Sermons

The Great Revolt and a Prayer for Fruitful Flowering

Leadership challenges – egos, rivalries and jealousies - breath-taking drama – unexpected twists – bitter recriminations - expectations disappointed – a nation divided - widespread upheaval – chaos let loose...

No – I’m not making a statement about the tumultuous past 10 days in UK politics! Infact, this is a summary of parashat Korach, known as ‘The Great Revolt,’ our weekly portion from the Torah.

The verses we will read this morning from our specially commissioned 60th anniversary Torah scroll describe how Korach the Levite and Datan and Aviram the Reubenites challenge Moses’s and Aaron’s leadership, taking a good part of the people with them.

In the midrash the rabbis focus on the different motivations that drove each of the main players in the revolt.

Korach himself was Moses' uncle. He was also of the tribe of Levi which had gained tremendous influence in the new order that Moses was establishing. Moses claims that jealousy is the powerful motivation for Korach’s dissent.

It is harder to understand the motivations of Dathan and Abiram. They were princes of the Tribe of Reuben. Yet, in the order of the camp, the tribe of Reuben was encamped next to Kehat, next to the family of Korach. From here the Midrash teaches - 'Woe to the wicked; woe to his neighbour.' In other words, beware the bad influence of what your neighbours say.

More mysterious is the role of On, the son of Pelet. He appears at the beginning of the rebellion, but there is no further reference to him. The Midrash tells us that although he agreed to participate in the rebellion, he withdrew at a later date. The Midrash tells how On came home from the pub one night and told his wife that he had joined up with others to lead a rebellion against Moses. On's wife, who knew exactly what kind of person he was, turned to him and said - 'What difference does it make to you? Whether Moses remains master or Korach becomes master, you are still but a follower.'

On's wife promptly got him drunk, and he missed the rebellion the next day because he overslept!’ Could Mrs Johnson be the explanation for Boris’s surprise withdrawal from the leadership race?

Our sedra raises profound questions about leadership, authority, power, justice and equity. But for me, a more compelling common thread runs through the 2 rebellions – the rebels feel left out – excluded from power, excluded from sharing the wealth and riches of the Priesthood. This is what led to the popular support for Korach’s revolt.

Whether you voted remain or leave in the referendum, I wouldn’t wish Korach’s end on any of us. He and his followers are swallowed up by the earth and consumed by fire. A rebellion breaks out among the people, resulting in a plague which kills 14,700 people.

To end on a hopeful note, let’s look to the conclusion of our sedra. Order is restored as God reconfirms Aaron’s appointment as High Priest, with a rod that flowers, managing to produce flowers and fruit even though long-severed from its original tree. What’s done is done. As we strive to restore order in our own nation, let’s put the past behind us, and share responsibility for restoring order through respect and calm, through a profound listening to each other so that everyone feels included in the process of democracy, and let us eventually enjoy a new fruitful flowering of this nation.

 

The following sermon was given by Rabbi Henry Goldstein as part of SWESRS 60th Anniversary Service which included the 25th Anniversary of our prayer hall.

This synagogue is a Kehillah Kedushah –-a Holy Community, because it is a community of the Jewish people, and the Jewish people, by virtue of their history and religious outlook are - a people of God. Since it began 60 years ago, this Holy Community’s members may have varied in their personal religious commitment, but at least, they always belonged to a Kehillah Kedushah with its three functions: first; as a bet ha-knesset, place for gathering - the literal meaning of synagogue; secondly a bet ha-midrash, a place for Jewish education and debate for all ages, and last, but not least, Bet -tefilah, a place for community prayer, for the service of the heart.

From its beginnings 60 years ago, the first active members, led in succession by two very able Rabbis, Alan Miller and Dov Marmur, quickly made a priority of togetherness and education visibly mixed with services. The local Jewish population was increasing rapidly at that time with many seeking a new religious approach. The conditions were just right. The new synagogue soon succeeded in establishing Reform Judaism in this district. They did this in quite humble premises. The first home of our own was a double fronted house in Balfour Road, Central Ilford. Its holy function has since clung to it. It became a synagogue, and then later a Mormon tabernacle, and the last time I saw it, it was a mosque. No legends were needed to make it such a holy place: just the positive efforts of suburban people wanting to build a community house for their kind of worship.

Balfour Rd was remembered by early members with great affection. It was a warm, vibrant community and it had ambition. Its services had style and enthusiasm taking place in a multi-use upper room, which on other nights might be used by the Junior Membership JM for playing table tennis. In that space, the game could just be played with ease. But it was also a room in which weddings took place —and others were planned.

The same pattern of a mix of activities within common walls still characterised the synagogue when it moved to this site, into what was, despite all the grumbles about the pillars in the hall, a cleverly designed building. A number of offices, meeting rooms, and especially classrooms, were now built as a priority. Prayer and ceremonies –-and, of course, enlightenment through sermons and Torah –- continued to share the communal hall space with other more social activities (there was always plenty of fun before the ark at SWERS). Mostly the sharing worked reasonably well, and yet…..

This synagogue never lost the grand idea, its dream, that one day it would have a space dedicated especially for its religious services. A separate place: a holy place, for a holy community. If God ought to be worshipped in style and Torah taught and explained in the light of modern knowledge, to do so within a good architectural setting would enhance the functioning of the whole synagogue.

Dedicated houses for worship, however, ‘don’t come cheap’. So there was no rush to have such a place built. And then, almost suddenly it seemed, during the 1980s, the dream and a revitalised enthusiasm for a dedicated communal house for prayer became reality. Of course, there had to be a scheme A and a Scheme B; and there was strong debate, but like the controversy 2000 years ago between the Schools of Shammai and Hillel, A and B were both schemes for the sake of the holy community and therefore for the sake of God. The argument was fierce. That night the congregation democratically committed itself to fulfilling the dream of a separate prayer hall. They also committed themselves to the awesome task of paying for it.

Looking back, such a bold step seems in keeping with an era of important changes for non-Orthodox Judaism in this country. It was, for example. the decade when the Sternberg Centre was established, and when Reform and Liberal Judaism began to be much more accepted in the Anglo- Jewish establishment. Locally, not only had SWERS become by then one of the larger, most active synagogues of the Reform movement, in this period two more non- orthodox synagogues were established in this immediate area (with a third at the end of the decade). Also, non-Orthodox communities, from the East End to East Anglia, began a co-operation that still continues. Things were happening.

The title ‘prayer hall’ was used then and still is; it was to be special for prayer and ceremonial activity, to help fulfil the idea of holiness in this place. Educational, social, and cultural activities were catered for under the envisaged scheme, for it included completion of the upper storey of the old building giving still more space for more meeting and classrooms.

So began a protracted, complicated process. I am just going to highlight a few of its features which I think were really crucial to the enterprise. I am also not going to mention any names. For a start I might forget somebody, but I do so really to emphasise that this was a communal effort. As the saying in The Talmud (Berachot) goes: One may do much or one may do little: it is all one provided directs ones’ heart to heaven. And in this enterprise all were working for the House of God.

Now, important as it may be to try and involve the whole membership in matters like this, it is well known than if you want to achieve in synagogue organisation, then you have to go to the busy people, and the various committees and groups were asked at an early stage to give their ideas about the future of the synagogue. This provided ideas, but also helped to focus attention on ‘a community project’. The Building Committee was a strong one with several synagogue members professionally involved in building and architecture, providing a positive, informed influence. And then, right from the beginning, the Fund Raisers got busy and their great enthusiasm and determination succeeded in raising moneys to which we were not accustomed. It was a great effort.

But the really crucial move came as a surprise result of the architects’ competition. All 4 chosen had been briefed with full details about the synagogue’s past and its hopes, and the latter included our hopeful budget figure. We asked: What can you do for us with this amount? Only one architect played the game: the other three just ignored this request and went higher, much higher. However, I don’t not think this was just professional egotism on their part. I think they were really telling us: if you are serious, if you really want a special place for prayer and services that would enhance this whole community, you will have to spend more. Particularly impressive were the ideas of one architect whose competition entry soared well beyond our fund-raising abilities, but being obviously a person of ideas he was chosen to produce another plan which the community might with extra effort afford. So back to their task again went the Fund Raisers and excelled themselves all the more, though the synagogue would get into debt if the dream was to be fulfilled. Which is an unfortunate feature of life.

Our chosen architect first concentrated on the internal layout of the new prayer hall and the thinking was to get away slightly from the conventions of synagogue design, bringing congregation and officiants more together, focusing in particular on what was happening before the ark. You can see the results. He called it, I think, the wrap around effect The shape of the whole building followed.

His design fulfilled the prevailing wish of this community that the building should be both internally and externally simple, not highly embellished. He produced innovative practical designs for furnishings and for service use. Above all, there was great emphasis on the effect of artificial lighting. After this building was opened an article appeared in an architecture magazine referring to this hall as a Circle of Light, I think it was. And a few years later, I came across a book just published listing the finest buildings in London. Outer East London would do better nowadays, but in the mid 90s its edifices of merit amounted to just 3 or 4 and one of them was this building.

So it all led, eventually, to the grand opening, on a windy day in June. It was a grand occasion despite the mishaps. The great moment is depicted on a photograph showing the chairman of the Building Committee surrounded by his colleagues, kindling the eternal light. The building was not totally finished. Faults -- and unfortunately friction –-had all begun to show. Final touches like the permanent ark curtain all came along in due course. Therefore, I suppose, 25 years is not too long a time to wait for all of the faults to be rectified –and the building finally finished.

This is a fine building and an unusual one at that. Did it enhance the functioning of this synagogue, particularly as a Bet Tefilah, a home for prayer and Congregational service? Yes, it did. It has also enhanced family events, Sabbath after Sabbath, and enabled families to have greater participation in the service on their special day. It certainly enhanced weddings. The choir were now more integrated into the congregation as they always wanted to be. Perhaps the best indication of what this building did for us, in terms of a total religious community event, could be seen after we brought back the Second Day Rosh Hashanah service from Walthamstow. We had, in this beautiful hall of light, a crowded, packed-in adult congregation using these bench seats to their full capacity, with an overflow in the entrance hall. The many children having returned from their services, sat on the floor in the aisles and on the steps of the Bimah, with the choir leading us at the climax of the service with their enthusiastic singing -- a complete congregation. We did not achieve that always, week by week. Sometimes far from it, but this kind of service is what the synagogue was aiming at. That was enhanced living within a Holy Community of suburban Jews engaged in the holy work.

The completion of the upper storey of the old building also enhanced how this community functioned. A suggestion made in mid enterprise by the then Chairman of the synagogue led to two of the new classrooms becoming instead one larger room with the name ‘The Seminar Room’, a space which, into the 21st century, inspired and housed many good events of a social and educational nature, as well as being a gallery for the exhibiting of paintings by members.

What of the brand-new building’s immediate future -the 1990s? That decade saw the merger with the Settlement Synagogue, but the reshaped community could not foresee that in the first decade of the new building there would be an economic recession that would have a marked negative effect on local synagogues and that a considerable exodus of Jews from this area would start to become discernible. There would also be the establishment of two new Jewish schools, which provided, of course, a much more regular and potentially effective Jewish environment for the youngsters, but this would also in a certain way have a negative effect on synagogues. These events proved challenging and they still are. And as for the present, nowadays much of the communal building has been taken over by Norwood and others, which does allows the synagogue to provide more for the general Jewish and non-Jewish community. But may seem that this building came too late. Perhaps it it might seem in vain.

And yet –- in these past 25 years this hall and the seminar room have played a major role in what has continued, for all the changes in the area, to be a large, active Reform Synagogue. What is more, this hall has continued to enhance your experience of being part of a holy community of Jews. The new challenges are still there and the SW Essex Suburban Jewish population I have been informed is still a large one. Under the leadership of your new Rabbi, Lisa Barratt, with her knowledge and dedication, her talent and her personality, this community can still be of major creative influence for itself, for the district, and for the Reform Movement. Within this building and outside of it you still have the opportunity to serve God as a Holy Community.

Psalm 127 says if the Lord does not build the house; its human builders labour in vain upon it. After 25 years, we can say with faith that God has worked upon this house, though maybe with a sense of humour and a bit of irony. But you have not laboured in vain; for you built this House for the sake of enhancing yourselves as a Holy Community of the people of God.