Don't be lazy, get up and go to shul!
Cuando el Rey Nimrod
al campo salía
miraba en el cielo
y en la estrellería
vido una luz santa
en la judería
que había de nacer
a la luz de Israel.
Recently I met an old friend, Michel Chaoul, who was visiting Israel for a family bar mitzvah. Michel, a Parisian psychiatrist whose mother-tongue is Ladino, celebrated his eightieth birthday a few months ago. He is a French Jew of Turkish origins and a raconteur par excellence.
On this visit he told me the story of his grandparents, who lived in Izmir, and of the grandfather he never met. Apparently his grandmother always encouraged his grandfather to go to shul on Saturday mornings. One week, he was feeling tired, and argued with her and ended up staying at home. That was the day when some soldiers knocked the door and found him there, and enlisted him for the Turkish army. He ended up forcibly recruited, there was no choice in the matter, and while serving in the army he became sick with typhus, and died in Palestine, which in those days was under Ottoman rule.
Now when I heard this story I immediately asked Michel - “that’s great - can I use it in a sermon?” And he replied: “ok, but what’s the moral of the sto xx ry?” I think he was hoping for some wisdom from me, something to help him understand why his grandfather had met this unhappy fate. Perhaps something about the irony of a Jew ending up dying in the biblical land of Israel because he was conscripted into a foreign army. But unfortunately I could only manage to tell him: “Michel it’s simple: don’t be lazy, stop complaining, get up in the morning and go to shul!”
Stories are never simple. They can be short and they can be clear but they are rarely simple. Mathys has been grappling with the story of the golden calf. At one level the Israelites sin and are punished, some die and the rest move on somewhat chastened. But that takes into account little of the dynamics and the motivations, and ultimately the relationships between us and God that are being characterised by the telling and the retelling of this tale.
The golden calf tells us something about how and why we mess up in life. How can we go so quickly from the spiritual peak of revelation at Mount Sinai and experiencing God’s presence to the depths of worshipping something shiny, an animal, and ignore entirely the wonder of what we - at our best - have experienced. Sometimes we fail to appreciate the good that we have around us in our lives. We take things for granted and become complacent. And when the challenges come - how we respond is what defines us.
Mathys - you’ve worked hard this year and your achievements are a big cause for celebration, not just for you and your family but for everyone here today. We recognise your coming of age and taking your place as a responsible adult in the Jewish community. You have worked diligently and well, carefully learning and mastering everything that was asked of you, actually even more than was asked of you when it came to your Torah portion!
Mathys you come from a family with a proud Jewish tradition and also a proud Abrahamic tradition. I started by singing a Ladino song that is traditionally sung at bar mitzvahs, and tells the story of the birth of Abraham. As the common patriarch of the three Abrahamic faiths, Abraham is someone to look back to and look up to. The first person to recognise God and to understand the ethical imperatives that a relationship with God compels us to transmit.
Sometimes we all feel lazy and don’t want to go to shul. Sometimes we can lose our sense of wonder at this miraculous world and take our gifts for granted. Usually the ramifications are not drastic. But sometimes they are. Faith flickers, that we know, but is on us to stay strong and resolute, sometimes doing things for tradition’s sake as much as for a rational reason. We never know when we can still illumine the path for others, and follow our common Abrahamic ancestor as a “Luz de Israél”, a light for the Jewish people, and for the whole of humanity.
Cuando el Rey Nimrod al campo salía
miraba en el cielo y en la estrellería
vido una luz santa en la judería
que había de nacer Abraham Avinu.
Abraham Avinu, Padre querido
Padre bendijo a la luz de Israel.