Covenant, Community, Caring
Shavuot Sermon Sinai Synagogue
Covenant, Community and Caring
Communities are interesting places. Communities can be nurturing or toxic, they can include and exclude, uplift and break down. In this sense, communities are just the sum of the parts of humanity that cement them together. Of course as a community, we hope and want to see the very best of ourselves. Yet there is a darker side to community as well. Who is in and who is out? Who participates and who is jettisoned? Who leads and who follows? This is part of the central question of what kind of a community we want to be.
Shavuot, like any good Jewish holiday, is about many things. (We never make things simple in Judaism!) There is an agricultural component as we celebrate the harvest and offering of the firstlings. It is also, of course, about Revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah. Shavuot is a spiritual wedding, if you will, where Israel as the Bride enters into a sanctified and loving state with God as the groom.
One of the central Shavuot themes is community and inclusivity.
The Book of Ruth is a prime example of this. Time and time again, individuals in the Book of Ruth decided to be inclusive. They could have been exclusive but chose ‘chesed’, loving kindness, instead. Ruth, as a new widow from Moav could have chosen to stay with her own people. Yet ‘chesed’ compelled her to follow her mother-in-law, Naomi. Naomi kisses Ruth tenderly and tries to honourably turn her back with kind words, ‘go, return to your mothers’ house, may the Eternal deal kindly with you as you have dealt with the dead and me ‘ (Ruth 1:8) Yet Ruth matches Naomi’s ‘chesed’ with her own as she persists and utters the famous words: 'ki asher telchi, elech, uv’asher talini, alin, amech ami, v’elohaich, elohai’ – ‘for where you shall go, I will go; and where you shall lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God’. Naomi relents and does the right thing: she includes the poor Moabite woman, a member of the very community the Torah prohibits the Israelites from marrying, and brings her to her new home.
Of course the story doesn’t end here.
Ruth then gleans the fields to support herself and her mother-in-law – another act of chesed – and eventually Boaz, the kinsman who comes to love her on the threshing-floor – another act of chesed. And the greatest act of chesed is yet to come, for out of this downtrodden foreigner, the quintessential convert to Judaism, the Davidic lineage will flow, and with that, the Messianic redemption of the entire world. It is indeed true that ‘God works in mysterious ways’. Through the downtrodden He redeems, as the ‘Shomer gerim’ (Ps. 146:8), the Guardian of strangers.
And yet this message is so easily forgotten.
When communities do not feed the poor, do not welcome the stranger, do not act with chesed. By oppressing the downtrodden, they scorn the Divine Will, as happened only a few days ago in Tel Aviv. Thirty six times we are commanded to not oppress and even love the stranger, ‘for we were strangers in Egypt’ and ‘you know the nefesh, the life-feelings, of the stranger’.
Yet on the 24th of May, thousands of Tel Aviv citizens converged in a demonstration against African asylum seekers, mostly from Eritrea and Darfur, where oppression, hunger and war run rampant. A right-wing politician described the African foreigners as a ‘cancer’ that needs to be ‘excised’ and sent back. The demonstration darkened into race riots when some of the demonstrators turned their anger onto the Israeli police and a car with African passengers.
I read the news on Thursday evening in Ha’Aretz and was left speechless. Only a few days before Shavuot, this festival of covenant, community and caring, a Jewish mob in Tel Aviv violates the very premises at the heart of Jewish ethics. Each one of those African immigrants could be a Ruth, crossing over from Moav, because there was ‘bread in the Land’.
The parallels are scathingly obvious. This is when communities become vicious and turn to exclusion. The walls get pulled up to form an echo-chamber of exclusivist, if not racist, rhetoric. Us versus them. Human versus something somehow deemed diminished in humanity. The Torah counsels us against this. This is why the Name of God is invoked after so many of the ethical commandments: ‘And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger that dwells with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Eternal your God.’ (Lev. 19:33-34). God’s most sacred Name is to remind us of the divine spark in each of us, because as soon as we forget that each human being is created in the image of God, it is all too easy to forget our common humanity.
Community is supposed to be the structure to help us remember this great commandment.
Luckily, we also have plenty of examples in our communities on how you get it right. From the grandiose political to the parochially personal, I too, am a Ruth. Holland may not be exactly a Moav and Yorkshire may not be Beit Lechem (although the verdant hills might suggest otherwise!) but I crossed over into your community this past year and felt incredibly welcome. There was real ‘chesed’ practiced here. The community of Sinai Synagogue welcomed me into your shul, homes and hearts. I sat at your Shabbos tables, slept in your houses. I was picked up and brought back to the train station, fed endless cups of tea and offered friendship, hospitality and kindness.
As this year comes to a close, I can look back on a wonderful year with you all, where I felt welcome, this stranger from Holland and London. You’ve offered me Northern warmth and I am grateful. Thank you. Thank you all for having me with you as your student rabbi this year. Communities can be interesting places and I hope to learn more about how to help you build that caring, covenant community, the kehillah k’doshah. I am certain we can do it, in the little and not-so-little ways, and then we can nurture the regulars and the newcomers alike. Who knows what blessings will flow from this.
Chag Shavuot Sameach!