Sermon June 9th 2007 Siah-Yitzak Synagogue, Jerusalem, by Dr. Irene Lancaster FRSA, formerly Manchester University, UK
It is a great honour for me to be asked to give this sermon in this synagogue in the heart of Jerusalem less than 10 months after my aliyah to Israel, and in Hebrew, no less. Talk about being thrown in at the deep end, but here goes!
I come to you today as someone who taught theology, philosophy and Jewish history in the UK, my birthplace, as well as Biblical Hebrew. I was also a teacher of children, so I find it so positive to be standing here surrounded by the pets and books of school life, bearing in mind that a synagogue is also a Bet Midrash, a ‘house of learning’.
Today’s sedra is that of
Shelach Lecha (Ba-Midbar/Numbers 13-15).
In this weekly portion, God says to Moses:
Send for/to yourself men to spy out the land of Canaan.
As we can hear, the word Tor – to spy out, is related by sound to Torah, i.e. the right spirit of teaching. It is also related to Tor, signifying the turtle dove, the harbinger of peace to the world. Surely then, anyone who ‘spies out the land’ should come not as a spy in the narrow sense, a meragel, who as we can see from that word, betrays all the rules and regulations of good conduct (where regel-foot is related to regulation), but as people devoted to the peaceful teaching which is encapsulated in the word ‘Tor’.
But knowing what human frailty is like, God also tells would-be visitors and residents to take a firm grip on themselves (ve-hitkhazaktem) before making any judgments, because, who said it would be easy?
As you know, the spies bring back three types of fruit from their trip here:
clusters of grapes
The clusters are called
‘God (aleph) she-kol (which is all).
of hope can so easily turn into the
the ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ and ‘what ifs’ of life. That is: doubt, writ large.
And later on
(in Chapter 14:34)
the same word mutates into
God’s displeasure (tenuati),
His frustration with, and aversion to, these first reporters on the scene here. For they had held God’s wholeness in their hands, but lost their nerve and ended up assailed by vacillation and doubt in themselves, which led to exaggerations and lies.
Because although they saw that
the Land was flowing with milk and honey (zvat khalav u-dvash),
they also dismissed it as
In addition, they exaggerated the size of the fortifications surrounding the cities, calling them
We know that the size of these was exaggerated because the Bible leaves out the two letters which would allow us to pronounce the word properly, i.e. the two vavs. And we know that this omission always signifies falsification and defect. Then, the spies describe the inhabitants as
men of great stature, quality and worth – all symbolized in that seminal word – middot.
When in fact, they were ordinary people of flesh and blood, just like us.
As for the spies themselves - the potential witnesses - the journalists, academics and architects of their own day - how did they view themselves, but as
grasshoppers – khagavim:
small people who go about grassing on others and hopping about from one lie to the next, not able to stay still for a second.
For it says
that the spies saw themselves as
grasshoppers in our own sight, and that is why we were in the sight [of the giants] as well.
What psychology! The way we see ourselves is how others see us.
And the word
khagav can be related to hegev- react.
So these spies are like putty, which is easily molded and manipulated – like blue-tack for instance. It can stick to anything and can be pulled into all shapes and sizes, but essentially remains putty in one’s hands.
And what does all this talk remind us of? Why, of the present-day spies who come here to Israel, of course. But not in the spirit of Tor/ah truth and Tor peace, but as Islamicists, Christians, journalists, academics, doctors, architects and public-sector workers, who come bent on listening to those who want to destroy Israel and who are impervious to the truth, because their main aim in life is to be small, flexible and easy to manipulate. They disregard this country’s potential to be that of one flowing with milk and honey, and, like the false spies of old, they exaggerate and lie:
‘The Israelis are mighty’
they wail, not noticing the defect in the spelling.
The Wall is enormous.
The poor indigenous people are being oppressed by those awful Jews.
And this is exactly what Hitler said in his time:
The Jews are very important
He said (yes, the entire Jewish population of Germany at that time, which was 1% of the total).
They are raping our women and stealing our jobs.
Forgetting, of course, that Jews had lived in Germany for over 2000 years and had pre-dated the Christians there.
Seventy years later, what are they saying about us:
The Jews are like Nazis. They have stolen the land from the indigenous people, are hounding them out and mistreating their pregnant women.
No talk about
of course, a word which means
No, of course not. Hamas is great, because they give charity, open soup kitchens and are not corrupt. Just like Hitler.
Where is the wholeness and common-sense encapsulated in the eshkol-cluster and sekhel-common sense today? We can see from the Hebrew that eshkol and sekhel are related.
Common-sense sees the whole picture and the British used to be famed for it. But, no more. And what is sekhel-intelligence, but the ability to hold everything together in the mind, just like a bunch of grapes.
But the British academics have put their intelligence to one side and have just voted to boycott us, just as the Germans did in the 1930s, as the Church of England nearly did a year ago (based on a false report which they wished to believe), as the National Union of Journalists did very recently, and as the doctors, architects and public service unions wish to do in the very near future.
And on Friday June 8th, Saturday June 9th and Sunday June 10th - in commemoration of the Six-Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem - the BBC is broadcasting a Radio Four series of three programmes on Muslims, Jews and Christians in this city.
Ironically, the one on Judaism is broadcast tonight - Shabbat - at 6.00 pm our time (4.00 pm in the UK), repeated 1.30 am on Sunday (11.30 pm Saturday in the UK).
I know the producer of this programme, because he also made a programme with me once. I very much hope that his series will be of the truthful variety and not number among those which have annually increased the amount of anti-semitic attacks on Jews in England in the last decade.
What is the way out of all this?
Three years ago, the Dalai Lama visited Liverpool and met with my husband and me, in order to learn more about Judaism and Israel, a country he so much admires.
Later, he addressed an audience of thousands in Liverpool’s massive Anglican Cathedral. There, he very gently attacked Christianity for its hypocrisy and large buildings, and said it could learn a great deal from the ethics of Judaism.
He also said that the answer to religious fanaticism in the world is to encourage people of different religions to go on pilgrimages together, just as he had done with Jewish and Christian friends in Jerusalem recently.
As we all know, the word for pilgrim in Hebrew is oleh-regel, someone who goes up by foot. Foot and spy come from the same root in Hebrew. In fact, the only difference between the two words is the prefix mem, which often signifies twists, distortions and perversions.
So may the malshinim, distorters of lashon-language, learn to use language properly. And may those who see themselves as spies-meraglim , the journalists, church people, academics and other ‘useful idiots’, people being used by those who wish to destroy us completely, turn into olei-regel, who – like the Dalai Lama – come here in a spirit of respect and desire for the eshkol, the bunch of grapes, which signify the whole truth.
And may we see an end to bloodshed, so that this country may fulfil its true potential of being a land flowing with milk and honey- eretz-zvat ve-khalav once more.
Thank you very much for listening and I wish you a