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Rabbi Howard Cooper

Shabbat Lech L'cha 5781

You can listen to Rabbi Howard’s sermon or read it below.

It’s a truism to say that these are strange times, disturbing times, vexing times: if you are not feeling destabilised in some fundamental part of yourself, somehow on edge, unable to fully relax, fully let go and enjoy life in all its abundant richness, if you are feeling you have lost some essential inner calmness of spirit, or hopefulness about life, if you are finding yourself unable to get to sleep at night, or waking unnaturally early and unable to get back to sleep – if you are feeling any of that, or just unaccountably ill-at-ease, if this is how it is for you at the moment,  I have two things to say.

First: you are not alone, you may not have a context in which you can talk about this, or get to grips with it,  you may not even have the words to pin down these unsettled and unsettling feelings, you just know things aren’t right, but I can assure you – you are not alone in responding like this to what we are living with, and living through.

And secondly – this unsettledness you might be feeling, the edginess, the something unpindownable that you are feeling, not only are you  not alone in this but also what you are experiencing is entirely congruent with the external circumstances we are living through. What is going on is like a psychic, a psychological and spiritual, earthquake - because the tectonic plates beneath our feet are shifting, things which have been stable in our lives are becoming – more rapidly than we can adjust to – unstable. Things feel out of control, we feel out of control – because things are out of control.

Let’s look at just a few areas where this is true. Obviously, close to home, there is Covid, with all its ongoing uncertainties and disruptions and questions not only about whether we and our loved ones will survive this next 12 months, but about what aspects of our lives will ever return to some semblance of – that dread word – normality. Nobody’s in control of this disease, anywhere in the world, and I won’t get started on the government’s shambolic attempts to get a grip on the situation. We are having to manage daily anxieties about our own health, while at the same time adapt to how our everyday lives have been altered: in small, and sometimes large, ways we’ve had to leave behind – like Abraham – a world with which we were familiar.

How we met people , how we greeted people, where we travelled, how we travelled, where we prayed, where we played bridge, how we saw the doctor, how we planned for the future, so confidently, with such lightness of being – it’s all gone. We’ve had to leave it all behind, though we keep hoping we are going back. But we are not.  We can never re-set the  time button, as profoundly as we might wish we could.  

Abraham – not in the prime of his life, but in the second half of his life, and after a settled life in one domain - is told/commanded to leave behind his land, his birth community, his family roots, all the security of his life, and move on. And our Torah text dramatizes how he seems to have been able to do this: he submits his own will, his own needs, his own ties of affection and rootedness in what was familiar and secure, he lets go of all that everyday human clutching at what he had and submits to a call he hears, he experiences, an inner voice, urgent, insistent, unwelcome: Lech – Go. Lech – Let go. L’cha – it’s for you, for your own sake.

How do we follow that? We who can’t bear to let go, we who are feeling so destabilised, so ill-at-ease in our souls, at the shifting ground beneath our feet. I said right back in March, when Covid first came over the horizon and we were preparing for the first national lockdown – just as we are now preparing for the second one  - I said that we already had the virus, all of us, it was in our heads and our hearts, it was infiltrating into how we saw what was going on, how we felt about everything. And we still have that virus and all those symptoms I described earlier are part of that virus we are still carrying.

And none of us have Abraham’s gift, or courage, or madness, to just let go, move on, leave behind what gives us our security and stability. But the tectonic plates are shifting and they are forcing us to let go and move on from what we have grown up with in the world around us and believed would last forever. Like American democracy. We have seen these last four years - and in the weeks to come I fear we will see it confirmed – how thin is the fabric of America’s rootedness in democratic norms and conventions. And although that’s taking place 3000 miles from us, we are destabilised by what we see: the stoking of paranoid conspiracy theories, the assaults on truth, the championing  of hatred and divisiveness, the undermining of a scientific worldview, the undermining of public trust in the election itself. All of these spill over in one form or another into our body politic: in our globalised world the medical virus and the virus that corrodes social wellbeing are transnational.

When the word ‘fake’ is used as a code for ‘something I don’t like to hear’, where ‘reality’ becomes ‘what I decide it is’, where the dictatorship of feeling trumps rational thinking, we are in the world of psychosis. How can we remain unaffected by being witness to this? Even to say ‘witness’ is a distortion, we aren’t only witnesses; we are, willingly or unwillingly, participants in the world’s unfolding.

What is being shaken – in the US, in India, in Turkey, in Brazil, in Poland and Hungary – is democratic solidity, and the rule of law, and the reverberations of this penetrate our psyches too. Around the world, autocratic governments, authoritarian  governments, xenophobic governments, are on the rise – and I guess if you are Andy Burnham or another  civic leader in the North of England, you might have a thing or two to say about autocratic government closer to home.  

So I started by talking about what might be destabilising us – because we are porous - and I talked about Covid and this forthcoming inescapable collision between fantasy-based politics and democracy  in America, and of course we know about the third huge tectonic plate that is shifting beneath our feet, the environmental crisis, and how we are no longer rooted in a secure way, in the way we all grew up, our homeland belief, that the natural world around us would somehow go on unfolding in all its David Attenborough-tinged wondrous profusion, its miraculous multiplicity, for ever and ever. As the planet chokes and microplastic particles enter our lungs and the brains of unborn infants, how can we not feel ill-at-ease.

So: I’ve just named three of the tectonic plates shifting – and I haven’t even mentioned here in the UK the economy, or our imminent falling off the Brexit cliff, or the toxic levels of corruption and incompetence that we are having to breathe in. How do we find our feet in it all? Where is the solid ground?

When Zoe and I talked earlier in the week about the kinds of themes that are around for us all at the moment, and what I might pick up and talk about today, I probably bumbled through a few of these issues and then she asked the good rabbinic question – especially good from a cantor (it’s hard to tease on Zoom, the affection probably gets lost) but it was, seriously, a good rabbinic question: “and what about the hope?”.

And I can’t remember what I said, maybe something cavalier or nonchalant along the lines of ‘Oh, I’ll find that’ or “Oh, it’ll be in the Torah portion” – but I was left with it as a question,  and as I thought about it I realised it’d be easy to take up something else that’s happening at the moment and pin it onto that, how FRS made this historic decision on Thursday night to move on, to create a brand-new synagogue/community centre/ multi-functional, environmentally-sustainable building. On Shabbat Lech l’cha, the Shabbat about the necessity of moving on, of following the divine call to leave behind the old and bring the blessing we carry, we represent, into the world around us – syncronistically, there’s no other Torah portion that fits so perfectly – isn’t this communal decision where we can feel and celebrate hopefulness?  Yes, it’s in the time of Covid and we have no idea how long it’ll be before we can ever meet together in that new space, yes it’s in a time of huge economic chaos and worldwide political uncertainty, and we have no real idea what the challenges of tomorrow will be for religious communities – we might have to become a neighbourhood food bank for the next 60 years or more – and yes we don’t know whether the very air we breathe will make life in the cities liveable for our children and grandchildren - but in spite of all these uncertainties, and they are real uncertainties, we made a decision of hopefulness this week, and it took religious courage to make that decision, as well of course as the extraordinary work and dedication of so many people that Miriam spoke about on Thursday evening.

But today, 60 years after the first service at FRS, we can say that this decision did require religious courage, spiritual courage, Abrahamic courage even, leaving the old behind to bring the Judaic blessing on into a new era.

And maybe I should leave it at that, but something nags at me that I’d be selling you (and maybe myself) short if I did just leave it at that. I said: that was the easy link to make, that link to hope, and it was, is.

But what’s left over is that a new building won’t make us sleep any more easily at night (well it might help Bob Humphries, our Chair sleep better at night) but it won’t address those destabilised feelings we are all carrying. It’s not good enough to pin a feel good message about FRS on to the end of what I talked about earlier. Because that question of Zoe’s still resonates: once one spells out the fundamental shifts that are going on in all our certainties, once one names the ill-at-easeness, how do we regain or retain  some personal sense of hopefulness?

I wish I could give you a straightforward answer to that, but I can’t. My failure I suppose. Each of you will have your own way of thinking about what you need to keep your spirit of hopefulness alive. All I can do is share with you some of my own clues, inklings, resources – and the Torah is one of them: exploring the dramas of Abraham’s life, for example, I am provoked by the words, stirred by the dilemmas, inspired by the hope that is incarnated in the text. When God changes Abram’s name in the text Naomi read, he wasn’t asked if it was okay, he wasn’t asked how he felt about it. Something was added to the name, a symbol of his transformation, an acknowledgement that change is possible: Abram left behind his certainties and opened himself to following and listening to the divine – that gives me hope, it gives me inspiration that listening in, as deeply as is possible amidst all the distractions, listening in to what is going on around and within, listening in to the unfolding spirit of all being, otherwise known as Adonai, is a reality that can guide and underpin and provoke - and sometimes, yes, destabilise  - our lives. But it is filled with hope, that reality: that blessing is real - to receive it, and to be the bearer of blessing for others.

The poetry of Torah endures from generation to generation – it is our strength, it offers hope, over and over, we can bear the vicissitudes of life because we are caught up in a drama that is bigger than us. It’s the only thing that is unchanging, that endures, as solid as rock in our lives, even though it is also as fluid as water, for it flows and ripples and is never still, we dip into it and it is never the same from moment to moment, for we are never the same from moment to moment, and yet we can always draw upon it, endlessly deep, ever-flowing, feeding the spirit, nurturing our souls, which are thirsty for meaning and for hope.

Sun, 26 September 2021 20 Tishrei 5782