Muswell Hill Synagogue
Metzora + HaGadol 19/20 April 7.49pm 8.56pm

Rosh Hashana Day 2 Sermon – On Being a Stranger

When I was in my first year of University, back in 1991, I soon became Chair of my Jewish society. It wasn’t exactly a big task to become chair. Only one other Jewish student wanted the position – and we shared it for the year. I had a great year. Lots of speakers. Lots of student politics. Lots of angering the Socialist workers students. I had followed Dave Rich, who is a member of our Shul, who helped me and advised me greatly. Dave even worked a way that we could jointly propose a motion to our union together with the Palestine Society, which supported the Madrid Peace conference. The motion was not earth shattering – but proposing a motion jointly with Palestinians was big – those were the days!
But I remember one aspect of this work that irked me. It was always hard to build a relationship with the Israel society. They somewhat begrudged the fact that we in the JSoc would get so interested in what is going on in Israel. Either they would not stand with us, or would be openly critical. I learned something then about the gulf that existed, and in some ways still exists between the Jewish existence in the state of Israel, and outside of Israel in the Diaspora.
Of course this ideaological difference between Israel and the Diaspora was early on a part of Zionist thought. In 1933 David Ben Gurion was writing:
‘From its beginnings, our movement was created by the rebellion of pioneer youth against the misery of Jewish life, the shamefeul reality of the diaspora…’
The idea was to build in Ben Gurion’s words, ‘in place of rootless diaspora life – efforts to build and be productive on the soil of the homeland’
The movement from a diasporic existence to independence in the Land of Israel was also championed by religious leaders such as Rabbi Avraham Kook, who was the first Chief Rabbi in pre State Palestine. I remember learning a conceptual framework of Rav Kook where he argued that hewed into the essence of our nationhood, our national identity is a pendulum. It is a pendulum that swings between an overriding spiritual, religious existence of our nation; and a physical and more external existence. Rav Kook felt that we had existed too long in the diaspora as a nation of religious and cognitive development. We had created myriad scholarly works and developed an understanding of a Jewish religious life. But now the pendulum needed to swing to the other side. We needed a State, a physical structured existence. We needed to end the life of exile.
But is the Jewish existence in exile, outside of the Land of Israel so alien to who we are. On the other hand, is the land of Israel essential and central to our Jewish identity? It is of course the place where the forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov traversed. It is the land that God promised to them. But crucially and curiously to be honest, the Torah was not given in the Land of Israel. This is a question many commentaries ask actually – why was the Torah given outside the Land of Israel. Why not take the Children of Israel out of Egypt, take them through the Reed Sea, through the desert, after 40 years into Israel – and then as they enter Israel, present them with the Torah, the map of their independent national existence.
Here is an answer given by the Jewish thinker, Michael Wyschogryd in his book ‘Body of Faith’
‘[T]he national identities of other nations are land-bound identities. The nation is defined by the territory it occupies. But [the Jewish nation] comes into national existence before it occupies the land. It becomes a nation on the basis of a promise delivered to it when it is a stranger in the land of others. This awareness of being a stranger is burned into Jewish consciousness. The God of Israel is not a God whose jurisdiction is defined by territorial boundaries’
A similar point is made by our previous Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks:
‘The fact that in Judaism the Torah was given bemidbar, in the desert, before they had even entered the land, meant that uniquely Jews and Judaism were able to survive, their identity intact, even in exile. Because the law came before the land, even when Jews lost the land they still had the law. This meant that even in exile, Jews were still a nation. God remained their sovereign. The covenant was still in place. Even without a geography, they had an ongoing history. Even before they entered the land, Jews had been given the ability to survive outside the land.’
And here to me lies a crucial point in understanding who we are as a people. Exile is important to us. Not because we don’t want to be in Israel. Not because of any lack of love for the land of Israel or the State of Israel. Exile is important because it is there that we learn what it means to be a stranger. There we learn to live with an element of insecurity.
This is an idea that is developed by Rabbi Natan Lopez Cordozo in his book ‘For the Love of Israel and the Jewish People – I am quoting him for a second time this Yom Tov season. Rabbi Cordozo quotes the Talmud, which notes that the commandment to be concerned for the welfare of the stranger is repeated 49 times in the Torah. This therefore makes loving the stranger quite an essential part of being Jewish. Furthermore, we are asked to look after the stranger, because we ourselves were strangers. As the Torah says:
‘You know how it feels to be a stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt’
In Cordozo’s words, ‘It does not take much effort to realise that all of Jewish history is founded on the existence of ‘strangerhood’’ As he explains further, even the Torah was not given at home but ‘in an existential experience of foreignness’.
These are great words. What is more, if we are too secure, if we are over confident, if we are too sure of ourselves and our existence; then we may not be able to show interest for the plight of others. Paradoxically it is the presence of the sense of being a stranger, which allows us to relate the to strangerness felt by others. In the wonderful words of Rabbi Cordozo:
‘What this means is that to keep a nation sensitive about the condition of the ‘other; it must continue to live in some kind of strangerhood itself’
We may actually be able to call Rosh Hashana – A day of exile. Exile I feel is quite central to the experience of Rosh Hashana. The Talmud for instance explains that one of the ways that a person can do Teshuva and better his ways, is to exile himself. This may not of course be practical – sorry honey, I want to be a better guy – so I am off to the Lake District for a year…But the idea here is leaving the security of everyday existence with its stability, and shaking things up a little. The Rambam, Maimonides discusses the purpose behind blowing the shofar. He explains that even though we cannot know the absolute reason for God having commanded us to blow the Ram’s horn on Rosh Hashana. We can suggest what it is hinting to us, and that is that those who are sleeping and not concerned with how they act, should wake up from their slumber and search their deeds. This waking up is in effect a sense of exile, of leaving the comfort zone. It is the experience that Jonah the prophet had. He is running from God’s command and he finds a boat heading away from Israel. What does he do when he enters the boat – he descends to its bows and goes to sleep. Sleep here maybe, symbolises a sense of escaping his responsibility as a prophet.
I hope that you can see here that exile is not just something geographical. It is not simply about leaving a land and pining to return there. It can be a personal experience. It can also be a national experience. It is an experience of insecurity. Not the type of insecurity that makes it difficult to function. But an insecurity that allows someone to reflect on their actions and how their actions are affecting others.
I have seen this idea put so clearly in the thought of the great psychiatrist and logotherapist Viktor Frankl. Frankl developed a theory of mental health based on the need for a meaning in one’s life. And this would not be a meaning exposed. It would be a meaning freely chosen, and this meaning would allow someone to cope with extreme difficulty. But Frankl admits that searching for an overarching meaning in one’s life would lead to a degree of tension – and this was by no means abnormal or problematic. In Frankl’s words, ‘such a tension is inherent in the human being, and therefore is indispensable to mental well being’. In fact Frankl felt that it was ‘dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium’
So there we have it – Frankl’s tension is what I call exile. It is the tension according to Frank that exists between what I have already achieved and what I would like to achieve