors here in our own congregation, we are also conscious, as we enter this sacred season, of a yawning absence, following the death on July 14of our beloved Emeritus President, Hans Levy, Zichrono Livrachah – May his memory be for blessing. Like other Jewish children, who came to this country on the kindertransports, Hans never saw his parents again. Hans shared with us his own particular, personal story of the Sho’ah. But he did much more than provide us with glimpses of the terror and loss he had experienced. Embracing life with joy, and responding to everyone he met with generosity and kindness, Hans showed us, by his example, that life is a gift to be lived and enjoyed. The question is, can we learn from Hans’ example? Can we really enter into the story of his life – the whole story, including how Hans chose to live his life, after the kindertransport gave him the gift of life? Even in the case of a beloved, familiar presence in our midst for so many years, can we bridge the gulf between his experience of life as a refugee, forced to flee his country, his kindred and his parents’ home and our experience of life today?
Maybe we can’t. But that doesn’t mean that we can abrogate our responsibility in relation to the plight of migrants and refugees today. To return to the question that I asked a few moments ago: So, what to do? Brighton and Hove has been designated as a City of Sanctuary, an oasis of welcome for refugees. But what does this mean in practice? Here at Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, we have a weekly collection of non-perishable foods and toiletries for refugees, supported by the charity, Brighton Voices in Exile. I know that our collection, urgently needed, is appreciated. It is the minimum that we can do to make a difference to the lives of the strangers in our midst. We need to do more. And when I say ‘we’, each one of us needs to ask ourselves what else we can do, personally. Within the lifetime of some of us, ordinary people in this country opened their homes to lone refugee children fleeing Nazism. Such generous hospitality is required today in conjunction with the requisite support services from the wider community, including, counselling, sports activities and language classes; whatever it takes for young refugees to rebuild their lives.
I began this sermon a few minutes ago by suggesting that we need to ask ourselves the question: what am I doing here? As with the Torah maxims to love our neighbours and the stranger as ourselves, at the heart of Jewish teaching is the awareness that in order to act in the world for good, each one of us is challenged, as philosopher and biblical commentator Martin Buber, put it, ‘to begin with oneself ’. But Buber did not leave it there. He wrote:
To begin with oneself, but not to end with oneself; to start from oneself, but not to aim at oneself; to comprehend oneself, but not to be preoccupied with oneself.
In an important sense, Buber’s reflection summarises our task today on Rosh Ha-Shanah, and for the days that follow until we arrive at Yom Kippur. We have begun a journey together; we have begun our own individual journeys in the company of one another. We have begun with ourselves. The challenge for each one of us is not to end with ourselves, but rather to consider our responsibility towards others, in particular, the most vulnerable and marginal in our midst. I would like to close by quoting the famous dictum of the sage Hillel, included in Pirkey Avot, the ‘Chapters of the Sages’ appended to the Mishnah. The wisdom of Hillel’s words transcends the centuries to address all of us today: 
Im eyn ani li, mi ani? If I’m not for myself, who will be for me?
U’ch’she’ani l’atzmi, mah ani? But if I’m only for myself, what am I?
V’im lo achshav, eimatai? And if not now, when?
If not now, when will we begin to repair ourselves and our relationships, our society and our world? If not today, on Rosh Ha-Shanah, on the day that we embark on our journeys of renewal, when will we make a commitment to embrace all those who journey in search of a new life?
Kein y’hi ratzon: May this be our will. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom V’rei’ut
Rosh Ha-Shanah Shacharit 5777 – 3rd October 2016
- Genesis 12:1-4. ↑
- Gen. 12:1. ↑
- Gen. 23:1-2. ↑
- Gen. 25:8. ↑
- Gen. 22:1 ff. ↑
- Gen. 21:1 ff. ↑
- Traditionally, there are two days for Rosh Ha-Shanah. Genesis 21 is read on the first day, and Genesis 22 on the second. In Liberal Judaism, where Rosh Ha-Shanah is observed for one day only, these readings may be read in alternate years. They are both found in the LJ prayerbook for Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, Machzor Ruach Chadashah (London, 2003, pp.123-128). ↑
- Genesis 22: 6; 8: va-yeil’chu sh’neihem yachdav – ‘and the two of them walked on together.’ ↑
- A train attack at Würzburg on July 18 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-36827725On July 22, the fifth anniversary of a series of attacks were perpetrated by far right extremist Anders Breivik in Norway on July 22, 2011 ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-14260297 ) an 18-year-old, suffering with mental illness, killed nine people in Munich before killing himself: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-3688060 On July 24 two more attacks in Germany: a 21-year-old Syrian refugee killed a woman with a kebab knife in Reutlingen http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-36882445 and a 27-year-old Syrian refugee blew himself up in Ansbach, injuring fifteen others, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-36882831 ‘Merkel rules out migrant policy reversal after attacks’: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-36912141 ↑
- Genesis 28:10. ↑
- The Exodus was later referred to by the first rabbis as yitzi’at Mitzrayim, ‘the going out of Egypt’. See: The blessing of day recited on Erev Shabbat (Siddur Lev Chadash, Liberal Judaism, London, 1995, pp. 564-5. ↑
- Leviticus 19:34-35. ↑
- The Borough of Tower Hamlets has organised the festival: http://www.towerhamletsarts.org.uk/?cid=61727&guide=Events JW3, the London Jewish Cultural Centre has also planned a calendar of events to mark the anniversary: https://www.jw3.org.uk/cablestreet ↑
- https://brighton-and-hove.cityofsanctuary.org/2015/06/10/what-makes-brighton-hove-a-city-of-sanctuary For local campaigns and projects in support of refugees and migrants in Brighton and Hove, see: Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Migrants Directory: https://www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/sites/brighton-hove.gov.uk/files/Refugee%2C%20Asylum%20Seekers%20and%20Migrants%20Directory%20March%202016%20FINAL.pdf ↑
- See: JCORE’s (Jewish Council for Racial Equality) campaign concerning unaccompanied minors: http://www.jcore.org.uk/campaigning ↑
- Leviticus 19:18; 34. ↑
- Martin Buber, The Way of Man According To The Teachings Of Hasidism. (Pendle Hill Publications, Wallingford, 2002, 35). ↑
- Pirkey Avot, ‘Chapters of the Sages’ (Mishnah Tractate N’zikin): 1:14. The Mishnah, the first rabbinic code of law was redacted c. 200 CE. ↑