Sermon by Rabbi Raymond Apple at the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, Lauderdale Road, London, 7 January 1989This Shabbat we have read of events that mark a turning point in Moses’ life. He is standing at the Burning Bush. God calls to him to liberate Israel. Moses is moved, thrilled, excited, as his destiny unfolds. Every impulse in him strains to go ahead and carry out his mission.
Yet somehow he holds back, afraid, apprehensive. For several chapters he struggles with himself. The hugeness of the task is daunting – “Is Pharaoh going to listen to me?” He feels inadequate: “Who am I to be going to Pharaoh?” A more capable man ought to go – “Please send somebody else!”
All of this rather surprises us. The great, talented Moses – what’s this about him being inadequate? And then we realise: Moses has a handicap. Lo ish devarim anochi, he says: “I am not a speaker, I never have been and I’m not now… I am slow of speech, I have no command of words!”
Moses, with all his gifts, is no orator. He stammers. He knows his handicap. And at this moment it overwhelms him. Success or failure is up to me, he reasons; with my drawbacks I might ruin everything.
It’s an existentialist crisis that points to a universal human problem – the sometimes tragic effects of a handicap on a person’s life.
But it’s not only handicaps that can be a problem. Advantages, boons, blessings can be an even bigger problem. Remember that book called “1066 And All That”? Its comforting judgement on certain parts of history was that event A or B was “a good thing”. Life gives us many a good thing – but sometimes we have to overcome it.
The boons of 20th-century technological society have enriched human life in unprecedented measure, and we could not imagine life without them. Yet if a Biblical Balaam could find the words of curse turned to blessing in his mouth, our experience seems to have been the opposite. Blessings have turned to curses in our hands.
Will Herberg, the American Jewish writer, has said, “Everything modem man has touched has turned to ashes; every achievement of his has been transformed before his very eyes into a demonic force of destruction. His marvels of organisation have taken form in organised despotism, organised slavery, organised mass-murder; his visions of permanent peace, in a succession of world wars; his fervent hopes of freedom, in universal regimentation and totalitarian dictatorship; his dreams of brotherhood and social justice, in the reign of terror, naked and unashamed…”
What should we have been constructing with the opportunities that medicine, mass-communication, better education, heightened awareness of others, and so much else has offered us?
A world of which, to parallel Herberg’s words, it might have been said that: “Everything modem man has touched has turned to blessing; everything that could bring destruction has been turned to peaceful ends. His marvels of organisation have ensured that all men equally enjoy rights to liberty, dignity and the pursuit of happiness; his visions of permanent peace, that wars are banished from the minds of men; his fervent hopes of freedom, that freedom of speech and worship, freedom from fear and want, prevail everywhere; his dreams of brotherhood and social justice, that tolerance and understanding are universal.”
I think of Jewish life in sunny God-blessed Australia which has so greatly enjoyed its year-long bicentenary celebration. How many countries can boast of such an almost unbroken record of freedom and equality in which Jewish citizens were from the outset part of the fabric of the nation?
Yet too often the blessings of Australia were also its curses. Too often Jews failed to make the effort to stir themselves as Jews because life was pleasant and comfortable and it was easier not to be different. If today there are a hundred thousand Jews in Australia, there should have been seven hundred thousand. But, especially in the pre-modern period, too many let themselves get lost and their faith had an uncertain future in a land in which it could have flourished.
Only the new trends, the new events, the new people, the new circumstances of the last fifty years have made a transformation possible; today the Jews of the Antipodes continue to enjoy the sunshine and security, but they are increasingly determined that their children will be Jewish despite it all.
Anglo-Jewry too has had blessings that almost became handicaps to overcome. Like the British Empire, Anglo-Jewry was stable, solid, civilised, conservative with a small “c”. It followed what Chief Rabbi Hertz called “the Anglo-Jewish position in theology”. It was a great and famous community, but its very gentility was almost its undoing. The gentility was and remains a precious possession, but too often it was Jewishly threadbare and the fire and passion had gone out of establishment orthodoxy.
Today, thanks to Israel, thanks to Jewish education, thanks to the sudden shock that came from the discovery that the future was not so certain after all, Judaism in Anglo-Jewry has become more positive, with more neshamah more heart and soul and might.
Yet in turn that blessing of more unapologetic orthodoxy has also not been without its problems. When isolationist orthodoxy starts on its heresy-hunting (“your tzitzit are not as long as my tzitzit, your kosher is not as glatt as my kosher, your rabbi does not have a beard, or he reads non-Jewish books…” or in Australia, the ultimate allegation that he has been seen at the beach), that’s when one begins to hanker after a little of the good breeding and courtesy and gentility that were so unceremoniously abandoned.
Israel too is not without its elements of blessing that must be protected from becoming something far less savoury. Let me say that for me, as for so many, Israel is Biblical prophecy come true, ancient dreams realised, the miracle of the ages, the hand of God in human history, the true first footsteps of the coming of the Messiah. For every good reason I love Israel with a passion that holds my whole being in thrall – but it is a passion that sometimes sends its shivers through me as I think of opportunities lost or squandered, blessings unappreciated or frittered away, moments allowed simply to evaporate.
Moments like the Six Day War moved even the least outwardly emotional and religious amongst Israelis and fellow Jews everywhere, but instead of linking hands with each other to prolong the miracle and to share a chorus of Shema Yisra’el we have continued to tear each other apart and to waste good agony and energy on arguing over how the Knesset should define a Jew when in fact it is no business of the Knesset to define Jewishness or Judaism at all.
Opportunities such as the times when the world was or could have been on Israel’s side but we left the public relations and propaganda race to the Arabs… and it’s not simply that they may have had more financial resources.
Opportunities to create a society that would be a light unto the nations, but there were so many parties, so many vested interests, so many old scores to settle, and Israel itself was the loser.
Opportunities in the Diaspora to be part of the drama of Israel by making Aliyah, or at least encouraging children and grandchildren to find their destiny there and create what can only be created in Israel; by learning and using basic Hebrew words; by bringing Israeli products into our homes and the spirit of Israel into our lives; by being uplifted in our Judaism because ours was the privileged generation enabled to be there when the miracle happened – so often the chance of a lifetime was there and we bungled it.
Yes, Moses had his handicaps. So often what we have is blessings but we are not wise enough to understand what to do with them.
Life, personal life, family life, Jewish life, brings its pleasures, its joys, its chances, more often than we think.
O God, help us to recognise the blessings, to cherish them, to utilise them wisely and be worthy of the opportunities they offer us. O God, endow us with the imagination, the inspiration to make our blessings even greater; protect us from our stupidity or laziness.
O God, help us to count our blessings, and to be a blessing.