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

Rosh Hashana Sermon Day 1 5773

The vulnerability of life and how we deal with it – do we actually feel the vulnerability or do we shield ourselves from this – if we shield ourselves from this what consequences do that have for us – if we do not shield ourselves how does that make us feel – how can we deal with those feelings and if we do deal with them where do we end up. The effect of the ego on all this – humility.

I want to take you all back to 2000. I had just finished praying the evening service at the end of the second day of Rosh Hashana in my yeshiva. My yeshiva was in a town called Efrat, in the Etzion Block just south of Jerusalem. I could see over the valley to Alon Shvut. I could see up the valley towards Jerusalem, with Beit Lechem, or Bethlehem between us. It was beautiful. But something changed on that Rosh Hashana. Loudspeakers called across the valley telling everyone to stay in their home and not come out as there was gunfire. It was dangerous. I ran home to tell Elisheva – and we were frightened. This was the start of what became known as the second Intifada. And it would last beyond our coming to England and me taking up the position of Rabbi in Kingston. It was a difficult few years living in Israel. There were regular suicide bombings, shootings and other attacks. I remember how my wife would take a daily trip on what was called the ‘tunnel road’ from Efrat to Jerusalem, a trip of say 45 minutes door to door – and I would be nervous day after day that anything would happen. We would open newspapers and want to see the faces of those who had been killed. We would want to learn their stories, where they came from, what they were doing in life.

I believe that at this point, I was struck more than before with the feeling that life was truly a vulnerable existence. That the distance between life, and death was so small. It was maybe introduced to me at the passing of my grandparents – but I was younger then, and they seemed old and so passing on to the next work at the appropriate time. But the intifada made you think. The cause of this thinking was cruel, was heinous – but it was outside of our control. It just happened. Would I survive this bus journey. What will happen if I will go to the Jerusalem market to buy some Shabbat food this Friday? Is it safe in this restaurant? The crazy randomness of being a victim of the Intifada meant that everyone was affected.

What is this vulnerability? Is it driven by things that mean so much to us in this world? Are we traumatised by the hairs breadth that separates us from death because we have so much to finish and complete in this world of supreme importance. Meaning must drive vulnerability. Surely it is not that I fear my own life presence. It that I want to be around those I love and care for without the separation that the next world entails.

And so having children is a sure way to think about vulnerability of life. The pregnancy and all its possible complications, the child birth – and then there is the small matter of bringing children up and the immense difficulty of letting go of them. We don’t let them out of our sight as we begin to feel the vulnerability that they will then undergo in a threatening world.  I’ve been there, done that and got the t-shirt. As I am sure I have mentioned before, this link of vulnerability was heightened for us when one of our children had open heart surgery when only 3 months old at such a young age. Of course a lot of this was created through our love and devotion to our child – the operation was given a 97% success rate in the hospital where we were. But statistics cannot dictate to vulnerability – it is driven more by the fear of loss.

I want to take you back to the Akeida, the Binding of Isaac by his father Abraham at the bidding of God. Abraham is asked to kill something that he so much missed in his life – a child from Sarah. This request is difficult from whichever way we look at it. But we must remember – according to the actual text, both Abraham and Isaac survive. Yes, we assume they are affected, traumatised by the event. But they live. Yet according to the Midrash, insights of the Rabbis, we are told that Sarah actually died.

Here is how the famous commentary Rashi puts it – ‘Why does the Torah tell of the death of Sarah after the Binding of Isaac? Because as a result of learning about the Binding – that her son had been destined for slaughter and all but slaughtered – her soul flew away and she died’