This week, the cycle of Torah readings turns to the stories of our ancestors, beginning with the tales of our first patriarch and matriarch, Abraham and Sarah, related in parashat Lekh L’kha, which spans chapters 12 to 17 of the Book of Genesis.
My first sermon was on this portion on 26th October 1985, 11th Cheshvan 5746, at Radlett and Bushey Reform Synagogue, which was led at that time by my first rabbinic mentor, Rabbi Barbara Borts. I had been teaching 10 and 11-year-olds there since the summer of 1984, and I also served as a junior warden.
Back in October 1985, I had just started the second year of the five-year post-graduate rabbinic programme at Leo Baeck College. It was also the first time I read from the Seifer Torah, so it was a bit like celebrating a bat mitzvah – which, having left cheder, aged 8, I missed when I was young. The section of the parashah that I read that day 32 years ago was exactly the same section that I’m going to be reading today, the opening verses of the parashah that starts with the challenge with which the story of the Jewish people began (Genesis 12:1):
Va-yomer Adonai el-Avram: “Lckh-l’cha mei-artz’cha, u’mi-moladt’cha, u’mi-beit avicha, el-ha-aretz asher are’ka”
The Eternal said to Avram: Go for yourself from your land, and from your kindred, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.
As we read those famous verses, we recall the ancient story of our beginnings as a people. But we are not just engaged in an exercise in repetition. Every time we read them, year after year, we are presented with the challenge that was presented to Avram: to go on a journey, far away from all that is familiar to us; to go for ourselves on a journey towards new horizons. The tales of our first ancestors tell us something very important about what it is to be a member of our people. And this particular opening tale contains an essential truth about who we are; because it does not actually begin with the Eternal One’s challenging call, but rather with Avram’s response. There would have been no story to record in the Torah, if Abraham and Sarah had not left their land, their kindred, and their family home, to go on a journey to a destination beyond the horizon of their lives. We read at Genesis 12, verse 4: Va-yeilech Avram ka-asher dibbeir eilav Adonai. ‘Then Avram went as the Eternal had spoken to him.’
Interestingly, after mentioning the journey from Charan to Canaan in the next verse –in one single verse – we read at verse 6: ‘Avram crossed over into the land’ – Va-yavor Avram ba-aretz. From the time that Abraham and Sarah made that first journey, we have been, as our original name tells us, the Hebrews, Ivrim, the people forever crossing over borders – from the Hebrew root, Ayin, Beit Reish to cross over or to pass over. But this is a generalising statement. That first challenge was not presented to a people, but rather to an individual: Lech-l’cha – ‘Go’, singular, ‘for yourself’, singular. It’s one of the central paradoxes of Jewish existence that for all the emphasis on the people, on the community, the challenge of living as a Jew is directed to each one of us as an individual. And when I say the challenge of living as a Jew, I don’t mean the challenge of keeping the mitzvot, the commandments, both ethical and ritual. Doing Jewishly, is of course, at the heart of living as a Jew, but much more fundamental, living as a Jew is about taking the gift of our own lives seriously, making our lives matter, being prepared to step out of our familiar surroundings and begin our life’s journey anew. We are reminded of this challenge, of course, each year when we observe yamim nora’im, the Days of Awe from Rosh Ha-Shanah through Yom Kippur, as we did just a few short weeks ago.
Of course, beginning again is not something that most of us are able to do habitually, which is why that annual reminder is so important. But for most of us there are moments in our lives, when we are challenged to go for ourselves because in a very deep sense our life depends on it.
Today, I would like to talk a little about a person, someone that many of us here today knew, who accepted that challenge: Joanna Seldon, Zichronah livrachah, May her memory be for blessing, who died on 6th December last year, aged 62. Joanna had been diagnosed with a neuroendocrine tumour in the summer of 2011, but from the outset, she refused to be defined by her illness; indeed, she defied it with every fibre of her being. Jo also accepted the challenge of her illness by making every day of her life matter. An English teacher, who had graduated from Oxford in 1976 with the top First for her year, and went on to complete her PhD, for a while, Joanna continued teaching. A writer, she continued to write – but with more urgency. If you go on Joanna’s website you will find this statement on the home page:
Based in Brighton, I am an independent writer and teacher.
I hope you enjoy exploring my website. I have been writing fiction for some years now, and for one or two reasons I’m keen to put it out into the world sooner rather than later. So, on this website you will find a selection of my short stories and poems, and also two novels and a story for older children which you can download to a Kindle or iPad.
I will continue adding to the website – more short stories and poems, and possibly my third novel, which I am currently revising. I trust that, having read the pieces on these pages, you’ll want to return to the site.
New material will be added every three months or so: do check the site from time to time – and send the link to anyone you think might be interested.
Your comments and suggestions are welcome.
Alongside this remarkable statement, you will also see a wonderful photograph of Joanna: a bright beret adorning her dark hair, wrapped in a purple coat and a bright pink scarf. Jo loved wearing vivid, vibrant colours. She was vivid and vibrant to the end. On Joanna’s website, you will find novels and books of poetry. You will also find speeches, including the ‘Sacred Spaces’ speech she gave at Wellington College, where she used to teach, and where her husband, Anthony, was the Headteacher for ten years after they left Brighton College. In addition to her creative writing, Joanna was also determined to complete the biography of her father, Maurice Pappworth, a doctor, who was a pioneer in the field of medical ethics, and whose controversial book, Human Guinea Pigs, published fifty years ago, in 1967, exposed the unethical dimensions of medical research. Joanna’s biography, entitled, The Whistle Blower, is just about to be published.
In her quest to live her life as fully and deeply as she could, Joanna had planned to celebrate her bat mitzvah this Shabbat. Jo chose this Shabbat because of its proximity to her late father’s yahrzeit, which fell last Tuesday. Jo also chose this Shabbat because parashat Lekh L’kha spoke so powerfully to her as she took herself on a journey of creativity and exploration that she knew would be finite. Of course, we all know that our lives must end one day. But Joanna went on her journey, with all her passion, knowing that the end of her life was one day relatively soon. The Times Obituary for Joanna, records her determination, “I start each morning when I get out of bed with the words ‘I am grateful’ in Hebrew.” The words in Hebrew are: modah ani, traditionally the first words the individual Jew says, upon waking up. Make no mistake, the fact that Joanna was able to recite modah ani when she woke each day, did not mean that she did not struggle with her prognosis. In one of her poems, entitled, ‘Prayer’, which was included in the memorial service held in her honour at West London Synagogue on February 7th, Joanna addressed her father: ‘Stir your spirit to remind me what it is to live.’ In the face of her illness, Joanna drew on all her resources of courage to stir her own spirit to live for her remaining days. Indeed, as Jo herself acknowledged, in the face of her illness: ‘I found amazing strength in myself, which I just didn’t know was there.’
Lech-l’cha ‘go for yourself’ – or, as the feminine form puts it, L’cchi lach. Joanna answered that call in her own unique way. Each one of us is challenged to answer that call in our own way. There is a wise aphorism, attributed to the 18th century Chasidic Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol (1718-1800): “In the world to come, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses’, but ‘Why were you not Zusya.’” We are called to be ourselves, and we are challenged to live fully during the finite span of our lives. We can learn from Joanna, and we can also learn from those ancient stories of our ancestors, which we re-read each year. This is how I put it in my first sermon on 26th October 1985:
The world of Torah is not a fairy tale world of epic proportions, full of superheroes and their exploits. When we read the Torah, we learn about ordinary human beings; and we are reminded about ourselves. In that sense, the Torah does not reprimand us by presenting us with a past that we cannot live up to; it reassures us – and it inspires us, too. After all our ancestors may have been ordinary, complicated human beings – with their virtues and failings, triumphs and disappointments – but through it all, they remained extraordinarily optimistic – they never stopped striving; they never reached the point of giving up on God. And their example makes it difficult for us to relinquish the struggle too – and the spirit of hope embedded in it.
Rereading my words, I am struck by the consistency of my message over all these years! And yet, I have journeyed and changed. That is another paradox: we continue to be who we are through all the twists and turns of our lives, but as we journey on, we become stronger, and, hopefully, wiser. The only sure way of losing ourselves is by making strenuous efforts to stay in the same place. May each one of us find our own ways of stepping out, day after day, into the wilderness of life. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
Shabbat Lekh-l’kha, 28th October 2017 / 8th Cheshvan 5778
- Joseph is referred to as an ivri, ‘Hebrew’ (Va-yeishev, Genesis 39:14). In the next parashah (Mikkeitz), there is reference to ha-ivrim, ‘the Hebrews’ (Gen. 43:32). See also, the Exodus story (Sh’mot, Exodus 1:15 and 3:18). ↑
- http://www.joannaseldon.co.uk/ ↑
- http://www.joannaseldon.co.uk/obituary/the-times ↑
- This is the feminine form. Hebrew is a completely gendered language. The masculine form is: modeh ani. ↑
- Ibid. The Times obituary. See note 3. ↑
- Included as one of the mediations in the Funeral Service published by the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain (London, 1974, p.4). ↑