Keep the door open

This is a Rosh Hashanah sermon, written and delivered by Rabbi Jeremy Gordon, rabbi of New London Synagogue. Delivered 14 September 2015/1 Tishri 5776. Read the original posting of this sermon and more sermons by Rabbi Gordon here.

I gave a sermon earlier this year. It was after the death of one of my heroes, Sir Nicholas Winton, may his memory be a blessing. I told the story of the bespectacled stockbroker, born Jewish, but never identifying as a Jew, who gave up on a skiing holiday in Switzerland in 1938 to go to the, then, Czechoslovakia to work with Jewish refugees. He gave up a skiing holiday in Switzerland to try and better the life of some dirty, under-nourished strangers.

Those of you familiar with Sir Nicholas’ story will know he brought 700 Jewish children back to this country, saving these lives from the horrors of the Holocaust. Sir Nicholas raised the money to pay for the train journeys across Europe and the boats across the Channel. He found hosts in both Jewish and non-Jewish homes and he even forged a slew of necessary paperwork to get his charges into this country – he needed to; the civil servants were dragging their feet and his criminality saved lives.

It wasn’t a bad sermon, it was about the things that lead some people to sacrifice so much to do something extraordinary. But then, in the kiddush hall, a member came up to me and asked me this question – what did I think people would say today about someone, let’s say someone Muslim born, who smuggled 700 dirty under-nourished children into Britain from war-torn Syria, forging the paperwork no less.

It was one of those rhetorical questions. There may indeed be a change in the political climate these past weeks, but I don’t imagine someone bringing 700 undocumented Syrians into England today is going to get a stamp designed their honour any time soon.

It’s not that the doors were ever opened particularly wide to Jews when we arrived – whether that be the ‘proper’ asylum seekers among us – or those whose ancestors are merely, in the phrase that suggests wrongdoing, economic migrants. But I can’t help wondering what my life would have been like if I’d been born a Christian in Eritrea and Mimi, the theology student who leads services in the Church in the Calais Jungle refugee camp, had been born here as a Jew. Would I now be facing probing questions from journalists as to why I wanted to move to Britain against a backdrop of plastic sheeting and rubbish bags while he would be being paid a decent wage to do God’s work in this holy community?

Oh I know this whole refugee thing is complicated and we don’t have enough school places, or hospital wards and all that. But here’s the religious point. Here’s the Rosh Hashanah point.

You are not allowed, as a religious principle, to deny to someone else the treatment you would wish for yourself.

Let me try to leave politics and this whole distressing question of Syrians and the Afghanis and the rest of them, and teach some traditions from the Talmud on the subject of Teshuvah.

Our tradition teaches that if one person, let me call him Reuven, wrongs another – I’ll call him Shimon, then Reuven has to go to Shimon to say sorry. Makes sense. And our tradition teaches that if Shimon refuses to accept the apology, Reuven has to try again and again. Makes sense. But then, Maimonides turns to address Shimon – the man who has been wronged – and says this,

It is forbidden for a person to be – achzaray – to be cruel and not grant pardon. One should rather easily forgive and when the offender requests forgiveness he should forgive with a full heart and a generous spirit. (MT Hil Tesh 2:10)

Was Shimon wronged? Of course he was wronged. But he can’t stay there – or rather he deserves to be called cruel if he does. Shimon can’t retreat behind his previous experience of being a victim and close the door on Reuven’s attempt to leave his past behind. It’s the very essence of what it means to go through this Rosh Hashanah process. You can’t pass through a door and shut it on anyone who wishes to come behind you into this new world, this new year.

We can’t approach Rosh Hashanah as if our journey is the only one that counts. We are forbidden from viewing other people as a distraction from our own private Teshuvah work. The whole point is other people.

This has to apply even if the distraction is someone I have never, and may never meet. This has to apply even if I don’t quite trust this other person, this Reuven or Mohammed or Zafira, and the problem isn’t that they once did me wrong, but rather I’m not convinced my share of the GDP is going to go up if they are given leave to remain having crawled their way to this country without having been persecuted so horrifically that they win some Kosher asylum seeker competition. Sorry – I’m doing politics again, back to Rambam.

            Lo yikom vyitor – says Rambam – don’t be the sort of person who exacts revenge, or bears a grudge.

I have to share with you the Talmudic teaching behind this – it’s as close to being humorous as I’m going to get today. What’s the difference, the Talmud wants to know, between being vengeful and bearing a grudge. Suppose Reuven wants to borrow Shimon’s axe, and Shimon says no. And then Shimon, the very next day asks Reuven to borrow their axe, and the Reuven says, ‘no, you didn’t lend it to me’ – that’s vengeful.

But if Reuven’s request is refused and when Shimon goes back to ask the next day Reuven says, ‘sure I’ll lend you my axe, because I’m not like you who didn’t lend it to me’ – that’s bearing a grudge.

The point is you have to let go a little, and open your heart to a future that might feel a little scary. We are called upon to act kindly even if we aren’t quite sure that others deserve it. After all that’s precisely how we would want to be treated if we were the ones on shaky ground.

But bearing grudges isn’t our problem when it comes to thinking about refugees. The problem today is directly the reverse. The problem is not that we remember too well, it’s that we’ve forgotten too quickly – we are in danger of undergoing some kind of national amnesia.

We are in danger of forgetting who we are and where we came from – and I don’t just mean those of us who fled Nazi Germany, or fled pogroms here or there or any of the other wanderings over time and space in the past century, I mean we’ve forgotten the single foundational event of our national memory. We’ve forgotten Egypt.

‘Love the ger‘ the Torah teaches, ‘Don’t oppress the ger‘ again and again – umpteen times in varying phraseologies. And the ger? The word refers to someone who wants to live among our people, accepting our laws, but not becoming entirely one of us. It couldn’t more perfectly define the migrant who wants to come to live here and make a better life for themselves. And the most powerful, the most passionate and compassionate of all these verses commanding us to love and not oppress the stranger end in this way, ‘for you were gerim in the land of Egypt.’ We know – or at least we once knew – what it meant to be a stranger in a strange land. Once we were fully in support of the arrival of religiously-obscure, strangely-dressed, ill-educated, non-English speakers in this country, because, once upon a time, it was us arriving.

We are in danger of forgetting that we are the people who are supposed to have the deepest understanding of the life of a Fiddler on the Roof; understanding the way in which people flee the country of their birth because staying is just too horrible a fate to wish upon our children is the deepest insight of our Jewish national memory. Loving the stranger is our central ethic. This is what it means to be a Jew. There may well be less Jews keeping Kosher than was the case a hundred years ago, and there may be less Jews here on Second Day Rosh Hashanah than was the case even thirty years ago, and I can live with all that. But I can’t live with this. I can’t live with the notion that the Jewish people have forgotten what it means to be Jews.

And here’s the irony. Where is the beacon, today, refusing to respond to the migrants with barbed wire and barbed language? God bless Germany for getting it. God bless the Germans for remembering in the best possible way an awful history. God bless Angela Merkel for standing up in front of protesters accusing her of being a traitor to her people and laying it out there – “There can be no tolerance of those who question the dignity of other people,” said Merkel. Amen. Merkel remembers. The Germans who are doing what they can to support incoming refugees remember what happens when you don’t pay sufficient regard to the dignity of the dispossessed and the right to self-determination of stranger in your midst. And how could we be the ones forgetting?

Of course not all of us are forgetting. There are actually plenty of Jews who haven’t forgotten the obligation to care for the ger. I want to briefly mention two heroic ventures and commend them to you. And then I want to make one more plea.

Our member Angela Gluck, as many will know, has spent the past month living on £2 a day in attempt to understand more about the lot of refugees, barred from working and expected to subsist for a day on less than many of us pay for a coffee. She’s been blogging and raising money for the charity she helped found, the Separated Child Foundation, it’s a charity that does wonderful work supporting refugees. I commend the organisation to you.

Our sister Synagogue, New North London, hosts a monthly drop-in for destitute asylum seekers where those without, from countries across the globe and faiths similar and radically different from our own, can get a few basic life-necessities, distributed by Jewish volunteers who still remember. In the past months we’ve been developing a group of New London Synagogue members who are volunteering at the Drop-In, spending one Sunday a month helping out, handing out and raising funds. That’s a project led by our member Sam Leifer.  If you are interested in joining our band of volunteers, or supporting the Drop-In with gifts, that would be a great act of ethical memory.

For more information, drop me an email and I’ll connect you. And there are, of course, many other noble organisations, and opportunities to give of your time, your money and even to open your own homes to host a refugee. There are many ways to remember.

But my plea today is this. Talk about this.

We are all part of conversations. I plea that we never allow a conversation to go past where people who have crawled from the wreckage of Syrian civil war are smeared in that disingenuous way as mere economic migrants. We need to share with others, both inside and beyond the Jewish community, that from refugee beginnings come proud citizens, contributing to the life of this society in so many ways. We need to share that being welcoming to refugees is how good countries become greater still.

We are all connected to the internet, get on-line and write a note to your local MP and tell them your story, your Jewish and British story, you can congratulate them on the steps that have been taken, but also insist we do more to show that this is a great country whose greatness is demonstrated particularly from our moral response to moral tragedy. Talk about this.

It’s a plea I make for two reasons.

One is, I believe it will help. I believe we can help create a climate in which political hearts will open and political morality will become firmer.

It’s also that in talking about this, in placing ourselves clearly on the side of the ger, the stranger, the Fiddlers on the Roof, that we open our own hearts to understand our Jewish ethic. For the more we convince ourselves of the justice of opening our heart and border to the refugees the more we will become more open hearted in our relationship with all of those around. The more we talk about this, the better Jews, and the better human beings we will become. I believe that the more we do about this, and talk about this, more we will come to understand Teshuvah. And I believe that in doing so we will come to deserve the year of sweetness, health and happiness we all, so dearly seek.


L’Shannah Tovah