SERMON 26th July 2014
“God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites, and say to them: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, so that a slayer who kills a person without intent may flee there. The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, so that the slayer may not die until there is a trial before the congregation.” (Numbers:35.9 – 12)
A refuge from the avenger – a device so that the long tradition of personal revenge should be removed from Israel, and a system of justice take its place. Historically we can find the same change in other ancient societies – no more vendettas, but an agreed system which everyone will abide by. Modern societies scarred by constant war have tried to do the same with warfare – setting up the League of Nations after World War I and the United Nations after World War II. These international bodies are supposed to replace war with debate, violence with disagreement, armed conflict with peace forces. But their lack of success has been all too evident over the years, so sadly for Israel and Gaza the cycle of violence continues, and that same word MIKLAT used in the Torah for the city of refuge has become an air raid shelter. At a Yachad meeting on Wednesday evening this week a group of us heard from the remarkable Gershon Baskin down the line from Israel, who after years and years of having his peace negotiation efforts frustrated totally refuses to give up. He told us how the nine months of negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians was frustrated by the total refusal of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to sit in the same room and talk to Mahmoud Abbas. He also told us also how eight years of trying hard to get Hamas to talk to Israelis has been consistently blocked by the total refusal of Hamas officials to talk to any Israeli official. Gershon is alarmed. He pointed out that a month ago Hamas support was down to 15% of Gazans, their finances weakened by the closure by Egypt of the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. The longer the Israeli campaign goes on, the stronger they will get, he told us, because you cannot use a deterrent against people who are not afraid to die. You cannot do a deal with Hamas, so the only way forward is to disarm them. He is trying hard to get Jordanian and Egyptian troops into Gaza to take away their weapons. In return for that disarmament, Israel will have to lift its blockades so there is a real and immediate peace dividend. It sounds an unlikely way to peace, but Gershon Baskin is very serious about it, and despite setback after setback he will keep trying. He is an inspiration to all of us.
What sermons, I wonder, are being preached around the world this shabbat about the war in Gaza? No doubt there are very different views being expressed. I am indebted to Rabbi Lea Muhlstein for drawing my attention to this:
We may dream of the glorious age when: ‘They shall turn their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more [Isaiah 2:4].’ That is a dream which seems far from realisation especially today, when nations are armed to the teeth and intent on inflicting as much harm as possible, when ploughshares are being beaten into swords and fields turned into mortuaries.
It’s the last words “fields turned into mortuaries” which gives it away. That sermon wasn’t from last week, but from 15th August 1914, a hundred years ago, spoken by Rabbi Abraham Cohen at Singers Hill in Birmingham. Two weeks ago, Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein organised and hosted an international conference at West London Synagogue on Rabbis’ sermons from the first world war. The record is a fascinating one because here we have a major conflict with Jews on both sides, and both arguing that it is a just war. Rabbis in Austria, Germany and Italy were calling in 1914 for a glorious victory, without realising how terrible this conflict was to become. Rabbis in France were equally patriotic on their own side. Thus Rabbi Dreyfuss in Paris on Rosh Hashanah 1914:
encouraged by the glorious success of our valiant soldiers , their indomitable will to win, and their success which is the harbinger of final triumph, I finish, my brothers, with the words of the prophet Isaiah, words of serenity and hope. Ah! Brothers, this consoling vision of the prophet, can be realized soon, after the military victory, in the fullness of our honour and in the integrity of our patriotic heritage!
By contrast, here was Rabbi Morris Joseph at West London Synagogue just a couple of weeks later at Sukkot 1914:
Part of the tragedy of War lies in the demoralisation, not only of the combatants, but of the spectators. We read with equanimity of the slaughter of thousands of our fellow-creatures, especially if they are enemies, heedless of their agony, forgetful, too, of the fact that every human life thus sacrificed means at least one other darkened and ruined. There are those who protest against the inclusion in a modern service of a War-cry like the Song of Moses, with its appeal to primitive passions, its glorification of the All Father as A GOD OF WAR its shouts of triumph over the fallen foe. But have they any right to protest – they whose hearts are chanting a like paean almost every day in these times? “I never dreamt,” said an aged friend to me the other day, “I never dreamt that my last years would be darkened by this world-shaking war, and is it not dreadful to think that we rejoice at news that tells of widespread ruin and death?
Rabbi Lea and I have been putting together a selection of these 1914 sermons for our joint study session on Tisha Be’Av this year, which falls on the 100th anniversary of the declaration of war. We do hope you will join us.
Back to our sedra, where we learn that the person who fled to one of the arey miklat had to stay there until the high priest died (Numbers 35:25). How strange! He could be there for ten days or fifty years. But what it does teach is that for the cycle of violence to end, something significant has to change. The rabbis imagined the mother of the high priest spending her time knitting articles of clothing for the exiles in the city of refuge, in the hope that they would think kindly of her and not pray for her son’s death to release them from exile. It is a very heimishe image for a section of the Torah about bloodshed. And perhaps also it is an inspiring idea, for we know that reconciliation can be built through tiny acts. We must reach out, we must find a way, we must never cease in our efforts to build a more peaceful world.
First World War Sermons are quoted with acknowledgment to http://religionandwar.org/
READ THE FOLLOW UP: PLANNING BEYOND CATASTROPHE