Bat Mitzvah of April Miller
Antigonus of Socho received Torah from Simeon the Righteous. He used to say: Do not be like servants who serve their employer in order to receive reward; rather be like servants who serve their employer without thought of reward. And let the fear of Heaven be upon you (Avot 1:3).
This past week has been one of tremendous excitement and nervousness, anticipation and disappointment, defeat and victory for a particular group of individuals in British Society. As Britain went to the polls, in local elections and many more, those who take a keen interest in politics will have been out on the streets last minute canvassing, manning polling stations, counting ballots and glued to their real-time media feed of choice.
The headlines concern the national parties, their leaders and of course the rather shambolic Mayoral elections of London – perhaps a contributing factor in other cities rejecting the possibility of having an elected Mayor. Analysts are having a field day and the TV stations are competing with the fanciest technology possible to record the results and their ramifications.
Yet the people who I am thinking of most are those who have won or lost, partly due to their own merits but largely due to the vagaries of national politics. For whilst some will have cast their votes on local issues and for the individual we felt might best serve our local community, most have cast their ballot cards as a comment on national political parties. I have to admit that I cannot remember the names of those individuals on my card who put themselves forward for election.
I feel that I have done them a disservice. Whilst I am sure that there might be some whose motivation is to further their own political ambitions, I would like to suggest that the vast majority do so with the objective of serving their local community, righting wrongs they perceive in society and taking the cause of the individual who has been dealt unjustly by the systems of that society. At a time when politicians are struggling to rid themselves of public suspicion, local councilors remind us of the core of democracy and why we treasure it so highly.
“Local councilors are the unsung heroes of the political world. They are often part-time holding down a job as well as carrying out their council work. Yes they get allowances, but they are hardly paid a fortune. And for their allowances they are incredibly good value. The endless lists of committees and panels, school governors and board meetings, the residents’ panels, full council meetings and group meetings. This merry-go-round of public service is often interminably boring but really quite important and frankly someone has attend!”
The decisions they make are vital to local people’s lives, the budgets born of our money, rather large and they, by definition, are truly local to us. Make an unpopular decision - close a public library, cut a certain health care service or community centre for children or the elderly - no matter how well-meaning or indeed sensible, you will have knocks on your front door. You are local accountability.
Yesterday morning, some were waking to reelection and some to a new dawn in their lives when countless hours will be spent in the service of the local community. And yet so many will have lost their position due to national politics, things that are completely out of their control. I do feel for them this morning. Some will choose to put up their feet but I am sure many will fill voluntary roles in society because they truly believe in their local community and its causes.
This morning, I am singing the praises of local councilors, because in some way they represent a counter-point to a trend in society that is of concern for all voluntary organizations, charities and institutions such as our own Synagogue. I think this is my next theoretical challenge for our new prize philosopher, our Bat Mitzvah, April Miller.
The organization of our Synagogue and any such grouping is now so complex and afflicted, on the whole correctly, by increasing layers of legislation founded on safeguarding and accountability. It is right to appoint professional staff to oversee appropriate processes so that we are compliant with legislation and serve our member’s expectations. Yet we would not be able to operate without those who volunteer, who give of their time and energies without thought of reward.
We, like all such organizations, wonder where our next generation of volunteers will come from. In many households, parents work outside the home as well as maintaining their home and families. Sandwich generations are concerned with those younger and older. The benefits and trials of society are a burden on all alike.
So what creates the breed of local councilors, of those who have and do volunteer in their community, and what will motivate the volunteer of tomorrow? For one thing is sure, the foundation of society as we know it is the desire to volunteer and to do something for others. Society will break down further without volunteers.
I do not have the answers today. Maybe, April, you and your classmates will help me and the community in finding them. When we consider what ‘holiness’ means, your Torah portion suggests that it is largely selfless acts performed because they are right for society…and therefore right for us. By entwining these ethical commandments with those of ritual, we are reminded of the essence of our faith, that serving without thought of reward, just because it is right to do so, makes a difference; a difference to our society and a difference to God, glorified through our actions.
This morning and in the future, let us consider how we might balance the crazy demands on our time, pocket and energies that life is throwing at us. Let us consider that the essence of our life, the core of our eternity is found in our desire and our striving to be holy. And in light of April’s translation of the Hebrew word, for generations translated as ‘fear,’ may I suggest that we might do so, not so, “the fear of Heaven be upon you;” but that we do so, ‘for the reverence of Heaven to be upon us.’