Hitting Rock Bottom

Parashat Ki Tavo
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

Hitting Rock Bottom

Just when you think it couldn’t get worse, it gets worse.

This has been a sentiment for many of us watching a world slide into increasing chaos and darkness over the last number of years and I’ve grown both accustomed and weary of pondering the question of how to address the tragedies of the world in yet another sermon.

Shabbat is supposed to be our happiest day in the Jewish calendar. The happiest and holiest, only bested by Yom Kippur. Yet the Jewish tradition is brilliant in its ability to acknowledge that joy and pain are not mutually exclusive and that Shabbat may also be a time to reflect on what is painful and difficult. This is especially the case when both world events and the weekly parashah prompt us to do so.

Most of you will be made aware of the ongoing refugee crisis. I gave a sermon on the topic a few Shabbats ago, and since this is the time of year where rabbis think about their High Holy Day sermons, I’ve been spending a lot of thinking (and agonising) on how to raise this issue in our community again—not only to speak of it but also to help support our community to take action on it.

And then the image of that little boy in the red shirt washed up on a Turkish beach burned across our screens.

With the risk of sounding trite and overly personal, one of my first thoughts when I saw that heart-wrenching photo turned towards my beautiful son. As I absorbed that gruesome image, Jonathan was peacefully asleep, having his every need met—for safety, security, dignity, love, peace. That little boy, Aylan Kurdi, only a year older than Jonathan, drowned alongside his brother Ghalip and his mother, as they fled Syria in an elusive bid for a life that all of us take for granted.  

There was something about that picture that shatters every beating heart. I cannot bear to think what the last moments of this family must have been like, or how much fear this little boy has lived through during his short life. Now, one could argue from both a standpoint of common decency as well as the Jewish principle of ‘k’vod metim’, honouring the dead, whether displaying this vulnerable young child before the entire world was the right call to make. On the other hand, the world must be made to see the great tragedy and injustice washing up on our shores.

As I said in my previous sermon on the refugee crisis, it’s not my place to offer political analysis or commentary.  A rabbi’s duty to present the moral voice of the Jewish tradition and to help communities to build and sustain practical help and support for refugees. We can turn to Jewish text to help us understand, cultivate empathy and frame a Jewish response to the brokenness of our world. When the suffering of innocents reaches a boiling point, the Torah frequently tells that God will hear the ‘tza’akah gedolah’, the ‘great outcry’ of the oppressed.

Can we imagine a more resounding cry than that of two little boys and their mother during their hour of need? A more gut wrenching outcry of a devastated father mourning his entire family?

It is exactly this imagining that the Torah commands us to do—to go from sympathy to empathy, to not merely feel sorry for but to imagine ourselves in the position of the vulnerable and oppressed. . This week’s parashah contains the passage ‘Arami oved Avi’ which we recognise from the Passover Haggadah: ‘Arami oved Avi v’yered Mitzrayimah v’yagar sham bim’tei me’at vayehi l’goy gadol atzum v’rav…’.
The passage reads: ‘My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meagre numbers and sojourned there; but here he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labour upon us. We cried to the Eternal, the God of our fathers and the Eternal heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery and our oppression.’ (Deut. 26:5-7)

Of course that’s not where the passage ends. It ends with God hearing the outcry of the oppressed Israelite slaves and leading them out of Egypt and to the Promised Land—a land flowing with milk and honey. This is the ultimate refugee narrative. It’s not peppered with accusations of profiteering, with xenophobic charges of ‘they are taking our jobs and claiming our benefits’. If anything, it’s a proud refugee narrative: the Torah doesn’t only tell us to empathise with the refugee but to identify with the refugee. The refugee narrative is the lens through which we see our world, it is the moral analysis we apply to our social reality. The Torah cautions us to feel no shame but dignity in our origins.

Biblical Israel, like all peoples of its time, knew how precious and precarious life is, life hanging in the balance as overloaded dinghies cross the Mediterranean. The ‘tochechot’—rebukes—of Deuteronomy which we read this week is the Torah’s way of demonstrating how we as a society can hit rock bottom. Re-enacting an imagining of us hitting rock bottom, of social decline and breakdown, of war and famine, of human desperation so severe that people flee across land and sea at the peril of their children, is a way for the Torah to cultivate this awareness and sensitivity that we were once them and we could be them all over again.

It’s a harsh though crucial lesson. During Pesach but also during the month of Elul where all of us ought to try a little harder to practice kindness and compassion. Our Movement for Reform Judaism is stepping up its support for the refugees through several initiatives both as a movement and as individual communities, ranging from collecting clothes and goods to petitioning our Government to opening our individual homes to organising alongside civic organisations such as Citizens UK to build a network of support. Stay tuned and watch this space for what we can do in the near future.

Hitting rock bottom is a desperate, difficult feeling but there is a way out. This is not the end but the beginning of a community-wide conversation and community-wide action. We can turn rebuke into praise, curses into blessings and fulfill the greatest mitzvah of them all—to save human life and to save our world entire.

Shabbat shalom.


Resources: The UK Movement for Reform Judaism's rabbinic statement on the Refugee Crisis
Also see the website of Tzelem - The Rabbinic Call for Social and Economic Justice in the UK.

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