Faith and Freedom, 19th January 2019, Nick Shenker

Today is 13th Sh’vat 5779 in the Jewish calendar, the day my darling daughter Maya Hannah Shenker (Hannah bat Natan) made Bat’mitzvah here at Beth Shalom and didn’t she do well! I know that you have worked extremely hard and the fruits of your labour are here for us all to see. And so it falls to me, your proud father, to negotiate 10 minutes of prose and not to embarrass you any more than what you would surely expect.

Sermons are not about ‘thank yous’, but it would be remiss of me not to thank from the bottom of my heart, Orna, Cheder teachers and all of the senior committee and wardens at Beth Shalom for providing the time, expertise and patience to cope with the demands of providing us with the Jewish teaching and infrastructure that we need to survive and be free. Thank you.

So, the Jews have left Egypt and gone were the trappings of their old environment, the prison of their life in slavery, to flee across the desert, survive (miraculously) and yet there they were trapped between the ‘rock’ of the Red Sea and the ‘hard place’ of the oncoming Pharoah’s army. But the Red Sea split, the deep waters parted to expose the sand beneath; the reality of every day dissolved in front of the Jews’ eyes and something remarkable happened. Freedom.

And if this is the case and ‘freedom’ is going to be the prize, surely the Jewish people would have lapped this up, right from leaving Egypt. Surely they couldn’t wait for such a miracle to be bestowed upon them. Weren’t they obedient to Moses; dutifully obeying his and the command party’s every wish and patiently awaiting instructions, tolerating the heat, thirst and hunger with admirable fortitude. Well, as Maya told us – they did not. In true, stiff-necked people’s fashion, they whined, they moaned, they rebelled. ‘Let us be.’ They called, ‘Surely it is better to serve the Egyptians than to die in the Wilderness?’ And yet some had faith and conviction.

Imagine the Red Sea, deep, dark, cold, forbidding, stretching mile after mile. Now look the other way and imagine the dust from Pharoah’s Chariots, the spears, the impending might of force of 600 chariots and the highly trained killing machines of Pharoah’s army. “Go into the Sea” Moses exhorted. Everyone looked at him as if he was mad. “Into the Sea! It will part!!” The Midrash talks about one man who had Faith. Nachson ben Aminadav listened to Moses’ command to walk forward before the Red Sea. Nachson was the Prince of Judah, one of the 12 tribes of Israel. 5 generations removed from Jacob, he waded in. He was the only one. Into the swirling waters of the Red Sea. Up to his knees, up to his waist, up to his neck, up to his nose…

I can only explore ‘Faith and Freedom’, this central theme of my sermon from a personal point of view. We are not a proselytising religion. We don’t really talk about Faith, the belief in God very much. I think that we are either take it as a given or, like me, are slightly embarrassed about it. But if you can’t talk about Faith in a Synagogue, where can you? It is a curious question, but is Faith an important part of our Religion?

Two Rabbis argued late into the night about the existence of G’d, and, using strong arguments from the scriptures, ended up indisputably disproving His existence. The next day, one Rabbi was surprised to see the other walking into the synagogue, ready for the morning services.

“I thought we had agreed that there was no G’d,” he said.

“Yes, what does that have to do with it?” replied the other.

OK, I do believe in G’d. I do have faith. Which begs the lots questions, particularly as I am a Doctor, an empiricist, someone who looks for the evidence upon which to base his decisions. But just because I respect empirical Science, does not mean that I can’t have Faith. The two are not mutually exclusive.

A scientist can describe a hurricane, can calculate the wind speed, hypothesise the storm surge, plan for the destruction and keep people safe. But to live through a hurricane, to feel the raw power of the wind buttress a building, witness the sea pummelling the land, trees horizontal, of the dissonant sound deep in your chest as the pressure plummets, the fear, the thrill. There’s a difference.

Jennifer Wiseman, a Christian astrophysicist and director of for a programme of the American Association for the Advancement of Science declares that science is a “wonderful tool for understanding the physical universe” but religious belief provides answers to bigger philosophical questions in life. “We are physically connected to the universe and I think we have a deeper connection as well.”

Well, the next thing to point out is that I am not alone in having ‘Faith’. In fact, it seems that human beings need Faith. According to the The Guardian 2018, 5.8 billion of the world’s population declare that they follow a Religion. Well, that’s reassuring for a start. I am not ‘abnormal’, out on a limb. And many other people whom I know very well also have Faith and they seem to function very well, and enjoy a quality of life that seems, well almost, enviable! There almost seems to be something in Human Nature that aligns us to have Faith, a basic human need.

But in what do I have Faith. What is G’d to me? Is one person’s Faith in the G’d the same as anothers? How many faces of G’d are there?

Yuval Noah Harrari, in his latest book ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’ (thank you Natalie) limits G’d as either a Cosmic mystery or a worldly law-giver’ and yet Harrari writes that by G’d’s very nature, He is indefinable. Anyhow, let’s take the first concept that G’d does not fit into our understanding, He is mysterious and satisfies our need to find meaning in fate, luck and events beyond our control. Why do earthquakes happen? Why do we lose our money in the casino when other nights we win? Why does it rain on our wedding day? We can’t understand, it’s distressing, it’s uplifting psychologicall,y meaningful and resilience-building to externalise these events and put them down to a Greater Force that we can’t comprehend. Like the hurricane, it is one thing to describe this, but its an entirely different thing to live it.

And how can we relate to this Force, this Greater Being? How does this interface work? Perhaps best to describe using a story…

A poor man was walking in the forest and feels close to G’d, close enough to ask, “G’d, what is a million years to you?”
G’d replies, “My son [his voice sounds like this], my son, a million years to you is like a second to me.”
The man asks, “G’d, what is a million pounds to you?”
G’d replies, “My son, a million pounds to you is less than a penny to me. It means almost nothing to me.”
The man thinks for a second and asks, “So G’d, can I have a million pounds?”
And G’d replies, “Sure…in a second.”

Do I believe that there are concepts that are inconceivable, measurements that are immeasurable, imagination that is unimaginable. Yes, of course I do. It defines a part of my humility. It allows self-deprecation. My faith tells me that I am but dust, insignificant and fleeting. It is not a bad starting point for life, sets low expectations which are a joy to meet, and comforts me for my many flaws and failures. Faith might also give purpose and a meaning to life.

And Harrari also tells me that G’d is the lawgiver. My life, my community, the society in which I have a niche will be so much better if we all could simply follow the wisdom of an intelligence far beyond our comprehension. Do I have faith that these were given in the Torah, or were they written by wise humans and passed down? I will never know for sure but given everything else, it is easier for me to believe in a greater force. To have Faith. Sure. The power of such a moral structure allows me at once to both escape having to think too hard about what is right and wrong and have the confidence that my life will be better as a result. In a nutshell, treat others how I would want to be treated myself is not a bad strapline for how to behave. And it seems to have stood the test of time.

But what of Maya’s passage? How are these ruminations about my Faith relevant to Nachson ben Amindav and Judaism?

Every religion has its rituals and ceremonies starting from a very young age. Judaism is not different, from the Bris, Baby blessing, the Festivals, Shabbat, Bah- and Batmitzvot, Weddings, Funerals, Yahrzeits and the myriad of other Judaisms and Judaica that permeate our lives, these indoctrinate and suffuse our personalities. They imbue and direct our thoughts. Do they enable us to be free? Or do they get in the way? Do they define Faith or is there a force from within that shapes such beliefs?

Beshallach, the portion from which Maya has just read, is about freedom, the letting go of the distractions of today (is this what we mean as we talk about the Egypt of yesteryear?), the prison of our thoughts (is that the Red Sea perhaps?), and seeing the parting of spiritual waves to let G’d in. Is it easy? Do you have to feel like you are drowning before you see the miracle? I am not here to give you answers. I can only share my experiences and thoughts. The individual stands before G’d as Nachson ben Aminadav stood before that great barrier, the Red Sea.

As the waves rose above Nachson ben Aminadav’s eyes and to the top of his head, suffocating him with cold salty water the Miracle happened, the Sea parted and Freedom beckoned. Nachson ben Aminadav holds a special place in Judaism and it was his Faith that led Moses and the whole of Israel to favour the tribe of Judah. As the Jewish people wandering around in the desert can testify, Freedom and Faith are not easy. The easy path does not give the same rewards. The Jewish religion, as all religions, not only has its traditions, customs and scrolls, there is also the uniquely personal belief of Faith, which was at the heart of the conscious (or unconscious) process that governed Nachson ben Aminadav’s actions on that day so many years ago. We have that freedom now. We’re in a land, a community and a space that gives us freedom, allows us our Faith, the chance to see as the many of the faces of God as possible. For that tolerance and respect, we must give thanks.