The year 1938. The High Holy Days and the Yom Kippur service being held here in the Oxford Jewish Community. This is an extract from a diary of a young German Jewish refugee who recounts her time on that day:
"It’s 1938. Yom Kippor. I am 17 years old. I went to the Synagogue. I was very lucky to get a seat because later on many people had to go out and had to stay in another room. I did not understand much because my Jewish and Hebrew education had been so minimal. Some people were very made up, they came from London. However, they came with family and friends. And that made me feel very lonely".
This is the diary extract from my mother, Ruth Shire and she never thought 75 years later that she would be listening to her own daughter on the Bimah talking to the same community! And what a mitzvah it is for me.
What of my own experience in this community when I arrived 12 years ago? I also came knowing no-one from this congregation and I had no family here in Oxford... so what made me instinctively feel at home here, have a sense of belonging and most importantly for me a sense of trust?
This raised the question; how do we learn to develop trust? Throughout my life, there have been three fundamental things that have helped me do this.
These are my faith, my family and my sense of community. I would like to explore some thoughts about each of these with you today.
How do we know when to put our trust in situations or people, or to take a risk and reach out to the unknown? Sometimes we don’t know.
That question leads us to Abraham, our Patriarch, in the Akedah that we have read in today’s parasha. Year after year we read this complex story of a man who is known to have a growing faith with God. What inner voice did Abraham have to make him so determined throughout his whole life? How did he know that God was his guide and that he could trust in whatever direction God led him? Abraham is seen in our tradition as a man with a faith so profound, so firm that he could converse with the Creator of the universe as naturally as ordinary human beings talk to one another. And yet the story of Abraham’s trust is a difficult one. Some would say that his was a blind faith that led him to a terrible task; that of sacrificing his own son.
The text hints that Abraham didn’t start out with real trust. God needs to be more and more specific: "Kach Na et Bin’cha et Y’chid’cha asher ahavta et Yizvckak" - "Take your son, your favoured one… the one you love… Isaac". Though Abraham left early in the morning to begin his journey, it took him 3 days to see the place God was directing him to. He told the servants accompanying them that both of them would come back after the sacrifice on the mountain. Maybe his trust was in the God he knew, was a God of Justice.
God’s ultimate promise was and is to us is ‘to keep the people’ and be a God of Justice. Therefore, inherently we know we can believe in God. Abraham had difficulty with that trust. Abraham was a man of reason and faith, but he relied on his reason through much of his life. In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, for example, Abraham did not trust God’s decision about destroying the two towns. Abraham argued and tried to convince God to save the towns. However, when it came to sacrificing his own son he did not question God’s request. We have a Midrash that tells us that Satan confronted Abraham with several obstacles on the way to the mountain and Abraham overcame them all.
Many may think that Abraham practised a spiritual surrender, he gave up his reason and his love of his child for God’s will. However it may not have been spiritual surrender that the story suggests, but spiritual audacity. To rise to the challenge of God’s request and continue to put faith in a God of Justice with the knowledge that trust in a moral principle is the ultimate goal. It takes spiritual audacity to trust .It takes bravery and a leap of faith. So what did Abraham gain, what changed within Abraham between Sodom and Gomorrah and the Akedah? He gained courage. He had not lost his reason; rather he becomes a man of complete faith.
My faith is linked with the history of our people, our cultural heritage and spiritual guidance. Judaism gives us a moral compass and helps direct us in how we interact with one another providing a solid link from one generation to another. This has been true for me; it has been my family that has been fundamental in developing my sense of trust and understanding who I am.
We all experience family dynamics differently. They are not always easy places, there are often issues, yet it is from within the family that the world acquires a human face. Through parents and grandparents we have history and a legacy which is continued through their children and grandchildren. Through family, which include friends that become honorary family members, we experience a complex choreography of love. We learn what it means to give and share, to grow from obedience to responsibility, to learn to challenge, make mistakes, forgive and be forgiven, to argue and make up. It is in the family unit where we learn about anger, and harshness. It is where we practice our skills in being kinder and showing concern for others, rather than simply focusing on meeting our own needs. We also learn about who and how to trust and that someone hopefully will be there for us unconditionally.
Sadly, my father, Heinz Shire, during his schooldays was surrounded by mistrust, where in Nazi Germany nothing was safe and where there was a fear of the unknown. He told us that one day out of the blue in 1934 all the boys in his school were called into the Assembly Hall, all but the Jewish boys. Then, on their return to the classroom no-one spoke to him again. Not his class mates, not even his best friend. From that day until his passing he never knew what the Head teacher had told the other pupils.
What he did know is that no-one stood up for him. They did not challenge. They had fear of what would happen to them if they spoke out. Today we witness that same fear in individuals and organisations of speaking out when they see wrong doing... There is a strong sense of mistrust of politicians, and some of our largest institutions, where we hear of reports of greed, cruelty and lack of moral principles. People working in these organisations observing what is taking place seem to struggle to recognise what the right actions to take are and how to raise their concerns.
And this is where I believe belonging to a strong community has a key role for me and has been a cornerstone of my own sense of trust. . For it is within the microcosm of such a community as Oxford that we try to be an example to others. We welcome in the strangers, provide support when someone is ill, or going through a life transition. We have a powerful role in stepping forward with open arms and try to help those in need.
We all know this is a unique synagogue, where the different denominations of Judaism trust each other enough to share space, time and especially a good Kiddush together! There are of course differences between the movements within this synagogue that we continually have to discuss and work out; it has not always been stress free. But when members of a community value and respect each other as human beings over and above denominational doctrine then true trust resides.
We already reach out into the wider community. We must continue to open our doors to schools where young people can learn about our synagogue and traditions; continue to talk and be in solidarity with our other faith communities. We need to involve ourselves in the world beyond to protect our planet, and support people who have needs such as the homeless and today’s refugees that are just outside these very doors. On this second day of Rosh Hashanah the story of Abraham helps us to be aware of the transformational nature of trust, through faith, family and community. In the coming year there may be times of challenge where we can’t rely on our usual approach but need that leap of faith to guide us. May we all find the necessary strength to make 5774 a trusting year for our families and this community.
Shana Tov U’me’tukah – May it be a sweet year for this community.