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Rabbi Miriam Berger

Shabbat Sh'mot 5781

You can listen to Rabbi Miriam's sermon or read it below

 

 

Over the last few days, I’ve been struck by the ever so stark, different outlooks of the population. The news has been full of vaccine updates. The second vaccine being used in the biggest ever vaccination programme, then the third approved. Promises of not long to wait, six weeks longer and then the gift of it being safe again to emerge into the world, to hug our loved ones, no need to cower when a fellow pedestrian walks past you on the pavement, the chance to socialise once more. Light at the end of the tunnel. The end of this awful chapter is in sight for the millions who are in those first categories of the programme, those who have been the most isolated, the most vulnerable, felt the most at risk.  And yet for so many of us this week felt like the hugest step backwards. Cases higher than at their height last year and home schooling beginning again, and a very very long haul ahead seems to stretch out ahead of us. We’ve been here before or how can we still be here, when that dreaded year anniversary seems fast approaching. No promise of a vaccination for us in 2021 and last time a few weeks of home-schooling was mooted, six very long months followed.

And then as if the news didn’t already feel like the worst of any science-fiction writer, a siege on America’s Capitol Hill. An iconic image of democracy being overrun and trashed by Nazi clad protestors having been riled up by a president showing us that, in this age of mass media communication, just how easy it is for those in power to manipulate, corral, incense and scarily to create one’s own truth.

Hope, frustration and the extraordinary ability for manipulation. It’s fertile ground for the horror story to continue - which takes us back to the study passage we read earlier (printed at the end).

The passage was by Edith (Edie) Eger (Košice, September 29, 1927) born to Hungarian Jewish parents; she is a psychologist practicing in the United States. She is a Holocaust survivor and a specialist in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.  Her memoirs entitled The Choice - Embrace the Possible, published in 2017 (at a mere 90 years old!) is the most wonderful memoirs to have stumbled across at this time.

Our incredible Shoah survivors, who use their ability to share their stories, often have shaped their experience into an over-arching theme - their message.  Those who have been fortunate enough to hang on every word of Zigi Shipper’s charismatically shared testimony will hear each chapter of his story proving his premise that he’s the luckiest, most fortunate man ever to have lived. Not necessarily the message you expect from a man who endured what he experienced.

Eger has made her life’s work the weaving of her Shoah experience with the experiences of her countless patients whom she has offered therapy and teaches that whatever the situation, whoever you are, as a sentient being, we all have choice and the greatest gift we can offer ourselves and each other is look for those moments of choice. As Philip Zimbardo remarks “Eger was not broken by the horrors she experienced; she was emboldened and strengthened by them. In fact, her wisdom comes from deep within the most devastating episodes of her life...her goal is nothing less than to help each of us to escape the prisons of our own minds. Each of us is in some way mentally imprisoned, and it is Edie’s mission to help us realise that just as we can act as our own jailors, we can also be our liberators.”

For those of us fortunate enough to be living perfectly comfortably at this time, if undoubtedly full of frustrations and fear, drawing parallels to wartime feel distasteful. Yet reading the wise words of Edith Eger helped me frame the half-baked idea I was challenged by at the start of the week.  What on earth do we do as sitting ducks?  Confined to either solitary or lives in a virtual forum, in this world sat torn between frustration and hope, with the fear of unwilling, blinded manipulation? The control of thoughts, emotions and the manipulation of truth being so normalised that even the president of the United States, one of the world’s most powerful democracies is playing the most frightening game as if it’s just the way that leaders of the free world behave despite it leading to loss of life and anarchy. Placed somewhere on a trajectory of fear, frustration and hope you begin to wonder to what extent we are all pawns and need to reclaim the choices.  The choice to keep our-selves safe, the choice to protect others, the choice to live this narrowed existence which won’t be forever, and will be considerably shorter if everyone actively chooses the safest route.  We are in a collective moment of being asked to choose life.

In this week’s Torah portion just before the passage that our bar mitzvah read, Moses recognises a problem with taking back God’s message to the Israelites.  The Israelites don’t have the God of their ancestors in their lives. They have Egyptian gods with names and images. Moses predicts they will ask what is the name of your God, the name of this God who will take us from a life enslaved by fear to freedom? 

What is God’s reply?

אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה

It resists simple translation but with this combination of the word “being” in strange tense, we are left with the words, “I am whatever I choose to be”.  God asserts, we don’t define God by our needs, our need to name or conceive of God will not be a reason to limit God and yet it is the most powerful description of what it means to be created ‘b’tzelem elohim’, in the image of God.  For we, just like God, are whatever we chose to be. Psychologist Erich Fromm translates this name of God to be, “I am the process of becoming”.

We are all in the process of becoming and choosing what we are going to be.  It is no different for our bar mitzvah as he opens this chapter of teenage life or, perhaps I won’t pick the name of someone a little older on the screen, but you’ll know if I mean you.  We are all on a journey, regardless of age, we are all somewhere on the journey to become the person we are choosing to be.  The only question is the challenge that Edith Eger sets us.  Do the challenges we meet on the way make us who we become or the choices we make in those moments make us who we are? Whether it is war or pandemic, politics or peer pressure, tragedy or fortitude, we have to recognise at every moment the only certainty is that we have a choice, and we are who we choose to become.

Study passage

"Magda finally speaks to me. “How do I look?” she asks. “Tell me the truth.” The truth? She looks like a mangy dog. A naked stranger. I can’t tell her this, of course, but any lie would hurt too much and so I must find an impossible answer, a truth that doesn’t wound. I gaze into the fierce blue of her eyes and think that even for her to ask the question, “How do I look?” is the bravest thing I’ve ever heard. There aren’t mirrors here. She is asking me to help her find and face herself. And so I tell her the one true thing that’s mine to say. “Your eyes,” I tell my sister, “they’re so beautiful. I never noticed them when they were covered up by all that hair.” It’s the first time I see that we have a choice: to pay attention to what we’ve lost or to pay attention to what we still have. “Thank you,” she whispers." (from "The Choice: A true story of hope" by Edith Eger)

Sun, 7 March 2021 23 Adar 5781