Playing with Fire

Sermon Sinai Synagogue, Parashat Beha’a lot’cha 

Playing with Fire 

When I was reading my Facebook newsfeed three days ago, someone shared the lovely and heartwarming story from the Bradford Jewish community. The local Muslim community generously stepped up to raise funds for the synagogue’s leaky roof in a fantastic gesture of interfaith friendship. I immediately shared the story. I have a lot of Muslim friends on Facebook and I wanted to spread the goodwill. When I refreshed my newsfeed afterwards, still aglow with having my faith in humanity restored, I read about the gruesome Woolwich murder… 

I wondered for a long time whether this should be addressed in a sermon and if so, how. The media has covered the story in gruesome detail and pundits and ordinary people alike have descended to give their opinions. How do we see this – as a murder or as a terrorist attack? Were the two men ‘lone wolves’ or part of a wave of organised radicalisation? How does this gruesome act cast a shadow over the peaceful Muslim communities living alongside us? What will the larger political implications be as the Government seeks to formulate a response and possible policy in the wake of this? These are questions far too large and too sensitive to address here. 

What is important to look at is one larger question: the danger of religion. This is not about Islam or Judaism or Buddhism or Christianity. This is not about singling out a particular community in a blaming game. No, it’s about a process of introspection that each person of faith (or no faith) is obliged to engage in. Because if we play with fire, we can get burned. In this week’s parashah, we see both faces of organised religion: the good and the bad. Parashat Beha’a lot’cha starts off beautifully: ‘beha’a lot’cha et hanerot’ – ‘when you raise the lights of the Menorah’…, a symbol of the fire of religion bringing enlightenment and goodness, illuminating our souls. 

Then the parashah meanders through the restructuring of the religious cult as the Levites are elevated to their position of leadership. As Israelite desert society is restructured, each tribe is split up in a camp and assigned a banner and instructed to march upon the blast of silver trumpets. Religion then, is becoming less about the inner light that burns within all of us, and more about logistics and hierarchy. 
The parashah becomes more narrow, militaristic and authoritarian, even Yitro, the loyal convert, Moses’ father-in-law and the great democratic community organiser, leaves in protest. Things go from bad to worse in this as Moses’ leadership starts to spin out of control. The people complain and cry out for meat. God strikes them down and even Miriam speaks out against her brother. Religion has turned awry. Bitter. Cruel. Even God Himself has turned dark and unrelenting. 
Can there be any redemption and healing in this? 

The turning point in our text that forewarns us is a verse that we sing every time we start the Torah service and we usually think nothing of it. But what if we were to pause and reflect on what these words actually mean? 

“Vayehi binso’a ha’aron vayomer Moshe: kuma Adonai vayafutzu oyvecha vayanusu misanecha mifanecha.” 

“And it was that when the Ark would travel, Moses would say, ‘arise, Eternal, may your enemies be scattered and those who hate You flee from You.” 

And we sing this in our synagogues – across the denominational spectrum – every Shabbat. ‘May your enemies be scattered and those who hate You flee from You.’ Rashi’s commentary makes it even worse where he talks about ‘Israel’s enemies’. In the face of such hateful paranoia, where is the introspection? It’s a turning point because in the verse preceding this, God’s presence among the Israelites is still described in gentle terms: God is the ‘anan ha-kavod’, the cloud of glory, hovering over them. And yet, after this warlike charge, God becomes a raging fire consuming the Israelites. It’s important to focus on the moral ambivalence of this one verse. Beautifully embroidered tribal banners and burnished silver trumpets notwithstanding, this is the language of war. This is the language of an angry God, Who inspires an angry religion. This is the fire we play with when we engage in the business of organized religion. 

The Woolwhich murders were burning with this anger. Of course, it is not merely religion’s fault. The situation is too complex to pin on organised religion alone: there are individual psycho-pathological and even global geo-political factors involved. But given the violence that hateful exegesis can give rise to, it behooves us as people of faith to reflect on what such verses mean. 

One of the Woolwich murderers cited our Torah is his proof text – ironic given his conversion from Christianity to Islam – as he said that this is about ‘eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’. He said he wanted to ‘start a war in London tonight’. Such religious hatred can only be countered by a religious openness of heart, by a healthy theology and a sound interpretation of our texts and values. The Rabbis of the Talmud already decreed that ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth’ was about de-escalating violence in favour of monetary compensation, rather than perpetuating more communal violence. Let us then not descend into the miserable end of this parashah – the carnage of death – but reach back to its beginning where we raise the light. 

We may not be able to solve the world’s problems nor stop the aggression of the deranged. But creating a religious culture that is positive, empowered and peace-loving based on an authentic, honest and compassionate reading of our sacred texts is something that all of us can do. In our homes, in our places of worship, in our communities. Let’s make sure there are more stories like the solidarity and kindness of the Muslim community in Bradford and less like the murder in Woolwich. Time to put out the fire and let the light shine.

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