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Etz Chayim – the ‘Tree of Life’ – is the Hebrew name of Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue.
Old message-bearer, Elijah,
These evocative words of Kadya Molodowsky (qu. J. Wittenberg, ‘The Eternal Journey,’ p.165) and the institution of Elijah transcend the seven days of Pesach. We can still taste the dry crunch of matzah in our mouths, the smell of spilt Kiddush wine, the sound of mah nishtanah and chad gadya, the sight of age-old rituals being enacted, and the touch of loved ones, friends and family. Elijah’s cup is full to the brim awaiting visual illusion that whether it occurs or not holds promises untold for those who will believe.
The promise of new life that may have come to fill the void left by presences departed; the promise of freshness, a new start augured by a clean kitchen that seems at once to bring a clear mind, a new resolve and a reassured trust. The promise of a Spring that this year is but glimpsed the yellow of daffodils struggling to free themselves from their brown casings; yet we now they will finally conquer with a burst of brightness that might just be reflected in the sky. As the door closes it is as if Elijah has visited us and blessed us, anointed us with the pure oil of possibility. This year can be a good one for us.
Elijah’s death is not recounted in the Tanakh – the Hebrew Bible – only his miraculous ascent to Heaven borne up by a whirlwind or fiery chariot and horses (2 Kings 2:11). Hence Israelite and then Jewish tradition holds that Elijah will yet return to usher in the messiah or as we declare, the messianic age.
This final statement is key. Whilst we might be inspired by the notion of Elijah, we do not believe in a miraculous salvation in the form of a human being. In a sense, when we do not allow the reality of death to be a part of our life’s cycle we face the danger of forever waiting for Elijah to return. Rather we as Liberal Jews resolve ourselves to act as Elijah did in his highest moments.
Elijah was one who prophesied into the future. His existence relied on miracle of belief, in a God who would provide through human agency, the generosity and trust of those in poverty. He did not assume his providers to be lazy or those he derided as being without cause – it was not their affluence that concerned him but their means of gain.
I applaud the newly ordained Archbishop of Canterbury and those from the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist and United Reformed Churches, and the Church of Scotland who have used their Easter messages to voice concern at the motivation behind the welfare cuts that from today will begin to take affect. They are taking strides to be prophets seeking to protect the poor, as I am sure we would all like to see.
Yet I believe that there is still a prophecy to be made and that I do not pretend to know where to begin: For our politicians and religious leader’s views seem far too short sighted. They are based on out dated theories that the benefit of one section of society will drive future prosperity for all: either the working classes or those with the most financial ability.
This approach has led to sections of society seeking to demonise each other. Hence, the Government and large swathes of the press have, perhaps successfully, created a majority view that those on welfare benefits are spongers and lazy and that those who seek refuge in this country can add no net value to our society. Those who counter these arguments do not provide sustainable alternatives to a society that is fatted on credit, living a dream that our children and grandchildren will be unlikely to maintain.
Now is a time for us to prophesy for the coming of Elijah. Not a single individual perhaps but a way of thinking that champions collaboration of all in society towards a collective, sustainable future. As Michael Crabbe reminded me last night having revisited the Welsh Valley villages of his heritage, how on earth can we expect those who have been left behind in ghettoes of poverty to pay our country’s way by cutting their welfare benefits right now without another option – we are robbing from the poor. And yet we must acknowledge the pain and fear of those whose dependence on continued affluence means they are no longer able to sustain lifestyles they had worked hard to assume. No, arguments, discussion and theory must be posited without falling into the temptation of blaming another for current woes.
We cannot come out of this festival of Pesach feeling the promise of new life, of new ways, without taking a longer-term view, one that does accept life as being life, the essence that life is full of short-term challenges to be overcome. We must think of life without expected entitlement. As our thoughts turn through our Yizkor service, to the lives and sacrifices made by generations who came before us, let us consider our lives: still very much to live. Let us consider the sacrifices we are willing to make that will form our prophecy for future generations, our gift to them so that they too, all of them, can live a life of expectancy, not of entitlement but of promise.
I began this Pesach by quoting from the Psalms, “You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness (Ps 45:5).” May this be the promise with which we leave Pesach behind us and may we all find the courage to be an Elijah, seeking to bring promise to those dear to us and all those who we can reach out to through our lives.
Isaiah 11:1-12 & 11:16–12:6
The traditional Haftarah song or prayer of David on his deliverance from the hand of Saul, mirrors the gratitude felt by the Israelites through Moses and or Miriam's Song at the Sea, for their deliverance from Egypt.
However, perhaps enough already from the great statements of might and power, human expressions of God’s deliverance that in their prose reflect the harsh realities of war.
Rather, from the Prophet Isaiah, the ideal of a king who will represent the ideals of a time yet to come that we can all aspire to. It also connects with the Song of the Sea by allusion and direct quote, “The Eternal God is my strength and might, and the Eternal has been my deliverance: Ozi v’zimrat Yah, vay-hi li lishuah.”
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