What does the future hold? A perennial question. This year – 2016 – feels like a watershed: as terror continued to reign across Europe, the European Union referendum campaign culminated in the murder of MP Jo Cox by a far right extremist on 16 June and the Brexit vote a week later; and then came the triumph of a narcissistic demagogue in the US presidential election on November 9 – a day already indelibly marked by two epoch-changing anniversaries: Kristallnacht – the commencement of the Nazi’s violent assault against the Jews of Europe in 1938; and German reunification in 1989.
So, what will 2017 bring? We don’t know. We can never know with certainty what lies ahead. That’s the truth – even at a time when the ‘post-Truth’ politics of Trump has trumped the ‘fact-checkers’. ‘Post-Truth’: the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year; an adjective – and I quote: 
Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
Of course, for a sense of what might be round the corner, we can read ‘the signs of the times’, including, a traditionalist backlash against social progress in the arena of gender and sexuality and a nationalistic rejection of multiculturalism. We can also draw comparisons with Europe in the late 1920s and the 1930s, when the economic crash precipitated political instability and provided the perfect conditions for far right exploitation of the fears and insecurities of those whose lives had been turned upside down. But despite the similarities, history is not, as the German historian Oswald Spengler argued in The Decline of the West, a tale of endless repetitive cycles. Rather, each year brings new possibilities and challenges – particularly, in an age of accelerating technological development.
We cannot predict the future. And yet, we continue to try to control the future. Our Torah portion this Shabbat, Chayyey Sarah demonstrates that this human trait has a long pedigree. Chayyey Sarah opens with the death of Sarah, the first female ancestor of the Jewish people. Abraham proceeds to procure a burial site, and then, realising that his own days are numbered, he gets on with the business of arranging what will happen after he has died. To this end, he sends his servant on a mission back to Charan, his birthplace, to find a wife for his son, Isaac.
Shakespeare’s elderly King Lear – currently being brought to life by Glenda Jackson at the Old Vic and Anthony Sher at the Barbican – was also intent on controlling the future in his final days, as with tragic consequences, he carved out his kingdom between his two elder daughters, rejecting his favourite, the youngest, because she did not flatter him enough.
The end of life is a challenging time. Inevitably, whatever our personal circumstances, each one of us, finally, has to let go. And yet, although we cannot hold on to life, and we can’t control what will happen after we die, we do have the opportunity during our lifetimes to touch the lives of others and to bequeath a legacy to those who continue to live after we are gone.
We have been privileged as a congregation to witness this at first hand concerning three members of our congregation, for whom the synagogue was their second home, who died during the past six months: Hans Levy, on 14 June, aged 89; Dennis Hollis, on 9 November, aged 91; and Rose Cannan, just this past Tuesday (22 November), aged 94.
Hans and Rose experienced the horrors of the rise of Nazism in Germany as young people, including Kristallnacht. We are fortunate that both of them shared their stories with us on a number of occasions – indeed, Rose wrote a book about what she went through. Their portraits , drawn by artist, Pauline Lewis, as part of the synagogue’s first Brighton Festival Open House exhibition in 2005, adorn the walls either side of the glass doors of the Shul library upstairs, so their faces will continue to be familiar to us, and, more importantly, to future generations. But, now that they are no longer in our midst, it has become incumbent upon us to recall and share their stories.
Dennis’s life also told a special tale, which may be less well known to some of us. Having joined up to fight Hitler in May 1943, four months before he turned 18, Dennis volunteered for the 12th Battalion Parachute regiment. On March 24, 1945, his unit parachuted into a field near the Rhine under enemy bombardment. When a party of paratroopers was cut off, it became essential to contact them by radio in order to guide them to the main body, but unfortunately, the only radio was in a glider some distance away. Two volunteers went out to try and bring the radio back. One was killed and the other badly injured. Private Hollis then volunteered and succeeded, as the official citation reads, ‘at great personal risk to himself.’ As a result, the small isolated party was guided back to their comrades and contact with Divisional Headquarters. In response to his bravery, Private Hollis was promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal and awarded the prestigious Military Medal.
Hans, Rose and Dennis have bequeathed their stories to us and reminded us of the sacred obligation of remembrance. But that’s not all. Their personal qualities have also taught us essential lessons about endurance, moral strength, integrity and courage. We need to exercise these qualities now. We need to know that we can endure through harsh times. We need the moral strength to resist demagogic appeals so that we continue to demonstrate solidarity with the persecuted and oppressed. We need to maintain our integrity and continue to express and act on our progressive, inclusive values. We need courage – and as Jess pointed out to me the other day – we are challenged to acknowledge the ‘rage’ in the word courage and summon the courage to transform our rage against injustice into a positive force, powerful enough to eclipse the forces of bigotry and hatred. And just as important, we need to encourage others – to inspire courage in those around us – just as Hans and Rose and Dennis inspired us with their courage. Most important, in tribute to their memory, we need to continue to hope that we will see a better day, even in the face of Brexit and Trump.
Yesterday was the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Jewish Women’s Aid in this country, like other similar charities, is determined to work for the day when violence against women will cease. That campaign is part of a wider struggle directed at eliminating all manifestations of violence and tyranny in every place. Those who are cynical or have given up on the hope of change regard such a goal as idealistic folly. And yet, as soon as we name the ways in which we want to transform the world, change becomes possible.
In Pirkey Avot, the ‘Chapters of the Sages’ appended to the Mishnah, the first code of Jewish law, edited around the year 200, we read:
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: ‘The world stands on three pillars: Upon ha-din – justice – and upon ha-emet – truth – and upon ha-shalom – peace.’
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel was the father of Rabbi Y’hudah Ha-Nasi, Judah the Prince, who is accredited with editing the Mishnah. His wise aphorism compliments that of Shimon Ha-Tzadik, Simon the Righteous, who is presented in Pirkey Avot as ‘one of the last survivors of the Great Assembly’. We read there that he taught:
….. ‘The world stands on three pillars: Upon the Torah, and upon avodah – worship – and upon g’milut chasadim –deeds of loving kindness.’
Together, these passages, like the two triangles that form the magein David, the six pointed star, constitute, as I have argued in my book, Trouble-Making Judaism, a framework for Jewish life. We might also make sense of Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel’s insistence on the pre-eminence of justice, truth and peace in terms of the essential pillars, not just for Jewish life, but for the life of the world. There can be no justice without truth, no truth without justice, no peace without justice and truth. We don’t live in a post-truth era. We live at a time when the notion of truth has lost its bearings. It is our task, as we read in Deuteronomy, to ‘pursue’ justice, and to anchor truth in that pursuit. It is our responsibility to continue, as the psalmist teaches, to ‘seek peace and pursue it.’
I mentioned earlier that Abraham was determined to secure a wife for Isaac before he died. On the face of it, Abraham achieved his last wish, and the account of his servant’s mission closes with the image of Isaac taking Rebekah into his mother’s tent, and so being comforted for her loss. But such a reading misses a crucial part of the story: Rebekah did not leave Charan at Abraham’s bidding; she made her own decision to go, just as he had made the same momentous choice, a generation earlier. We read that when consulted by her brother and mother, reluctant for her to leave, she responded simply, Eilech, ‘I will go’. Ultimately, each one of us is confronted with the challenge to seize the moment and to act. As we face the uncertainty of the unknown future, may we be inspired by the endurance, moral strength, integrity and courage of Hans, Rose and Dennis, and be like Rebekah, eager to go, ready to engage in tikkun olam, repair of the world and to rebuild its pillars of justice, truth and peace. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, 26th November 2016 / 25th Cheshvan 5777
- After a series of murderous terrorist assaults in Paris on November 7, 2015 – first, at the Stade de France, numerous bars and restaurants, and the Bataclan theatre – 2016 began with terror attacks against the ‘free speech’ Charlie Hebdo magazine on January 7, 2016; and, and on the 9th, at a kosher supermarket. On February 14, an attack against a cafe holding a meeting about free speech, where a person was killed, followed by the killing of a Jewish man on security duty and the wounding of a police officer outside a synagogue. On March 22, two deadly attacks in Brussels: at the airport and at a subway station. On Bastille Day, July 14, a lorry was used as a weapon to mow down spectators at the fire display in Nice. Next, it was the turn of Germany, with a train attack at Wurzberg on July 18. Then, on July 22, the fifth anniversary of the massacre of youngsters at a Norwegian Labour Party summer camp, an 18-year-old, suffering with mental illness, killed nine people in Munich before killing himself. Next, on July 24 two more attacks in Germany: a 21-year-old Syrian refugee killed a woman with a kebab knife in Reutlingen, and a 27-year-old Syrian refugee blew himself up in Ansbach, injuring fifteen others. On July 26, terror returned to France once more, with a hostage-taking and knife attack by ISIS militants in a Catholic Church in a suburb of Rouen, which resulted in the murder of the 84-year-old priest and the stabbing of several others. ↑
- ‘Oxford Dictionaries announced post-truth as its 2016 international Word of the Year on 16 November 2016. https://www.oxforddictionaries.com/news ↑
- First published in German in 1920 as Der Untergang des Abendlandes. https://archive.org/details/deruntergangdesa01spen ↑
- Genesis 23:1-2. ↑
- Gen. 23:3-20. ↑
- Gen. 24:1ff. ↑
- From an account by Sidney Lipman, published in Sussex Jewish News. ↑
- https://www.un.org/en/events/endviolenceday/ ↑
- http://jwa.org.uk/ ↑
- Pirkey Avot 1:18 ↑
- PA 1:2. ↑
- See: Chapter 13, Living as a Jew in a Multicultural Society (David Paul Books, 2012, pp. 233-241). ↑
- Deut. 16:20. ↑
- Psalm 34:14 ↑
- Gen. 24: 67. ↑
- Gen. 12:4. ↑
- Gen. 24:58. ↑