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Rabbi Miriam Berger

Shabbat Acharei Mot 5781

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



It’s just one line in a eulogy: “he/she arrived in the UK with no English, no money and filled with fear.” And yet the legacy of the successful career, the lifelong now-grieving widow, the children, grandchildren and great- grandchildren makes the arrival seem so easy that it diminishes the line of the eulogy, the “look where they came from” completely over-shadowed by the “look what they created”.  

It’s our survivor story and it’s our collective story.  It’s so over-told that it’s akin to our creation story.  How did we come to be? Whether we are Abraham, Jacob, Moses, whether we are slaves in Egypt, 11th century victims of Crusades or 12th century Jewish Spaniards, whether we are Swiss in 14th century or fleeing from Nazi Germany. The story is the same: we fled for our lives, and our survival is all in the wrist action of rolling on the parchment from Egypt, to Sinai, to Canaan. From Slavery to Freedom, from wilderness to homeland.  We tell it like it’s easy.  

This week the chair of Finchley Progressive Synagogue called me as we are working together for Ukrainian resettlement. She’s started the first wave of matching members of FRS with people the charity in Poland we are partnering with have identified as Ukrainian refugees. “I’d just love to run my thoughts by you as you know your members.” She said, “I was thinking a university lecturer with perfect English and her 16-year old son with the Cohens, a single 65-year old man with the Levys…” you get the idea.

As we talked about organising an evening to help people manage the arrival of their house guests and how to communicate useful expectations, I began to realise how obscene it really is.  

5,133,747 Refugees fleeing Ukraine (since 24 February 2022). Less than 8 weeks.

The escalation of conflict in Ukraine has caused civilian casualties and destruction of civilian infrastructure, forcing people to flee their homes seeking safety, protection and assistance. In the first five weeks, more than four million refugees from Ukraine crossed borders into neighbouring countries, and many more have been forced to move inside the country. They are in need of protection and support. For that there is no doubt.

Yet as people reaching out to help, I want us to keep holding onto what might seem like an obvious message.  This fleeing might be life-saving and we might be warm and loving and so pleased to be able to help.  But their leaving – it’s not so easy.  Those lines in eulogies took 70 years, often of carrying pain and trauma.  The rebuilding of lives takes it’s toll on many generations.  Think what national trauma we so clearly demonstrate generation after generation as we continue to hold onto our experiences.  We know it continues to inform and shape who we are.   My father was a wandering Aramean, my father was a slave in Egypt, my father was on the Kindertransport or escaped Nazi Germany.  We make it sound easy but within those words we must hear lives ruined and life-long trauma.  Nobody choses to flee, nobody wants to be a refugee.
I am uncomfortable and was looking for something to frame my discomfort and it drew me to this piece written more than 30 years ago by Rabbi Arthur Waskow:

“In Exodus, liberation cannot be achieved until the powerful have
been shattered and the oppressed have departed, once and for all.
There is no reconciliation with Pharaoh.

This pattern, the pattern of Exodus, has impressed itself with
great power on the minds of every people that has learned the
Torah. It is the model for modern revolutions, national and social,
where the saving remnant hopes to wipe out oppression and corruption, depart physically or politically from the oppressors and
corruptors, and remake their country.

The pattern has been so powerful that we have paid little attention to the alternative that emerges from Genesis: the war and peace of brothers.

Today we need the model of the brothers. For there are some
struggles where we do not want to destroy the oppressor or separate into a new society. Instead, we need liberation-with-reconciliation. Not the gruesome grin of the powerless commanded to love their taskmasters, nor the gracious smile of the powerful who are glad to love their serfs. But the free laughter of wrestlers, where the grapple of liberation and the clasp of love are intertwined.....

Exodus may be the last resort in every struggle. If we must, we must. But we should know that the door out is not the door in.
Exodus is not the path to Eden.” (Arthur I. Waskow)

Am I naïve? Yes.  Am I still encouraging people to host Ukrainian refugees? Of course.  Am I hoping that today’s Bar Mitzvah and his friends will inspire others to continue to send money to those still in Ukraine and those in surrounding areas to help those who have fled but stayed closed to Ukrainian borders? Absolutely. So what is this message I read in to Waskow’s piece?  

We have to be careful.  We have to be careful that the 80 years of other people’s torment are not written off and replaced with a wonderful image of what can be rebuilt if a new life is started.  I’m worried that 3000 years of a national story are not used as a blueprint for exodos as a solution and new beginnings being the inevitable next step.  I am simply questioning whether we should be simultaneously reaching out with hospitality and asking the question how we help to save Ukraine from Russia, how can we similarly play a part in preserving it as its own country, with its own identity without the exodus being the default.   

How do we put as much effort into demanding the war stops as demanding that refugees are given easy access to security here in the UK?

“Exodus may be the last resort in every struggle. If we must, we must. But we should know that the door out is not the door in.
Exodus is not the path to Eden.”

It’s been too long and when it’s not happening directly to us we get comfortable, stop demanding more from our elected officials, stop asking them to make the hard choices.  Too many casualties and too many lives uprooted.  We need to keep in mind that we have two very important roles, we must help these people find their way back home as well as providing them with shelter in our homes.  

I’m (luckily) the rabbi not the foreign secretary so I get the luxury of making difficult demands without having solutions.  But perhaps that is my role.  If I can encourage us to paint the picture of the world as it could or should be then together we find ways to work to bring it about. 

It is what coming to synagogue is all about.  We need our liturgy to paint the picture of how is should be.  We need our Torah to paint the picture of how we understand our past and how it effects how we see the experiences of others and how we act in this world, and it’s a call to action.  Prayer needs to change us.  We have to be different people when we walk out of each service.  We need to feel recharged, ready to demand change, be the catalyst for change and to be ready to play our part in making the world as it is, closer to the world that it should be.

Sat, 21 May 2022 20 Iyar 5782