What a week it has been. For those twenty-two families, whose loved ones were killed when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives at 10:30 PM on Monday evening in the foyer of the Manchester Arena; for the more than one hundred individuals injured, many of them critically, and their families; in a moment of terrifying destruction, their lives changed forever.[1] Our hearts go out to them all. And we stand together with the courageous and defiant people of Manchester, of all ethnicities and religions, who stand in solidarity with one another and refuse to be terrorised and divided by the nihilistic absolutist ideology that drives young people like Salman Abedi to crush their own capacity for love and compassion, and their own will to live, and kill their fellow human beings so wantonly and indiscriminately.

Of course, none of this is new. These devastating acts of violence fuelled by the same or similar ideology are being perpetrated across the world all the time. And while this phenomenon has proliferated since 9/11, it did not begin with the terrorist attacks of that infamous day. Just think of the decades-long conflict in Somalia and Ethiopia, to take just one example.[2] But, of course, when such an attack happens here in Britain, and when, like the assaults on July 7, 2005, it is perpetrated by a young person born and brought up in this country,[3] we can’t simply confine the event to another distant domain far away from our everyday lives. Indeed, it is the very fact that such an attack erupts so horrifically in the midst of our everyday lives that is so terrifying. What could be more everyday than people travelling to and from work on the tube and bus networks, than commuters and tourists walking across Westminster Bridge, than young people attending a concert of their beloved pop idol.

For the past five days, the news and social media has been dominated with the bomb attack in Manchester. Rather than rehearse the main issues and concerns, I would like to approach the sense of horror we feel from another angle by reminding us of a very different incident that took place on Wednesday in the early hours of the morning, when a lorry on the M6 ploughed into a car, killing the five people in it.[4] Road accidents, train and plane crashes – and on a more modest scale, a tragic domestic accident that sometimes takes place in the midst of a DIY task, or a massive heart attack or brain haemorrhage that kills instantly – all of these different incidents come out of nowhere, destroying people’s lives and the lives of their loved ones forever.

Going about our daily lives is a potentially lethal business. So, what to do? How should we, how do we respond to the awareness that our lives could end or be permanently disfigured at any moment? Some people choose, simply, not to think about it on the basis that we cannot control events that haven’t happened yet. This is a sensible strategy. Others, like to take a rationalistic approach and calculate the probability of a sudden devastating event happening to them or their loved ones on the basis of how infrequent such events are when put in the context of 63 million people in Britain going about their lives every day. This is also a very sensible strategy. Some people, tend to fatalism: ‘If your number is up, it’s up.’ Others, who do step out each day in the awareness of its potential dangers, find it hard to keep anxiety at bay. Some are quite frankly, terrorised by the way in which 24/7 news coverage and social media tends to become obsessively focused with gruesome events.

Life is a wilderness, with potential hazards at every turn. Each one of us is challenged to navigate a way through. This week we turn to the fourth book of the Torah, known in English as, ‘Numbers’. Its Hebrew name, B’midbar, comes from the first word that distinguishes it from all others. The first verse begins: Va-y’dabbeir Adonai el-Moshe – ‘The Eternal One spoke to Moses’ – a phrase repeated thousands of times in the Torah – and continues: b’midbar Sinai – ‘in the wilderness of Sinai’. So: Numbers/B’midbar. The two names tell us different things about the book. On the one hand, it is concerned with the organisation of the people for their journey to the land beyond the River Jordan. On the other hand, the narrative is located in the wilderness. And, significantly, the two dimensions of the book can only be understood in relation to another. It is because the rabble of ex-slaves, were confronted with the challenge of trekking through the wilderness, that it was necessary to organise them into military-type units for their journey. But as it turned out, the unfolding story reveals that the chaos of an unmapped terrain soon overwhelmed all attempts at order, as the people mumbled and grumbled, becoming an unruly mass of rebels.[5]

It is not easy to keep the wilderness at bay. And yet, each one of us knows that unless we are going to confine ourselves indoors, preferably in a bungalow, preferably one without any gas or electrical appliances, and without any potential trip-hazards – that is, in an empty shell – we must find a way of living in the wilderness. For over six weeks, Jews across the world have been counting the omer each day in acknowledgement of the priestly practice in Temple times, when the priest would wave an omer, a sheaf of grain, from the Shabbat during Pesach for a period of seven weeks.[6] The rabbinic sages who took responsibility for reconstructing Jewish life after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, began counting the omer on the second day of Pesach in order to establish a fixed date for the festival that fell on the fiftieth day, the festival of Shavuot, ‘Weeks’. Today is the forty-sixth day of the omer. In May 2004, during a walk through a wood after heavy rainfall, conscious that it was the omer period marking the first journey of our newly-liberated ancestors, as I navigated the obstacles in my path, it seemed to me that my trek was a metaphor for my life’s journey. As it happens, I don’t like walking through woods. I much prefer to be on the top of the hills surveying the landscape. It feels safer being above it all – and it’s easier to work out where I’m going… Anyway, after the walk, I wrote this poem:

The endless journey / no pathways / just a tangle of weeds / and stinging nettles / stumps and burrows / ambushing my feet. / Treading gingerly / wincing as I stumble / no alternative / except to move on / I press ahead / no destination beckoning / just the lashes of the past / at my back / driving me ‘away from here / always away from here / away from here’.[7] / But there is no escape / despite my zeal and haste / the old familiar terrain / stalking me relentlessly / every footfall that doesn’t slip / finding its twin / congealed in the mud / And yet / going round and round again / I keep stepping out / still hoping / I’ll reach the turning / that leads to Another Country.[8]

Today, thousands of people are gathering in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv for a demonstration this evening. Organised by Shalom Achshav, ‘Peace Now’, they will be protesting against against fifty years of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, following the Six-Day War that began on June 5, 1967. The demonstration is a protest – and it is also a declaration of hope: ‘Two States, One Hope’ is the rallying cry.[9] Even after decades of conflict, of wars and terror attacks, hundreds of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians refuse to give up hope; even those bereaved and injured on both sides, whose lives have been devastated by violence refuse to give up hope. Those Israelis and Palestinians who continue to keep faith with hope offer inspiration to us at this time – in the aftermath of the Manchester bomb, and as we approach the general election on June 8. We do not know what lies ahead and we cannot control the future. But in the face of terror, and in defiance of those determined to sow hatred and division, we can be equally determined to stand together in a spirit of solidarity and hope.

Of course, that is easier said than done. Each one of us has to find our own way of living in the wilderness and navigating its terrors. The challenge before all of us is to live, truly live, fully and deeply, with all the vitality we can muster, with a sense of hopefulness and our antennae alert, both, to the dangers of life, and also to its abundant blessings and joys. One of these blessings is the blessing of community. Community creates a context of meaning and purpose for our lives. Our ancestors, who wandered in the wilderness for forty years knew this. Every generation of our people since has known this. The people of Manchester, made up of a plurality of ethnicities and religions, have demonstrated during this past week what being a community means to them. We know this: the congregation of Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue; rejoicing week after week in our rainbow community of diverse individuals and families with different backgrounds, life situations and circumstances. There are no words of comfort that can in any way ameliorate the excruciating pain of those bereaved and injured by that bomb on Monday night. But acts of compassion and solidarity, the building of bonds of community, can enable people over time to find the courage and strength they need to carry on. May we all find the courage and the strength we need to embrace life and one another and to continue our journeys, wherever they may lead. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue

Shabbat B’midbar

27th May 2017 / 2nd Sivan 5777

  1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-40010124
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethiopian%E2%80%93Somali_conflict
  3. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-33253598
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/24/five-dead-in-motorway-crash-on-m6-near-stoke-on-trent
  5. The narratives of grumbling and rebellion begin in the third portion, B’ha’a lot’cha (Numbers 11 and 12), and continue in Sh’lach L’cha (Numbers 13 and 14), and Korach (Numbers 16 and 17).
  6. Emor, Leviticus 23: 9-16).
  7. A quotation from Franz Kafka. See: http://www.kafka.org/index.php?aid=172
  8. Another Country is the title of a book by James Baldwin – my favourite author, when I was a teenager. It was first published in 1962 and was published as a ‘Penguin Classic’ in 2001.
  9. http://peacenow.org.il/en/two-states-one-hope