Today is Yom Kippur. Some of us are here on this sacred occasion for the first time. Most of us have been here before. The year goes around, and every year is marked by its regular milestones – birthdays, anniversaries, festivals. Are these simply dates on the calendar? Milestones in our personal lives – especially birthdays – remind us that we are a year older. All of them tell us that another year has gone by. So, what’s the point of our celebrations and commemorations? Can the milestones in our lives, in the life of our people, and in the life of the world, be catalysts for change as well as moments for remembrance? – or, at least, prompt reflection that leads to renewal?
On Rosh Ha-shanah, we listened to the voice of the shofar – to multiple voices: t’ki’ah – a single clear blast; sh’varim – three broken wails; t’ru’ah – nine rapid-fire short toots. The shofar summoned us to remember our deeds of the past year and change our ways. The Hebrew word for ‘year’, shanah, is based on the root letters, Shin Nun Hei, meaning to change. It seems that the years just go around and around in an endless cycle, but each year is a direction signal, inviting change and renewal.
So, here we are on Yom Kippur facing the year ahead. Many of us – perhaps most of us – find change very difficult. We want to change aspects of how we behave and relate to others, and how we deal with life, but we find it so hard to change, despite our good intentions. Perhaps, we just make it too difficult; there are so many things about ourselves we want to change, the challenge is just too insurmountable. Perhaps, we could simply resolve each year to achieve one change. I mentioned in my Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah sermon that in the past few months, I’ve begun having a 30-minute walk first thing every morning. My motive was to improve my physical health – my lungs and my back – but I’ve discovered that my daily walk has had an impact on my mental health, too. Yes, shanah, ‘year’, is based on the root, meaning to change, but just because the year changes, doesn’t mean that we must change everything at once. The wisdom of the shanah year-change connection, is that each year of our lives, we are presented with the opportunity to change something, however small. Year after year, change can follow change, so that we change incrementally.
But what about change in the world around us? On the one hand, change seems so rapid – technological changes, in particular – we can hardly keep up. And the impact on the planet of rapid technological developments since the beginning of the industrial age, means that the fragile ecosystem that Life depends on, is changing, increasingly rapidly, in disturbing ways. On the other hand, change on the economic level seem so very slow. Caught up in a global economic system based on the pursuit of profit, that was shaken but not substantially reformed in the aftermath of the global banking crisis in 2008, the only perceptible change is that the rich continue to get richer and the poor continue to get poorer.
We have witnessed some major changes on the social, cultural and legal level in Britain in the past few years – most recently, with the achievement of full equality for LGBT – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender – people. Certainly, we can say that since the 1967 Sexual Offences Act decriminalised sexual acts between two men over the age of 21 in private, legal changes over the past 50 years have resulted in an equal age of consent, equal marriage and the possibility of transgender people altering their birth certificates to reflect their new name and gender identity. But let’s not forget: these legal changes only happened because LGBTQ people engaged in a struggle for acknowledgement of our full human rights.
Along the journey of that struggle, there have been setbacks, including the infamous ‘Clause 28’ of the Local Government Act 1988, introduced by the then Conservative government. Known also as ‘Section 28’, the clause stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”, or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” Although, there were no prosecutions brought under Section 28, fears that they could be in breach of the Act on the part of council legal staff meant that many LGBT student support groups were closed down. Meanwhile, LGBT teachers lived in fear. Clause 28 was finally repealed – in June 2000 by the new Scottish Parliament and in November 2003 in England and Wales – but only because LGBT people and our allies took to the streets.
When it comes to political change, it seems that with the vote in June 2016 by a slight majority of the UK electorate to leave the European Union, enormous upheaval lies ahead. And not just political upheaval. Brexit, promises, to have an enormous impact on the economic life of the UK, and on the rights of employees, if European Union provisions are not incorporated into UK law. Many of us are fearful of the changes in store – not least, if trade deals are made with the United States, where food safety and animal welfare standards are much lower than those that operate in the European Union.
So, change ahead for Britain. When it comes to the political arena of the Middle East, our main concern is the lack of any change. June 5th marked the 50th anniversary of the start of the Six Day War and subsequent occupation of the West Bank. In the lead up to that momentous anniversary, a new initiative was launched in Israel, the SISO Movement, with the slogan, ‘Save Israel, Stop the Occupation’. At our communal seder, we used material from the Jubilee Haggadah created by SISO to raise awareness. But as another significant anniversary approaches, the centenary of the Balfour Declaration of 2nd November 1917, the British government’s important statement of support for a Jewish homeland as it prepared to establish the British Mandate in Palestine, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, there have been no moves towards breaking the deadlock. Meanwhile, across the denominational spectrum here in Britain, the Jewish community has been busy planning the commemoration of the centenary set for Sunday, 5th November. Of course, it is important to mark this significant anniversary, but when we turn to the actual text of the Balfour Declaration, we can see that in the hundred years since it was made, and in the 69 years since the State of Israel was established in May 1948, the terms of the Declaration have not yet been fulfilled. This is the text of the Declaration, which was made in a letter that Lord Balfour wrote to Lord Rothschild: 
His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
Ensuring ‘the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’ was bound to be difficult. In the decades that followed the Balfour Declaration, and in particular, after the Arab riots of 1929 and 1936, there were successive attempts to reach an agreement between the Zionist yishuv – the pre-State Jewish community – and the indigenous Arab population – later identified as the Palestinians. These attempts eventually culminated seventy years ago in the UN vote on 29th November 1947 to partition the disputed land into two states, Israel and Palestine. Like the other partition plan earlier that year in response to the conflict that ensued between Hindus and Muslims, following the end of the British Raj, which resulted in the creation of the separate states of India, East Pakistan and West Pakistan, the partition plan agreed at the United Nations on 29th November 1947 was far from perfect. Nevertheless, had the plan been accepted – reluctantly, the Zionists agreed to it but the Palestinians didn’t – perhaps negotiations could have ensued to adjust the borders, with a view to reaching a compromise between the nationalist aspirations of both peoples that was acceptable to both peoples. As it is, post-1947 and following the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, after several wars, innumerable terror attacks, two Palestinian insurrections, a failed peace process involving patchy concessions to the Palestinians, withdrawal from Gaza, the building of the ‘separation barrier’ to stop the terrorists and provide bulwarks around the major settlement blocs in the West Bank, and the continuing expansion of settlements, the impasse continues, with no change in sight…
Of course, there are people on both sides – amongst, both, the Israelis and the Palestinians – who continue against the odds to work together and who are eager to make an agreement, and prepared to accept the compromises involved. But there are more people on both sides, who remain intransigent. We don’t know what the year ahead will bring after this year of anniversaries, but it seems unlikely that we will have much cause to celebrate.
It is hard not to lose heart. But we cannot – must not – lose heart. Having listened to the voice of the shofar on Rosh Ha-Shanah, at the end of this sacred day, we will listen to one single ‘great’ blast: t’ki’ah g’dolah. According to the Torah, in parashat B’har, Leviticus chapter 25 (:9-10) the shofar was to be sounded on Yom Kippur at the beginning of the fiftieth year, following seven cycles of seven years. We read:
You shall cause the shofar to sound t’ru’ah in the seventh month, on the tenth of the month, on Yom Kippur, you shall cause the shofar to sound throughout your land. Then you shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim freedom in the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a Jubilee to you; and you shall return everyone to their possession, and everyone to their family.
There is little evidence that the Jubilee year was ever observed. But perhaps the time has come to proclaim freedom – d’ror – in the land to all its inhabitants, both Israeli and Palestinian. Of course, both Israelis and Palestinians must want freedom from perpetual conflict, must find the will to change. Another anniversary – not a Jewish one – might serve to remind us that, ultimately, change is possible, provided people have the will to change. On 17th October 1917, the Bolsheviks triumphed, completing the collapse of the Russian Empire and ushering in a new era of Communism. Many rejoiced – not least Jewish Communists. Over the years, expectations in the new dawn of the Communist revolution were eclipsed by a dictatorship, not of the proletariat, but of Stalin’s death squads. Absolutism and terror reigned and millions were exiled and murdered. But just as Hitler’s ‘Thousand Year Reich’ was defeated by the Allies in 1945, so, the USSR began to disintegrate in the late 1980s in response to oppositional movements. In recent years, authoritarianism has re-emerged and President Putin seems unassailable. Nevertheless, the catalogue of changes that have taken place in Russia and the other nations of the former Eastern Bloc since 1917, tell us that people have the power to generate change.
The message of the past hundred years of Russian history is also a message for Israel and Palestine. Perhaps not this fiftieth anniversary year, but the time will come when the will to change will gather momentum amongst Israelis and Palestinians. Just as important, the changes we have witnessed in the world around us during the span of our own lives, remind us that we can also be agents of change, both, in our personal lives, and in the wider society. We can change, if only, one change at a time. May this sacred day for reflection, inspire us with the courage to renew our lives, and the resolve to do what we can to foster renewal in the world around us.
And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue
Yom Kippur Shacharit 5778 – 30th September 2017
- http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1967/60/pdfs/ukpga_19670060_en.pdf ↑
- http://www.youngstonewall.org.uk/lgbtq-info/legal-equality ↑
- http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2013/30/contents/enacted/data.htm ↑
- http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2004/7/notes/contents ↑
- http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1988/9/section/28 ↑
- http://strongerunions.org/2016/02/25/10-workers-rights-brexit-would-risk/ ↑
- https://wwi.lib.byu.edu/index.php/The_Balfour_Declaration ↑
- http://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/foreignpolicy/peace/guide/pages/un%20general%20assembly%20resolution%20181.aspx See also: http://www.un.org/Depts/dpi/palestine/ch2.pdf ↑
- http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/modern/partition1947_01.shtml ↑
- For examples, see: https://www.childrenofpeace.org.uk/ http://www.familiesforum.co.uk/ For lists of groups, see:http://www.yesmagazine.org/peace-justice/13-peacebuilders-in-gaza http://www.mepn.org/peace-groups-palestine-israel/ ↑
- http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12967-sabbatical-year-and-jubilee ↑
- http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwone/eastern_front_01.shtml ↑