Truth and Trust (In memory of Jo Cox/Grenfell Tower victims)
Parashat Sh’lach Lecha 2017
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Truth and Trust
‘Emet v’emunah kol zot v’kayam aleinu ki hu Adonai Eloheinu’…
Such are the words of our Friday night liturgy, recited between the Shema and the V’ahavta. Our siddur (prayer book) chooses to translate them as ‘all this is true and firmly held by us, that You are our Living God…’ which makes it sound like a tidy credo. However, we could also translate with ‘Truth and trust is all this, and this stand stands that He/She is the Eternal our God.’ It misses the organized elegance of the prayer book’s version, but brimming underneath the self-contained English words brims something awesome and powerful, an enduring force supported by the pillars of Creation.
Emet in itself is a word worth examining. A rabbinic teaching recounts that the aleph-mem-tav of the word has symbolic relevance: truth, like these letters of the aleph-bet, has a beginning, middle and end. It is all-encompassing and uncompromising. Then there is emunah, a word that is shares its root with amen, aleph-mem-nun, and that is often lazily translated as ‘faith’. Faith, is a horribly limiting word, often denoting the belief in things unseen and unproven. However, there is no word for faith in Hebrew, only emunah, which is more adequately translated as trust. Emunah is therefore better described as that quality of God, or that quality found in the Universe, of endurance and solidity. It just is. It is trustworthy, strong and reliable and a compassionate, covenantal mode.
The liturgy of course makes a metaphysical jump by arguing that it is God Who is the fount of these virtues. We can take them as metaphysical ideas, which we cannot test but perhaps only intuit. Or we can take them as moral ideas. What is it about emet and emunah? About projecting these virtues onto our understanding of the Divine, issuing an importance statement on their primacy? The world needs transcendent, uncompromising truth as well as covenantal solidity. We need a morality that is dependable; that won’t bend to the interests of power or politics, that is not feeble or fleeting.
When Joshua and Caleb return from their exploration of the Promised Land and issue their report, the Children of Israel respond in fear. They don’t believe the truth of this mission, nor do they trust it. Yet Joshua and Caleb hold fast to their principles, as they say: ‘v’Adonai itanu, v’al tira’um’ – ‘the Eternal is with us, do not fear them.’ (Num. 14:9) Joshua and Caleb try to establish a vision, a house united, but the Israelites make the common, fatal mistake of falling prey to their baser instincts and soon enough, the camp becomes a Hobbesian war of all against all. Interestingly, the same Joshua who strives to encourage the people, presents them with a stark choice later in the Hebrew Bible. In the Book of Joshua, the Israelite leader, successor to Moses, conquers the very land the Israelites fear and shapes a new, collective covenant. He confronts the people with two options: service of God or a relapse into idolatry. It is a very Deuteronomistic moment, binary and unrelenting, the ‘emet’ of the equation. In fact, one verse calls upon the people to serve God in truth, ‘v’ivdu oto b’tamim uv’emet’ – ‘and serve God with integrity and truth’. Then, a few verses later, Joshua proudly states ‘V’anochi u’veiti na’avod et Adonai’ – ‘as for me and my house, we shall serve the Eternal.’ (Joshua 24:15)
Now, none of these texts ought to be invoked as an argument for blind faith. This is not about disbanding your faculty of reason or abdicating your moral responsibility. On the contrary: the Divine metaphor our Biblical tradition uses calls upon us to maintain those very things. The purpose of these verses is to explore what social solidarity and unity of purpose and destiny mean in a covenantal community.
To put it in more contemporary terms: how we can be better together?
This week marks the one year anniversary of Jo Cox’ death. Jo Cox was MP for Batley and Spen and was murdered by Thomas Mair, a neo-Nazi. Since that fateful June day, Britain has seen momentous and difficult events. Brendan Cox, Jo’s widow, was determined to honour her memory by building the social cohesion and harmony that Jo so strongly believed in. In her maiden speech before Parliament, Jo said ‘that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us’. Hence, an initiative was founded, the ‘Great Get Together’, with predictably, a social media hashtag campaign. With a gingham aesthetic, the campaign is brilliantly simple: build relationships on a local level to strengthen bonds on a societal level. Basically, it’s just ‘Engaging Judaism’ writ large!
Many of our communities are contributing to the Great Get Together Weekend which is happening this weekend, including our friends from the Etz Haim Synagogue, and Pay-As-You-Feel Café ‘Toast Love Coffee’ founded by our own Anna Dyson. There are Iftars and coffee mornings, the Daily Mirror (believe it or not) dedicated a spread in its print edition to the initiative and local news programmes have amplified the importance of this message. There is much-needed positivity around the event.
This goes far beyond the gingham aesthetic of tea, cake and samosas. It is about building kindness, resilience and hope. If the cynic in you thinks this trite and tokenistic, I can’t blame you. It is easy to wonder whether we are trapped in a cycle of shock and platitudes. However, the response to recent events have proven the veracity and legitimacy of this approach.
When the Manchester and London terrorist attacks happened, what was the response? Compassion from across all faiths and sectors of society, a heartfelt fundraising concert headlined by the brave Ariana Grande and everyday acts of kindness. This week, we have seen the devastating burning of the Grenfell Tower block in London. Many questions – including profound and difficult questions about culpability, negligence and justice – remain to be answered, but again the response was phenomenal: Muslim youth, awake for Ramadan, alerting sleeping neighbours by banging on their doors. Gurdwaras, churches, mosques and synagogues in Central London throwing open their doors and hearts in support. Countless donations of much-needed items and volunteering service, and of course, the unimaginable bravery of first responders and dedication of medical staff.
Emet and Emunah, Truth and Trustworthiness, are the pillars upon which the world stands. We need truth. Truth about the violence in our world. Truth about how a flat, populated by those of modest means, could light up like a tinder box despite repeatedly ignored concerns of fire hazard. Truth is glaring and often painful, but essential. And we need trust. Trust in our neighbours, in volunteers carrying pellets of water bottles, food and blankets. Trust in strangers holding hands at a pop concert. Trust that the faces you see in the street can become your greatest comrades in overcoming fear and trauma.
Joshua and Caleb understood something that the Children of Israel still had to learn. They didn’t deny their fears. There were real threats in the land. But they focussed on what they could shift: hearts and minds. Attitudes. ‘Tovah ha’aretz, me’od, me’od’ they said, ‘the land is good, very, very good.’
We need to lead by example and press on, with fortitude and love and courage above all.