RABBI DR JEFFREY COHEN’S WEEKLY SERMON

For Shabbat Parashat Metzorah – 16th April / 7th Nisan

“A Pre-Pesach Message for Barmitzvah Benji Rom”

My dear Benji,

Congratulations on the excellent way you read your maftir and haftarah this morning. One of your passions is music and singing, so it is not surprising that you sang it so melodiously and beautifully, as well as accurately.

The Rom family has had a long and proud association with our shul, with your great grandparents, Dolly and Alf Lewis having been among the active founding fathers of the congregation. Your grandparents, Myra and Michael, continued the tradition, and I had the privilege of conducting the marriage of your dear parents, Melanie and Eddie. Indeed, as the Cohein at your Pidyon Ha-ben, there was a time, albeit only for the first 30 days of your life, when I was considering holding onto you for a lifetime of synagogue duties. You can consider yourself most fortunate that I agreed to sell those rights back to your parents. Gosh, you could have ended up working for the United Synagogue all your life!

Speaking of synagogues, and having referred to your paternal side, it would be remiss if I didn’t mention how respected your maternal grandparents, Marlene and Sidney, are in the Edgware Federation Shul. I was also informed that your uncle Andrew has just completed a seven-year daily study of the entire Talmud, popularly referred to as the Daf Yomi scheme, and I congratulate him on that. So, in ‘modern-day speak’ Benji, I would say that you should consider yourself ‘religiously-challenged.’ The family traditions and influences are there, around you. You have to decide which direction you wish to follow in life. I don’t expect you to study a page of Talmud each day – yet! – But the challenge of continuing your Jewish education is one that you should seriously consider. And, from something you told me when we met, that you are indeed considering at this time.

You have been through all our younger services, and have been attending the Youth Service for the past eight months, so you are certainly doing the right things as regards your Jewish religious identity, and I know that you will receive every encouragement from your dear parents and wider family.

Yours is a most charitable family. And many of us remember your grandma Myra’s excellent cookbooks which raised large sums for worthy causes. Your parents have followed that tradition. Your mum has been the chief charity event organiser for the PA of your school, which has raised a great deal for Cancer research and the Old Age Home in Northwood, and dad, through his sponsored golfing events, also helped to raise money for Norwood, a cause also very close to the hearts of your Nana Myra and Aunt Vicky. You are a junior member of Hartsbourne, so I hope that you will ensure, as often as possible, that while you are enjoying yourself, indulging your leisure time activities, the less fortunate can also derive enjoyment.

You are a very popular young man, with lots of interests, and with special talent in singing and acting, computers, art, I.T. and D.T. (In fact, it seems that there are few letters of the alphabet wherein you’re not competent!) You enjoy music, which is always on in your house, and your one complaint is that your friends keep you chatting on the computer for hours, after which you are so tired that there is nothing left for you to do other than watch TV for hours to get your strength back. Ah, it’s a hard life for today’s teenagers!

Anyway, let me leave you with a thought for your pre-Pesach Barmitzvah. Pesach is the festival of Jewish identity. It marks the point of transition for Jacob’s offspring, who began as a family, grew into a clan, then expanded, amid the Egyptian period of slavery, into a nation, and then further evolved, through the Exodus and the Giving of the Torah, into the Chosen People, chosen to live by the most exacting moral standards, to be God-like in their concern for struggling humanity, and to bring ethical civilisation to the ancient, and indeed the modern world.

Benji, there are many people who think that modern society is so much more enlightened than that of antiquity or of the so-called dark ages. Nothing could be further from the truth. Man may have far greater technological skills, instantaneous means of communication, of bringing news and entertainment into his living room. But as regards his character, man has not changed one iota. His nature is the same; his aggression, his greed, his desire for power, his suspicion of the stranger, his ability to nurse a grievance for decades, and a prejudice, such as against Jews, for two thousand years. The one thing that modern society has indeed perfected is the art of killing people with weapons of mass destruction, which the ancients could never have achieved.

Pesach is the festival which, above all, preaches love, inclusiveness, peace and respect for all ages and for all peoples. The Jew cannot feel secure or content as long as there are other oppressed and poverty-stricken people in the world. The Torah tells us that, while we were enslaved in Egypt, there was an eirev rav, a vast mixed multitude of ethnic groups and enslaved foreigners who had been sold into slavery there and deprived of their rights. When the moment of Israelite liberation arrived, we are told that our ancestors insisted on liberating and escorting out of Egypt that vast oppressed foreign entity. That, Benji, is what Judaism is about: practical and charitable concern for all mankind. It is clear, in our unfriendly world, that the Jewish mission has not yet run its course.

Benji, there are some people who have a public and a private persona, which means that they put on an act for the outside world, for friends and associates, appearing loving, tolerant, and generous-spirited, but who may be uncompromisingly harsh, even tyrannical, in their own homes and relationships with their wives, parents and children.

That is not Judaism. And again, it is Pesach which demonstrates the tolerance that is expected within the narrower confines of one’s family and immediate circle. The troubles of our people in Egypt first began with the brothers being jealous of Joseph, and selling him into slavery. The battles within one family had tragic repercussions on a vast scale that they could never have imagined. How is that attitude redeemed? Only by a conscious demonstration of love and tolerance between people who are basically so different in temperament and intellect, but who determine that their common humanity must serve as a bridge between them for the common good. Hence the slavery was caused by internal hatred, and it earned its removal by a demonstration of external concern

And hence the Haggadah insists that all the parties to any potential conflict must be brought to sit around the same Seder table. The wise and committed son next to the wicked, defiant one; and the simple son, who does not clearly comprehend the purpose and value of faith, next to the doubly simple son who doesn’t even want to know about it, and whose total indifference prevents him framing a single question.

There is a place in the Jewish home, in the Jewish family, in the Jewish heart, for all our sons, however interested or disinterested they may be, however learned or ignorant they may be. Indeed, a famous Chasidic teacher, the Seer of Lublin once said: “I prefer a wicked person who knows he is a sinner; than an observant person who thinks that he is righteous.”

Benji, that is the message of your pre-Pesach Barmitzvah: to feel yourself an essential, indeed an indispensable, part of the Jewish community, whether or not you grow up to be a Jewish scholar, whether or not your degree of observance is high or low, and to share the sense of kinship with all your brethren, however different they are from yourself.

And the second message is to follow your family tradition, and be most sensitive to the plight of the less fortunate, fighting for their rights and supporting them generously with your means.

May you take these Pesach messages to heart, and grow up to be a source of continued pride to your dear parents, grandparents and great Grandma Sybil, to your community and your people. Amen.